The Word from Russia: The Eating of a Poet’s Head by Masha Zavialova
St. Petersburg is the only place where there is no time. In Winter it’s always dark, in Summer it’s always light ,and all the clocks are broken.
—Marina Albi, Italian painter.
If you ever happen to be in St. Petersburg (and why shouldn’t you be?) and if you pass by the Moscow railway station (as you surely will once you are here) and walk along Ligovsky Prospect (which used to be quite a criminal neighborhood, but now its ‘local color’ is gone, so walk along!) do not hesitate to go through a low arch in N 53, cross the well of the inner courtyard. Slip through another arch and you’ll find yourself in a place that you don’t want to miss, if you happen to be in St. Petersburg after all.
This is Pushkinskaia 10, the hot spot of St. Petersburg artistic life. Of course there is also the Artists’ Union, a survivor from the Soviet times, but who cares about that place when you know there is Pushkinskaia 10, the first non-governmental center of art in Russia since Stalin’s purges. Among its other outstanding qualities it enjoys a romantic historical background, almost a fairy tale. So listen up, kids. A long, long time ago Pushinskaia 10 had been an ordinary apartment building full of what were known in Soviet Russia as “communal” apartments — apartments shared by several families. It had been a typical St. Petersburg building, a huge six-story block of flats, as an Englishman would say, with the walls plastered over and painted in one of the indiscriminate St. Petersburgian colors: a cross between grey, light brown, beige and something reddish/greenish/bluish (you couldn’t tell which after several years of rain and snow). It had plaster mouldings over the windows and an inner courtyard, rectangular in shape and deep like a well. In 1984 it was freed from tenants and closed for capital renovation. In St. Petersburg, with thousands of houses dating back to the early and middle 19th century, this meant that a house was kind of hollowed out and completely replanned. But before that renovation took place a house sometimes would stand for years waiting for the local government to find funds for such a massive undertaking. There were dozens of houses like this all over the city. Why was this particular one chosen by unofficial artists to be turned into studios, and to become a shelter for the art unrecognized by and unacceptable to the Soviet authorities? The legend has it that there was an artist named Africa (Sergei Bugaev) living in an apartment in Pushkinskaia 10 who just stayed along after the house was closed for renovation and set an example for others to follow.
I remember coming to the house back in the 80s to visit a friend’s friend and see his paintings. Quite an experience. We entered an old unlit St. Petersburgian building and saw a huge staircase and black spaces of windows with broken panes (outside was a Northern white night). No electricity, hence no elevator, no water, no gas, no cleaning service. The walls of the stairway were covered with all kinds of paintings and inscriptions. Empty bottles were lying everywhere on the floor. Wait a minute. There could be no bottles. My memory fails me here... Empty glass bottles were a source of income: they could be returned to the wine store for 15 kopecks each. You could buy a loaf of bread with this money. And for a couple of dozen you could make a feast. So there could be no bottles with those artists around.
On the doors there were strange things hanging on nails: old metal plates with house numbers (must have been picked from nearby houses), old boots, horns, antique coffee pots. Through some of the doors (were there really any doors?) I could see long shadows dancing on the frescoed walls in candlelight. Even the silence was special there: it had big dusty ears. The place smelt of danger too. At anytime policemen could come and kick out everyone in the building, along with their paintings, sculptures, personal belongings, friends and admirers.
In the late 80s the artists began to self-organize. In 1990 the “Free Culture Foundation” was set up on the basis of the community of artist-squatters living in Pushkinskaia 10. Over one hundred visual and performance artists converted the dilapidated building into a center of artistic activity. The Foundation had to wage a long war for the right to officially own the building. In 1993 this Cinderella project came true. The art that had been persecuted by the authorities and unrecognized by the public found a home. Thanks to a legal agreement with the city government the building was placed under the artists’ supervision and finally renovated.
Now Pushkinskaia 10 is buzzing with life. Exhibitions, performances, poetry readings and other events happen on a daily basis. Luckily, Pushkinskaia 10 has not become a tourist attraction and it’s not quite open to the outside world. It’s a good idea to contact someone from the community before you go there. Thus, if your interests lie in the field of contemporary literature you should get into contact with the people from Gallery 103 where the “Amplituda” poetry club is functioning. The club is on the sixth floor (the elevator doesn’t function yet). It’s a big rectangular room which used to be an apartment (around a hundred square meters) divided into two unequal spaces by an open arch, with a beautiful view of St. Petersburg roofs. A door leads to another gallery where the Cyber-Femin-Club and the Atelier of Found Clothes are functioning. The Amplituda club embraces feminism (unlike other literary establishments) but feminism is understood here as an elite occupation of a few intellectual or otherwise talented women and doesn’t presuppose woman-friendliness. Most poetry that is read here is rigidly patriarchal and highly experimental at the same time. The club is run by Aleksander Skidan and Dmitry Golynko-Volfson, both of them poets with a post-modern streak. The Amplituda’s last event, which visited in May, was “The Eating of a Poet’s Head.” The girls from the Atelier of Found Clothes were making poets’ heads out of bread, fish, minced meat, mayonnaise, whipped cream, carrots and cabbages while Skidan, Golynko and Yuri Leiderman from Moscow were reading their poems one by one and finally together in candlelight. Here is an extract of what Aleksandr Skidan was reading:
Ads of volvo and vulva
the nile and the seine father and son
for passengers with children
< this is not a poem >
this is a theological trick of the merchandise
of the holy spirit
in absolute disjunction
Then the girls had to explain their particular choices of different foods to symbolize different aspects of the poetry of the authors whose heads they made. After that the heads of Dmitry Golynko, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Daniil Kharms were eaten by the public. The number of people who came was unusually large, about a hundred. As a rule poetry readings attract from ten to twenty people. I was looking at the crowd fighting for bits and pieces of poets’ heads and asking myself: “why so many?” It seemed that the Russian public got tired of being passive consumers of art and literature. They wanted to participate, they wanted to have the art inside themselves, to have a communion with it.
After the Eating of the Poets’ Heads we went downstairs to see the installations and a show in the workshop of the New Dumb group. The installation consisted of about thirty boxes where there were different objects, such as pipes, coins, small dolls, and pieces of clothes, all nicely arranged and stuck into concrete. Nearby there was a big tray with dry cement, and you could bring some water, make the cement wet and stick whatever stuff you wanted into those smaller boxes, fastening it with the wet cement you made yourself. In the next room there was a video film playing, featuring Vadik from the New Dumb group trying to fall asleep on three chairs arranged in a row. Every thirty seconds he was standing up and lying down again trying to find a comfortable position. The film was three hours long. As I was told later he actually had done this for three hours in front of the videocamera while the film was being made. We watched the film for five minutes and went out to mix with people in the yard. It was 11 p.m. – too late to go to the 29 other workshops and the four galleries that were functioning in Pushkinskaia 10.