As we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic quarantine it’s a given that there are many big things to mourn. And we do. And we should.
It’s also true that it’s been hard to have slide past unmarked or unattended all the little pleasurable events with which we usually mark the year.
I mean, yes, you can have a lockdown stay at home Zoom party birthday, and actually quite fun those are too, but if you always spend some of June in a muddy field in Glastonbury, it’s a wrench to have to seen that week go by and only have the comfort of the music festival’s greatest hits on TV.
A guilty wrench, maybe, because of all the more important things to be upset about, but a wrench nevertheless.
One of the things Mama was really looking forward to for 2020 was the 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art. Given that she had had to wait three years since the last one for it, I think she can be forgiven a slight internal scream of frustration when it was cancelled last summer.
Perhaps you can also understand why she did a little jig of joy when it was rescheduled for the autumn.
But events conspired against her, and Mama did not make it to the Garage Triennial in the autumn.
Then another lockdown happened.
And to cut a long story short, here we are finally writing about the 2nd Triennial quite shortly before it closes again at the end of February.
Anyway. You may remember that the idea of the Garage Triennial is to showcase modern art from all over the large territory that is the Russian Federation. The way they ensured a diverse range of participants this time was to ask last time’s exhibitor’s to choose who to include.
Thus each exhibit gives the relationship between the artist and their recommender. These have been explained by the artists themselves, and inevitably if you know anything about Russians, there are some quite entertaining labels such as ‘guru – sect member’ or ‘Siberian past – handing ladders and recreation therapy’ or ‘landmark – satellite’ or ‘accomplice’ or (Mama’s personal favourite) ‘<~#*^//:+=>#:_ _ _ #~<||’.
The 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, not content with an already long title is also called ‘A Beautiful Night for All the People’, which I, for one pre-teen girl, do not agree with.
The exhibition was not full of beautiful things; it was full of weird things.
Chief of those in my loudly voiced opinion was the canvases of gopniks. I do not consider gopniks (Slavic chavs, for those of you in the UK, but with more Adidas tracksuits and squatting) a suitable subject for art. Mama just wants to know where I have heard about them in the first place, and is contemplating, once again, limiting my access to YouTube.
Luckily, the notes to the 2nd Garage Triennial say that the title is not the theme. It is taken from a book by a Russian mathematician, which was written in ‘a special process-based language’ using no symbols, allowing for many readings without a definite plot.
A much better description of the overall idea in fact.
Thus I was also inclined to be severe about the communication skills of the talking bushes, which my Bemused Big Brother and I both tried to have lengthy and quite nonsensical conversations with, without much success. Can’t think why not.
And Mama rather boggled at the story behind this piece which includes the artist getting thrown out of their job, making gravestone art, for subversive behaviour. Punk’s Not Dead and all that, but it’s a commitment to the idea Mama actively found herself blinking at. I suspect she, too, is showing her (increasingly stodgy) age.
We did rather like the captioned toy dioramas, mainly because we are, after all, children of the meme generation, and also because some of them were quite funny. Although it was Mama who grinned at this one, which says ‘another angel has fallen from heaven’. She says she’s thinking of a pickup line, but that leaves me none the wiser.
Mama and I quite disagree about this room. She thinks that it is strikingly attractive, whereas it gave me vertigio.
Mama also spent actual minutes in front of this piece telling us about lace making and how it is a specialty of the place where our ancestral village is. Which would have been more uplifting if out of the corner of our eye we couldn’t see the accompanying video with the headdresses, masks for what are apparently Russian aliens, in action.
But we were delighted to find coffee machines for Mama.
And all of us really enjoyed the waiting room. You choose from a list of things to anticipate, enter the booth and experience hanging around for things like 12 midnight on NYE, with the image of a clock ticking back and forth a few seconds before the big moment, with the very beginning of the chime sound on loop. Or the end of Russia, which contrary to our apprehension, was footage from inside a train carriage carrying you towards, presumably, the border going on and on and on and on on and on and on and on. Mama actually snorted with appreciative laughter over that one. Russia is, after all, very very very big.
