Radical art: between scandalousness and artistic gesture
In April the Russian art group Voyna (War) was awarded the government-sponsored Innovation prize in the category “The Best Visual Arts Work” for the event titled “Member in KGB captivity”: on the night of June 14, 2010, its members poured paint on the Liteyny Bridge in Saint Petersburg just before it was drawn. As a result, a 65-meter-long penis painted in the best traditions of toilet-wall art rose just across the street from Bolshoy Dom (the city residence of the FSB). What was it – a slap in the face of public taste or radical political expression? Russian intellectuals have spent the past several months in heated debate fuelled by government repression against the artists.
In Ukraine, Oleksandr Volodarsky was a similar catalyst. He was sentenced to one year in prison for his protest in front of the Verkhovna Rada in which he imitated sexual intercourse in order to attract attention to mass violations of human rights in the country and censorship by the National Expert Commission on Public Morals. In these cases, it is hard to draw a line between activism, scandal, brutality and art. However, condemnation and outrage are too simple an answer. It is much more important to find an answer to the question: Why are aggressive and literally naked artists entering public space today? Is it a desire for recognition and publicity or an attempt to yank society out of its post-Soviet stupor?
TURN OFF AESTHETICS, TURN ON POLITICS
The question is easier to answer if viewed in the context of world art. The entire history of modernism is the abandonment of academic canons. Some methods which were radical before seem nothing out of the ordinary now. For example, the emergence of photography in the 19th century drastically changed painters’ vision – compositions with static figures yielded to dynamic sketches of city streets. The impressionist Edgar Degas was a true innovator in his time – hard to believe!
The avant-garde movements in the early 20th century (cubism, phonism, futurism, expressionism and so on) each ruined images in its own way in an effort to shed haunting social expectations and the dictatorship of philistine tastes, the government and the church. The slogan “L’art pour l’art” was not egotistic – at the time, art indeed had to regain autonomy after a servile era in which it, like crafts, was employed to provide décor for residences, palaces and temples.
The technical and social progress of the 20th century eliminated the demand for a realistic portrayal of life (this function was relegated to photo and video representation) and set new tasks: reflect on society’s condition, identify the main cultural trends and criticize them via a full spectrum of artistic means. Not surprisingly, in the mid-20th century, art turned to mass culture as a source of inspiration: Andy Warhol, the leader of pop art, showed Coca-Cola in his prints, because, he said, it was a symbol of democracy: the American president, Hollywood stars and the unemployed all drank the same drink. At the time, artistic autonomy was facing another imminent threat – a global arts market which gained momentum and began to dictate its conditions just like the monarchs did in the absolutist era. The 1960s were a time when radical left-wing associations, such as the Situationist International, emerged and issued an appeal to stop producing art for commercialized galleries and start working directly with life itself to form counterculture that would be an alternative to consumption society.
ETI, R.E.P AND OTHERS
One of first radical public performances in the former Soviet Union was executed by the ETI group (the Russian abbreviation stands for Expropriation of Art’s Territory) headed by the noted painter Anatoly Osmolovsky. On April 18, 1991, shortly before Lenin’s birthday, the activists formed a vulgar word meaning ‘penis’ with their bodies on Red Square, the most symbolic place in the entire Soviet Union. In this way the young protest-minded artists desacralized the Soviet symbol, a place normally reserved for parades and bombastic speeches. In general, Russian performances accentuated the human body and brutality. Alexey Brener, who was active in Israel and Moscow until the mid-1990s, left his feces across the room from a Van Gogh painting in the Pushkin State Art Museum as part of his protest against turning artistic avant-garde pieces into museum objects and thus politicizing them. Oleh Kulyk made a name for himself with a series of performances in which he adopted the image of a dog-man.
The totalitarian realities of contemporary Belarus spurred the political satirist Ales Pushkin to action. On July 21, 1999, toward the fifth anniversary of Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, he brought a cart filled with manure, a pitchfork and state symbols (the performance was called “Manure for the president”). Since then he has been closely watched by the Belarusian KGB.
In Ukraine, the most notable street performances took place after the political explosion of 2004. The new generation of artists who were just getting on their feet professionally at the time could not fail to join the carnival of new politics. The R.E.P. group (Revolutionary Experimental Space) parodied hackneyed electioneering promises (performance “Party R.E.P.,” Kyiv, 2006). It even intervened in a conflict between nationalists and communists when its members came to Maydan on 7 November and walked between the two camps with meaningless slogans as a way to suggest the emptiness of any ideology (“We Will R.E.P. You!” 2005).
