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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Scandalizing Results in Trials, Not Prizes

www.sakharov-museum.ruFormer Sakharov Center director Yuri Samodurov
Shocking is what contemporary artists are supposed to do. The white walls of a gallery or museum are avenues for getting away with behavior for which one might otherwise be shunned in public (pretending to be a dog, biting people, and defecating in the corner, like Oleg Kulik) or even arrested (which happened to Kulik in Sweden for this very performance in 1997).

This is what most people go into a gallery expecting to see. Portraits, flowers, still lives, and landscapes may be what most painters paint today, but critical column inches are all but exclusively reserved for works like Hans Hacke’s destruction of the German pavilion’s floor at the Venice Biennale, and high auction prices for the likes of Damien Hirst’s infamous stuffed shark in a tank filled with formaldehyde. Anything else is just boring — last year’s Turner Prize, usually criticized for being too scandalous, met with general disdain in the British press for not being scandalous enough.

But in Russia, courting scandal can have far more unpleasant consequences.  Last year, curator Andrei Yerofeyev was relieved of his directorship of the Tretyakov Gallery’s New Directions department for “breaking museum rules” and hit, along with former Sakharov Center director Yuri Samodurov, with legal prosecution and a possible prison term for “incitement to religious hatred.”

The first cited violation has a lot to do with the second. In 2007, Yerofeyev curated an exhibition titled "Forbidden Art-2006" made up of works that had been withdrawn from shows for their provocative content. This could be swearing, as on the part of Ilya Kabakov and Avdei Ter-Oganyan, or religion-related material, in particular Alexander Kosolapov’s "This Is My Body," which portrays Christ as the new face of a McDonald’s advertisement. Despite being the smallest exhibition Yerofeyev had ever curated — he claimed that “technically it wasn’t an exhibition because the art was hidden behind a wall and you had to look through a peephole to see” — it met with angry pickets from Russian Orthodox groups, who filed a complaint to the prosecutor’s office leading to the current trial, which began in June.

 About this blog
Canvas is an attempt to fill the broad gap in English-language information about Russian art, be that for insiders and professionals or for the expat gallery-goer. Topics include (but are not limited to) the latest developments on the Moscow scene, visits to artists’ studios, coverage of exhibitions that don’t make it into the newspaper, and takes on the issues facing Russian art today. It intends to spotlight art that even in Russia passes under most people’s radar, as well as the oligarch parties with which it tends to be associated.  Boris Groys claimed that art criticism is “some kind of surplus, an excess of writing;” that is what this blog modestly aspires to be.
This was not the first time its organizers had run afoul of the authorities. Yerofeyev curated the “disgrace to Russia” exhibition of political art in Paris partly banned by the Culture Ministry (see this blog’s previous post) in 2006; and Samodurov’s tenure at the Sakharov Center was most famously blighted by the 2003 exhibition “Caution, Religion!”, which was attacked by Orthodox vandals, destroying several of the artworks and causing major damage to the center.

Yerofeyev complained that the court is a “Soviet one,” not bothering even to look at the artworks in question, and there’s a sense in which the case has already taken on the air of a show trial. The prosecution has called 162 witnesses to the defense’s two, and though the Russian art world has rallied behind the defendants, an open letter in their support prepared by Amnesty International last month found a mere ten celebrity signatories. Continuing the trial’s seemingly inevitable descent into farce, its opening session was interrupted by the art group Bombily (Gypsy Cab Drivers), dressed as the Greek goddess Themis, beating each other with sticks and reciting poetry, and a punk concert by notorious actionist group Voina.

In many ways it appears that the Yerofeyev affair has less to do with state interference in contemporary art than with how the Russian contemporary art apparatus chooses to interact with the state. True, the Russian government has never been contemporary art’s biggest fan, but it chooses largely to ignore and under-fund it in favor of the likes of Zurab Tsereteli — creator of the statue of Peter the Great looming over central Moscow — rather than actively interfere.

Likewise, public outcry over controversial art is nothing new, and hardly confined to Russia. But what distinguishes the uproar over “Forbidden Art” from, say, then-mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to get the British “Sensation” exhibition banned from the Brooklyn Museum (thus making it the hit of 1999) is the direction the Tretyakov Gallery is taking. New director Irina Lebedeva has firmly embraced conservatism, beginning her tenure with an exhibition of 100 pieces by Tsereteli. Recently, she announced that the museum will avoid works that “offend religious people’s feelings, transgress public moral norms, or are extremist in nature.”

The irony is that this self-censorship, rather than government censorship, is exactly what Yerofeyev and Samodurov were attempting to highlight with “Forbidden Art.”  Unless the trial, which resumes Sept. 11, ends with Yerofeyev and Samodurov being hit with five-year prison terms — which seems unlikely — it will ultimately have served as a distraction from this larger issue. Dealing with the fallout from shock and offense has always been part of contemporary art; avoiding it entirely poses a far greater threat to its character.