There were also some hands on exhibits, which are always welcome, and the jump scare we got when we turned round and found the docent in the corner of a blacked out tent with us was real and exciting, if an entirely unintended part of the installation, which was about spinning things.
I did approve of the name of this one, which is ‘Battle Cats’.
Although quite why we spent ten minutes each having our aura mapped I do not know as what we found was that while mine is round, Mama’s and my Bemused Big Brother’s are somewhat squiggly. But it did allow Mama to tell the story (again) of how she got assessed for psychic ability in the Tate Modern once.
Perhaps, all unsuspectingly, the Garage Triennial has managed to capture the basic ludicrousness of the last year and us all having our normal routines and comfort upended. Certainly a point made by the piece called ‘a portrait of my Babushka’, which is in fact an illustrated story of some of the more memorable moments from her life.
A life which was not, as you can imagine, all joy. Yet, here is one of the pictures.
And in the end you take your enjoyment where you can find it. For us, since Mama was so pleased to be out of the house, we were delighted to be treated to lunch in the Garage cafe (we recommend the soups, the hummus and the chicken cutlets) AND a trip to Burger King later in the day.
Plus the location of the Garage Art Gallery, Gorky Park, is quite delightful in the snow, and well worth a gallop round after you have been culturally satiated.
If you have the opportunity to trundle down to the 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art (A Beautiful Night for All the People) before it closes at the end of February, you will find it wildly inventive, quite bonkers in places, probably not pretty, and definitely not disappointing.
If you cannot attend this year’s, make plans for the next one, in 2023. Mama has certainly already pencilled it in.
It is Mama’s firm belief that modern art is the medium to go for if you want childish appreciation of visual virtuosity. Classical paintings are very flat. Contemporary… whatjmacallits tend to be a lot more pace roundable, climb upable, crawl alongable, duck underable and even, occasionally, touchable.
The current exhibition at the Garage art gallery in Moscow, the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, has items on display which allow you to do all of these things, and put on headphones to listen to the soundtrack that accompanies them as well.
Figuring out which items you are supposed to manipulate and which to contemplate from a safe distance by carefully observing the appropriate behaviour of more clued up others is both a profoundly moving representation of an essential aspect of the human condition and also a very good opportunity for children to practice this vital social skill.
To limit the potential damage this might cause, the very practical Garage gallery had stationed a large number of young docents at every possible corner on the lookout for people doing it wrong, so generally the art was safe from everyone except Mama, who absent-mindedly walked into the dangling skier model. We simply can’t take her anywhere.
Adding to the child-friendliness, in the Garage Triennial, when the art is flat, it tends to be on TV. Can we recognise the difference qualitative difference between Spongebob Squarepants and a woman being sloooooowly covered with large smooth stones on a beach? Mama has no idea, but she does know that my Predictable Big Brother will be entranced as long as there are moving images.
Mama wouldn’t say that the Garage Triennial is simply uncomplicated fun for the more youthful element of society though. So she experienced trepidation every time I put on the headphones, and even insisted on sampling the soundtracks first if she could get there ahead of me. But since I retained my sunny delight in trying on every single one of them for the whole of the exhibition, Mama concludes that it was fairly innocuous after all. And the set that also included virtual reality goggles was simply FABULOUS. Floor to ceiling dancing babushkas. ‘Nuff said.
The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art is organised into a number of themed sections. Its overall aim is, for the first time ever, to showcase the current state of the modern art scene for the whole of the Russian Federation, and to this end curators spread out all over the very very big country in order to discover what is going on out there. Way way out there in some cases.
They seem to have decided that artists are working on being famous (‘Master Figure’), describing themselves (‘Personal Mythologies’), describing their location (‘Fidelity to Place’), describing what’s wrong with that (‘Art in Action’), describing art (‘Common Language’) and scribbling on walls (‘Street Morphology’).
