In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, artists have done art and left politics to the politicians. But the wave of protests that followed December’s fraud-tainted parliamentary elections generated a lively burst of creativity – from parodies of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster to acts of performance art and satirical online videos.
As Prime Minister Putin seeks victory in Sunday’s presidential election, Russian artists are reclaiming their long-dormant role of confronting authority and even people who don’t claim to be artists are showing an imaginative streak.
“People are now making art out of politics,” said Marat Gelman, curator of the Modern Arts Museum in Perm – one of the country’s most adventurous – about 1,100 kilometers east of Moscow.
In the glasnost era of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the early years following the communist collapse, Russia’s artists basked in their new freedom to provoke the powerful and make acid comment with paint, photographs and other media.
They lost momentum after Putin became president in 2000, partly out of fear of a newly repressive climate, partly succumbing to apathy. In addition, the increasingly lucrative potential for going commercial dampened cutting edge artists’ enthusiasm for tackling politics.
The protest rallies over the past few months have been marked by a high level of satirical art, both in placards and performances.
Angered by Putin’s contemptuous comment that the protesters’ white-ribbon emblems looked like condoms, demonstrators have found unlimited fun with the theme.
One notable placard showed Putin with a condom wrapped around his head, in the style of headscarves widely worn by Russian rural women. A demonstrator braved freezing temperatures to show up wrapped in a body-suit resembling a condom.
Another came dressed as a tank, a dismissive rejoinder to a tank factory worker’s nationally televised vow that he and his buddies would help clear the streets of protesters.
In an action resembling a massive piece of performance art, tens of thousands of people last weekend linked hands to form a human chain around the 16-kilometer ring road that circles central Moscow.
The amateur creations delighted artists, but also left many feeling sheepish about having abandoned political themes.
“What happened [in December] was a real reproach to the creative community, because art had stopped being avant-garde,” said Gelman. “Society overtook artists, and so now artists are very busily trying to reclaim that advance position.”
One example was a February exhibit called “No Comment Art. Moscow.” Its New York-based organizer, Maika Maiorova, said the idea came when she was visiting her family in Moscow.
“I was, of course, interested and inspired by what has begun to happen here,” Maiorova said. “I realized that there is a lot to explore among the artists’ commentary on the political and social moment.”
One of the most striking pieces in that exhibit was a riff on the Barack Obama “Hope” poster – showing Putin’s face and the caption “Hopeless.”
A recent show at Gelman’s Perm Museum featured an initially heroic image reworked into black comedy.
The photograph played on an iconic Russian image of three warrior knights on horseback, but changed the knights into barebreasted women named “Inno, Nano and Techno” – taking a swipe at President Dmitry Medvedev’s earnestly geeky enthusiasm for projects to make Russia a nanotechnology power.
Putin is almost certain to win the election, returning him to the Kremlin post he held from 2000 to 2008. It is unclear if he will continue the grudging tolerance of protests he has shown the last few months or if the opposition will again lose heart.
Creative protest has penetrated so deep into Russian society that even some seemingly frivolous figures have come up with clever forms of dissent.
Ksenia Sobchak, a reality television show presenter often characterized as Russia’s Paris Hilton, has surprised many by entering the political fray with her pungently satirical online videos.
“Let’s be realistic, we’re not living in 1937,” Sobchak said after a recent visit to the Perm museum, referring to the peak of political repression unleashed by the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. “Saying the word ‘No’ can come at a cost, but the price isn’t so high that we need to sit around and be scared.”