The rebirth of discontent

You know you aren't in just any gallery in just any city. On the glass pane of Oleg Kulik's bus stop, at the Central House of Artists, a dead suicide bomber appears preternaturally peaceful under a crumbling monument of former Russian President Yeltsin. And then a visitor, who is not part of the exhibit, sits down at the bus stop and lights a cigarette.

At the stripped-down former Lenin Museum, pensioners with gold teeth and mink hats look quizzically at Saatchiesque art and a paunchy guard named Igor decides, apparently impromptu, that he is an installation and begins to dance.

The buzz of the first Moscow Biennale is not the dozens of critically acclaimed international artists represented, some of whom swooped down for the opening last week. While the organisers said they saw record crowds of 2,000 visitors a day on the first weekend, the Lenin Museum had the calm, slow atmosphere of a library by midweek.

Rather the beating heart of the festival is Russia's protest art, which is experiencing a boisterous resurgence in Moscow. The first generation of artists to mature in an atmosphere of freedom is acting like dissidents 20 years after perestroika began. "Russia II", a showcase of alternative art, features Kulik's bus stop, a startling painting by a Chechen artist, Alexei Kalima, of a utopian Grozny in 2069, and government officials in black rubber masks dozing or doodling on pads in the installation called "Sleepy Government" by Gosha Ostretsov.

"Protest art has always existed, but our society wants it more now," says Ostretsov, a 37-year-old Muscovite. "I started to work during perestroika. What has always been very important to me is that an artist has the right to express a different opinion. We still live in a democracy. I think the fact that we have this exhibit is an example of that."

Cynical or honest, dissident or market-savvy, protest art is beginning to make its mark here. Russia II was packaged for the Biennale by Marat Guelman, Russia's first post-Soviet gallery owner, who is also a political consultant. Most of the art he supports is anti-Putin, though Guelman himself consulted for the president before resigning.

"Putin is trying to create absolute, vertical power," Guelman says. "Under such a structure there is no need for creative people. And so there are three options. You can obey him; an entire political class has decided to obey Putin. There is no opposition. Or you can emigrate. Or you can construct your own parallel social media and exist in it." This, according to Guelman, is where Russia II comes in.

"When the Biennale was launched here, we were told by the Russian officials that three subjects were forbidden – Chechnya, the Orthodox Church and Putin," Guelman says, tapping his cigarette ash on the gallery floor at the Central House of Artists. "We decided that their laws applied to Russia I, the official Russia. So we came up with the idea of Russia II, uncensored, where their laws do not apply."

"Russia II is a long-lasting project of Guelman, and it refers to this idea of the official and the unofficial, which is part of our culture," says Oksana Sarkisyan, a curator at the Moscow University of the Humanities and expert on the underground artists of the 1960s and 1970s. "Russia I and II is a sort of game on his part. But Russia II is very emotional, and it produces a lot of adrenaline."

Last week, a group of Orthodox Christians filed a criminal complaint against Russia II, stating that it insulted the religious and incited religious hatred. One piece that was considered objectionable shows burning figures resembling Jesus, by artist Chakhal Gor.

Two other artists who have got into trouble are Viacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov, the self-styled Blue Noses. "A Candle on My Life!", their portrait of themselves as Jesus, Putin and Pushkin, has also caused a storm among the Orthodox. "This has brought us a lot of attention and a lot of discussion," Guelman acknowledges.

"The dissidence is starting, just starting. There will be some resurgence of protest art here," says Kon-stantin Akinsha, an art historian. "But this is more political provocation, an attempt to wrest attention," he says of Guelman. "They needed a scandal and they got it."

Political art – especially antic-clerical art – is increasingly dangerous in Russia. Orthodox activists have stepped up their attacks against artists, and an exhibition at the Sakharov Museum called "Caution! Religion" was destroyed. The vandals were not charged in the end, but the museum organisers were, and could still face prison terms.

Another Russia II artist, Avdey Ter Oganyan, lives in exile in Berlin because of death threats made against him. Ter Oganyan became known when he chopped up pictures of Christian icons with an axe. He was charged with incitement under the same toughened anti-hatred law as the "Caution! Religion" organisers. His new work, "Radical Abstraction", is a humorous and provocative response to his situation.

A series of abstract posters featuring bold geometric shapes are subtitled in Russian. One reads: "This piece of art spreads lies with the purpose of damaging the honour and dignity of the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri M. Luzhkov." Another, a black poster with two pink circles, states: "This painting publicly humiliates the Patriarch of Russia, Alexei II."

Art audiences in Russia are likely to see more of this protest art in the future. Perhaps because the work is created in an atmosphere of increasing censorship, there is a brave vitality to much of it.

And, as self-publicising as Guelman may seem, he is performing an important role. "Of course he is a political animal and an adventurer," Ostretsov says. "On the other hand he gives non-commercial artists like myself a chance to show their work. Russia II has been a very positive process for all of us." The Moscow Biennale runs until February 18 at the former Lenin Museum and other locations throughout the city.

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