Mathes Missive From Moscow #4 – Thursday: First Sight of the Venue
It’s becoming pretty clear that keeping up the pace on these missives is going to present a problem, in that I’ve been leaving the room early in the morning and not getting back until late at night — not much room for both thoughtful composition and sleep.
But here’s the news until I break down. Speaking of news, how about this story in the English-Language Russian newspaper? Says something about the new Russia in an even more direct way than the definitely-not-poisoned Institute Director. “Corporate Raiders are ‘Scourge’ of Economy,” reads the headline and then goes on to reveal that the term “corporate raider” has a different meaning here: “In Russia, raiders use their links to corrupt government or law enforcement officials to seize businesses illegally.” Note the last irrelevant word here; if nobody can do anything about this, what do you need laws for? “The raiders often include former intelligence personnel, security service or police officers, lawyers or people with close ties to well-placed individuals. Through their control over judges, prosecutors and bureaucrats at all levels, they are able to order searches and inspections of businesses, gather background information about the owner, and falsify whatever documents are needed to take over.”
Apparently this is a huge problem and even more so outside of Moscow where businesspeople know even less about how to defend themselves from such tactics (perhaps this is why Mikhail, our driver from the first day, had that baseball bat on the floor of his car). But of course, this is why bringing to Russia a billion dollars worth of art and jewelry (the total from last year according to the Moscow Fine Art Fair pr) is so much fun.
Well, anyway, enough of small talk. I’m not going to bore you with with rain or my poor choices in today’s lunch (but don’t chose shishkabob in the mall) or the details of the bad cold I am still trying to recover from. Nor will I go into all of Jane’s phone adventures of the day. Let’s cut directly to the chase — or rather the Manege. This was a 19th century indoor riding academy. As I think I mentioned, it was mysteriously gutted by fire a few years ago, but miraculously workmen showed up the next day with detailed plans for a new reconstruction — presumably including underground parking. The Manege is where the art fair will take place, and it is the art fair, after all, that we are here for and about which these missives are really to be about. The Manege is directly across the street from the Kremlin, and it’s hard to get a feel for how big and grand it is. Perhaps these pictures of the exterior will be a good place to start.
Some interior shots of the Manege will be equally sobering. This place is enormous, and right now — as you will see below — its vast interior has been filled with the rough shapes of booth construction. Hard to believe that in a few days this will be the most elegant art fair in the world.
Some of the crews setting up the fair are French, but the Russian crews are for the most part the ones that built the booths (the French art handlers cost four or five times what the Russians ones do – I think because the French dealers can’t speak Russian so are ripe to be taken advantage of. But we have Julia, who can speak Russian so we are going to go with the locals.)
Unlike all of the other art fairs we’ve done, the booths here are constrained into very regular boxes — some of the very formal Parisian fairs operate like this; the Russians always liked things Classical and symmetric — hence the columns and arches — which leads me to my funny story of the day.
Too bad I can’t show a picture of Jane working out the ground plan and elevations of our booth — it would be pretty funny with all that smoke coming out of her head. Jane is a positive genius for booth design, but it doesn’t come easy. She does it the old fashioned way — with a pencil and reams of that old fashioned graph paper with little boxes, each representing one foot (or some other measurement that will drive her insane). It takes hours upon hours for her to work out exact placement of everything we will bring — and I mean down to the inch. Her planning for this fair was the most difficult she had ever attempted, with Jane having to convert feet to inches to centimeters to square yards to who knows what? Not only steam came out of her ears — I believe there was a significant quantity of radioactive waste. But she survived and the result is a brilliant floor plan — which I hope you will see realized in photos herein over the next few days. Unless we self-destruct first and run howling off over the steppes, always a real possibility.
The funny part today was when we arrived and found that the booth didn’t look quite right — the entire center section seemed to be a foot off, which would throw everything out of whack. Tapestries that had been calculated to the millimeter wouldn’t have enough room to fit; paintings suddenly had more space than they were supposed to. Jane got the French supervisor to get down on his hands and knees and measure each wall. Two walls that were supposed to jut out a foot apart from one another were somehow perfectly in line. How had this happened?
It took a while, but the culprit was ultimately revealed — it was the Russian technicians who built the walls. They had looked at Jane’s plan with two walls not quite aligned and figured she had made a mistake — what she had meant to make was a nice, even, perfectly matched doorway — not the irregular opening that was the keystone to the entire booth. Why would anyone make walls that were not symmetrical? So they considerately corrected the situation for her! Luckily there is enough time for them to move and rebuild the walls, or somebody might have had to die. By the time Jane had finished throttling people, it was time again to eat (which we do as often as possible). Shunning all fast food choices at the mall, we ended up for the second time at Planet Sushi. Hard to believe that you can get great sushi in Moscow, but there it was and there you are.
Jane refused to go back to the subway, so we had a leisurely stumble in the rain up Tverskaya. Julia, ever looking out for our interest, summoned a friend to meet us at a coffee shop where we all ate again. i had chicken soup and a bloody mary and tried not to cough (it doesn’t help that everyone in every restaurant is smoking cigarettes). In the drizzle on the final leg back to the hotel (there are no taxis in Moscow for all practical purposes, alas) we passed this funny non-descript little building that you see in various views, including with me and the two umbrellas I have borrowed from the hotel. The last is me and Julia inside this building. Only the few of you involved in the theatre will care, but this is Stansislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre! Note that it’s still light here after 10 pm.
No day would be complete with a final forage for breakfast. Here’s a joint called Yeliseyevsky. Built three or four years before the 1917 revolution when everybody here was cuckoo for Rococo. Fantastic looking food here, let me tell you, and the wackiest rococo stage set I have ever seen. Best croissant in town! why did i ever order that shishkabob in the mall when great food is everywhere in this city?
Seems I forgot to sign off on the last message. So Good Night and Good Luck from Moscow — I will now collapse into a heap.