Celebrate the Power of Art against oppression


Written by Lucy Maguire
07 Thursday 07th December 2017

Image result for pussy riot

In the 100th year since the Russian Revolution, London takes a retrospective look at generations of activism, actionism and individual freedoms. Be it the historical archives of communist propaganda and it’s illegal counter-art in 'Red Star Over Russia’; clandestinely critical installations of ‘Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’ at the Tate; or the post-Soviet modern ‘Art Riot’ on show at the Saatchi gallery (featuring Pussy Riot); one thing is for sure: even as tensions deepen between our good countries - the fascination with life beyond the Iron Curtain, and within Russia since its fall, is stronger than ever.

Perhaps it is apt, as right wing politics is on the rise, that cultural institutions remind us of the power of art against oppression. However, the evolution in style of these works shows how as we modernise, our protest must reach further, shout louder and shock us into change. But also, how we depict this protest and its consequences must be carefully considered.


Following the Russian revolution of 1917, visual art was used as an instrument of control to manage the masses. Under Stalin particularly, the prescribed 'socialist realism' style, as shown extensively in the Tate's 'Red Star over Russia', was the official Soviet art movement. Its mundane landscapes and domestic scenes were designed to promote Soviet life and push forward communist ideology, though they don’t necessarily make for an exciting exhibition. Propaganda was distributed on the ‘agitprop’ train, an actual train covered in paintings, filled with books, theatre and leaflets, that travelled across the Soviet Union disseminating thousands of images and leaflets. ‘Red Star over Russia’ alone provides a rich insight into communist propaganda and the ‘witch hunt’ censorship of those who transgressed the boundaries of permitted visual culture, but only in the context of the following Kabakov exhibition do we see how Russian art evolved in protest.


Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s reworking and subversion of socialist realism criticises and highlights flaws in the regime. Ilya, working secretly in Moscow in the ‘60s, produced comical questionings of the optimism of Soviet art. The installations he and his wife Emilia later produced are powerful metaphors for escapism, such as the brilliant ‘The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment’, which simultaneously mocks the space race and frees the Russian man from the confines of domestic living by bursting through his ceiling (leaving behind his pair of tired shoes). There is a humour in the huge scale work of the Kabakovs that only serves to make their message stronger. It takes what you saw in ‘Red Star’ and flips it on its head.


Meanwhile, over at the Saatchi gallery, video installations, photography and immersive theatre are the preferred media of protest. First, Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot has produced an immersive theatre show in collaboration with award winning theatre group Les Enfants Terribles.  Subject to criticism for its trivialisation of Russian penal camps and generalisation of the Pussy Riot target (you are in the imaginary totalitarian state of Calumnium, not Russia, and there is even curious mention of Theresa May), the production is highly entertaining, but perhaps could have had a harder edge. The sets reach from a kitsch ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel courtroom to a more gritty depiction of penal camp latrines, with accounts of prisoner abuse graffitied on the walls. The latter is more of what the experience needed, to fully shock and capture the essence of Pussy Riot, but a meaningful speech from Nadya herself while you sit in solitary confinement packs a powerful last punch.


The rest of the Art Riot exhibition is a fascinating look into the next phase of Russian visual culture. As Putin gained power in the early 2000s and Russian society began to revert to more traditional values, artists such as Oleg Kulik took a stand. With his perturbing ‘Man As Dog’ series, in which he himself ‘became’ a dog for set periods, Kulik explores themes of liberty and humiliation. The shock of a man cowering on a leash certainly makes you consider subservience to the state. Moving through the exhibition, the highlight is the satirical masterclass of Russian art duo the Blue Noses. Most famous for their depiction of two Russian policemen passionately kissing in a forest, Alexander Shaburov and Vyacheslav Mizin give us shock and comedy in equal measure. Pictures of Putin’s head on bodies in their underpants, (sometimes having a boogie with Kim Jong Un, sometimes not) are examples of artists exercising the new freedoms of post-Soviet life, attesting to the power of their self-proclaimed ‘hooligan improvisation. However, almost adding to their appeal over here,  the duo have had many works confiscated by the state. Interesting, that Kabakov’s subtle humour in questioning of Soviet ‘utopia’ has morphed through the years into post-Soviet caricature of Putin in his undies.


But hey ho, it’s sure that the vulgarity and the balls of the subversive and sometimes comical ‘Art Riot’ collection, shown so freely in London, gives some vindication to those who feel oppressed by any regime.


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