In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2015, artist Pyotr Pavlensky set fire to the entrance to the Moscow headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). He’s now in jail, awaiting trial for vandalism. It’s not the first time the actionist has run afoul of the law. In 2013, he was charged with offending religious sensibilities after nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones in Red Square. That work, titled Fixation, alluded to practices of self-mutilation in the gulag, suggesting that life in Russia today is like life in prison. He conceived his recent arson as an act of counterterrorism—a strike against pervasive state intimidation.
Violent public actions like Pavlensky’s defined Russian art of the 1990s, though in those days the consequences weren’t as serious and the stakes, perhaps, were not so high. In his introduction to a volume documenting performances from that decade, critic and historian Andrei Kovalev writes that disoriented police officers, unsure what it meant to maintain order in a time of rapid social change, would release any “hooligans” they learned were artists. Even the most radical art couldn’t match reality; it just lent form to its chaos. 1 E.T.I., a group of artists led by Anatoly Osmolovsky, lay down on Red Square to spell the three-letter word for dick with their bodies. Oleg Kulik, naked except for a spiked collar and bandaged knees, stopped traffic by leaping into the street and howling like a rabid dog. Alexander Brener donned a boxer’s shorts and gloves and shouted at the Kremlin walls, challenging Boris Yeltsin to fight.
One of the reasons for such actions in the city was the absence of institutional platforms. The perestroika art boom, when Western dealers and auction houses descended on Moscow, was over by the early ’90s, and most of the artists who made money off it emigrated. Those who stayed continued to organize shows in squats and basements, as they had in the recent Soviet past; museums didn’t know what to do with them. Outdoor actions attracted the attention not just of passersby but of the mass media. Newspapers, giddy at the freedom to publish anything, lavished coverage on actionism. It was a time when public space seemed up for grabs. Advertisements were replacing propaganda. A mob toppled the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, on the square in front of the building that Pavlensky later set on fire.
But in the 21st century, things began to settle into place. New public and private institutions hosted regular programming for contemporary art, and the old museums followed suit. Now, Osmolovsky runs an art school and makes sculptures. Kulik had a retrospective at the Central House of Artists in 2007. Brener refused to sell out. He left the country and spent the late 2000s defecating in London galleries.
Pavlensky’s pathos is the most dramatic strain in an actionist revival that challenges the way things worked out. The most internationally infamous example is Pussy Riot’s guerrilla performance Punk Prayer (2012) at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Singing “Holy Mother, Throw Putin out,” the artists insisted that houses of worship belong to the people, despite the Russian Orthodox Church’s corrupt collusion with the state. (Pavlensky protested the prison sentence for Pussy Riot by sewing his mouth shut in front of a cathedral in Saint Petersburg.) In 2011, Moscow—like Cairo, New York and other cities around the world—was temporarily transformed by mass protests, as people assembled to voice their frustration with a lack of representation in a state that serves an oligarchy. In Moscow, as elsewhere, that energy fizzled. But in subsequent years artists’ protests have sparked from it like embers. If the actionism of the 1990s was an expression of social turbulence, today’s actions are pointed interruptions of an insupportable stability. 2
NOT EVERY intervention in public space is a gesture of radical refusal. Not all institution-building is directed inward, to a community of art professionals. Last year, the V-A-C Foundation launched a competition for public art projects in an effort to support permanent, subtle changes to Moscow’s urban fabric. As a private institution, V-A-C can’t guarantee that the winning artists’ proposals will be realized. But it’s doing whatever it can to work with municipal officials to make them happen, and it has the substantial resources needed to weather protracted bureaucratic processes (the eight-year-old foundation is financed by Leonid Mikhelson, the third-richest man in Russia).
Last fall, V-A-C presented the 21 projects of the competition’s finalists in the exhibition “Expanding Space: Artistic Practice in the Urban Environment” at GES-2, a decommissioned hydroelectric power plant. (The prerevolutionary facility—located on an oblong island in the Moscow River near Bolotnaya Square, the epicenter of the 2011 protests—is being reconstructed by Renzo Piano to house V-A-C’s museum, which is scheduled to open in 2018.) The seven winning projects include Valentin Fetisov’s memorial to the Moscow Swimming Pool. It’s a slight, invisible piece: a scent of chlorine wafting from a subway vent near the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which stands where an outdoor pool did for most of the 20th century (the cathedral, rebuilt in 2000, is a replica of one razed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s). For Muscovites who remember the pool, the chlorine smell would trigger personal reflections on the city’s transformations.
Sonya Guimon’s Inhabiting Propaganda is the most ambitious of the projects. In the late Soviet period, it was common to see slogans like Peace to the World and Glory to the Soviet Communist Party spelled in giant letters on the roofs of apartment buildings. Guimon wants to replicate the form of that signage, but instead of the old slogans she’ll use quotes from policy statements and legal reform documents that created a private real-estate industry in Russia. Her signs would make the historical context of contemporary housing conditions legible.
The other five projects on the shortlist similarly remind Muscovites of erased histories while prompting consideration of the city’s development. Each proposed work faces its own obstacles. As outwardly unobtrusive as Fetisov’s memorial might seem, it requires tinkering with a station of the Moscow Metro, which is federally designated as a strategic defense asset, so any alterations have to pass through a thicket of red tape. Guimon doesn’t want her signage to appear without warning, as the old slogans did, so she’s spent many hours organizing meetings with residents of the buildings she hopes to involve, explaining her intentions and trying to generate goodwill for her project. Katerina Chuchalina, curator of V-A-C, said that people assume that city government workers are small-minded philistines, allergic to progressive ideas. But in her experience, the apparatchiks are open to new ideas and outlooks, and willing to partner with artists.
Refuseniks are the stuff of legend. The stories of the man who set fire to the FSB, or the women who sang and danced in the cathedral to cleanse its corruption, spread quickly in the mass media, often accompanied by photos that became icons. The interventions supported by V-A-C are slower and more elastic, shifting habits of everyday life. The social body needs both: diagnoses of the diseases that weaken it, and treatments that make it stronger.
BRIAN DROITCOUR is an associate editor of Art in America.
Atlas is a rotating series of columns by writers from Dallas, Moscow and Lima.
1. Andrei Kovalev, Rossiiskii aktisonizm 1990-2000, Moscow, WAM knigi, 2007, pp. 9-10.
2. Though it doesn’t quite fit the neat timeline I’ve drawn here, I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention that Voina, the anarchist art collective that spawned Pussy Riot, had engaged in protests against consumerist complacency since 2006, with actions including a release of stray cats at a McDonald’s franchise and a staged lynching of gays and Central Asian migrant workers at an Auchan supermarket. But the group’s leaders have been in Western Europe since 2010, attempting to avoid extradition to Russia.