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22/03/2005

"This is not art, it's pathology"

By Jens Mühling

The organisers of the "Russia 2" exhibition at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art face fines for "inciting religious hatred". The prosecutors at the trial against the organisers of the 2003 "Beware - Religion!" show are demanding the accused serve time in a penal colony. Protests are being staged against a new opera "Rosenthal's Children" at the Bolshoi, and warnings are being sent out to the Minister of Culture, Michail Shvydkoy. Conservative forces in Russia are clamping down.

A scandal has rocked the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. At the beginning of February, attorney Michail Voronin filed a suit in the Samoskvorezk district court against Wassily Bytchkov and Marat Guelman. The former is director of the "Central House of Artists", for which the latter developed the exhibition "Russia 2" - a show of contemporary art explicitly defining itself as a counter-concept to the officious Russia of Vladimir Putin. The bill of indictment accuses Guelman and Bytchkov of "political extremism" and "inciting religious hatred". Voronin is suing for five million roubles, approximately 140,000 euros, "in compensation for moral damages".

Speaking to the independent newspaper Kommersant, Voronin described the controversial exhibition as a "provocation initiated by extremely sick people". Avant-garde art must have its place, he said, "but when artists start externalising their inner problems", it is "not art, but pathology". For Voronin the exhibits do not belong in a museum, "but in the Serbsky Institute", a Moscow psychiatric clinic. Guelman's concept, he said, "discredits the president and the government as a whole." The indictment is currently in the hands of the public prosecutors. Whether or not the case goes to trial will be decided at the end of March, say sources at the Guelman Gallery.

The case of "Russia 2" is fatefully similar to the ongoing trial against the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, where an exhibition called "Beware, Religion!" was on show a year and a half ago. In it, Russian and international artists focused in a partially provocative way on the role of religion in today's society. Several days after the opening, the exhibition was ransacked by a group of militant Christians. Yet it was the exhibition organisers, not the vandals, who landed in the dock, on the instigation of the Orthodox Church. At the beginning of March, public prosecutor Kira Gudim demanded three years in a penal colony for museum director Yury Samodurov, and two years each for his co-worker Ljudmila Veselovskaya and artist Anna Michaltshuk. All three defendants will be prohibited from practising their profession in future. In addition, Gudim is demanding the "destruction of the evidence", meaning the confiscated artworks. To justify this thinly disguised attempt at censorship, Gudim accused the defendants of not bearing in mind the "special situation of Russia" when they conceived the exhibition. She quoted the lines of poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: "In Russia the poet is more than a poet".

Despite their similarities, there is a cardinal difference between the two cases. Whereas the Church plays a driving role in the trial against the Sakharov Museum, the indictment against Guelman has seven plaintiffs, all members of the "Moscow Artist's Association". What looks at first like high treason among members of a single fraternity can be traced back to the ancient Russian conflict between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles". The latter traditionally call for a return to the roots of Slavic culture; the former seek intellectual renewal through the adoption of West European ideas. The Moscow Biennale was clearly conceived for the "Westernizers" - which must have raised the hackles of every artist committed to the opposite tradition.

Apart from the signatories of the indictment, this opposition also includes a 34-year-old artist Pavel Ryzhenko. As a guest on the television show "Russian Viewpoint" at the beginning of February, Ryshenko gave a scathing criticism of the Biennale, which had just ended. Looking directly into the camera, Ryshenko declared that Russians look above all for the soul of the artist in a work of art. If they are then "confronted by a black square", they feel nothing but emptiness. The reference is to the painting by Kasimir Malevich that started the Russian Suprematist movement one hundred years ago. To bridge the intervening artistic void, Ryshenko must reach far back into the past. His own works copy classical Russian sacral art and the landscape painting of Ilya Repin. It remains unclear whether Ryzhenko's curious television appearance was intended as part of the anti-Guelman lobby, or whether he was simply freeloading to improve sales of his own works.

Early this year, writer Vladimir Sorokin developed into something of a veteran in dealing with censorship attempts. Two years ago his book "Blue Lard" or "Blue Bacon Fat" so displeased the youth organisation "Walking Together", which has close ties to the Kremlin, that they flushed it down the toilet at an open meeting. Now Sorokin has written the libretto for an opera which will premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre on March 23. And once more he is accused of "pornography".

In "Rosenthal's Children", a Jewish genetic engineer, who fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, produces clones of composers like Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Wagner in a secret Moscow laboratory. After Rosenthal's death at the beginning of the 1990s, the clones manage to escape from the lab. Homeless in Moscow, they are faced with all the confusion of the post-communist era. The decision to stage the opera was made two years ago - the first time the Bolshoi Theatre has ordered a new opera in 30 years. Composer Leonid Desyatnikov, who has worked with Sorokin on numerous occasions, was engaged to write the music.

Then at the beginning of March, the Russian State Duma voted 293 to 12 to authorise its cultural committee to conduct an "investigation" into the affair. The vote was initiated by Sergey Neverov, a representative of the Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) fraction, which also has close ties to the Kremlin. Speaking with Izvestia newspaper, Neverov declared it inadmissible "that Sorokin's vulgar work should be shown of all places on a stage that represents Russian culture worldwide," especially because it would probably travel abroad after the premiere. "Foreign audiences don't know Sorokin, they go to the opera because they expect to see a Bolshoi performance." Asked on Russian television whether this was an attempt at censorship, Neverov answered with a resounding "yes". To the question of whether he was familiar with the libretto, however, he answered "no". This led Sorokin to remark sarcastically that at least under Stalin books were read before they were banned.

The young members of "Walking Together" have also taken renewed interest in Sorokin. Since mid March they have been holding a sort of vigil in front of the Bolshoi Theatre, handing out pamphlets and warning against the hostile takeover of the national cultural monument. Sergey Neverov has meanwhile qualified the remarks he made to the Kommersant. He didn't want to prevent the staging as such, he says, merely its performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. Nevertheless, he hopes that "certain public servants in the Culture Ministry will pay attention to this precedent": a warning to Minister of Culture Michail Shvydkoy, who until now has fought successfully against all forms of censorship. Now he is coming under fire from two sides: in the Guelman case, attorney Michail Voronin has also named Schvydkoy as partially responsible for the defilement of Christian imagery.

*

The article was originally published in German in the Tagesspiegel on 14 March, 2005.

Jens Mühling is a freelance writer currently based in Moscow.

Translation: jab.

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