More old news: the Moscow morning after and later in London
November 9th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders
(Still in Moscow in September 2013) The morning after the opening Charles and I decide to take a look in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, now called the Pussy Riot Church by many. This Cathedral was demolished by the Soviets in the early thirties. They made a large swimming pool on the spot. But religion – opium for the people – was as inextinguishable as real opium. The story goes that in the fifties you could secretly get baptised here while swimming around with a priest in swimming trunks, you could say undercover. Now the cathedral has been re-built and the well-polished golden cupolas can be seen from quite a distance in Moscow. You can already hear the low singing voices of the not so undercover priests when you are near this huge building because they put up large television screens outside were you can see and hear recordings of heyday masses. Tourists are warned outside by several pictograms not to use their mobile telephone and not to take pictures. But Charles is not a tourist of course, so in the church he takes his telephone to make a picture of the main altar where the riot girls were ‘praying’ to get rid of Putin. Two offences in one act: using you phone and taking a picture. Immediately we are led out of the church in a rather brusque manner. “Out, out!”
After this short visit to the cathedral we go to the Big Manege to see a bit of the Moscow Biennial that will open tomorrow. The show is not ready yet – in fact there is still a lot to be done – but we can go in already and have a chat with Joseph Backstein, the founder of this Biennial. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the omnipresent curator, you could say the most international of us all, is also there, helping to finish the installation. But however much I would like to go on to see the Biennial, I leave Charles after this visit because I still have to work on a lecture that I will give in London in two days. Duty calls. I already have prepared a bit of text and some images, but there’s no structure yet. It must be good. So I eat a sandwich and go back to the hotel to work.
I skip the public conversation between Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari, a polite clash between two cultures. John talks about I and Ilya about we. John talks about what he does, Ilya about what should be done. But I said I would skip it, so I will not talk about Dasha Zukhova and her bodyguards, about the old man in the room that was not allowed to speak and about the enormous amounts of food afterwards in the Strelka Bar.
In stead I will take you to London where I went the next day.
“Good evening! How are you today, sir?” Coming from Moscow to London you immediately notice the English politeness, especially when arriving late at night in The Bloomsbury. What a splendid hotel they put me in! GRAD, where I will give my lecture tomorrow, said they would book a room for me. But this is really something! A pity my wife could not join me.
I wake up early, finish my lecture and check if it is less than the twenty minutes allowed to speak. It’s so clumsy to exceed the permitted time in a conference. Moreover, it often takes away time from other speakers. I decide to walk to GRAD and see a little of central London. On Oxford Street I pass at least 4 couples speaking Russian and still a bit sleepy I have to convince myself that I am really in London.
Everything is ready for my lecture and I go and get a bagel around the corner with one of the people from GRAD. When I come back John Milner is there. He’s the professor from the Courtauld Institute with whom we made the Lissitzky+ exhibition in 2009 so we know each other for some years already. John has the nice habit of introducing me to a lot of people that can help me with my Russian Avant-garde exhibitions. He seems to know everyone in this field. I will ask him to help me find a researcher who is fluent in Russian and English because there’s a lot of archival research needed for our next big project on UNOVIS.
My lecture went OK and I notice there is a lot of interest here in what we are doing with the work of Lissitzky. The models Henry Milner made after sketches and lithographs in our collection are on display here and I wrote an essay on them in the catalogue. You could say I am here on a big promotion tour for our museum. The only difference is that we do not have to pay for this propaganda, on the contrary: we get paid for it! John introduces me to even more people that can be helpful with my new project. One of his bright and pretty female students whom I met in Moscow earlier this year now works for the Russian art department of Sotheby’s. She promises to look out for more UNOVIS works on the market. I shake hands with many more interesting people. How good that I took extra business cards! I have only a few left now.
The snacks and drinks are delicious but I am very tired and decide to go to my hotel for a long night of sleep. The pubs are piling out and half of London seems to be drunk or on its way to get there. After two beers from the minibar and some boring television a deep sleep takes me far away into unconsciousness.
In the morning I find the invoice for the beers passed under the door and The Times before it. Before breakfast I read the fresh comment of Giles Coren on the London Fashion Week: “Ye Gods, what a procession of vain lunacy and simpering dimness. What a mockery of all that is modest and decent. What a hideous picture of female priorities and preoccupations. What a nuclear explosion of vomitous superficiality, custom-made and hand finished to blast the public perception of women back to the Stone Age.”
Oh, could I only write like that in English! We don’t have this kind of eloquent critique in Dutch newspapers. Quite refreshing!
Yesterday they put a booklet on the history of The Bloomsbury on the table in my room because I asked a few questions about the building at the reception. I ask if I can keep it and I can. “Good morning sir. How are you today?” I treat myself to a delicious omelette for breakfast; have a coffee and go and pack. Before leaving I go and see the library of Seamus Heany. He donated it to The Bloomsbury. What a place to read! In the lobby they serve you ice tea while waiting for the taxi and give you a little bottle of mineral water on the go. I have to be careful not to become used to this kind of service.
The taxi driver is a nice elderly man. I tell him I want to go to Victoria Station and he asks if I am going to Gatwick. I answer him that I am going to Stansted and he politely says: “I didn’t know you could go to Stansted from Victoria. I immediately realize that I have made a mistake: I came from Gatwick to Victoria, but now I should go to Liverpool Station to go to Stansted. I tell the driver so and thank him for his remark.
Luckily my suitcase turns out to be less than 20 kilogram at the airport. But my backpack is heavily loaded with books and it is not weighed. It’s been a long journey and I feel the weight, not only of my luggage. I look forward to see my wife again and spend the weekend together. Next week I will be in London again with our Promotors…