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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Driven to Art

The great St. Petersburg poet Joseph Brodsky once said that, insofar as politics has the right to interfere with art, art has the right to interfere with politics. It was an injunction to those with typewriters and paintbrushes to make a last stand before the Kremlin before they were inevitably jailed.

For saying things like that - and for other crimes like "social parasitism" - Brodsky was eventually exiled by the Soviet authorities.

It's been 23 years since Brodsky wrote that bit about politics and art, and it might have been even longer before anyone tried to pick up its brightly burning torch were it not for an exhibition that opened Monday at the S'Art Gallery called "We Don't Need That Kind of Fiat!" a railing artistic protest in paint, photography and installation art against Italian carmaker Fiat's alleged poor maintenance record in Russia.

"The outside world thinks it can sell us junk that will fall apart and then not fix it according to company-supplied maintenance contracts," exhibit curator Pyotr Bois said in a fiery response to a reporter's question on the exhibit's opening day.

"The government has ceased to care that its citizens are getting ripped off and are being thrown aside for foreign entities, so it is now our task as artists to make sure that doesn't happen anymore, to raise consciousness, to show how we feel about what is being done to the country," he said. "We are the Fourth Estate, meaning we are the last line of defense."

Brodsky may not have had in mind art interfering with Fiat's business - though art and politics in Russia are indeed old bedfellows - but inasmuch as corporations are becoming synonymous with governments around the world, the 40-member group - led by Bois and eponymously called "We Don't Need That Kind of Fiat!" - may have had a point, one perhaps closer to Fyodor Dostoevsky's brooding heart than Brodsky's artful naughtiness.

Bois and his group of disgruntled Fiat owners - a loose confederation of gallery owners and artists - were on a roll when they opened the show. Bois himself was dressed like an emcee for the occasion - full tuxedo and spats - and pounded his philippic through the small gallery on a genuine American-made "Mr. Microphone," a voice-throwing toy popular in the mid-1980s.

At the center of the group's clay and canvas complaint was the allegation that they had been sold Fiats by illegally licensed dealers who would not fulfill maintenance contracts once the cars started going south on them. What's more, appeals made by the group to the government's department of consumer affairs, import-export divisions, Interior Ministry, and Foreign Ministry went unanswered. When Fiat - which has no local production facility but announced it would soon begin construction on one last month - was contacted, a Fiat representative said that the company doesn't even offer a maintenance plan for the cars they sell in Russia.

"Pure prejudice," boomed Bois. "Like in the Third World."

The group also charges Fiat with a number of tax violations and false advertising and accuses the Russian government of failing to protect consumers.

"The government has done nothing but stand by and watch us get kicked around," said one of the protest group members on hand for the opening. Although she did not wish to give her name, the woman catalogued her Fiat's problems as muffler rot, power-steering failure, weak brakes and a heater that doesn't work - all of which would have been covered on a maintenance contract. Since she has none, she was forced pay for the repairs out of her own pocket.

"I am here because I hope these artists can help our cause," she said. "I'm depending on them."

In 1999, Fiat sold 824 passenger cars in Russia, said Irina Golubina of the company's Moscow administrative office. Of those, Golubina said, she is aware of no major maintenance problems beyond normal wear and tear.

Indeed, many at the exhibition were puzzled by the outpouring of emotion over the topic.

"The [Fiat] sedans look just like Ladas and Zhigulis [popular Russian-made models] and you can fix those cars with rubber bands," quipped one reporter from the daily Kommersant. Others joined a mild heckling session to say they had arrived at the exhibition in Fiats.

"Besides, who needs mechanics in Russia?" said a cameraman from BTK TV in Moscow who came by Fiat. "We fix everything ourselves."

But the artwork told a grimmer tale. One piece, by Andrei Andrianov, showed a family of sheep sitting down to a meal of Fiat car parts. Although he'd never driven a Fiat, Andrianov said he could "understand the frustration a person with a broken-down car feels." He said he joined the movement to speak up: "I think Bois is right because Russian politics has reached a point where it is incapable of identifying with the people," he said.

"We have no other defense besides some kind of manifesto, even if it is in artistic form."

Andrianov, who also created the model Fiat pictured on Page I, also said that he joined the exhibition because he expected it to be fun.

Other pieces feature a trash can marked with the words "Fiat: Donate for Daddy's Treatment" (at left) and a great deal of cartoons, one by political cartoonist Andrei Bilzho, the man behind the popular Petrovich cartoon. In it, two characters stand atop a pile of car parts. The speech bubble reads: "So there's your foreign car."

Another piece was a careful reproduction of Fiat's blue and white logo, with the letters F, U, C and K appearing in place of F, I, A and T. The artist was not identified.

Most poignant of them all, however, was Leonid Semeiko's black-and-white photograph of a Fiat under a dust cover - over it is superimposed an abbreviation - F.I.A.T., the meaning of which is given as "Fix It Again Tony."

So, will art be the last defense against the lemon, if in fact the Fiat is a lemon at all?

Fiat may have bitten off more than it can chew if it decides to submit to the artists' demands and take up the cause of personal freedom by building a couple of maintenance centers in Russia.

For now, slap-dash and pointless as it may have seemed, "We Don't Need That Kind of Fiat" may have provided art and politics with a good reason to consider remarriage.

"We Don't Need That Kind of Fiat" (Nam Takoi Fiat Ne Nuzhen) runs through May 2 at the S'Art gallery, located at 14 Zemlyanoi Val.. Tel. 916-0366. 1 to 8 p.m. Closed Mondays.