RED LIGHT ON THE RED SQUARE
2007-03-21 - BY YULIA TIKHONOVA – WHITEWALL review
Once a distorted society with a pathological animosity to sex, post-Soviet Russia is now drowning in sexual imagery
— artists’ bulimic answers to years of abstinence.
The side-effects of Stalinism’s repression, criminalized pleasures, and zipped nudity. Echoing this sudden sexual emancipation,
RUSSIAN CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS explore the once-condemned lexicon of the body without an ounce of residual morality. by addressing the detrimental legacy of Soviet sexuality, which still permeates Russians’ mentality.
One of these artists is Elena Kovylina, who through her performances implies eroticism, acting out the different roles that contemporary Russian women expect to take in society. The artist literally uses her naked body as performance medium. In her show Boxing (2005) Kovylina appropriates the image of a macho woman bychallenging a male volunteer from the audience to spar with her in the boxing ring.The artist intends to let herself be defeated by a man. Through the act of a fair fight Kovylina challenges the contemporary status of Russian men who lost their previous superiority and are now having to compete against the strengthening position of women. In the performance Waltz at Miami (2005) the artist references the rise and fall of Russia as a superpower by dancing out a waltz while drinking vodka. Again, she invites volunteers to dance with her.The artist drinks shot after shot, and when intoxicated, she plays out her role unrestrained. Interestingly, in her approach Kovylina heavily references works by Western performance artists of the 1980’s, such as Carolee Schleeman, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic. The difference however, lies in the fact that the artist revives the rhetoric of feminism, while appropriating it within a Russian historical context. Since there was no previous feminist tradition in Russia, the maturity of Western women’s studies could not be simply transplanted into new ground. The concepts of male and female equality needs to be reworked through the public consciousness and art practice alike.The originality of Kovylina’s performances lies in the legitimacy of her commentary on the contest of sexuality and gender roles that Russia is undergoing. In the project Pick up a Girl that was recently presented at the Sydney Biennale (2006), Kovylina addresses prostitution, which has become a somewhat desirable profession in the post-Soviet era, in which money is the prime objective, and the easier it is to get it, the better.The audience was invited to participate in the action by picking up cutouts of a woman’s figure from the naked breast of the artist. By the exploitation of her voluptuous feminine body, Kovylina plays out the act of sexual allurement and even solicits as an escort on her Web page.The oscillation between being strong one minute and then submissive the next mirrors the ambivalence of the personal position of the artist, who is also lured into the glamour of high lifestyle. In fact, by and large Russian society is now become entangled in the insatiable consumption and magic power of consumerism which is achieved through affluence.
Another artist who uses the naked body is Oleg Kulik, whose performances involving “animalia” have gained him notoriety. The artist takes on the role of animals, in particular, dogs. In Mad Dog and Reservoir Dog, Kulik acts out the traits of hostility, malice, and distrust among Russian people, something that was prevalent through the chaotic years of the 1990’s—all while pretending to be a dog. These performances are poignant, and could be described as theater of cruelty. Chained to the wall and locked in a space, which resembles a prison cell, the naked Kulik barks and scowls at the audience.
In the performance I bite America, America Bites Me (1997), originally presented at Deitch Projects, New York, the artist paid homage to “IF YOU POSSESS SUCH A QUALITY [SEXUALITY], you can achieve the impossible” claims schoolgirl Lyudmila, who at the age of seventeen already knows how to use her sexuality in the most “profitable” way. In the context of Russia’s greedy market economy such insight comes handy. It was suggested by Elena Omel’chenko in her article My body, my friend? Provincial youth between the sexual and the gender revolutions that sex is considered not as a pleasurable act but loaded with many cultural and even economic codes. Lyudmila does not mean that by virtue of her libido she will achieve extreme pleasure from orgasmic sensations. What she is musing about is that sexuality is a tool for success, and success in this case is to hold a power over her man by virtue of her femininity. In other words, it is her sensuality that reigns, because in the past most Soviet women would bed a man to just please and possess him. That powerful surge of desire was channeled into a stream of woman’s submissiveness or control—the legacy of their inferior position under the Soviet state. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and was shattered into thousands of fragments.This was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and a period of transition that shows no discernible end. As a consequence of freedom and openness to the Western culture over the past twenty years, new attitudes toward sexuality have emerged.
With the rise of social and economical status, a new awareness of the body as being a receptor and receiver of sexual pleasure and pain has replaced the old constructs which were propagated by Socialist ideology. Even though women were the first to explore new sexual attitudes, excelling in the undiscovered realm of their womanhood, of course, there are just a few Russian women artists who explore sensuality and desire at a high level of art
practice. Most others remain intimidated by the lingering effects of the Soviet patriarchal power.
