SCANDAL: INSANITY ART-LANGUAGE
Questions about a frozen chicken in vagina, group sex in museum, and other performing art actions of Pussy Riot and Voina? In this article I give a brief commentary on the most scandalous performances/actions of PUSSY RIOT and VOINA art collectives. IMPORTANT: I do not represent Pussy Riot, VOINA, or any other groups or organizations. I wrote it in 2012, just after the PR trial, for WHORE magazine, issue 4, and worked on it with San Francisco indie darling, a journalist and performer Ginger Murray . WHORE went on hiatus at that time and the article just sat in my “articles folder”, although I work on it a bit. I am sharing it on Medium as the first article of the The Arts Protest project as I find these facts relevant to the forthcoming Pussy Riot show.
ART PROTEST MOVEMENT
In August 2012 three young women, the members of an art collective Pussy Riot, were sentenced for two years in prison for recording a punk rock video at the altar in the main church of Moscow in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin. One was released; two — both mothers — sent to labor camps. Below is the video of the action, with English subtitles of the “punk prayer.”
It’s important to note that Pussy Riot is just one of many art collectives of the Art Protest movement. Over the last decade this movement produced vibrant, sometimes vicious, conceptual ultra-modern art. In order to show the complexity and significance of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” it is important to put it in the context of this movement.
Pussy Riot branched out from a larger art-collective VOINA (“Voina” is Russian for War.)
VOINA was founded in 2006 and by 2012 included about sixty artists, performers, and activists. It has performed dozens of provocative and politically charged street-art and conceptual art performances. More than a dozen criminal cases have been brought against the group.
VOINA’s mission is to protest the existing Russian government and totalitarian regime through art. Says Alexey Plucer-Sarno, one of VOINA’s leaders,
“We just express what we feel in our insane art-language, which is as absurd as the reality that surrounds us…. All our actions have political underlying messages… We speak in images, symbols, which are mostly visual. We don’t use the language of political journalism… In the current socio-political situation in Russia, an honest artist can’t be mute and make glamorous ‘masterpieces’ for oligarchs.”
VOINA’s mission reminds me of the original definition for avant-garde. Both Italian and Russian futurists, for instance, believed that art, controversial, provocative and, often, aggressive in content and form was aimed to disturb the comfort of mainstream mentality, bring awareness to the masses and thus create the foundation for a movement that would lead to radical social, political, and economic changes. To me, Pussy Riot and VOINA are real avant-garde: belligerently nonconformist, fiercely anti-mainstream, raw art in content and form.
WHY DID THEY SNATCH THE CHICKEN
The infamous Chicken Act by VOINA — a woman stuffing a whole frozen chicken into her vagina in a supermarket — is a perfect example of the use of the art language to express the underlying political messages. “Snatching a chicken” is a multi-layered metaphor.
The art performance has two titles: “Why Did They Snatch the Chicken?” or “What Is To Be Done?”
“What is to Be Done?” is the title of a novel by a Russian activist and writer Chernyshevsky, arrested and confined during Tsarists’ times for his pamphlet-address to peasants. His message sounds painfully familiar these days when Putin has usurped the power and the masses stay passive and oblivious to the oppression.
During the art performance the participants recited absurdist poems and folk ditties.
I gave birth to a chicken.
They will fuck us until when?
Voina, have some chicken!
My dead country is dozing.
This art performance is a wake up call. Every Russian child knows the fairy tale of The Golden Cockerel by Pushkin.
The Cockerel wakes up the sleeping army as the king is too stupid to rule the country. (The Golden Cockerel, the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, was banned by the last Tsar in 1907.)
In addition to its political message, the art performance targeted the modern consumers. Obsessed by their lust for material goods, the consumers are ready to forget all moral and ethical values, thus becoming easy victims of a totalitarian regime.
As for the choice of the extreme art medium, one of the artists noted,
“Modern art actively uses iconography. The angle of an icon is a frontal attack amplified by the reverse perspective. Politely, it dumps on the observer the inflamed innards of a martyr…”
SEX IN MUSEUM
The art performance called “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!” was staged the day before the election of Russian President — and Putin’s puppet — Medvedev in 2008. “Medvedev” means “a son of a bear.”
Five philosophy students, a pregnant Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova amongst them, one physics student and one published author had public sex in Moscow’s State Museum of Biology in front of a stuffed bear, chanting “Long live a bear, the heir of Pan-Slavic Bear!” “All bears soon will be extinct! We must support bears! We will transfer the energy of our bodies to bears. Bear is a totem animal of ancient Slavs. We must copulate in support of bears.” The event evoked pagan rites and rituals and — naturally — led to a public scandal.
This performance symbolized the current situation in Russia. One of the artists said, “Everyone is being fucked, and the bear is watching with disgust.”
PENISES AND COCKROACHES
Other art performances included staging a hanging of two homosexual men and three Central Asian guest workers in a department store in Moscow to protest the racist and homophobic policies of the Moscow Mayor (new laws banned gay pride parades for one hundred years)
Painting a 213 foot long phallus on the surface of the drawbridge in front of the KGB headquarters (Federal Security Service) in Saint Petersburg (my hometown, and this is my favorite action, a must watch).
Releasing approximately 3000 Madagascan giant cockroaches into the hallways of the courthouse in Moscow protesting the trial held over fellow artists.
The phrase “with cockroaches” means “insane” in Russian. “You got cockroaches in your heads,” screams Petr Verzilov (VOINA) while being arrested after the action.
“Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence?” asks Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a Pussy Riot member, in her closing statement at a trial, one hundred and sixty years after Dostoevsky stood in front of a firing squad, blindfolded. “For reading a letter packed, according to the Tsarist’s court, “with childish utterances against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities.” Dostoevsky’s sentence had been commuted to four years hard labor followed by military service.
From Pushkin to Brodsky, most prominent Russian writers and artists were imprisoned, executed or exiled.
Pussy Riot artists consider themselves disciples and heirs of Alexander Vvedensky, a Russian absurdist poet “purged” during Stalinist Great Terror in 1941.
THE THEATER OF ABSURD
The signature Pussy Riot outfits — the ellipses of heads in neon-bright balaclavas, the simplicity of the dresses, the triangles of skirts — are the cultural reference to Russian avant-garde artist Malevich, the founder of Suprematism.
In his Manifesto, Malevich wrote: “…the ‘actual human face’ cannot be discerned behind the mask, which is mistaken for the ‘actual face.’”
The Pussy Riot’s cover their face with masks not just for security. No face, no personality. The masks and dresses amplify the absurdity of the reduction to social and sexual stereotype. The outfits literally scream — in the bright colors of dresses — of individuality gone.
Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina says, “I’ve been locked up for almost half a year and I realized that prison is Russia in miniature… In the detention facility, as in our country, everything is aimed at depersonalization of a human being, reducing it to a function, whether it’s a function of a worker or a prisoner.”
Thus, society turns into a travesty. Everyone participates. The power stages its own elaborate absurd spectacle. Putin, in need of “more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power” uses “the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion… historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself.”
Putin’s former KGB colleague Gundyayev becomes the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and announces Putin “a gift from God.” The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is now used as a “flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, the main source of power in Russia,” along with the glass cage and barking dogs of the trial room.
The Pussy Riot artists take their turn performing their “punk prayer” in front of the same “flashy backdrop” of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their act has a feel of parody: the element unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox officials.
Both shock and laughter shake the observer from his or her comfort zone and suddenly reveal the absurdity of religious zeal with its kneeling, maniac bowing, and pagan throws of holy fools. The illusion of sacred ritual is broken. The comfort of habitual is exploded, revealing its mechanics devoid of magic.
Says Tolokonnikova: “We were looking for genuineness and simplicity and we found them in the holy foolishness of our punk performances. Passion, openness and naivety are superior to hypocrisy, cunning and a contrived decency that conceals crimes. The state’s leaders stand with saintly expressions in church but, in their deceit, their sins are far greater than ours.”
Taking the translation the “punk prayer” art-language a step further: The prayer is performed at the alter, banned for women in Russian Orthodox Church. The staging is meant to draw attention to the role of women in Putin’s Russia.
By covering the face and emphasizing the female body shape, the Pussy Riot minimizes a woman to her gender, reduce her to genitals. Russian women are traditionally reduced to sex objects. The Pussy Riot artists drive this role to absurdity, objectifying a woman to the extreme.
The first part of the band name highlights the concept. In the best tradition of avant-garde art, Pussy Riot creates the first shock by “slapping the face of the public taste.” Speaking about sex and body parts related to sex was a taboo for generations of Soviet citizens. Breaking these taboos are highly arousing. The sexual excitement is perceived as wrong and punishable. So even saying the name of the band — Pussy Riot — is punishable as it is arousing.
The symbolic “pussy” of Pussy Riot is a protesting vagina. This is the most dangerous type. In a totalitarian state, vaginas are state property. Women provide food, sex and children. They generate and raise new human material, cannon fodder, the new fuel for the state. Slaves produce slaves. Hence a conforming woman is the foundation of a totalitarian state.
“Pussy Riot” creates a major threat. The “mother” rebels against the existing power — “fathers” of all sorts, tsars, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, against the patriarchal Russian state. A non-conforming “pussy” can not be a “mother.”
So it is only logical that the Pussy Riot members are labeled “whores” by mass media. “Whore” in this context receives a new meaning, a “whore” as a political antonym of “mother.” A whore in this sense is an individual (female of male) that rebels against the reproductive law by making free choices and refusing to follow conventional rules. Whores threaten the existing order by making free choices, by refusing to be “good mothers” or “good citizens.”
The Pussy Riot artists insist on owning their bodies and owning their lives. They demand their inner freedom. And in best tradition of absurdism, they are not afraid to go to prison for freedom.
In 1910–30’s futurists, suprematists, absurdists combined theater, dance, poetry, music and painting to create the avant-garde theater.
Life recreated this synergy in Putin vs. Pussy Riot trial, adding to the mix politics and philosophy, turning it into the perfect fusion for our mentality formed by video narrative. Internet and social media networks delivered this mixed art medium project over the world. The explosion of anonymous color echoed through the main squares and streets of over forty cities on Free Pussy Riot Global Day.
If this is not avant-garde art at its best, in its content and form, I don’t know what is. It makes one think. What is art? What is life? What to do?
P.S. Re-reading it in 2016, I can see how I could add information, refine and develop the ideas but I think this chapter of the Art Protest movement history (as well as my own life) is closed. The new chapter is now open. We all are writing it. Now. If you want to be involved in The Arts Resistance check out our website and join us.
P.P.S. IMPORTANT: I do not represent Pussy Riot or any other groups or organizations. My information is based on interviews with the artists. This the first article in this series. Read installment 2 at The Splendors and Miseries of Mythologies and introduction here. Read installment 3 at Three Years Alone for Stand-Alone Protests and installment 4 at Power and Opposition: Sadomasochism Inc. And for the closure and the show after-math read PUSSY RIOT: CLOSURE.
*All facts and photos are in public domain and available through Google. Links to the original sources are included.
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