Saturday, August 22, 2009

When it comes to Russian art many people don't know much more than Social Realism. You know, the idealized images of Russian peasants - strong and healthy men and women working together to harvest wheat. But Russia has a rich history of art that predates Social Realism, continued unofficially during Social Realism, and continues into the contemporary. is a museum that captures the essence of Russian art from the 1950s to the present.

The museum catalog and the museum itself are atypical of what many understand as a museum. The story goes that one day Igor Markin, a radio engineer, untrained in art, just decided to buy a piece of art. On a whim, it seems. Something caught his fancy, and he bought it. This first purchase spurred an interest in collecting Russian art that continues to this day and has inspired others to follow suite. Along with the fact that not all Russian art is Social Realist, the museum reminds us that not all museums are austere, serious places meant mainly for the trained academic eye.

Markin's collection and the way it is displayed remind the "trained academic eye" of the origins of museums. First and foremost, the museum serves as a tool for the collector. A place to organize, share, and display his collection. Then the museum serves as a tool for educating the public. Thank goodness for such a tool and thank goodness for the tradition that has made that tool educational. Markin's museum, the name of which can be interpreted as something like "Art for you" or "Art for Russians (everyday Russians)" reminds us of the humble beginnings and the concept of museum.

Ok, so that's the theory and the academic side of me admiring the fresh new take on "museum." Now, down to business. Does the theory and writing about Markin's museum hold up? Is it really an educational tool as well as a space for storing art? Roughly, I would argue, Yes, and a resounding, Yes!

At first glance, this museum feels a bit odd for what I have come to expect from a proper "museum" - It's atmosphere is more like a cafe or someone's home than a roomy, academically curated museum. Only open on Fridays and located in a back alley in the center of Moscow, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but word of mouth told me it was "great!" I walked into the museum and paid my 200 rubles with a 1000 ruble bill. Rather than scolding me, the woman behind the desk smiled and pulled out her purse to find change. Right away, I knew I was in for something different. I gathered my change and began to make my way into one of the galleries. It was a kaleidescope of sound and images and seemed to be beckoning me.

At first, I was overwhelmed by images and sounds. The art was hung close together, but not overcrowded. Even so, after 15-20 minutes in the first gallery, I was exhausted. My emotions had gone from one extreme to the other and back. I laughed, was confused, disgusted, amused, and shocked. Luckily, I found a safe haven at a table and chairs covered in art magazines and catalogs. I sat down and began to read what this museum was all about. That's when I discovered it was one man's collection and the first private art museum in Moscow in a long time. Again, I felt I had been graciously invited to view someone's home, someone's soul.

While I was gathering strength in the first gallery, I noticed, the playful mood of the museum as a whole. The room I was in felt like a cafe, the next room had green carpet that looked like grass, and as I wandered the museum and noted the varying musical themes as well as the playfulness of a bathroom become art and a closet as an art installation, I began to appreciate the fresh voice this museum has brought to the world of art museums.

Markin's collection is varied and fascinating. It's self-referential, interactive, and educated but not stuffy. It is a wonderful ode to Russian art of the last 60 years. Unlike much else, it seems able to capture the "enigmatic soul" of Russia that foreigners love to discuss. And, though it may be boasting, the museum itself is a work of art. It challenges the viewer to question assumptions about what a museum is and should be. And it is an experience that I will revisit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Welcome back to Moscow

I had a plan. When the plane landed, I would pick up my luggage, take the train from the airport to the metro and then take the metro home. It seemed flawless and very inexpensive. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

As planned, when the plane landed, I walked to baggage claim, picked up my luggage, painlessly passed through customs, and began making my way past the taxi drivers, trying to avoid eye contact, through the airport to the platform for the train.

Unfortunately, because I was so happy to be back in Moscow after a 9 hour flight and 24 hour delay, I couldn't stop smiling. This was my fatal mistake. Smiling. Taxi drivers are relentless. They descend on the unsuspecting and do not take you seriously if you say no with a smile on your face. The only way I got rid of the first taxi driver too accost me was by countering his 2,500 rubles with 100 rubles. He shook his head in disgust and left.

I thought I was home free as I continued to walk as briskly as possible through the airport, but a second taxi driver, this one younger and less threatening, decided to walk with me. "Taxi?" I told him, in Russian, no, it's not necessary, but again, the smile on my face convinced him I wasn't serious. Then I made the fatal mistake, "How much?" 1,900 rubles ... I couldn't think of the Russian for too much, so I gestured and said, "It's not necessary, I'm taking the train." But he persisted and walked with me all the way to the train terminal.

As soon as we arrived, the train began pulling away from the platform. A thinker, this taxi driver checked his watch and told me what time it was. Noon. Then he proceeded to look at the train schedule and told me ... "By taxi it will take only 30 minutes, but if you take the train you will not leave the airport for an hour. Then you will have to spend another 45 minutes on the train and then 20 minutes on the metro." He definitely held all the aces, but I wasn't going to give in that easily. "Ok, 500 rubles," I said. He looked at me and told me, "I can't." 500 rubles would only pay for parking. 1,300 rubles. I tried to talk him down more, but he made a good point and was in the ideal negotiating position. I did not want to wait an extra hour to get home and he knew it ... so I gave in. "Ok."

1,300 rubles and 30 minutes later I was at my apartment, still happy to be in Moscow and glad I did not have to lug my 80 pounds of luggage through the metro.