Political expression in Russia

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MOSCOW — On a wintry day in mid-March Artyom Loskutov gathered with three fellow artists in the quiet halls of a Moscow movie theater to discuss an upcoming art event in his hometown of Novosibirsk.

The artists always make sure to meet in public places. They shut off their cell phones and refused to give a reporter their phone numbers for fear of being tracked.

“It’s easier to get lost in Moscow than in Novosibirsk. The authorities are closer, so they’re actually farther away,” Loskutov said.

Today, Loskutov, a soft-spoken 20-something with long black dreadlocks, is sitting in a Novosibirsk holding cell, awaiting a trial that his colleagues insist is politically motivated.

For the past few years, Loskutov has organized art events in Novosibirsk that he calls “Monstratsiya” — gatherings that draw hundreds of people every May 1. Some people come with posters of absurdist statements; some veer toward the political.

These “happenings” are emblematic of a new trend in Russian post-Soviet art: combining political statements with artistic sensibilities, and often blurring the line between the two.

To a government that suffers no dissent, in a country that gave birth to modern anarchism over a century ago, they are seen, quite widely, as a threat.

“Relevant art is political art,” said Oleg Vorotnikov, one of the founders of Voina, or War, a politically conscious art collective that is leading the trend. Loskutov had traveled to Moscow in March to meet with him, discussing tactics and strategy, as well as the meaning of art in modern Russia.

“The time of individualistic art is over, now it’s about group art,” Vorotnikov said. “Post-modernists comment on a discourse that already exists — we’re starting a new discussion.

“A gallery is just a business, while political art always sees the problems. It’s inherently uncomfortable,” he said.

Uncomfortable most, perhaps, for the authorities, whom Vorotnikov and others accuse of plotting Loskutov’s arrest.

On the morning of May 15, the anti-extremism department of the local police called Loskutov to appear for an interview. He declined, urging an official request. Hours later, he was detained by three plainclothes police officers on an unspecified charge, his friends said. At the station, police found 11 grams of marijuana among his belongings. Loskutov and his friends insist it was planted there by the police, a common practice in Russia. In addition to charges of drug possession, he could also face charges of extremism.

“He is currently being charged in relation with the illegal acquisition of drugs on a large scale with intent to sell,” said Tatyana Antonova, an official in the Novosibirsk Region Court. The charge carries a maximum of three years in prison.

“There has also been some talk of charging him with extremism,” Antonova added.

First passed in 2002, Russia’s harsh anti-extremism law was ostensibly designed to battle far-right nationalism. As the far-right movement grows and becomes ever more violent, however, observers believe fears that the law would be used to target dissent have been realized.

“Of course it’s scary,” Vorotnikov said this weekend, after Loskutov’s arrest. “What he was doing was art, it was not political," contrasting with the happenings of his own collective, which often blur that line.

Voina has staged outrageous acts — the most famous being an orgy in Moscow’s Natural History Museum to protest Medvedev’s election — straddling the line between political protest and art.

“Many said it was pornography that we got undressed and had an orgy — but we say the pornography is the fact that we had no elections and that people are scared of telling the truth,” he said.

What is art, then, to Vorotnikov and his like-minded colleagues? “If one person involved is an artist, that means it’s art. It’s art because he says it is.”

Loskutov himself said he kept his Monstratisya happenings apolitical for a reason. “If we were to name some ideology, 80 percent of the people wouldn’t show up,” he said. Recent events have drawn up to 1,000 people.

While Loskutov sits in a Siberian holding cell, a comparable case has been unfolding in Moscow.

On Friday the trial of Andrei Erofeyev began. He stands accused of inciting hatred and extremism after curating a 2007 exhibit called “Forbidden Art 2006,” which featured art works deemed insulting to the Russian Orthodox Church.

One year after that exhibit premiered, he was fired from his position as head of contemporary art at Russia’s esteemed State Tretyakov Gallery, following the staging of an exhibit that then-Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov banned from traveling to Paris on the grounds that a photograph by art group Sinie Nosi (Blue Noses) of two policemen kissing was unacceptable to show abroad.

“There’s a Russian tradition of a state role in art,” said Alexander Shaburov, part of the two-man art group.

While Amnesty International cited the case as an example of Russia’s clampdown on freedoms in its annual report released this week, Shaburov — like many mainstream Russian artists — said he understands why the exhibit caused such an uproar.

“A government exhibit should be overseen, so there are no scandals,” Shaburov said. “People can see what they want to in a private gallery, in a government gallery it’s different.”

Shaburov’s work is overwhelmingly political — images of Jesus on the cross with Putin’s face; Putin rolling around in bed with Osama bin Laden — and he said the pressure he feels in his day-to-day life comes not from the state, but from the pressures of an art market that is still relatively new.

Tell that to Loskutov or to Vorotnikov, who was detained with several other members of Voina on Friday as they staged a protest at Erofeyev’s trial, blasting loud punk music into the court from a room nearby.

Was it art or a political action? The answer, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

“The role of the artist is that of a mirror. So fascists see fascists, anarchists see anarchists and artists see artists,” Vorotnikov said.

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