The Penultimate Day of Pompeii, 1997

Reviews Art as the venue for politics. The image of Rossiya 2

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 109-110.
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 23, 2016

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Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia, a treatise on politics in a society without politics, is based on an analysis of art as a venue for politics in Vladimir Putin’s regime. The book, which takes the story to 2014, is the work of a seasoned observer. The author, the political scientist Lena Jonson, served as cultural counsellor at the Swedish embassy in Moscow from 2005 to 2009. Since 1992 she has been head of the Russia Program of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. In her introduction, the author humbly declares that the book is neither an art historian’s analysis of contemporary Russian art nor a contribution to “a theory of art history or political science”. While Jonson is not a trained art historian, she certainly is a political scientist with a keen sense of humans as political animals.

The story about Russia which Jonson presents is ambiguous. It highlights the role of the arts in Putin’s Russia against the background of the peculiar tsarist-Soviet-glasnost tradition in which works of art — literature, paintings, films, and installations — have been substituted for politics. The book also demonstrates that in the past three hundred years the arts in Russia have been part of European cultural trends in general, and especially so in the post-Soviet era. Russian writers, painters, film makers, composers, and musicians have influenced and been influenced by “national” cultures in the rest of Europe and North America. The soft power of Western European and North American culture and the promotion of Western art as a weapon to outshine Soviet socialist realism did have an impact among the intellectual classes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Jonson mentions the relative success of exhibitions with works of “abstract expressionism” and American jazz musicians in the Soviet bloc. These were clandestinely sponsored by the CIA. Their impact was real and enduring.

Some of the concepts that Jonson uses in her analysis are vague, which compels the reader to accept the tacit premise that art and protests stand for politics. The text is sometimes a bit esoteric in the sense that the author presupposes the reader has some familiarity with the tradition of doublespeak and doublethink in Russian society. But Jonson does manage to demonstrate how the visual arts — paintings, installations, and performances in public spaces — filled a void in a society where politics never come to be excised. She has charted how a substitute for politics developed in parallel to the suffocation of political life under Vladimir Putin. What she labels the “art community” became an arena for public actions for separate critical communities. Individual artists registered people’s sentiments of fear, hope, and demands and chose to articulate them in works of art. In Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia Jonson presents the political impact of works of art as demonstrated by their reception. Jonson bases her analysis not only on her interpretation of the artefacts but also on interviews with artists and on the reception of the works by art critics, agents of the state machinery, and the Patriarch and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church and some of its militant rank and file.

The book offers detailed descriptions of fifty-six photos of paintings, sculptures, and installations, which are reproduced in the book. In spite of their rather poor quality— all are in black and white and actually rather greyish — the illustrations are an essential aspect of the narration.

The first illustration (above) sets an apocalyptic tune. It is a photo of a video projection of an installation in unfired clay which was exhibited first in 1997 and then in 2008. It shows a grand building that is sinking into the mud. The artist is Aleksander Brodskii. The title is “The Penultimate Day of Pompeii”. Jonson’s choice of this work as the empirical introduction to an analysis of political life in Putin’s Russia is ingenious. It recalls the centuries-long tradition of satirical-cum-metaphorical political protest in Russia. The author notes that Brodskii’s installation is “a paraphrase of one of the most famous Russian paintings of the nineteenth century, Karl Bryullov’s ‘the Last Day of Pompeii’ (1830—1833)”. She adds that the equally famous Russian thinker Alexander Herzen considered Bryullov’s painting to illustrate the depressed political climate in tsarist Russia after the repression of the Decembrist movement in 1825.

Jonson argues that “Brodskii drew a parallel with the break-up of Soviet civilization”. What’s pertinent is that the installation can also draw attention to the political climate in contemporary Russia. This interpretation is borne out as reasonable if one ponders the titles and contents of three subsequent installations by Brodskii: “20 Garbage Bins”, “The Night before the Attack”, and “The Cell”. The latter shows a room with the open sky as the ceiling and a black water pond as the floor. Fixed on the walls at different levels are kitchen furniture, a bed, a writing table, and a toilet. According to Jonson’s interpretation, this installation can be viewed as a report on the political climate in Putin’s Russia: “This was literally life on the edge, next to a void that created a claustrophobic feeling”. The author anchors her analysis in the scholarly literature about postmodernist society. Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphor of the liquid society turns out to offer a useful perspective in the attempt to come to terms with different emanations of the multifaceted art scene in Russia. Similarly fruitful is the application of the concept “the other gaze”, which is taken from Jacques Rancière. Jonson defines “art of the other gaze” as “constituting a subtle form of dissensus” from the official political views. It may also be experienced and interpreted as a diversion from political orthodoxy (i.e. what Jonson vaguely defines as “the Putin consensus”).

The concept of the other gaze is very relevant in the Russian context because one of the major protagonists in Jonson’s story, Marat Gelman, consciously put it to use. After having served as a political consultant for the Yeltsin and the early Putin regimes, Gelman returned in 2004 to his role as a curator of art exhibitions. He curated Rossiya 2 in the Central House of Artists in January 2005 as part of the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art.

That Moscow became the location of a biennale of contemporary art might create an impression of “normality”, of an ordinary country that has art exhibitions as a matter of course. However, the title Rossiya 2 was chosen to demonstrate that the exhibition was an antidote to “Rossiya 1”, Putin’s Russia. Gelman declared that Rossiya 2 was (more) democratic and international, and not “closed off within the boundaries of the ‘officially’ sanctioned”.

In the book, Jonson cites Pussy Riot to provide a deep perspective on Russian art. Because the Pussy Riot affairs in 2012 and 2014 became the epitome of the clash between the art community and the powers in Russia, Jonson’s book has become an illuminating story of the political role of art in Russia.

The Pussy Riot performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 21, 2012, represented the culmination of the public manifestations of discontent. The subsequent trial and sentencing of two of the performers to imprisonment in a penal colony became the symbol of the increasing political oppression in Russia.

Pussy riot presented the follow-up to their 2012 performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As part of the Putin regime’s international public relations campaign, they had been released early on the eve of opening of the Olympics and arrived in Sochi just in time for the opening. The last picture in Jonson’s book is a photo that shows uniformed Cossacks whipping members of Pussy Riot to prevent them from performing. The women are wearing their usual balaclavas and bright neon dresses. This last picture makes the somber drama end in an atmosphere of despair — and with a flickering of spiteful protest.

In Moscow in 2012, Pussy Riot had chosen to perform in a cathedral, a non-political venue for a political action in a society where politics in an ordinary sense had come to a standstill. There they performed a punk prayer to the Virgin: “Mother of God, Put Putin Away”. In Sochi in 2014 they chose a public space. They did not address heaven, but real society, shouting phrases such as “Fireworks for the bosses; Hail, Duce! Sochi is blocked, Olympus is under surveillance”, and “Putin will teach you to love the Motherland. In Russia, spring can come suddenly.”

Jonson argues that Pussy Riot’s final words in the above quotation expressed a hope for change. The last words in her own book are a quotation from the Czech dissident who became President Václav Havel, a quotation often repeated in the literature on dissident culture under Communism: “… it is extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its true face. None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population”.

In Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia, Jonson has shown that, as  in Germany in 1933—1945, where a few brave people came to represent “das andere Deutschland,” there are in Putin’s Russia people with an “other gaze” who represent another Russia, Rossiya 2.≈

Lena Jonson, Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia. London and New York: Routledge 2015, 399 pages.