ART RIOT: POST-SOVIET ACTIONISM

Bislacchi, December 2017

After 25 years of intense activity engaged in performance as a form of protest, receiving prison sentences and detentions as a consequence of fighting for artistic freedom, the most relevant Russian protest artists are now collected together in Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism at the Saatchi Gallery. 

The exhibition opened in November 2017, exactly a century after the burst of Russian Revolution. Although it shares the same spirit of tension concerning artistic freedom of expression, it has no direct connection with the historical events of 1917. 

The show, organised in collaboration with the Tsukanov Family Foundation, features works by performance artists that have been remembered for expanding the limits of art as a visual language, profoundly affecting an audience in both a physical and mental sense. Among the artists included are: Oleg Kulik, Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, the Blue Noses Group, Arsen Savadov, the AES+F and Vasily Slonov.

 

Their artworks embody an ideal based on rebellion and anarchism. The artists reacted as extremists, with no limits on their modes of expression and no rules of execution. They went against society, demanding their right to be emancipated.  

Pyotr Pavlensky, Seam, 2012.  © Pyotr Pavlensky. Courtesy the Artist and the Saatchi Gallery

In one of his most famous performances, Pyotr Pavlensky set fire to the Lubyanka building, which hosts the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) with the aim of involving the public, the police and other members of the court to increase the debate about his work. Pussy Riot - a group of feminist political activists - were condemned in 2012 by the Russian government for staging a performance within Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. They protested the regime established by Putin, arguing that it followed the ideologies of the Soviet Union.

Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism displays artworks that are particularly ruthless and apparently uncivilised. More than anyone else in the show, Oleg Kulik, one of the first exponents of Actionism has an incredible ability to establish direct contact between man and society.

In a Kafkaesque transformation, Kulik finds himself as a dog, running in the streets biting and jumping onto people. This is astonishing bearing in mind the weight of a society that suppresses individual freedom and aims for censorship. Kulik filmed himself amidst the brutalities of his performance and during intense interventions from the police. 

Watching the film, my mind was already reorganising my ideas about the artist. Kulik would have occupied the category of crazy, repellent or overly aggressive artist; his dog form being Rottweiler or Sheep Dog. However, in real life he is more Poodle or Chihuahua. At the press view for the show, he was the only artist who ran happily like a child between artworks, showing keen interest in people’s questions. He entertained audiences and photographers with the weirdest selfies and videos and responded to journalists with great enthusiasm. And so after first observing his work with scepticism, I found myself lining up to interview him.

Kulik invited me to sit within his installation. Throughout the exhibition space, he installed an iron fence that surrounding the walls, evoking a feeling of distance between the public and the artworks. On the ground, between the fence and the wall, there were accumulations of straw, (where we were seated) resonating with the theme of the exhibition - the relationship between man and animal. The space was arranged in three sections. The first displaying photographs of the artist acting as a dog. This image of man-as-dog became a symbol of protest in the Soviet Union. 

“No one wanted to hear me as an artist. At that time I was 33. If I had died nobody would have known me. I still wanted to live as an artist, but because I did not become one as a human being, I decided to go down on my knees”. 

The performance was Kulik’s last attempt at being an artist. For years Kulik lived as a dog, eventually acting as a political activist campaigning for animals to take part in parliamentary elections, after which he began to photograph himself in many different situations with animals. For instance, in Deep into Russia, the artist inserted his head into the backside of a cow, emphasising a dualism between culture and nature. In Family of the Future, Kulik is portrayed naked reading a book alongside a dog that is looking at the camera, outlining the relaxed interest of the animal when involved in a human situation.

Oleg Kulik, I Bite America and America Bites Me, 1997. Deitch projects, New York  

C-print, 170 x 122 cm.  © Oleg Kulik. Courtesy the Artist and the Saatchi Gallery

The second section shows another aspect of Kulik’s work: painting and sculpture. Kulik confessed to me that sculpture is more like historical research for him. Originating from the intellect, it always has a history behind it. Kulik says that his work imitates the whole history of art, from religion to politics and so on.

“We can see the different positions of the body. It begins with the body and with the body it ends. No culture, no ideology, nothing. Only body”.

 

With his representation of the body, Kulik is suggesting the physicality of the act of protesting. This exhortation is accompanied by text, written in capital letters directly onto the gallery wall. The artist is trying to encourage Russian people to fight in order to live, and by doing so he becomes an animal, showing how inside human beings, especially in a moment of riot, there is always an animal.

 

“In the place where you’re not understood and you’re not accepted, you just want to shut the door. When you close the door everyone says it’s amazing. And can you again leave art? People say it’s a scandal, it’s so dangerous. I did not become a big artist. This is my first big piece of art, but now maybe I will be noticed.”

Oleg Kulik, Horses of Bretagne, 4, 1998. © Oleg Kulik Courtesy the Artist and the Saatchi Gallery

Pussy Riot, Raze the Pavement, 2011. © Pussy Riot. Courtesy Pussy Riot and the Saatchi Gallery

Kulik understands the limits of the human mind, constantly afraid, always blaming someone else instead of taking its own position. He tries to break these boundaries, using the whole body to fight. In Norway in 1996, Kulik put on a collar, a leash and a sign labelled “dangerous”, placed himself at the doors of a gallery and began to bark. On that occasion some people, ignoring the label, got too close and were bitten. Although people were scared, Kulik kept going until police stopped him. 

He also performs without using violence. In I bite America and America bites me, for example, Kulik lived for two weeks in a cage, drinking water out of a bowl and barking at visitors. Kulik’s aim was to criticise the system established by the Soviet Union, making the public aware of what was happening.

 

When I asked Kulik what is the role of an artist today, he simply said, “We live in a world of enormous information and this has never happened before. Now to draw attention to yourself, you have to do something very big or something very scandalous. But this art world cannot work.”

 

In fact, artists should be aware of the world we live in today. To be an artist is still a struggle. On the one hand success depends on how willing a society is to accept artists. On the other hand, it is about what artists are willing to do to fight for their freedom and to express their voice. Kulik was the one who fought first. After all, if he’d had a stage to perform on from the beginning, the work we are seeing now would not have existed.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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