Marking review, I will be exploring art in context

Marking
the 100th anniversary of Russia’s Revolution, the Saatchi Gallery hosted an
exhibition dedicated to the country’s protest art in November 2017. Art
Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism and Inside Pussy Riot was
dedicated to the most controversial and
progressive Post-Soviet protest art to surface in the recent decades (spanning 25
years). The historical links of the exhibition may not be explicit to
the events of 1917 however much of what is explored throughout them feels
familiar. Many of the disputes that artists face in post-soviet Russia
are similar to those in 1917. Themes including; Fighting back against government censorship, propaganda and
police intervention raising questions about artistic and individual freedom
relating to both political ideology and also religion in a Russia that is
Post-Soviet Union.

 

 

The exhibitions displayed various genres and types of
protest art such as performance art documentation, sculpture, posters and
slogans to video art and staged photography. The featured artists were Oleg
Kulik, Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, Blue Noses Art Group, Arsen Savadov, AES + F,
Vasily Slonov and various others. (1)

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In this
essay review, I will be exploring art in context of a tool in Activism. Much of the art from the exhibition is satire or mocks
Soviet communism and the current Putin regime. It is not a show which would be
permitted to be staged in Russia, according to the producer of the show Igor
Tsukanov, which is a somewhat political commentary in itself. There were many
different provocative works from different artists but I found Blue Noses Art
Group’s work such as photo shopped posters of authoritarian politicians including
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Kim Jong Un naked and in sexually
suggestive or comical childish poses particularly interesting. (Figure 1)

 

 

I found these images had many layers as when viewers first
looked at it was a shocking yet humourous and light-hearted imagery, ridiculing
largely disliked, and some dangerous, politicians. The contrast of
vulnerability of the right wing authoritarian politicians being happy, naked and
almost childish/innocent looking when in reality they’ve inflicted oppression
or abused their power makes for interesting and provocative imagery. However, it also seems to be a statement on censorship as in Russia it is completely
illegal to satirize, criticize or disrespect a political figure in this way but
looking deeper the naked politicians may be a metaphor for exposing truths,
crimes or the moral implications of said politicians. I found this work
particularly interesting because both the artists involved seem to disagree on
whether the work is ‘humorous’ or not. Black humour or “comic relief’ theory is
often used in the context of political art and artists that use such tools tend
to say they use it as a coping mechanism for the darkness in the world, I feel
this could be very prevalent with these Russian artists as they are constantly
living in an environment they feel is oppressive and risk prison sometimes
death making such controversial artworks in their countries. In a video
interview Nadia from Russian Punk feminist activist group ‘Pussy Riot’ was
asked how she stays so positive and politically motivated knowing what she’s
doing could take her back to Russian prison to which she replied, “we’re trying
to treat it as a joke, to bring back joy that your government is trying to
steal from you”. (5)

 

 

 

 

The initial humour and shock/vulgarity factor of the images
can be a very effective tool in drawing people in but then portraying a much
deeper, darker message if you look further which is an effective strategy in
using art for political activism as the aim would be to reach and get the
attention of as many people as possible in order to spark social/political conversation
and change which is a very socialist ideal.

 

 

I believe that the use of image in this art piece is
particularly poignant as the use of the photograph in Protest Art is extremely
effective as before photography, and modernism, art

was bourgeoisie and inaccessible – the photograph revolutionised
the consumption of art and brought art to the masses and then became the
rejection of distinction between high and low brow art. Russian author Leo
Tolstoy possessed the opinion that art was the vehicle for important
contemporary ideas. (4) Edward
Steichen also claimed that photography gave rise to truly universal language. Photography,
said Steichen, “communicates equally to everybody throughout the world. It
is the only universal language we have, the only one requiring no
translation.” When his exhibition ‘The family of man’ opened most viewers
embraced the idea of this ‘universal language’, and acclaiming Steichen as a
sort of author and his exhibition as a text or essay. (2) , (3) Therefore the use of the photograph in political
art can be extremely effective as the viewership can be widely spread to the
people or ‘Proletariat’ and the message digested in order to spark
political/social change in a world where we are extremely influenced by a media
that isn’t always unbiased or doesn’t possess the interest of the majority,
favouring the interest of the government or pure financial gain even in the
western world but especially in the context of Russia now and even more so
historically. This has been crucial in the development of semiotics as a key
modern critical strategy for decoding forms of media and questioning its
capacity to reiterate imperialist ideology. Photographs are still as relevant
as ever as a political device in the modern day, young people being a catalyst
in larger political turn out and awareness by sharing on social media to bring
attention to political injustice and conversation. A recent example in the UK
would be the youth turn out surge for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general
election against Theresa May and the
conservative party.

 

 

In summary, Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism examines
human rights and freedom of expression within Russia’s repressive political
structures. Art plays a significant role in both recording political moments in
history and also commentating on or satirising the world we live in, becoming
even more accessible via photographs and social media. It can be an effective
device in raising awareness of political injustice, creating conversation and
allowing the voice of people living in oppressed countries to shine a spotlight
on injustice, also allowing them to satrise their pain which can bring people
together and be a humourous light hearted escape from their oppressed environments.

If uncensored art has the power to change the world.