A month and a half have already passed since I’ve returned from my trip to the world’s biggest country, Russia. It hasn’t been as easy-going as I’d wished it to be, though I’ve seen wonderful things and met wonderful people …
Aside from the fact that I managed to leave my cashcard in one of the city’s cashmachines, leaving me in a rather uncertain position concerning my financial outcome for the last few weeks of my stay, I have to say my mission, exploring the cultural and artistic field, wasn’t easy to accomplish.
It was summer. Like in other big cities this is the time when the city’s inhabitants rather prefer to escape to their summer retreat, leaving the city for tourists and a few others who prefer to spend some quiet weeks. Needless to say, this also affected the places of my personal interests: gelleries, artist-studios, that had been closed for vacation.
Even though one’s a curious person, it’s not easy to get an answer if the other person doesn’t understand the language. Two months may be not so little time for exploring a city â€“ it definitely is too little to learn Russian. Even though the country is not as separate from the west as it was 25 years ago, English is not very common, even within the young generation. Not that people wouldn’t have to say anything â€“ I followed numerous intellectual debates (sometimes it seemed to me, that people really love to come by late in the evening, just to have an interresting discussion for a few hours) â€“ it is rather impossible to motivate people to lead their conversation in English.
I am not clear why Russian speak so little English. Sometimes I had the feeling they do actually speak better than they think they do. Maybe they are simply afraid of saying something wrong, maybe this is some kind of defense against curious strangers like me. However Russians are communicative people â€“ not only daily life is accompanied by a large ammount of discussion, also on the Russian internet a large number of blogs (mainly based on the American blog-platform LiveJournal) have emerged, reflecting a lively subcultural scenery, though very little of it ever reaches a western audience due to the simple fact that 99% of those records are written in Russian only.
It comes as no surprise that young Russian art resp. artists have a difficult stand concerning their relation to an international audience, a fact which Marina Koldobskaja, an artist herself, leading the Saint Petersburg branch of the National Center of Contemporary Art (NCCA), is well aware of. I’ve had the pleasure to lead a short interview with her at the NCCA’s office at Newsky Prospekt near Moscow trainstation. Having seen how the perception of young contemporary art has changed during the last 20 years, I was very curious to hear about the developement in Russia during that period. Probably I should mention in that context, that Marina Koldobskaja has been part of the non-conformist movement which founded the independent culture- and artcenter Pushkinskaya 10, originally a squatted house in the center of Saint Petersburg, now a more or less well established place for exhibitions, also giving room for more than a dozen artist-studios.
The NCCA office makes a light, friendly impression on visitors, though its size seems not to be quite adequate for a “national center” â€“ a few small rooms, hardly 100 sqm big. Does this also express the importance of contemporary art inn Russia nowadays? Being asked about this issue Koldobskaja answers with a comparission of efforts being made in western countries and in Russia. While western politicians have long discovered the importance of art within modern democratic societies Russian politicians don’t seem to have the slightest understanding of it. Yet art is something that may be decorative, though meaningless in the context of the country’s developement towards a modern state and society. There is a slight impression of envy behind her words. But not only the lacking support from official representatives seems to bother her â€“ it’s the condition of the society itself that worries her, a society that has no conscience for achievements within the modern Russian history. Sure, Malevitch’ black square is an icon everybody knows, but not much more. Historic images of a heroic past seem to be much closer than revolutionary art-experiments.