How to spend a couple of hours in a shop, London-style, what is the meaning of cyborg figures in the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and why August is the best time to learn that the Parisians are actually kind and lovely people

 

London

By Anastasia Denisova

When the French author Stendhal visited the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, they say, he was plunged into panic. Fever, sweaty palms, darkness in the eyes — all from the overdose of its beauty. Renaissance masterpieces surrounded the novelist from all sides. I was attacked by the Stendhal syndrome in the five-story Waterstones bookstore in the center of London. How to choose what to read? Does it make sense at all to be choosing? Maybe send them to hell, those twenty thousand books around you, and run away as fast as possible?

“How can I help you?”
“I’d like something like George Orwell’s “1984”, no romanticism, smart and caustic.”
“Aha, dystopian mood, then?” tenderly said the bookstore consultant and led me to the table with tidy blocks of the principal books about the unhappy future: Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood… It is interesting that these days books are divided according to the mood and political forecasts rather than genre.

From the classical sector golden letters were blinking to me, displaying the words “Crime and Punishment”, “War and Peace”, “Pride and Prejudice”. I was still torturing the consultants, though: I did not want a dystopian book any more, I wanted social satire instead. With a sigh, the shop assistant brought me to the case with the 20th-century gems.

“Have you read “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier? A young girl marries a widower, and seems to be seeing the ghost of his previous wife everywhere — such a mystery!”

I glance menacingly at the consultant: what did I say? “No sentimentality”. The more advice I ask for, the less I trust it. I suspect the bookshop staff must be using their own secret code. “I’ve just started reading this novel”. — “I haven’t read this to the end yet.” — “I was just planning to read this.” Surely one person cannot read thousands of fat volumes which overload all those shelves, can they? Also, how can a person I do not even know discern what I would love to read — this is intimate, after all, it depends on the character, on the season, on coffee preference and even on the headlines in the morning newspaper!

On the other hand, all over the store hang the charming notes from the staff, which are supposed to help you choose. “On a rainy evening in my grandfather’s cottage I wrapped myself up in a blanket and consumed a jar of lemon jam while reading this book — and I was in tears. You should read this too!” remarks Diana the invisible accountant. “Those who love battles and fantasy but are overfed with Tolkien should assault this volume. The first twenty pages should be conquered like an enemy; after that it’s just one smooth ride to the end!”

These days, when every book can be found online and read from the monitor almost without spending any money, the very notion of a bookstore seems atavistic. Especially such a large one — the behemoth of Waterstones hangs over the Piccadilly. How can a five-story (!) bookstore manage to pay the rent in the 21st century alongside coffee and gadget sellers?

The Guardian once attacked large London bookstores for selling the work of literary people like shampoo. “Buy a book for £8 and get a second one half-price” or “Three for two” were branded as commercialism. Add to that coloring books, tote bags with book cover design, Rubik cubes with Kafka quotes and other sundries which are quite profitable. A few years ago, the biography section was removed from the ground floor to some less prestigious domains, and the free space was taken over by stationery. “The readers must have become writers who value blank pages more than the filled ones,” taunted the journalist.

In spite of all that criticism, comfortable couches, armchairs and coffee tables remain a long-time tradition of British bookstores; almost every large bookstore has them. Since the Edwardian era, the custom is not simply to run in and buy something, but to enter the premises decorously, have a seat, read a dozen pages and then, maybe, buy the book. It’s weird and a little exotic even.

Statistically, 60% of middle-class British read every day; 40% of the less affluent working class are no strangers to literature either. So who is the most reading nation of the world? Take Stendhal: you can find him in British bookstores in a dozen different covers and translations offered by different publishers. So the main thing is to go in, to be brave, and then take the volumes of the impressionable French author and reread all of them. After that, you can try dystopian literature, too.

Venice

By Elena Golovanova

During half a year of the Biennale time frame, Venice transforms into a terra surreale — filled with contemporary art, it becomes an even more bizarre space than it is. From the waters of the Grand Canal, cyclopic white hands rise to hug the walls of the Ca’ Sagredo hotel; Palazzo Grassi presents the artifacts of a nonexistent civilization raised from the ocean bottom by Damien Hirst; in the gardens the bronze (but indistinguishable from the living) bathers by Carole Feuerman close their weary eyes.

What is especially surprising and unbelievable in this Venice — overpopulated by images, other people’s dreams, joys, fears and fairy tales — is that it is open to anyone who wants to see (anyone who does not want to see this will be happy to find the usual drapery of gondolas, Chinese colorful glass and selfie sticks). Art mixes up with reality, like fresh and salty water in the lagoon. When you walk in the city, simply look around. An ordinary pointer will sooner or later lead you, say, to Palazzo Fortuny with an excellent exhibition about intuition; or to the Mongolian Pavilion, where flamingo flocks with heads like guns take a walk, or to the “glass” exhibition of Jan Fabre.

…You come to this Venice on an early train and jump into a vaporetto. The day is unusually cloudy for August an not very hot, which is the best weather for Venice. The tourists are almost nowhere to be seen, and the line 5.1 is taken by the few locals going about their business, sullen like everyone on a Monday morning. You are standing on the deck and cannot put away your smile — because you’re seeing Giudecca wrapped in fog, you see the tight working order of Venetian water transportation, because you hear the squeaking of the pontoon bridge when the ferry is secured, because you feel a wave of anticipation. You are at the entrance right before the opening time — in front of you is the main “book” of the biennale, the Giardini gardens, which host the historical national pavilions.

