Art Riot:Post-Soviet Actionism Exhibition and Inside Pussy Riot Performance at the Saatchi Gallery
What does political activism have to do with a private owned art gallery? Is a prestigious art space the appropriate place to make a political statement? Inside Pussy Riot proves that the serious matter of repression of expression can be creatively approached and interpreted even in the surreal Chelsea background.
What it means to be an artist in the Post-Soviet Union today?
You think you have an idea of what is like to be imprisoned by watching all seasons of OITNB? Get ready to grab your uniform and join the fictional dystopia, based on the real experience of Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova’s imprisonment to penal colonies.
Pussy Riot, a Russian protest group founded in 2011, is classed as a team of political activists. Throughout their unauthorised performances held in Russia, they explore the ideas of human rights, feminism, LGTBQ rights as well as strongly state their opposition to the oppressive policy of Vladimir Putin. They started as an anonymous group of female activists (always wearing their colourful balaclavas during their various performances), encouraging anyone who wanted to take part in their performances. However, it is interesting to understand how their actions have evolved in a more western aesthetic since 2011, as they are now presented by two key figures and basically enjoy international appeal.
Inside Pussy Riot tells the story of members of the group’s arrest and imprisonment in penal colonies in Russia under terrible conditions. It is conceived by Pussy Riot founding member Nadya Tolokonnikova and executed by the award-winning theatre group Les Enfant Terribles. The performance storyline follows Pussy Riot’s infamous ‘punk prayer’ performance playing their song ‘’Holy Shit’’ in the interior of an orthodox church, where three members of the group had been arrested for hooliganism and religious hatred and subsequently two of them (Nadya Tolokonnikova & Maria Alyokhina – the main ‘brains’ behind Pussy Riot) were sentenced to two years in a labour colony.
Upon arrival, the audience are asked to fill in a form in which they identify themselves with a specific life statement such as gender equality, fair wealth redistribution, environmental issues, etc. After that, they are guided in a church, where they play the punk rock prayer as if they are Pussy Riot members. What comes next is the gruesome part of becoming a prisoner in a slightly surreal (with circus features) totalitarian dystopia. The all-female cast (a fact that caught me by surprise in a positive way) brutally screams out orders that the audience has to follow at each stage. The participants are sent to court, to prison cells, to a ‘disgusting’ toilet and a work room where they futilely have to engage with different meaningless tasks (thread needles or polish old coins), while being harassed (or sexually harassed in my case; a guard kept whispering inappropriate words in my ears!). By the end of the performance, the members of the audience are guided into isolation cells, where they get the opportunity to hear the inspiring words of Nadya, who urges us all to take action and break our silence. As a consequence, all participants are encouraged to yell their initial statements at the camera; a great opportunity to scream at the system basically.
The performance left me with an overall positive experience. The sets were brilliantly made (Trump-inspired glass on the church, court room, etc), although the circus-comical-surreal element (Tim Barton inspired judge, excessive make-up on all cast members, etc) felt a bit out of tune. Their performances were ambiguous for that same reason; there were times when you felt like laughing, while others that you felt awkwardly scared.
As part of the pre or post experience of the performance it is highly recommended to have a look at the Art-Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism exhibition which takes place at the ground floor of the gallery. The exhibition features a wide array of genres: posters & slogans, video art, staged photography and performance. It explores the issues of individual freedom of expression and in particular raises questions about artistic freedom in Russia, presented by some of the most interesting and controversial artists in the country: Oleg Kulik, Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, Blue Noses Art Group, Arsen Savadov, AES + F & Vasily Slonov.
Performance artist Oleg Kulik during an interview at the Saatchi Gallery.
Despite its slightly ironic location and the confusing alleged humorous elements, the performance truly manages to get its intense message across; break the boundaries of oppression, fight the power of a system that has maltreat you and set the motions of the change you wish to see, either that is in Russia or anywhere else in the world.
Till the next post,
”I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure.”