A new era of repressive state censorship dawns over Russian art

Anoushka Kavanagh dispels the religious disguises of violations on creative and political freedom

In a near revolutionary move, GARAGE – one of Moscow’s leading modern art galleries – launched the first ever triennial of contemporary Russian art, this spring. Unusually including politically charged works, under the ‘Art for Action’ sub-section, the program has been hailed as a turning point for the contemporary Russian art scene: a manoeuvre towards cultural liberalism. Indeed, in a truly profound turn of events, Chechen artist Aslan Gaisumov’s work is amongst the selected. His cold grid of metal house numbers, retrieved from the remnants of Grozny, serve as a reminder of the conflict consequential to separatists declaring independence in 1991, and are an abstruse shock here given the countless cases of artistic persecutions for inciting ‘political provocation’ in recent years.

Yet this liberal outlier is deceptive, for Russia has followed a trajectory towards rising artistic repression over the past two decades. In 2011, this came to global attention when a court ruled that Alexander Savko’s work – ‘Jesus as Mickey Mouse’ (1995) – was to be prohibited from all future publications, as it was deemed ‘religiously offensive’, whilst the exhibition that presented the ‘sacrilegious’ work, Forbidden Art (2006), stirred outcry in itself. The hosting Sakharov Centre directors, Andrei Yerofeyev and Yury Samodurov, were collectively fined 350,000 roubles for ‘inciting religious hatred’ – an offense punishable under Article 282 of the Russian Constitution. More recently in 2015, Freemuse registered seven further violations on visual artistic freedom. Alarmingly, Russia seems to be regressing on creative liberty, with growing similarities to the Soviet regime becoming apparent.

Although today prosecution is usually undertaken on grounds of offenses to the Orthodox Church – with shows like Oleg Yanushevsky’s Contemporary Icons (2004), and Marat Guelman’s Spiritual Invective (2012) defaced in the name of ‘God’ – many targeted examples show little sign of intentional religious offence. When coupled with increasing irregularity of attacks, and questionable verdicts, this suggests a ruse for a new era of totalitarian state censorship.

‘Jesus as Mickey Mouse’ for instance – by replacing Christ with the cartoon character preaching the Sermon on the Mount – actually comments upon the dominance of superficiality in contemporary culture. Savko stated his intention as the representation of “current reality”, or substitution of moral values with mass-cultural values. Though the prosecutor distorted this motive, proclaiming instead that the artist’s technique of uniting sacred and comical elements had produced “a caricature of Jesus”, and thereby presented the Gospel as a cartoon, in a “mocking insult” to Orthodox Christians. Such antagonism suggests ulterior motive in the censorship, which can perhaps be found in Forbidden Art’s original objectives – to explore censorship in modern art. When first exhibited, the work was placed provocatively behind protective peep-holes – as if mocking earlier attacks. It is possibly for this reason, that the piece has been criminalised.

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Caution! Religion (2003) – another show subjected to prosecution at the Sakharov – likewise raised problems in certifying offense. The exhibition attracted the attention of the authorities when altar-boys emblazoned works with graffiti slogans reading ‘sacrilege’. Six arrests were made, but ironically it was the curators, rather than vandals, whom were charged with hooliganism and hate crimes. Art historians, from the State Centre for Contemporary Art, were consulted during the trial in attempt to verify these charges: the experts failed to find the artworks blasphemous.

It’s not hard to see why. Kosolapov’s ‘This is my blood’ (2001), for example, may appear to deface Christ by juxtaposing Him within a Coca-Cola commercial. However, Jesus has been cut out of Holy context and pasted onto another setting. The advert dominates in composition, ultimately commenting again upon today’s capitalist worship rather than devaluing faith itself.

Despite this, a case was filed against these academics for providing ‘false expertise’, and a new team offered the satisfactory verdict. Evidently there was reason behind prosecution other than religious protection again. Father Shargunov’s letter to the Duma, in which he noted the centre’s record of controversial shows – including those critical of the Chechen war – as proof of the institution’s subversive nature, has been cited as suggesting political motivation. It became apparent that anything inauspicious to higher authorities’ actions or judgements would face backlash.

The fact that it’s not only supposedly ‘sacrilegious’ work being targeted any more, vindicates this. With attacks becoming evermore frequent and irregular, depictions of overt homosexuality or unpatriotic sentiment seem too to be at risk.

In 2007, Minister of Culture Aleksandr Sokolov, labelled 17 of 240 works headed for the Parisian exhibition Sots Art: Political Art from Russia a ‘disgrace’ to his nation, and barred them from leaving the country. Amongst these was The Blue Noses’ ‘Era of Mercy’ (2007), a controversial satirical photograph depicting two uniformed policemen kissing in a birch-lined grove – no doubt charged with ‘political provocation’ due to Russia’s strong adversity to the LGBT community, in which light the depiction made a mockery of the government. To be Oneself: stories of LGBT teenagers (2015) – meant to be held at Red Square Gallery – similarly agitated the authorities. Attempting to protest the effect of Russia’s 2013 ban on ‘gay propaganda amongst minors’ through a series of adolescent portraits, the artistic activism was repeatedly hindered by police. Roads around the gallery were barricaded, and pictures torn down from the eventual alternative destination of a Moscow boulevard. LGBT photographer Denis Styazhkin was detained in its wake.

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Works that satirise Putin’s regime more explicitly have also faced ill treatment. When Vasily Slonov derided regime corruption before the winter Olympics – in graphics-style posters transforming the Olympic rings into gallows and vicious coils of barbed wire – his show, Welcome to Sochi (2013), was closed by federal authorities. Two members of anarchist collective Voina were jailed after a public stunt overturning police cars, in protest of abusive authority, and a shipment of the Blue Noses’ works destined for London, including ‘Mask Show’ (2001), was detained in 2006. This photo derogatively portrays leaders Bin Laden, George Bush, and Putin lounging in boxers on a sofa.

The artists reported that officials were ‘outraged by a less than respectful concept of their leader’, whilst in the former case, federation council member Andrei Klimov, voiced his fury at the denunciatory depiction of the government, likening the posters to images by Hitler’s propagandists of Russia. This is not the first time high level politicians have lent support to artistic prosecution. Parliament member Aleksandr Chuyev proclaimed in the Caution! Religion case that ”There are acceptable boundaries within which it is possible to express an opinion”, boundaries that don’t extend to the orthodox Church. It appears these boundaries more broadly write political criticism off as a taboo too. Unnervingly human rights activists have noted that the Caution! Religion trial was the first occasion since the 1966 trial of writers Andrei Sinyasvsk and Yuli Daniel that individuals have faced criminal charges solely over the content of their work in Russia. Evidently parallels between the Soviet regime can all too easily drawn, as a new era of state-backed repression seems to have dawned in Russia.