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AngloMockba Arts Festival in Moscow

Russia and Britain bond culturally over their mutual love of hats

Friday Evening

On the luxurious BMI plane with director Stephen Frears (The Queen) and YBA Gavin Turk, I tried very hard not to order one of those weird little bottles of wine to accompany my breakfast. We were on our way to Moscow for the AngloMockba festival, organized in the UK by the ebullient Pablo Ganguli and in Russia by Aliona Muchinskaya, to meet a bunch of other creatives and initiate ‘cultural diplomacy’ with our comrades. Sensing that it was important to the identity of my country I gave in and ordered a few bottles of wine to go with the scrambled egg. The Russians would do the same I thought.

One of the reasons this trip interested me was the fact that, although Russia practically owns the UK (the football teams, the property in London, The Evening Standard…), there is little dialogue between the creative industries. Why is this? Are we really so different?

At the launch party that evening, William Orbit, another guest of the festival mixed an extraordinary set that seemed to compliment the naked woman dancing, suspended in the air 20 feet above the crowd, and the gothic architecture of the church we were in.

A Russian man approached me, “Do you like her?” he asked in dulcet tones. “I don’t know her.”
“But do you want to take her home?”
“Does she have a UK visa?”
“No, but if you want her, talk to me.”  
He was not joking, and one of the received ideas I had of Moscow was gloriously, if not a little depressingly, confirmed.

Towards the end of the evening the only sober person was Orbit, and I made a note to write something about how in fact we have so much in common, the UK and Russia, but that it might not be what we would like it to be.

Saturday Morning

As we all meet for breakfast the next morning at the fabulous Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy, a brand new five star skyscraper where we were staying, I realised that there were some incredible people on the trip – the architect of the YBA movement Michael Craig-Martin (once described by art nutcase Brian Sewell as “The most hated man in British art”), the curator and writer Danny Moynihan (whose book Boogie Woogie has recently been made into a movie – “Well, it's almost finished. One of the producers was assassinated, though…”) and the charming milliner Stephen Jones.

A letter of welcome was read out by the Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, and swiftly translated into English. The last line of the letter (“He wishes you many victories”) was a catalyst for the translator, who thought that the conclusion needed further warmth, to improvise: “…and we hope that you all have greater spiritual magnificence and general amazement.”
The initial event of the festival, a book reading by Olga Slavnikova (the Russian Booker Prize winner of 2006) saw the first mixing of the Russian and Western participants, which for me was what the whole point of the trip. It was great to see people talking, asking questions. For the most part, though, the questions were not intellectual, but more along the lines of , “How do you say thanks in Russian?”

Before the event ended I took Gavin Turk off to the Museum of Modern Art, to have him photographed beside the Vladimir Tatlin’s First International sculpture, for an article in Another Magazine. In the Museum Gavin and I were charged 50 Rubles more than the Russian photographer. “Just the way it is, sonny,” said the lady on the desk.
“Sonny?” I asked, confused.
“You are from England, you are a polite person – I’m just impersonating you!”

I was in general amazement.

During this time at the gallery we also missed the interview with Dylan Jones on his book, Cameron on Cameron, a book of interviews with the Tory leader. What do Russians think of Cameron? I’m told they don’t have any opinions. Fair enough.

Later in the evening we heard an extraordinary piano recital from film score composer Michael Nyman (The Piano). We watched him hit the piano keys like he was flattening veal scallops, and listened to his rhythmic music flow strangely around the room. When he finished he looked exhausted. “You okay?” I asked. “The damn thing is out of tune…” “It’s a beautiful looking piano though!” He looked at me wearily.

This was followed immediately, in the same space, by an exhibition/performance by the youthful Russian Svetlana K-Lie, which involved her inviting the audience to apply gaffer tape to her naked body. The two works seemed to go together well.

There was yet to be any significant interaction between the Russian and the western groups. This changed at the following event, a party at the studio of artist Andrei Sharov, featuring caricatures by Alexei Merinov.  Lots of Vodka, a great performance by a vocal set named Jukebox Trio, who started off sounding like they were Bertie Wooster’s singing buddies, and ended up singing LL Cool J.

Sunday, the Last Day

We are at The Eisenstein Library of Cinematographic Art. A debate on film between Stephen Frears, Martha Fiennes, Danny Moynihan and Russia’s foremost director Andrei Konchalovsky. The problem, however, is that Andrei wont stop talking. Well he does stop, but only to be interpreted. Then he is off again. This goes on for twenty minutes. His theme is not being able to get funding, or if there is funding for films, it’s for ‘American’ style films. This is from the guy who directed Runaway Train, starring Jon Voight. The confusion continues…

Later in the afternoon, at the Garage, an art gallery owned by Dasha Zhukova (Abramovich’s partner), a discussion about art practice takes place between Danny Monihan, Michael Craig-Martin and Gavin Turk. From the audience, Lucy Freud, daughter of Lucien, asked the conceptual guru and instigator of the YBA movement, Craig-Martin, “Why do you teach people ideas rather than to draw or paint?”  Craig-Martin is known for his infamous work An Oak Tree (1973), a glass of water that he maintained was an actual oak tree, and his teaching at Goldsmiths where ideas were more important that traditional skills. “Drawing is an idea…” he replied. A Russian artist behind me actually groaned.

In the evening, over dinner, an interview with milliner Stephen Jones. A fascinating and charming man, who makes some of the finest hats in the world, and finally there seems to be a connection with the Russian delegation. “They are extraordinary, remarkable!” a Russian designer named Danili says. “I have never seen hats like these," comments a very short man named Boris “They talk to me… where can I buy one?” He seemed emotional.

Hats. Hats brought us together. Not vodka, not music, not debates about the ‘sole’. It made me wonder, all the problems of translation, of different ways of working, of political grief, and yet both countries love hats. I mean, really love hats. We need to work from the top down, lets have a hat conference next time Pablo and Aliona, and then we might make some real headway.