The Russian art of absurdist political protest | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.12.2011
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The Russian art of absurdist political protest

The streets of Russian cities have become host to more and more - apparently spontaneous - actions that look like theater or happenings. But there is more to it than art.

Participants at a Russian art protest

Is it a rave or a riot?

People who hit the streets to protest in Russia have it hard. The state seldom tolerates political declarations, rallies and protests - certainly not the ones that go against its agenda.

But protesting artists are somewhat freer. Under the protective banner of art, activists in Russia can handle sensitive issues and make critical statements without immediately being seen as extremists by the secret service or interior ministry. Increasingly, Russian cities are being turned into spontaneous stages for colorful happenings. They might look like street carnivals and impromptu theater - but double as a show of political protest.

While police and security officials react with irritation or nervousness to the events, those people who become part of the accidental audience usually join in the fun and applaud as spontaneously as the action itself.

Dressed up

Artem Loskutov, from Novosibirsk in Siberia, is credited as being one of the originators of this new form of protest art.

Protest artist Artjom Loskutov

Artem Loskutov is credited as having started the monstration scene

It is known as monstration and is often a happening and a roaming carnival in one.

In 2004, Loskutov and his friends put on their first monstration for the very reason that formal protest was banned. About 80 young protesters wore comic costumes and carried placards with slogans like "All power to raccoons!"

The state interpreted the action as an unauthorized declaration and charged the organization with a cash fine. The activists took the fine - in small coins - to a bank, where cashiers painstakingly counted the coins in the presence of journalists. Spectators found the action amusing and it soon inspired copycats.

It is now common for a few thousand people to gather for monstrations in Novosibirsk and other Russian cities. The last event took place on November 26 in the town of Ufa - the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia - and targeted the country's upcoming parliamentary election on Sunday.

"Everyone understands the elections and mainstream politics to be nothing more than a theater of nonsense," said the organizers in their call to action on the Internet, "so we're staging a monstration with absurd slogans, rather than a demonstration."

Participant at a Russian monstration - art protest

Colorful clothing, crazy costumes and absurd slogans are the hallmarks of a monstration

Phallic protest

Another development on the Russian street art scene is the collective Voina ("the war"). No one knows how many members the group has, but it has existed for years. One of its most popular events was called "A Dick Held Prisoner at the FSB." The FSB is the Russian secret service.

On June 14, 2010, Voina artists painted a massive phallic symbol on the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. When the drawbridge was raised, it revealed a gigantic penis that directly faced the opposing FSB offices.

The state reacted coolly to the provocation. In fact, Voina was to be awarded a state-sponsored prize for artistic innovation, but the group refused to accept it, saying it would compromise their status.

In September 2010, another of the group's actions in St. Petersburg sparked a scandal. Called "Palace Revolution," members of Voina targeted police cars - in which police officers were sleeping - and turned them upside down. Two members of the group, Leonid Nikolajev and Oleg Worotnikov were arrested. They were released in February 2011 but the allegations against them of causing damage to police property remain open.

Balancing act

The "Palace Revolution" was criticized publicly. Comparing it to Voina's penis stunt, human rights expert Juri Samodurov said that tipping police cars over was a criminal act that could not be justified as art. But protesting artists continually walk the fine line between legal pranks and illegal acts.

Russian art feminists Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot: dancing in the streets

This past November, commuters on Moscow's public transport network were repeatedly confronted with spontaneous performances by colorfully masked young women. Once they danced and sang on the roof of a bus, another time on a subway platform. Not long after, a music video appeared on the Internet, featuring a performance by the feminist punk art group, Pussy Riot.

In the video, the five anonymous activists explained that they had been inspired by the revolutionary spirit experienced earlier this year at Cairo's Tahrir Square, and that they wanted to recreate the spirit at Moscow's Red Square. They said they did not fear the wrath of the Russian interior ministry and would continue to stage their illegal concerts without warning.

Overcoming social apathy

Observers hope these actions will change the political climate in Russia - and, in particular, reduce social apathy. Curator and art expert Tatiana Volkova says the activists have the potential to inspire Russian citizens to openly discuss politics and actively take part in civil society.

"There is a growing number of artists like Loskutov, Voina and Pussy Riot," said Volkova. "They are bound together and often agitate together."

The internationally recognized art critic Ekaterina Degot agrees, insisting there is no divide between art and politics. Protest art can be good or bad, says Degot, but it always provides a chance to legitimize political protest. And if Moscow continues to intensify the law, protest art groups will grow.

Author: Alexander Delphinov / za

Editor: Kate Bowen

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