And actually Mama, who can sometimes find herself in a modern art gallery staring a large, random, piece of burnt wood and wondering if it would make sense the other way up, felt that either the Russian artists had been unusually successful in getting a point across or that the groupings were particularly well thought out. In pondering the connections between pieces or between the piece and the topic, she made a lot more sense of what was going on than that time when she was interviewed by a psychic guru in the catacombs of the Tate Modern.
Went a bit over our heads, mind you. My Predictable Big Brother stared particularly blankly at the large golden model of a priest and inquired with some disapproval as to why he was making a mildly rude gesture. Being moved to read the caption and finding out it is a self-portrait didn’t seem to help much.
Basically, both of us much preferred the shiny metal spiny sculptures, the giant pile of rubbish that changes into something much more attractive when the lights go down, the sand tray where you could use tweezers to move a few buttons, twigs, grains of sand, plastic baubles and fabric flowers around, and the giant multi leveled wendyhouse, with the extremely steep twisty stairs.
Most of all I liked the dolphin buried in a concrete brick. Look, I just like dolphins, alright? No need to overthink things.
I liked it so much, in fact, I drew it in the visitors book, full of sketches by other gallery goers too, after double checking to make sure it wasn’t just another piece of art.
Mama thinks that very much in evidence was the Russian surrealist sense of humour, impressive commitment to fixing anything as long as there is a bent paperclip or a large hammer to hand, and habit of flinging themselves wholeheartedly into their latest project.
But the Russian reputation for startling directness is also not unjustified and this was definitely on display at the Garage Triennial too.
Take this one, which Mama found one of the most powerful examples, given that it marries the very delicately pretty feminine art of watercolour painting with the ugly subject of domestic violence.
Or this one, in which items from the personal and political history of the country have been embedded in amber, itself an iconic item from this part of the world. Can’t get more crushing that the implication that the symbols you held so dear are now fosilised remnants of a disconnected past.
Or this one. These are house numbers. Note the missing ones, intended to represent the losses suffered to wars and instability in the artist’s hometown.
Which is Grozny in Chechnya.
Let’s just take a moment to add a new layer of painful interpretation to that, shall we?
But the problem with message-driven art is that at some point that you do start to wonder if perhaps standing in a swish custom-built chrome-plated art gallery, thinking about the coffee you can have in the large, tastefully-appointed cafe downstairs, next to the extensive souvenir cum glossy art books shop is all a bit… too… comfortable.
Is there, in fact, a point to looking at this kind of thing if all you are going to do afterwards is play on the table football, and then wander downstairs to the elegant toilets, where there are sprays so you can detoxify the seats before parking your rump, as well as a mirrored area with a built in clever-clever hashtag for teenagers to primp in front of before their edgy Instagram session upstairs? And all this while listening to the deliberately amplified sound of flushing loos?
A question already addressed in the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, by the Monstration happening.
This is an event which takes place annually, and which at first glance seems to show a large street demonstration in action.
But if you look a little closer (and you can read Russian), you will see that the placards are covered with pseudo slogans.
Because this is a pseudo protest.
Yes, the artist organizer may occassionally get arrested for planning it, and the onlookers heckling the participants may also be taking it seriously, but no, these people have turned out en mass and with considerable enthusiasm, having taken the time to paint up their own signs with absurd sayings to participate in an entirely content-free demonstration.
Mama simply cannot decide whether this is the most genius bit of biting sociological satire she has ever seen, the angriest political commentary or an egregious example of shocking frivolity given that it is 2017, the year after 2016. It’s been bothering her considerably.
Which, I suppose is the point of art, contemporary or otherwise. To get under your skin, to stay with you, to make you examine the world in a different way.
So go, if you can. It’s interesting, fun and worthwhile. And your kids will love it.
Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.
What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).
This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).
Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.
Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.
Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.
My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.
As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.
We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.
One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.
Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.
She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.
Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.
Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.
She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).
The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.
Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.
My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.
My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.
My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.
I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.
After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!
Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.
Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.
People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.
See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!
Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).
They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.
If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?
We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.
We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.
Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.
Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.
Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.
We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.
We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.
And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?
But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!
And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.
The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.
If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.
Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.
Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.
And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:
It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.
Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017
Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.
Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.
By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.