Traditionally, first of all I go to the Russian Pavilion. This time, our exposition is supposed to be watched closely. “Scene Change” is an attempt to describe no less than the existing world order. The power, the masses, religion, terrorism, technologies, control, wars, migration — all that is contained in the images of a huge multi-figure installation created by Grisha Bruskin. The artist once recounted that as a fan of flea markets he often brought home broken old toys and broken devices. Many of them became prototypes of the characters in this world metaphor, where the past, present and future are melded in one layer, which also includes ancient idols and totems, beasts and birds, mannequins and androids, drones and cyborgs with the faces of innocent babies, Kremlin and Babylon towers, the ‘ours’ and the ‘others’.

Thousands of similar faceless figures that look like the soldiers we used to play in our childhood make a united multitude. The first part of the installation shows a marching human crowd with a double-headed eagle spreading its wings above them. “This is all very… Russian”, whispers an aged Italian lady to her companion, either delightedly or disapprovingly, it’s hard to tell. The companion, of course, is taking a photo (that’s something everyone does at the Biennale all the time).

The Russian pavilion curator Semyon Mikhaylovsky explained that the display was prepared without taking into consideration the future opinion of the jury, rather with an idea of impressing the spectators. The national idea presented by our pavilion is, indeed, poorly compatible with the biennale’s main theme, Viva arte viva! (Long live living art!) The notion that humans are still in the center of the world, that they are the main hope and precious object, is much better explained by another of the biennale’s Russian projects, the exhibition Man as Bird. Images of Journeys at the Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel, the Venetian project of Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum.

Paris

By Daria Knyazeva

Native Parisians, like native Muscovites, are aliens in their own country. Compatriots treat the Muscovites with jealousy and condescension as flabby heirs who are of course spoilt but generally harmless in the competitive battle, but the Parisians are seen by the other French with a mixture of misunderstanding and pity. They, in their eyes, are quite miserable. How, after all, can someone born in the realm of asphalt and exhaust be a person of good character? They don’t even have a ‘small motherland’, the bucolic paradise where aging parents live in a squeaky house in the fields, where air is pure, water is pure, vegetable-sellers are honest, and it’s possible to live instead of struggling for life. Suddenly the manner of a Parisian to dress in black and gray, his grumbling as a reply to a request to send a guest in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, his manner to roll his eyes when a naïve visitor wants to know why the coffee in one and the same café has three different prices (at the stand, in the hall, and on the terrace) — suddenly all that becomes forgivable.

Deep inside, France is an agrarian country, which vehemently denounces the postindustrial paradigm with its mantras “the customer is always right” (sycophancy and inequality!) and “demand breeds supply” (exploitation!). The village is idealized here, the city is disliked. It is not perceived as a focus of possibilities, but rather as a location of labor exile. The French go to Paris with feelings similar to those of citizens of former Soviet southern countries leaving for Moscow: we have melons, sun, tangerines; pick them, eat them, this is a wonderful life! But they have to abandon their families and go to the damned, nasty city, where nothing good ever happens, except that there is money.

The new “Parisians” count days to their annual leave and years to their retirement which would allow them to slip away to the house with a garden as far from the capital as possible. That is why in August, the traditional holiday month, only those who really love Paris stay in the city. The city does not leave this favor unanswered: for those who are really devoted, it has a lot of surprises to spare.

For them, boats navigate the Canal de l’Ourcq for €1–2, not for €12 like in the other months, plus a cultural onboard program (the festival L’Ourcq en fête from July 8 to August 27). For them, as soon as the twilight falls, free movie showings begin on the squares (Cinéma en plein air in the Parc de la Villette from July 20 to August 20 and 1001 Images in the 18th Arrondissement from July 20 to August 26 ). For them, symphony orchestras play (the festival Classique au Vert in the Parc Floral from August 5 to September 17). For them, the characters of burlesque theater play in the evenings on the tiny Arenes de Monmartre (the festival Tréteaux nomades from August 21 to September 3). All of that is absolutely free, powered by bare, sun-fuelled enthusiasm.

The summer creeps even into the most businesslike quarter of the city, the reinforced concrete, suit-and-tie La Défense. Its esplanade, in the shadow of futuristic office skyscrapers, will transform into a concentrate of resort towns: pizza carts from the southwestern backwater, deck chairs from the first lines of the Cannes beaches, round glasses with the ‘Pool’ cocktail (rosé wine and a lot of ice) from the Nice terraces, petanque courts from Saint-Tropez squares, kites from the pebble shores of La Manche… All that will for five weeks become a perfect background for those borderline love stories which are typical of the Défense mythology; they combine the genre qualities of a business and a holiday love story with an additional spicy note of adultery.

To the joy of employers and colleagues, native Parisians often exchange the coveted August holiday for a holiday sometime at the end of September. This gives them a rare chance to stay face to face with the city they love, to exchange a conspiratorial wink and walk the streets without the impenetrable snobbery disguise. Tourists who love sociological generalizations should know that August is the best time to learn that the Parisians are actually kind and lovely people.

 

Published on: May 20, 2018