Bless a Car, Feed a Cat

Go ahead. Try it. You might even like it. It's "100% mouse meat." And it's all natural, too.

At least, according to a poster (on cover) proclaiming the virtues of "Pussy" cat food.

It's just one of many similar works by Dutch photographer and Moscow resident Joris van Velzen on display at the Fine Art Gallery.

In the poster's background is a woman holding a broom and standing on a stool, apparently trying to save herself from a mouse. The cat whose face is featured on the cat food can is van Velzen's own.

"I thought it might be more appropriate to make cat food from mouse meat, rather than from rabbit meat, like it is in Europe," said van Velzen.

But the 30-year-old van Velzen, who has lived in Russia for 11 years, encountered an unforeseen problem.

"Russian visitors [to the exhibit] think that canned mouse meat ought to be food for people as well as for cats," said van Velzen, who makes the majority of his living doing advertising photography for magazines like "Elle" and "Marie Claire," and for Nescafe coffee.

Another poster (shown above) shows Russian Orthodox priest Father Nikifor standing on a highway, soliciting customers for his small business. What does he do? Predictably, perhaps, he blesses cars.

"Vehicles Consecrated," his sign reads. "Domestic: 50 rubles. Foreign: 100 rubles. Jeeps: 150 rubles. Results guaranteed."

The eight Russian-language, computer-enhanced posters are on display this week as "A Dutchman in Russia," van Velzen's second exhibit of photographic art since he first came to Moscow on an assignment so many years ago.

"Russia is an amazing country," van Velzen said. "Every minute, something is happening here. One day, there's no country at all. Another day, there's no president."

In search of fodder for "A Dutchman in Russia," van Velzen took to the streets of Moscow. But he said he found more paradoxes than solutions.

"I think Joris is impressed by the Russian aptitude for absurdity f by the way we laugh while all the world cries," said gallery curator Irina Filatova. "You know, [if the movement hadn't started elsewhere], Russia might have been the birthplace of absurdism."

And van Velzen captures that propensity for the absurd in his work. Take, for example, his "Aura Hygiene" poster, which promotes the services of "Leila, a clairvoyant since birth, winner of international prizes and an assistant professor of medicinal sciences."

Leila, a vague figure lit by dim candlelight, will tell your fortune and she, like the priest who anoints automobiles, provides a "100% guarantee."

Leila can also neutralize the evil eye, cure damnation, whip up love potions, return a lover and write up a prognosis for your business.

But, in this instance at least, life is just as strange as the art that imitates it.

"I've seen advertisements for this sort of thing," van Velzen said. "For example, on Tverskaya Ulitsa, I saw a poster advertising 'the magic of Galina Vishnevskaya.' It's amazing, but people take this kind of thing very seriously. I know many businessmen who visit [fortune tellers and wizards] before signing a contract."

Another poster inspired by real ads promotes the phony joint-stock company "Chelyusti," or "Jaws." A "before" photograph shows a shiny set of pearly whites. The "after" shot is of the same mouth, now full of gold caps.

"Expensive!! Prestigious!! Painless!! 24 hours a day!!" the ad shouts.

The address listed for the clinic, by the way, is a real address: that of van Velzen's studio. But don't bother showing up to have your teeth capped. There's no dentist on duty f just a couple of cats.

There's one poster van Velzen didn't dare exhibit at the gallery: It shows a Russian flag and the words "Nikto ne pomozhet Rossii krome nas samikh," or "No one will help Russia f we must help ourselves" f a phrase used last year in an ad campaign encouraging citizens to pay their taxes. In the poster, those words are followed by telephone numbers for the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry and the paramedics.

"I couldn't show that one in public," the artist said.

With the exception of this sensitive piece, however, van Velzen said that he can easily imagine his work f the car-blessing priests, minced mice and 14-carat mouthfuls f being exhibited as everyday ads on the streets of Moscow.

"But I don't think Muscovites would notice anything wrong," he said.

No, probably not.

"The Dutchman in Russia" (Gollandets v Rossii) runs through Thursday at the Fine Art Gallery, located at 3 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, Building 10. Metro Mayakovskaya. Tel. 251-7649. Mon. to Fri. 11 a.m to 6 p.m., Sat. noon to 5 p.m.