TW/CN: physical violence, state violence, rape, animal abuse.

One of my New Years resolutions is to marry my Russian degree to my quest to see all art ever. This has been largely inspired by a great book I got for Christmas (Cosmic Shift: Contemporary Russian Art Writing). I like it because it makes me look intelligent on the tube.

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The Blue Noses Group – 25 Short Performances about Globalisation, 2007

Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism at Saatchi shows contemporary Russian protest art as humorous (in which case the artists will be monitored by the state) or hardcore (the artists will be subjected to multiple psychiatric assessments or will be arrested and imprisoned in labour camps). The Blue Noses Group’s Laurel-and-Hardyesque 25 Performances About Globalisation (2007) addresses issues like Americanisation by putting fireworks down their trousers and farting across television screens. I chuckled away. Natalia Nudina’s rabbit fur bust of Lenin, called Lenin’s Winter Attire (2017), is endearing and funny.

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Natalia Yudina – Lenin’s Winter Attire, 2017

Pussy Riot – the most recognisable protest art to come out of post-Soviet Russia – rightly fill a whole gallery. Various video documentations of their protest songs play simultaneously, filling the space with an unmelodious, indiscernible punk sound. Protest banners on Nadya Tolikonnikova’s hunger strike to protest prison conditions – inmates working 22 hour days and being raped and beaten by guards – line the walls. I consider the protest group to be serious activists and artists, whereas the gallery interpretation referred to Pussy Riot as ‘fearless young women’. This feels gendered and patronising. No other artist in the exhibition was praised for their fearlessness – it’s as if it’s especially surprising that women are fighting for shit because they’re women and the weaker sex. My BA gender tutor (hello Connor Doak) pointed out that people see Pussy Riot as silly girls who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, but that asking for mother Mary to get rid of Putin and the lyrics ‘Putin has pissed himself’ show them to be artist activists who are not stupid and are not playing. Elsewhere the interpretation referred to art ‘romanticising the image of Nadya Tolikonnikova as a heroine fighting against the oppression of the state’. The word ‘romanticising’ suggests a degree of exaggeration and fabrication that had not been applied to the activist roles of any of the male artists. Fuck this.

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Pussy Riot

I enjoyed the presentation of Pyotr Pavlensky’s work. He’s the one who nailed his scrotum to the cobbles of Red Square. His work is violent. For Carcass, he wrapped his naked self in barbed wire to protest the Russian legal system. He set fire to the doors of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) in a piece called Threat. He has been subject to psychoanalysis six times, and always judged sane. There is a taste of Guerrilla warfare in his practice. At Saatchi, documentation of his work is displayed in black cordoned off spaces, and a reconstruction of his art-philosophical debates with his prosecuting investigator, which led to the investigator changing sides. It’s dark, it’s tense, it feels like a prison cell might.

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Pyotr Pavlensky – Carcass, 2013

Arsen Savadov’s Donbass – Chocolate series is interesting in its contrast of masculinity and femininity. These photographs show Donbass miners, some naked, some wearing ballet tutus, all covered in filth and staring into the camera, holding the viewer’s gaze. The photos are stark and textured – the tulle of the tutus, the smears of dirt over the men, the glisten of wet floors and wet skin.

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Arsen Savadov – Donbass – Chocolate, 1997

The weird bestial eroticism of Oleg Kulik left a bad taste in my mouth. Pavlensky’s work is shocking, the arrests of so many of these post-Soviet artists is shocking, but I can deal with that. Turns out I can’t deal with Kulik literally putting his head inside a cow’s vagina, or resting his dick on the back of a kitten. Russia isn’t known for its animal rights record, but deal with your crisis of masculinity in a way that doesn’t involve animal abuse.

Kulik was intended to be the opening room, but I accidentally went through the exhibition backwards (the gallery guide was £1 and fuck that) so unfortunately the show ended sourly for me. Otherwise, I think this exhibition clearly demonstrates the often violent oppression under which these artists practise. The seeming violence of these artist activists makes sense to me. There is little to be done by quiet protest in post-Soviet Russia.

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