For nearly seventy years Russia was a society of androgynous men and women, who were created and cultivated by the Bolsheviks to meet the needs of the military and economic progress of Socialism. Under this regime the only reason to engage in sexual intercourse was to reproduce children. Man was allowanced superiority but in the workplace the equality between men and women was reinforced for the efficacy of labor and economic growth. The official doctrine championed the view that it was “class virtues, and not purely physiological allurement [of sexuality], that must be victorious.” As a consequence Russian visual culture became limited to the representation of men and women appearing to have very little sexual difference. Bodies were hidden under garments that disguised natural forms. In this way a tall, masculine and robust race of “sexless” people was created, and propagated as the national identity for Soviets. Throughout the 1930’s, sculptures of farmers and workers dominated architectural design and public spaces, to reinforce the image of a desirable citizen.
The casualties of World War II, combined with
Stalin’s genocide, resulted in a significant decline in the
male population, which meant that women became a major
part of the workforce, in addition to still having the chores of
family care.The lack of men within the population eventually
led to their elevated status in political and social life, which
was accepted by women. This led to alcoholism among men,
male dominance and an imbalance of the ratio of women to
men in the Soviet population. Consequently, the “Homo
Soveticus” was born, a type of sexually cynical, narrow-minded
and reckless man.
The fall of the Berlin wall therefore brought about not
only a restructuring of the geographical borders but also a
reshaping of the sexual barriers and attitudes between
individuals.The impact of Western pop-culture and a rampant
influx of sexually charged imagery confronted Eastern
European communities and had them agog. But not for long.
Eager to make up for the years of denial, people bought into
the mesmerizing sensual experience that they were offered
through television, and advertising. The retail industry
rediscovered an old truth, that sex sells, and any product can
be sold if it’s “packaged” with an alluring and sexually
provocative wrapping. In effect the last 15 years could be characterized by the escalation of “anomie and moral panic, politicization, vulgarization, commercialization and Americanization of Soviet sexuality.” The blame for these changes by hard-line conservatives has been blamed on the West. Protests from the older factions of the population have
pleaded for state intervention, for control and censorship. Although challenged by a growing xenophobia, which says something about the conservatism and nationalism of the Russian people, the expanding carnality of the culture has proved to be irreversible. Being brought up oblivious to the great dimension of their subjectivity, that is, of sexuality, Soviet people now enjoy erotica. However the cost is the alarming demoralization of the post-Soviet society. By virtue of their creative sensitivity, many Russian artists have joined the process of shaping new sexuality and gender orientation.
They are able to intervene into social dynamics a famous act by Joseph Beuys. The reference point here for Kulik is the
relationship between America and Russia in the wake of the Soviet age, as both countries overcome the legacies
of the Cold War, still fired up with enmity and suspicion.
By virtue of artistic sensitivity, Kulik’s practice developed alongside society’s changes, reflecting the overall
stability and growing wealth at the turn of the millennium. It was around this time that Kulik abandoned his animal performances and turned instead to photography, though his art still includes animals. In the series “Museum of Nature. New Paradise” (2001) Kulik suggestively superimposes footage of himself making love to his partner against animal groupings. The forms of kitsch and icons of pop-imagery strikingly bring to mind thoughts of the bodily similarities of human beings and animals. The artist presents the sexual act as combination of simultaneously a feral desire, and high aesthetics where the naked body becomes an objet-d’art.
The tacit homoerotic evocation of these scenes is amplified by the fact that man almost overshadows woman.
In his later project Kulik goes further in his exploration of the
relationship between human beings and animals, and creates
a wallpaper patterned with images of the copulating acts of
the Kama-Sutra, the only difference being is that its rousing
positions are illustrated by man and dog.
The motif of the body and sexuality is crucial in the work of another photographer, Sergey Bratkov, who deliberately
alludes to the grotesque and ridiculous aspects of human
behavior. The absurdity of collective instincts reaches its
apogee in the context of mass gatherings. In the video On
Volcano (2005), Bratkov presents a crowd of people who have
given their bodies and spirits to the plausible health benefits
of a mud spa in Krasnodar, Ukraine. His images of holidaymakers
who let themselves loose while diving into the mud as “happy as pigs” convey a certain irony about Russian past. It is what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin described as a carnival in relation to the Russian society of the 1930’s, in which the collective ridicule of officialdom, inversion of hierarchy, violations of decorum and proportion, and celebration of bodily excess prevailed. Transgressing time, these modes remain present and could be aptly read in Bratkov’s images. Conversely, as part of this installation the artist shows an oversize photograph depicting sheep grazing on the bank of the Azov sea, a bucolic scene in which some of them are shown copulating. Through the juxtaposition of the two images the parallel between a crowd of humans and animals becomes obvious. When individual sensibility is lessened by the average of collective conduct, the general stupidity of people comes to fore. In fact, Bratkov has become noted for his black humor in the exploitation of triviality and pop-culture, which provides joy for ordinary people. In contrast to the glamorous imagery of the abovementioned artists, Bratkov offers “the Russian question for the Russian answer.” No
question has been asked: the artist celebrates populist life,
homely entertainment and infamous drinking.The promiscuity
of casual sex heightens and rekindles the joy of Russian parties, which are notoriously reckless.