Street performances can also be aimed at communication as was the case with “art raiders” in Odessa who periodically displayed their exhibits made from rags bought at a local flea market and display in the open. Another example is Alina Kopytsia’s Troiandoshyttia (Rose Sewing): on every weekend in the summer of 2009, she invited passers-by in busy Kyiv streets to join the process of sewing old clothes into a carpet, enabling communication between complete strangers.
On the whole, post-Soviet life offers artists countless reasons for radical gestures which turn out to be virtually identical in different cases. For example, Mykola Ridny staged the public performance “Lie down and wait” near the German embassy in Kyiv (2006) after several visa refusals which prevented him from attending his own exhibits abroad. Tatiana Fodorova performed “I am coming…” in Chisinau (Moldova) after her application was turned down by the British embassy (2010). She painted her body in black to convey the idea that her country was a source of illegal workers who were denied entry to the European Union. These artists exploited their personal experience to show a widespread social practice: the entry “citizenship” in your passport may open, or on the contrary close, any door before you, while individual qualities are secondary to this official stamp.
LEAVING THE COMFORT ZONE
The permanent crossing of the accepted boundary (in terms of both aesthetics and morals) is an essential feature of art. It can be attributed to the need for experimental search for new knowledge (beyond the rational scenarios of scientific research) and creating situations that reveal social conflicts – scandalous artistic events are, in fact, no more unpleasant or indecent than ubiquitous ignorance, irresponsibility and corruption. Artists increasingly make inroads into politics via movies (for example, Yael Bartana) or graffiti (such as Banksy). However, in the Western artistic world the biggest threat to political artistic expression is the all-monetarizing market and the comfortable niche of “criticism” which is reserved for art in the structure of simulating democracy, while in post-Soviet society, against the backdrop of overall poverty and civic stupor, it takes the form of distrust for and aggression against all things atypical. This is no surprise – the experience of paternalistic dependence on the state and the huge volume of unexpressed collective traumas in the 20th century coupled with a general lack of principles and economic instability are a highly unfavorable environment for personal security, interest in creating new cultural forms and practicing freedom.
I recently watched the public reaction to Olena Karasiuk’s project “The house that Jack built”: advertisement monitors in a Kyiv shopping mall showed a video recording of a performance in which the artist took apart furniture in a hotel room and created a totally different space by breaking all hotel regulations. Visitors could not even imagine that these monitors could be showing something else than ads, so they looked away to avoid answering a question without a ready answer.
The illusory comfort zone, which results in an abyss between the rich and the poor and spells lawlessness for most citizens, can be exited by shaping a new tradition – a complicated task for post-Soviet society which was twice removed from social art due to years of totalitarian experience and later commercialization. Brutal artistry and activism are attempts to pull society out of its stupor and show alternative lines of thought and action.
From Arthur Rimbaud to Banksy
1870 – scandalous pranks of the young Arthur Rimbaud
1912 – A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, a collection of poetry and manifesto of Russian futurists
1916 – dadaists active in Zurich
1917 – Marcel Duchamp invents readymade art; his famous artwork Fountain is a mere urinal which he presents as an artwork and signs
1937 – exhibit “Degenerative art” organized by the Nazi propaganda machine: works of German avant-garde artists are removed from museums and displayed in this exhibit for the purpose of public condemnation
1960 – Andy Warhol, a mass culture icon, makes his prints
1961 – the first event organized by the Fluxus movement in New York
1968 – the ideas of the Situationist International, founded by Guy Debord, are realized in revolutionary protests in Paris
1975 – Carole Schneeman stages one of the most radical feminist performances, Interior Scroll
1978 – photographer Robert Mapplethorpe makes a series of shocking photographs that study male (homo)sexuality and BDSM practices
1980 – Soviet non-conformism features a new style – social art (sotsart); using pop-art methods, painters Komar and Melamid exploit totalitarian symbols and ironically manipulate propaganda images
1997 – performance artists Marina Abramovich presents Balkan Baroque
2005 – Banksy, an anonymous graffiti artist, creates politically-charged images on the Israeli West Bank
ARTISTS AGAINST THE KGB. The Voyna group organized “Member in KGB captivity” in Saint Petersburg
ETI ARTISTS. The ETI activists formed a profane three-letter word with their bodies in Red Square shortly before Lenin’s birthday.
TERRORIST DOLL. “Guantanamo Bay” was Banksy’s protest, made in Disneyland, against the humiliation of prisoners in this American prison located in Cuba
THE VOICE OF ONE MAN. A street performance by the Kyiv-based R.E.P. group “We Will R.E.P. You!” in Independence Square during a demonstration organized by the Communist Party of Ukraine.