• gerard van weyenbergh

Russia: contemporary art under the yoke of power

Since the accession to power of Vladimir Putin, contemporary avant-garde art is not in the odor of sanctity in Russia. The power prefers to look to the past and encourages a figurative art with complacency for socialist realism. The alliance with the Orthodox Church tightens the straitjacket on the protest artists. However, this authoritarian regime allows, willy-nilly, to open a few windows on a non-traditional art.


art expert
© Ilia Varlamov

Cossacks blocking the entrance to the contemporary art gallery of Marat Guelman. MOSCOW - The decline of public freedoms, since the arrival of Vladimir Putin to power in 2000, has first affected the media, entrepreneurs, and various minorities (religious and sexual, among others) before touching contemporary art. However, a warning shot had been fired in 1998 against the actionist Avdeï Ter-Oganian. He was targeted for having destroyed a copy of an icon during a performance entitled The Young Atheist. The performance sparked the fury of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Attacked in court, Ter-Oganian had chosen exile in the Czech Republic, where he still lives. Serious trouble began in earnest in 2003, when an exhibition titled “Beware, Religion! Was destroyed by a group of Orthodox activists. Russian justice then sided in 2005 on the side of the aggressors. The people in charge of the exhibition space (Yuri Samodurov and Lioudmila Vassilovskaya) and the curator Andrei Erofeïev found guilty of inciting hatred were heavily fined. Three years later, Samodurov and Erofeïev were again sentenced for an exhibition entitled “Forbidden Art”. Shortly after, Erofeyev lost his post as director of "current trends" at the State Tretyakov Gallery.


The Orthodox clergy on the lookout

From then on, approaching religious themes from a critical angle becomes synonymous with trouble, even taboo. Resolutely nationalist, conservative, and hostile to Western influence in Russian culture, the Orthodox clergy began to more or less discreetly monitor the most publicized contemporary art exhibitions. The patriarchy knows that it has the state apparatus behind it.


The attacks become more virulent from the enthronement of Patriarch Kirill in 2009. “Many works of contemporary culture transform man into a wild beast,” he explains in 2014. From a more populist angle, he mocks "the promoters of modern or experimental art who would have us believe that anyone who does not understand this genre is an ignoramus". He also and above all denounces what he considers to be the inclination of certain contemporary artists to blasphemy. The sculptor Vadim Sidur (1924-1986) is his favorite target. “We organized an exhibition in the center of Moscow with these sacrilegious representations (…) it's a pure provocation,” he said of an exhibition by Sidur in 2015. As inspired by these words, Orthodox activists from the organization “Will of God” destroy four sculptures on display. The patriarchy condemns this action, but Kirill persists in qualifying Sidur's work as "sickly depravity or provocation".


The embodiment of conservatism and the collusion between church and power, Kirill inspires a performance that will mark a turning point in the relationship between the state and contemporary art. In February 2012, the female collective Pussy Riot organized a “punk prayer” on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shouting “Mother of God, hunt Poutine! " And hurling insults against Goundiaïev (civilian name of Kirill). The performance enjoyed enormous media coverage, unparalleled for an event of this nature. The repressive machine then engages and three members of Pussy Riot receive two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred".


For lack of interest or ignorance, the authorities had until the “punk prayer” tolerated the expression of criticism via art. Probably because the influence of contemporary art on public opinion was considered very marginal compared to that of the media and political parties. In 2008, the Voïna group could with impunity organize an orgiastic performance entitled Baise in honor of the heir teddy bear! in the Museum of Biology in Moscow, without being prosecuted. Criticism, on a raw register, was directed against the replacement in the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin by the [teddy bear] Dmitry Medvedev.


The imprisonment of artists, an unprecedented event since the end of the USSR, provokes other highly politicized performances. Piotr Pavlensky (33) performs (at the beginning, to protest against the imprisonment of Pussy Riot) more and more radical, until setting fire to a door of the headquarters of the FSB (heir to the KGB and incarnation of political repression) in November 2015, in an action entitled Menace. He was imprisoned for seven months under the application of the article on "destruction of cultural heritage".


In addition to the direct actions of the State, many reactionary small groups, sometimes affiliated with representatives of power, feel invested with a police mission. Cossacks, private security services, paramilitary groups, orthodox fanatics vandalize exhibitions, attack organizers and artists, close shows. By getting ahead of the official repressive machine, they render the state an immense service: impose censorship while allowing it to free itself from all responsibility. They don't need the green light from the authorities: they know they can act with impunity, since sanctions invariably fall on those who violate conservative morals. The only exception: the fines imposed on the militant movement "Will of God" for the destruction of sculptures.


A growing self-censorship

This "privatization" of repression also allows the power to deny the establishment of state censorship. Self-censorship is considered to be much more effective and less costly in terms of image. “Self-censorship has always existed among Russian artists, but it is now increasing , laments Leonid Bajanov, curator specializing in contemporary art. “It's like an internal emigration. Others choose to flee: there is a very strong emigration of Russian artists today, as in the 1970s. And this despite the fact that no one imagines that the West is a paradise any longer. "Bajanov notes that nowadays self-censorship is exercised mainly on commissioners. Because sanctioning an exhibition curator does not expose to the same risk of image as the censorship of a work of art. Although the power takes care to gradually raise the voltage, it happens that a fuse blows. In October 2016, a respected theater director and actor, Konstantin Raïkin, lashed out in public against "certain [leaders of the Ministry of Culture, who] are clearly itchy with the desire to go back to Stalin's time. Our immediate superiors use a Stalinist lexicon ” . Raikin also denounces the venality of Cossacks, paramilitaries, Orthodox militants and other actors of the“Street censorship”. “I don't believe these groups when they say they are shocked or offended, (…) I believe they are paid. " Responding to Raikin, the Ministry denies any censorship and insinuates that his theater " is often half empty " . Speaking in the debate, the influential spokesman for the Kremlin Dmitry Peskov drives the point home: “If the state pays, it has the right to guide the content of works. " This episode has had the merit of clarifying the reports. Director Andrei Zvyaguintsev (Golden Lion in Venice for The Return) bluntly summed it up "Russian leaders see artists as prostitutes" and "consider themselves owners of the money from the culture budget".

Hostility and mistrust towards contemporary art translate into underfunding of the sector, which is accentuated from 2012. The Moscow Biennale, which enjoys the status of "state project", sees its endowment decrease from year to year, to the point of being almost zero during its 5th edition in 2015. The construction of the future State Museum of Contemporary Art was frozen immediately after the ceremony of laying the first stone, for lack of funds. Rosizo, the public body responsible for contemporary art, is now planning to grant up to 70% of the museum's surface area to private investors. The budget devoted to the acquisitions of works of art was starving, it is now zero. "We have completely stopped buying works during the last three years", says Sergei Perov, director of Rosizo. “Both because of budgetary considerations, but also because we have completely changed our procurement procedure ,” he explains. The procedure was notoriously opaque, recognizes Leonid Bajanov, who has long worked at the State Center for Contemporary Art (CEAC, absorbed in 2016 by Rosizo). However, purchases were the exception, recalls the expert, recalling the rule: “95% of public acquisitions are gifts from artists, galleries or private collectors” . If contemporary art has been on a hard diet since 2012, it has already been on a dry basis for a long time.

Le Journal des Arts, by Emmanuel Grynszpan Video: Pussy Riot