An intriguing exhibition of Russian performance was one of the central elements of Performa 11. The show, titled “33 Fragments of Russian Performance” and organized with Garage center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, was exactly that: documentary shards (photos and videos primarily) of several dozen works that hinted at what has been happening in Russia since the 1970s.
The country had a glorious past of experimental art in the early 20th century, and the show made a bow to that history in documents that included images of choreographed mass spectacles, Constructivist plays, Futurist events and rare photos of actors performing the “biomechanics” systems of the theater director and actor Vesevold Meyerhold. However, the past was literally forgotten during the long decades of Soviet rule, and performance only made a comeback as the Soviet Union began to crumble. That didn’t mean it was safe to venture into experimental work. Where early Russian performance had been public, often lavish and optimistic, the art of the ‘70s was small, hidden and anti-theatrical. Groups such as Collective Auctions, formed in 1976 and part of Moscow Conceptualism, often instructed a handful of participants to go to the forests outside the city to perform simple tasks that focused on time, space, duration and perception. The next generation merrily parodied such tasks in works like Excavation or Hidden Treasures (1979), by the group Mukhomor (Toadstool), who sent participants to a country meadow on a fruitless dig for “treasures.”
As the Soviet Union entered the era of perestroika and then glasnost, artists gained more freedom and performance became increasingly public. SZ, made up of Victor Skersis and Vadim Zakharov, performed parodic works including Courses of Self Defense Against Things (1981), in which they cursed and threatened ready mades, like tables and television sets, enjoining them to remain household objects instead of pushing their way into art. Georgy Ostretsov and Georgy Litchevskycreated musical and theatrical shows that were burlesques of Russian reality, while raising popular culture such as comic books and graffiti to the level of high art.
From the 1990s onward, performance appears to have become increasingly provocative. Video Footage showed Oleg Kulilk performing Mad Dog (1994), in which he had himself attached to a leash and ran naked on all fours attacking people in public spaces. Another artist, Alexander Brener, stood in Red Square dressed in Boxing gear and challenged Boris Yeltsin to a fight (1995). Avedi Ter-Oganyan defaced religious paintings in Young Atheist (1998) and had to leave the country to escape prosecution. More recently Elena Kovylina set fire to a table where diners where having an elegant mea l(Voulez Vous un Café? Ou Feu le Monde Bourgeois, 2009) and Blur Noses used scatological humor and explosives in “25 Performances about Globalization.” In this last piece, as in so much of the show, the artists rejected Russian Life and drew attention to its absurdity.