The most recent exhibition at Transit Art Space in Stavanger* has been given the title Revolution. My guess is that it wasn't easy to come up with a unifying title for these works which all seem to provoke the status quo on different levels. These Russian artists seem to be calling for, or questioning, several different kinds of revolutions. The exhibition is a carefully orchestrated political tangle.
The exiled Chechen filmmaker Islam Elsanov and I were shown around the gallery—a painting by Chechen Alexey Kallima depicting a martyr being lifted to heaven by two virgins, another painting depicts a circle of the 72 dancing virgins, the Houris, in paradise (a soviet pack of cigarettes and a rifle emerge from the bottom of the canvas). Elsanov says Kallima is not a typical Chechen name, but that Tsaglov is: as in Vassily Tsagolov, the Russian painter who lives and works in Kiev and whose scenes of sexual power-plays are staged in a contemporary office.
If state politics are meant to be the main course of this exhibition, sexual politics threatens its position. Vika Begalska's video depicts a sadomasochistic relationship between herself and her Nigerian English tutor. Yes, she is forced to speak the tongue as a consequence of yet another kind of colonialism, saying things like "I love Moscow" but one can't ignore the fact that a black man is threatening a white woman with a cane while she is also forced to stand on one leg with her arms held out. She doesn't look him in the eyes. Histories of oppression, politics of all kinds intertwine in these works. "Jesus is our Father," says the performer.
Alexander Kosolapov's My Blood and My Body (silkscreen prints) were attacked in Moscow—metaphorically and literally.
Courtesy-Marat Guelman Gallery, Moscow
Christian fundamentalists reacted to the meshing of religious icons with capitalistic icons like the golden arches: Blasphemy. The curator, Einar Børresen, tells my friend and me that the only thing he's concerned about here in Norway is the ire of capitalists trying to protect the sanctity of their trademarks.
Another video, this one by Yuri Vassiliev, shows a grown man calling for his mother. Again and again. Tatjana Antoshina's photograph Queen of the Night shows an older woman, perhaps giving council to four young boys. All of the people in the photo are nude. And she is laughing! The photo is from a series called Europe, perhaps she is Europe. This work stands in exquisite contrast to (and incidentally situated immediately next to?) Blue Noses' cardboard box installation TheCircle. One of two films projected into the bottom of cardboard boxes, this one shows four men trapped in a box taking turns having sex with a woman.
Courtesy-Marat Guelman Gallery, Moscow
Despite the description in the exhibition catalogue: "Maybe they are better off just trying to have a good time, like they do in the The Circle…" It doesn't look like they are having a very good time. The four men take turns, and when not having sex they stand with their hands over their genitals and their heads down. They shuffle in line, more like bored monkeys performing mutual masturbation than men participating in human intercourse. (At the risk of establishing a hobby horse, I find it significant that the woman in the box is nude while the men all simulate sex while wearing boxer shorts.)
Blue Noses is the work of Viachelsav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov. Irreverent and humorous, their Series Mask Show is a photo of three men lounging on a sofa: Putin, Bin Laden, and Bush posing like pin-ups. Elena Kovylina is more confrontational when thumbing her nose at state politics and diplomatic hypocrisy. The Medal is a video documentation of the exhibition of Berlin-Berlin, Russian Artists Living in Berlin (2003). Elena Kovylina mingles with the highbrow, glass of wine in hand, a Soviet medal celebrating the 1945 conquering of Berlin pinned to her chest—pinned to her exposed flesh.
If Kovylina's work made me wince, Arsen Savadov's photographs made me sigh. His Ukrainian coal miners are shown in the Donbass-region mines, soot-covered and grim. But a few of the men are wearing tutus. The black and white images are a dialogue of tulle and denim, presence and absence, vulnerability and strength. The mortal and the ethereal meet under the earth's surface. These photos are titled Donbass-Chocolate from the series Deepinsider from 1998.
The oldest works in the exhibition are from 1996. But AES's digitally altered photographs are still relevant—in fact so relevant they risk being mistaken for propaganda. The Witness of the Future. Islamic Project includesRome, St. Peter 2006 (St. Peters as a mosque); Berlin, Reichstag, 2006 (The German Parliament building as a mosque); New Liberty, 2006 (The Statue of Liberty with a burqa). AES is the work of Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich and Evgeny Svyatsky. The exhibition in Stavanger also includes two large works by AES+F, F being the photographer Vladimir Fridkes. These pieces show children in a dystopian desert scene, rebel fighting minors with machine guns. Then again, they could be mistaken for models in a Benetton ad.
Revolution is a thought provoking exhibition. Even with the curator explaining each piece for us, even seeing the books with the Russian artworks being satirized, there is far too much to take in at one viewing. On March 30th my Chechen friend, Islam Elsanov, will screen one of his films. He'll talk about his vision of Russia's future. And other people will discuss theirs. I'm glad that I didn't try to take it all in at once.
The exhibition ran until April 2nd. If you couldn't get to Stavanger, Norway, the catalogue is available online at www.transitartspace.com/users/0151/tmp/200601/media1719.pdf/.
*Stavanger's gallery Transit Art Space is not connected with Transit Art Space in London, which closed in 2002.