In his photo series “Kids II” (2003) Bratkov features children suggestively dressed up in evening wear. They pose as melodramatic and provocative pinups. While being captured
in the settings of a seedy apartment, these photographs endorse the connection between children and pornography. There is something, however, that undermines the viewer’s voyeuristic expectancy of seeing the children in seductive imagery. Bratkov’s kids seem to play too hard in order to mimic adults’ stereotypes of allurement, innocence, and desire.
These images present children as being contested by the antagonistic forces of adult life. Their childhood ended far too early, by cruel intervention of a market economy, social injustice, and political chaos. Being vulnerable, children are easy prey for abuse and sexual exploitation. Now childhood turns into a traumatic chapter in life, which children endure under the pressure of contemporary society. By and large, however, children have learned how to play by the rules of adults, where sexually suggestive behavior is one of the norms. They have discovered that with help of seductive cues they are able to coax adults to help them achieve the impossible. As a continuation of Bratkov’s themes of social conflict, the group Blue Noses presents post-Soviet reality in an excessively satirical, buffoonlike, and hilarious manner. Two artists, Viacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov, both from Novosibirsk, use the visual language of pop-culture’s crasser end, where sexual innuendo is part of the everyday vernacular. In fact, Blue Noses participated in a show of intimate photography at the Gallery Reflex in 2004.
In the series “Sex Suprematism” (2004) the artists subvert
the authority of one of the most famous Russian painters,
Kazimir Malevich, by applying his signature-style cylinder
forms to sexual organs.The meaningless texts included in the
speech bubbles mimic the glib conversations of gallery-goers.
The artists also played on Western clichés of what could be
termed Russianness, which includes matreshkas, golden
onion shaped-roofs and red stars, while mocking the triviality
In a video installation, Little Man (2005), the artists
reflect on the average man’s basic functions, which are eating,
defecating, and having sex. The installation also comprised
videos titled Reality TV, The War Between Civilization, Circle,
and others, which were projected on to the bottom surfaces
of obliquely placed cartons. The enclosed space of each refers to the standard Russian communal apartment, which has provided endless subject matter for Russian artists by virtue of its overcrowdedness and the deviate environment it creates. The point of view from above gives the almost voyeuristic
glance into the life of the “little man”, the character appropriated from Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century novel Poor Folk. The fragments of sexual intercourse featured in the video strike a chord through their mechanical repetitiveness and emotional disengagement, which are the prime characteristics of sexual ethics in Soviet Russia. Likewise, in earlier series of photographs “Mask Show” (2001) and “Contemporary Siberian Artists” (2002) the group takes its cue from the political relationship between Russian President
Vladimir Putin, American President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, who are presented as cut-outs where the heads of the politicians are placed on generic half-naked bodies. Representation of contorted combinations of bodies, interlocked on a bed, in sultry sexually charged positions, signify the corrupt nature of any political coalition. Here sexual references were used as a populist visual language to defame politicians, as being
superior to a “little man”—and a human being.
Taking full advantage of the liberalization of post-Soviet society, the artists use sexually loaded imagery to amplify the subversive nature of the artwork and thus appeal to a wider audience. The appeal is often achieved by lessening the aesthetic qualities of the art for the sake of overnight success and popularity. In addition, the artworks chosen by so-called new Russian art collectors, who operate with ample sums of money, often lack educated refinement. They seek the arousing themes which are only too eagerly provided by the artists. This demand corrupts yet revitalizes the new visual language of liberation from the prudery of Soviets and enables expression of the new post-Soviet gender relations : an awareness of sexuality where one is free to choose from many alternatives is ready to emerge from the creative chaos of post-Soviet reality.
One might hope that among the carnivalesque fête the
ethos of love, erotica, and congruity shall be sustained.
“SOVIET PEOPLE NOW ENJOY EROTICA.
HOWEVER THE COST IS THE ALARMING DEMORALIZATION OF
THE POST-SOVIET SOCIETY”