On Friday, Pussy Riot’s verdict will be read. We’ll find out whether the angelic trinity will go to jail for three years after performing inside of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for 40 seconds, or as the persecutor dubs it, “hooliganism with the intent to incite religious hatred.” While Patti Smith, Madonna, Björk and most of the world refers to them as a “band,” the Russian public doesn’t. In reality, they’re far closer to interventionist performance artists, even sharing members with Voina. As Yekaterina Samutsevich clarified in her powerful closing statement, the dangerous stunt was a deliberate interruption of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s mega-produced visual culture that is supported and sanctified by the state.
This is Russia’s highest profile contemporary trial where artists are being persecuted. The whole world is watching. But it’s far from an isolated incident. Russia has a rich history of dissident creative culture, radical happenings, and provocative, dangerous, subversive art. Here’s a little primer.
One of the most fascinating figures of the radical Russian performance art scene of the ’90s, and still active today, Elena Kovylina may look like a gentle beauty, but she shows no mercy to her audience or her own body. Commenting on feminism and beyond, she’s pinned medals to her bare chest, invited audience members of all genders and sizes to box with her, and waltzed until she dropped, literally. During one performance in Belorussia, she stood wavering in heels on a stool, her head in a noose, allowing anyone to knock the chair out from under her. One drunk visitor did. Her life was saved by a faulty rope.
Anatoly Osmolovsky remains a controversial figure in the Russian art world, though his focus is now sculptural. In 1991, the champion of “politics of nothingness” was almost sent to a gulag for hooliganism and obscenity when he spelled out the word “COCK” in the Red Square using his friends’ bodies. Then, in post-Soviet 1993, he scaled a 25-foot-tall statue of the Russian poet Mayakowski and perched on his shoulder reading poetry, to mock the 1920s avant-garde hero for endorsing the Soviet regime and being canonized by Stalin. Had he accidentally fallen to the granite below, he surely would have died.
Kiev-born, Moscow-dwelling artist Oleg Kulik influenced contemporary troupes like Voina and Bombili. One of his most famous works revolved around assuming the identity of a primal animal, the “artist-dog,” to illustrate the brutal, cruel realities of mafia-infested, intelligentsia-strangling Russia in the ’90s. Also: he once strung himself up as a human disco ball at a party.
Artist Avdey Ter-Oganyan once climbed the US Embassy and replaced the American flag with a copy of Jasper John’s famous Flag painting. Another time, he asked exhibition visitors to make use of his Duchamp urinal homages. Finally, in 1994, he waged war against the Eastern Orthodox Church’s authoritarianism by proposing that his audience “disgrace” cheap knock-off copies of religious icons that he had bought and strung throughout the gallery. When there were no takers, he chopped them with an ax. He was threatened with years in jail under the familiar “intent to incite religious hatred” and defected to the Czech Republic to avoid imprisonment.
A founding member of the ETI (Expropriation of the Territory of Art), a punk magazine editor/front man, and radical filmmaker, dissident artist Oleg Mavromatti isn’t new to legal persecution. In 2000, while filming a performance art piece within his film Oil on Canvas, he crucified himself, thus incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist Eastern Orthodox Church, and until very recently, faced a prison sentence for “inciting religious animosity.” In a recent performance piece contemplating his guilt, Mavromatti hooked himself to an electric chair controlled by viewers on the Internet, allowing them to “punish” him directly with electric shock. Together with his wife Boryanna Rossa, one of Buglaria’s preeminent performance artists and academics, he established the tech-minded ULTRAFUTURO collective with several international members, adding yet another radical chapter to his art practice.
How’d we ever miss radical performance artist Alexander Brener in our retrospective of museum interventionists? Aside from his shocking antics of public sex in the Moscow streets and defecating in front of a Van Gogh, in his most famous action in 1997, the artist staged a protest against Kazimir Malevich by spray painting a green dollar sign over his work Suprematism at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He was arrested and served several months in prison. In court, he testified, “The cross is a symbol of suffering, the dollar sign a symbol of trade and merchandise. On humanitarian grounds are the ideas of Jesus Christ of higher significance than those of the money. What I did was not against the painting. I view my act as a dialogue with Malevich.”
We have mentioned these crazy kids quite a few times here, but they can’t be omitted from the list, especially since they share several members with Pussy Riot, including the imprisoned Nadia Tolokonnikova and her husband Pyotr Verzilov. From smuggling raw chickens in intimate places to staging protest orgies “at the zoological museum,” these heirs of the ’90s movement are extremely provocative, but their best work remains the Dick Captured by the FSB — a graffiti bombing of a St. Petersburg drawbridge that flipped off the FSB building with a phallus when raised. It wasn’t just radical in its protest. By using the renegade art form of vandalism and winning the prestigious state Innovation Prize, Voina triumphed in fearless dissent and killer irony.
Dissident artist Dmitry Pimenov, another ETI collective member, notoriously claimed responsibility for the bombing in Manezhnaya Square in the ’90s by getting to the scene before the FSB and covering it with creative leaflets, thus subverting the order of the investigation. In 1998, together with a few artists, he was part of a mass barricade near the Kremlin, where a bombastic crowd of 300 “protestors” marched and demanded salaries, the legalization of drugs, and complimentary travel around the world. The cops didn’t know quite what to make of it, so they just started arresting people. The protest was a demonstration of rebellion, an absurdist and deliberate attack against a subservient social culture.