“We’re going Pussy-Rioting” shouted a couple of gender-ambiguous millennials entering San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on February 10th. The dissident Russian punk band’s appearance there barely resembled the usual fare at the Art Deco movie palace-turned-concert-venue: There was no lack of shouting and drinking, but nor was there any music, since Pussy Riot never charges for concerts. To justify the $45 orchestra seats, my friends and I adopted the view that this was a tribute, a fund-raiser and perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The long wait for Pussy Riot’s entrance was lengthened by an hour-long “pre-show” that opened with a wonky performance piece featuring some comradely joking around between a faux Donald Trump and a faux Vladimir Putin, which was followed by a 45 minute “trailer” for a documentary about the Russian band. Both were casually presided over by MC Zarina Zabrisky, a local writer and co-founder of Arts Resistance, an anti-war/arts collective. She would remain onstage to facilitate an interview and conversation with two of the Pussy Rioters, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Ksenia Zhivago, intended to spread the word about their NGO, Zona Praya (Zone of Rights).
The documentary footage offered close-up views of actions by some members of the group—a rotating cast of about a dozen women anonymous behind their balaclavas and previously affiliated with the feminist street-art performance troupe Voinal formed in 2011. Their “stages” included the platform of a cavernous subway station and the roof of a trolley car, where a burly female conductor assaulted them in Chaplinesque style. But it was the group’s appropriation of the altar of the new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for its performance of Punk Prayer (2012)—a brief entreaty to the Virgin Mary to remove Putin from power—which raised the hackles of both Church and state. (A queer architectural aside re the cathedral: Stalin had the 19th century “old” Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the banks of the Moscow River demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. Foundations for it were laid, but little else was completed. During the fifties, Kruschev had the flooded foundations converted into the world’s largest swimming pool, transforming it into one of Moscow’s premier gay cruising spots. With the opening of the reconstructed cathedral in 1995, this function was eliminated, but figuratively evoked in Punk Prayer.)
Punk Prayer shared the spirit—if not the massive numbers—of ACT-UP’s controversial Stop the Church (1989) demonstration in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Both protested the collusion of Catholicism and the state in constitutionally secular societies. Although Punk Prayer gained Pussy Riot the moral high ground—at least abroad—its insolence apparently could not be tolerated by officialdom. It resulted in two-year jail terms for the three performers who had been arrested; while another two fled the country.
Pussy Riot’s prominence surely saved them from worse treatment and more hard time. As with other incarcerated revolutionaries like Angela Davis, their prison sentences became the impetus for a more sober approach to struggles for liberation. If less exhilarating than their mediagenic, Putin-baiting performances, their more conventional human-rights activities may ultimately prove even more dangerous: “The difference between being a human rights worker in Russia and the US,” said Masha Alyokhina later in the evening. “Is that in the US it’s like being a middle manager. In Moscow it’s Molotov cocktails and beatings and [being] branded a foreign agent.”
Pussy Riot’s San Francisco appearance was the last stop of an informational, fund-raising trip that included Seattle and Portland. Their efforts are a reminder that political art practices ought to be evaluated by both their message and by the audiences they reach. Being “about” an issue is rarely enough. (Ai Weiwei’s recent reenactment—impersonation?–of a disturbing photo of the drowned Syrian three-year-old Alan Kurdi, for instance, falls into this category with its narcissistic, art tourism.) Some may question whether Pussy Riot’s advocacy and fundraising activities can even be discussed within an art context. They can if you ascribe to artist-theorist Hans Haacke’s belief that art is another branch of the “consciousness industry” (linking it to advertising and propaganda). There’s little doubt that Pussy Riot’s punk performance antics reached—and altered the consciousness of—millions worldwide. Given Russia’s saddening slide into oligarchy and authoritarianism, any taxonomic concerns—that rarely interesting “But is it art? question–seems less relevant than Malcolm X’s injunction to seek (revolutionary) change “by any means possible”.
There’s also a relevant Russian tradition of moral fervor in art that the West abandoned in the mid-19th century for modern formal experimentation. Just as Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s now unreadable novel What is to Be Done? (1863) supplied the emotional back story for the Russian revolution(s) of the early 20th century, it also pointed to future works of conscience, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, written precisely a century later. Solzhenitsyn’s historical and essayistic account of Stalin’s death camps ensured its author a Nobel Prize in 1970 and the attendant attention that made it impossible for authorities to “disappear” him.
In their remarks, the Pussy Rioters did not refer to any forbears in any medium. Instead they provided a fascinating analogue in the form of a slide show about the work of some contemporary visual artists and kindred spirits. The most interesting of them is Pyotr Pavlensky. Reminiscent of many US body- and AIDS-artists of the past 30 years, he’s nailed his ball (sac) to the pavement of Red Square, before an interested audience of police waiting to arrest him, and sewn his mouth shut in zig-zag stitches to protest Pussy Riot’s arrest. Many readers will link my mention of his sewn mouth to the similar actions of the brilliant US artist David Wojnarowicz during the eighties and early nineties. But given such different cultural contexts, these art historical associations can feel distracting (and detracting).
My sense of cultural dissociation was increased by Zhivago’s view that Pavlensky’s designation at a recent trial as an artist—rather than a hooligan–was a victory. But like many Soviet artists before him, Pavlensky was silenced in January by the authorities who had him (again) committed to a psychiatric center for evaluation. Surely there are differences between incarceration in prison and in a psychiatric hospital—including historical precedent–but for non-Russians they are difficult to discern. Putin’s power grab is also a reminder of the relative freedom Russian artists of the nineties enjoyed. The ever-worsening repression is likely to force increasing numbers of them to return to their pre-nineties’ roles of gadfly, goad and/or prankster. If doing so entails ignoring conventional forms and formats in favor of writing between the lines or mashing up music, art and politics, then credit Pussy Riot for their inspiration.
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We tend to associate so-called political art with conceptual or social practice art. Rarely is painting the preferred medium of the politically inclined creator. Masami Teraoka is an exception, a painter who for the past few decades has bent historical styles and imagery to his own ideological purposes: In the nineties this meant AIDS-inspired imagery brilliantly and meticulously mimicking ukiyo-e prints and depicting, for instance, geishas fumbling with condoms to suggest the perils of unsafe sex. The title of his recent show Masami Teraoka’s Apocalyptic Theater: The Pope, Putin, Peachbody and Pussy Riot Galore at Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco gives you some idea of both the subject matter and style he’s derived from Russian icons and altarpieces. (It unfortunately closed on February 20th.) Suffice to say that these works are witty and mischievous, authoritative and subversive.