2017 marks 100 years since Russian society was turned on it’s head by revolution. You could say that protest and resistence remains to be a salient aspect of Russian culture. ‘Art Riot: Post Soviet Activism’ presents a collection of artwork that best represents the strong impetus of agency since the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the captivating defiance of punk-feminist performance act ‘Pussy Riot’.
Performance art seems to be the go-to medium for these artists, probably because they have found that it is how you stir up the most immediate noise and media attention. For example the work of Oleg Kulik, in which he bestialised himself: transforming into a dog, living like one in collaboration with Ludmila Bredkhina and intimidating passers by in a performance piece outside Guelman Gallery in Moscow.
A major theme that connected art represented at Art Riot was the aspect of the artist’s physical body in creating a relationship- from artist to body to the state. Kulik shows this in his canine transformation outside Guelman, throwing his naked body at strangers and falling onto his hands and knees, defying his leash. It his haunting to leave his anguished screams behind as you exit the projection.
“Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of uncoordinated bodies”, says Pyotr Pavlensky, another participant of the exhibition, but he refuses to become part of that sticky mass. Pavlensky is well known for nailing his scrotum to Red Square in Moscow, symbolic of the apathy of Russian society. This is exhibited through sculpture and photography among depictions of his other performances. Pavlensky is certainly an artist committed to his message as he often commits acts of self harm in his work, sewing his lips shut and lying in a cocoon of barbed wire. There is no holding back for these artists.
The concept of putting your whole body into your work also most famously translates through the work of Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in prison for their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. My only gripe at Saatchi’s representation of the group lies in their description introducing their work, in which it is argued “true feminists are unlikely to call themselves by a name that resembles that of a porn website.” To this I would reply a true feminist is likely to choose to do whatever they want- and fight tooth and nail as Pussy Riot do.
Aside from this, the Pussy Riot was the highlight of the exhibition, especially the video of the 2014 incident in a McDonalds where a group of men assaulted Nadya and Maria with green paint, leaving Maria with a bleeding head and Nadya with extremely sore eyes. It was encouraging to see them take this in their stride, laughing and joking and taking photos together after their values had been thrown back in their face, staining them green. Accompanying this are various paintings, sculptures and installations, including a mock chapel that you can step into and watch the video of the performance that incited their prison sentence.
Other artists included the haunting portraits of miners by Arsen Savadov, ‘Islamified’ tapestries of AES+F and collage mockery of The Blue Noses group. The exhibition offers a selection of immediate and less immediate forms of protest art, creating a sense of the discontent of the statistical minority in Russia. Art Riot is a definite must-see.
Words and photographs by Rachel Chorley