Monday, May 16, 2011

Art just isn't what it used to be

It used to be that Russian artists went to the gulags for criticizing the government or telling a joke about Stalin. They don't have to fear that anymore. So what are Russian artists doing to be cutting edge?
In a radical group called Voina, or War, they have exploded any notion that Russia's modern art scene is dry or conservative. But their provocative installations have also left them exposed to legal action.

The Saint Petersburg-based group's name means that "we have declared war on triviality and injustice," said artist Oleg Vorotnikov, 32, a philosophy graduate from Moscow State University.

He and another member, Leonid Nikolayev, 27, were recently freed on bail after spending three months in pre-trial detention as police investigate last September's car-tipping performance.

In a single night they turned over three police cars -- with sleeping policemen inside -- in the centre of the city to protest against police abuses of power and corruption.

The artists were released from pre-trial detention at the end of February after the renowned British street artist Banksy contributed money to cover their bail of 300,000 rubles ($10,562) each.
But overturning sleeping police in their cars isn't the highest level of art that this group has attained. They have so much more talent than that.
Ironically the artists are in the running for Russia's top contemporary art prize with the performance in which they painted an enormous phallus on one of the city's landmark lift-up bridges.

They hastily painted the work last summer on the Liteiny Bridge, just before it was due to be raised to allow ships to pass through.

When the bridge lifted, the phallus directly faced the local headquarters of the FSB security service where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a Saint Petersburg native, began his career as an agent for the then-KGB.

The work, titled "A c(expletive) captured by the FSB", was nominated for the Russia's prestigious Innovation prize to be awarded in April by the State Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow.

Some art experts are in no doubt the radical stunts deserve to be seen as art.

"What Voina does is art. Artists are always working at the edge. It's the level of the jester who shows that the emperor has no clothes," said Dmitry Ozerkov, the head of the contemporary art section of the Hermitage.
And painting a phallus is not the only true art that these guys are capable of.
Around a dozen activists had sex in the Moscow Biological Museum next to a stuffed bear and a banner saying "F(expletive) for the Bearcub Heir", a play on Medvedev's name which derives from the word "medved", or bear.

"We expressed the voice of the people. Amid the total silence that prevailed in our country, we showed people what was being done to them with these elections," Vorotnikov said.

"Our performances change people," said Nikolayev, who used to work as a manager in Moscow.
It's not quite Osip Mandelstam or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn being sent to the gulags or the suffering of Anna Akhmatova under Stalin, is it?