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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Alek Epstein's 'Art on the Barricades'

Alek D. Epstein's book/ album on Pussy Riot seems finally to have hit at least one or two of Moscow's more radical bookstores and I've finally had a chance to have a look. The story of how the album had its own difficult passage into actually being published has been briefly told in a blog in one of Russia's art magazines Art Khronika Apparently, three printing presses refused to print it and another to bind it, so it's nice to finally have the opportunity to hold the book in my hands. It even took some time before the book appeared in the bookshops (a bookseller a few weeks ago told me that there were some 'distribution problems', though of what order he didn't elucidate).

As an 'instant book' it obviously doesn't have the deep analysis of the Pussy Riot phenomenon that can only come after some time. Epstein is clearly what in sociology used to be called 'a participant observer' (he has close links with the actionist art groups from which Pussy Riot sprung and with two of the Pussy Riot members themselves). There is no doubt that he both wants the book to serve as a kind of homage to Pussy Riot as well as an act of solidarity in addition to offering some kind of historical context as well as a chronicle of recent events.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the section on the way religious symbolism has been used in art and his analysis of the actual 'Punk Prayer' that was sung at the Cathedral. The section on the symbolic use of the Madonna or Virgin Mary in art gives a few fascinating precursors to the lines calling for the Madonna to become a feminist and to 'chase out' Putin. He alludes to paintings such as that of Max Ernst's  Madonna spanking the child Jesus in front of three witnesses, as well as Edvard Munch's litograph of the Madonna with foetus and spermatozoa near the frame and more recent artworks by Giuseppe Veneziano with his Madonna of the Third Reich with an Adolf Hitler in the arms of an Aryan Madonna and Oleg Kulik's shahidka terrorist Madonna of 2005. This concept was to lead Israeli artists Galina Bleikh and Lilia Chak to a similar idea in their sensational Ferror (Female Terror) 2009 exhibition which was then cancelled due to protests from family victims of terror attacks.

Epstein also talks about the symbolic nature of some of the 'venues' of Pussy Riot performances - such as Lobnoye Mestoe (or the Place of Skulls) which was also the venue of the 1968 protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. 23 years later it was to be the site of Anatoly Osmolovsky's 1991 action inspired against the 'Moral Law' banning swearing in public places alongside his art group E.A.T. (Expropriation of Public Territories) as well as other more recent more politicized actions for the release of political prisoners. The Cathedral of Church the Saviour was also the venue for other actions in protest against church-state collaboration or religious fanaticism including some by Femen and Oleg Mavromatti (for which the latter was made effectively stateless after the Russian consulate refused to renew his passport telling him that he was on their international wanted list).

Another section of the album is devoted to the Autobus Exhibition in favour of Pussy Riot during the trial. As Epstein points out this was also historically based on the well-known Bulldozer Exhibition in the 1970s in which informal and underground artists displayed their work, an exhibition which was then to be bulldozed and its artists dispersed with water cannon in 1974. Furthermore he details the many actions and art festivals which were carried out in support of Pussy Riot up until the month of June including the Artists Walk and the collective letter of the intelligentsia who called for the members release.

However, what the book is perhaps to be most valued for are the reproductions of photographs and art work of these events and happenings and the numerous posters and internet artwork produced for the release of these three artists. The publisher of this book is Viktor Bondarenko and the art group 'Россия для Всех' (Russia for all).

An illustrative blogpost on The Madonna in Radical Art is on my other blog - here is the link Madonna-before-pussy-riot/

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