Russian has impressive body of work

These days, becoming an art star is a pretty bloody business. 

Elena Kovylina has the heart for a bit of bloodletting, though – as well as the legs, fists, chest, chin, eyes and many other points in between for it. Viewers wanting to follow the course of the Russian artist’s work need only chart its bloody progress across her often visible, often battered body. 

Kovylina’s capacity to sustain and utilize self-inflicted pain is suggested – but only suggested – in Pick a Girl (2006), the artist’s self-portrait at the Pari Nadimi Gallery. Coy, academic and underworked, the small oil painting comes from her notorious Pick a Girl performances presented last year at the Sydney Biennale and the year before that at Art Moscow. 

In the sketchy oil on canvas at the Nadimi gallery, the artist appears wide-eyed yet hardly innocent. Looking apprehensively up to her right, she appears to be staring into the eyes of an unseen man who is about to pin something through the bare flesh on her chest. 

She seems unaware of the pain that’s about to come – or uncaring. Typical of many of Kovylina’s performances, she’s aggressor and victim here, the good comrade getting a medal for her uniform and the near-helpless enemy about to be stabbed.

Things were a whole lot rougher and bloodier in the site-specific performance piece itself. (Indeed, things can get too rough with Kovylina. Boxing, an earlier performance piece where she offered to really slug it out with people in the audience, was cancelled last year for fear of legal repercussions.) 

Pick A Girl updates Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece, in which viewers were allowed to snip off a small section of Ono’s clothing. With Kovylina, people in the audience were allowed to remove surgical needles she had carefully implanted into her bare torso. 

Each embedded needle had a small, ripped-out picture of a naked woman affixed to it, the reward for removing the pin. Photo evidence of the performance shows that by its conclusion, blood streamed down the artist’s chest. Some people in the audience simply couldn’t curb their enthusiasm in picking out “their” needle.

In Russian, “pick” has the suggestion of “picking up” a prostitute. Sexual politics are rarely far from Kovylina’s works. “However, most of my performances should be read in relation to the concrete socio-political context of today’s Russia,” she explained a while back to Elena Sorokina, the Russian-born, New York-based curator who showed one of Kovylina’s performance videos in New York in 2005.

Moscow today may seem to be as cool, hip and modern as any other European city. But the 35-year-old Kovylina – trained as a painter in the old Soviet system before studying in Zurich and Berlin – still finds ghosts of the old Soviet menace lurking around every corner in modern Russia, or in leaving it. 

“When you cross the border, guards order all young women off the bus and ask lots of unfriendly questions,” she added. “The spectre of communism became a spectre of prostitution.” 

Check Point Charlie (2002), one of two videos at the Pari Nadimi gallery, shows the artist role-playing as a guard at a border-crossing point in Berlin. Filmed by a confederate some distance from all the action, it all seems rather frivolous, as she appears to be questioning drivers in their cars. But then the artist is only beginning to evolve her art star video persona. 

Kovylina uses art much the way Courtney Love uses rock – they’re rather alike, physically, in some ways – as a source for the very material needed to counter-attack what produced it in the first place. Both artists also use their stereotypical, Hollywood-cliché beauty – movie-star buxom, blonde and pouty – as a means to elicit the very reactions they aim to criticize. 

This is most in evidence in the video loop Waltz in Berlin (2001), an early six-minute-long performance that quickly became Kovylina’s signature piece and the source for a series of photo prints found around the Nadimi gallery walls. 

Waltz begins with the artist in the middle of a dance floor, surrounded by men, as Marlene Dietrich sings “Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fuss Auf Liebe Eingestellt” (“Falling in Love Again”) on a creaky old 78 recording. Other old tunes soon wheeze and rattle from the sound system.

After each turn around the floor with each new man, the artist repairs to the bar to slug down a shot of vodka and pin yet another medal on her tunic. A few short dances later, she’s utterly sloshed, running her fingers through her hair and barely able to stand up. The guys stand around watching and laughing. 

The rancid stench of Nazis-at-play can be detected in this remarkable video. And by wearing a tailored military tunic festooned with medals, the artist appears to have joined their ranks. She’s having a good time and, if that means consorting with the enemy, so be it. 

“One begins to wonder perversely,” noted American critic Richard Vine in Art in America two years back, “whether, as an avatar of those who have wielded or abetted totalitarian power, the artist will soon utterly abase herself before our eyes.”

I rather doubt it. Unlike Courtney Love, who seems narcissistically attached to her image of self-abuse, Kovylina always manages to distance herself from it. After all, she has her coming art stardom to attend to.