An art rebellion in Prague
New exhibition at MeetFactory takes a look at Russia's record of creative disobedience
Posted: February 13, 2013
By Anna Shamanska and Kasia Pilat
Feminist punk-rock art collective Pussy Riot caused a veritable sensation in their home base of the Russian capital when, donning tights, skirts and balaclavas in a rainbow of bright colors, they staged illegal guerilla performances in various locations throughout the city. It was approximately one year ago that members of the group performed in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shortly after which three of the group's members were arrested, denied bail and sentenced to two years in prison.
News of the women's arrests drew worldwide attention to Russia's dictatorial government policies, yet a new exhibition at Prague's MeetFactory, which features the works of famous Russian artists and artistic groups like Oleg Kulik, Boris Orlov, the group Gnezdo, Rostislav Lebedev, the group Sinije nosy (Blue Noses), Avdey Ter-Oganyan and the group Voina, proves the tradition of artistic resistance in Russia is a long one. The exhibition's curator, Andrej Jerofejev, spoke with The Prague Post about the use of art in Russia to combat overbearing rule.
The Prague Post: The title of the exhibition, "Pussy Riot and the Russian Tradition of Art Rebellion" is quite a telling one. Can you tell us how you came upon this concept?
Andrej Jerofejev: Actually, I first came up with a different name for the exhibition, which was "The Russian Tradition of Radical Performance." However, the two [titles] serve the same purpose because radical performance in Russia is mostly aimed at the relationship between a person and his government.
TPP: So this sort of artistic resistance or resistance in general in Russia is not so surprising, or new?
AJ: It is one of the most painful concepts in Russian history as well as nowadays, because this relationship is not smooth. It is one-sided, where the ruler dictates his or her will without reservations, and the society must obey. That is when an artist intervenes and tries to argue with the ruler.
TPP: Why is this sort of relationship between artist and dictatorial ruler an important one?
AJ: It's an archetypal situation peculiar to Russia. An artist challenges a ruler because the ruler doesn't want to have a dialogue, and so an artist makes him have one. The artist calls upon him, offends him. He does his best to move him and to draw him out from the state of something like Buddha's sleep.
TPP: How does "Pussy Riot and the Russian Tradition of Art Rebellion" reflect its title?
AJ: This exhibition is not only connected to the 20th century and the totalitarian regime; it begins with czarism. And this type of behavior, connected to some naughtiness and to saying impudent words to a superior, is well documented in the works of Pushkin and other authors of the 19th century. But what I address in this exhibition is what was secured in the art culture of the '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s. During this time, performance appeared not only as a concept, not only as a precursor, but as an actual art genre. An artist partially stopped using media, like paintings or objects, and started performing himself.
TPP: What happens when an artist forgoes mediums like paint and tangible art materials in favor of performance?
AJ: In such performances in front of the public, or in documented performances, an artist commits what I call a tyrant-fighting performance. A great example is a picture of Alexander Brenner where he is wearing boxing gloves on Red Square, and he had invited Boris Yeltsin to a fair fight. Of course, such performances have the tradition of burlesque because it is a sort of a theater, where an artist performs the role of a mad, almost silly character. An artist doesn't perform as himself, but as the invented character, which can be an old man, or a boxer as in Brenner's case, or a group of kids. So an artist takes up various roles, but the element of challenging the ruler is always present.
TPP: Why do you think performance can be such a promising method with which to challenge authority? Why did Pussy Riot opt for performance over, say, a painting?
AJ: It is a funny gesture - this conversation with the czar is at the same time scary and funny, and especially funny for the audience. This derogatory attitude toward the government takes away the audience's fear of it. This is the therapeutic effect of such art performances: It frees the audience from its respectful kneeling to the totem of the government. The performances have been reproduced from generation to generation. So the appearance of Pussy Riot at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was absolutely logical. It is also a form of tyrant-fighting performance, a masquerade burlesque, and it also challenges the rulers who have made agreements among themselves. It wasn't aimed against the church or against the faith. It was aimed against the agreement between Putin and the patriarch Cyril, who was asking the Orthodox community to vote for Putin for president.
TPP: What do you think about other forms of protest, for example, the Femen group in Ukraine?
AJ: I respect their feelings as citizens and their will to protest and support feminist rights and the feminist position. However, from the point of view of an artist, I think their art is monotonous and rather primitive when it comes to its artistic construction. That is why it doesn't have as great an effect as Pussy Riot when it comes to the audience. Femen also performed in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, but they were not successful because they did what they always do: They showed their breasts.
The writers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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