In the June/July issue of 1843 magazine, we profile Petr Pavlensky, the Russian performance artist who uses his body to protest against Putin’s regime. Although he is the most well known, he is not the only eastern European artist taking political art on to the streets.
In Petr Pavlensky’s eye-catching political “actions” on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg, the artist always appears in isolation, presenting himself as a single individual sticking two fingers up at the state. But, as viewers, we know he’s not really alone: for all that “actionist” art claims to eschew an audience, Pavlensky’s feats are a global spectacle enabled by the photojournalists and videographers that accompany him.
When performance art flourished in eastern Europe’s avant-garde scenes in the 1960s and 1970s, the transience of the new medium was a mixed blessing. Performances were difficult for the authorities to suppress, but difficult also to record. In a piece called “Rhythm 5” (1974) Marina Abramović, who inflicts pain on herself in her work, lay down inside a burning wooden star in Belgrade until she passed out through lack of oxygen. It survives only as a grainy black-and-white photograph.
Today, the ease of filming performances or actions on camera phones and instantly disseminating them on social media means that political performance art can reach a wide audience very quickly. And, perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that the world is watching, artists across eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet states are engaging with politics in public perhaps more than ever before. Like Pavlensky, they are blurring the boundary between art and activism. Their calling is not in the gallery, but on the streets.
Some, like Pavlensky, perform alone. Last year the Armenian artist Artak Gevorgyan “drove” a homemade tank made of green cardboard through the streets of Yerevan and “crashed” it into the gates of the National Security Services building to protest against injustices in his country. And in 2012, Kazakh artist Askhat Akhmedyarov stood outside the Almaty headquarters of state-sponsored TV channel Khabar with a TV on his head. Introducing himself as the “great liar”, he offered passers-by the choice of either “turning him off” or picking a sweet from a bag. Videos of both performances – call them stunts if you like – helped the artists gain fame or notoriety: Gevorgyan is currently facing a month in jail for hooliganism, while Akhmedyarov was one of several Kazakh artists selected for exhibition at the Venice Biennale last year.
Many other artists in the region are operating in public as collectives or harnessing the power of mass demonstrations. Since 2004, Russian artist Artyom Loskutov (pictured top) has been organising Monstration, an alternative May Day parade on the streets of Novosibirsk. People carry placards with deliberately absurd slogans such as “So what?” and “Get a cat”, poking gentle fun at the otherwise serious marches that still go on that day, a hangover from the Soviet era. The movement, which has spread to other Russian cities, is apolitical, but participants have nevertheless been arrested for political agitation (Loskutov himself was banned from practising as an artist in 2013).
In Hungary in 2013, to protest against moves by the governing Fidesz party to take control of Hungarian culture, the United for Contemporary Art group held a mock funeral for the Mûcsarnok, Budapest’s most important contemporary art gallery, declaring it a site of national remembrance and handing out obituary leaflets. And when a year later, Fidesz erected a memorial “to the victims of the German occupation” in Freedom Square in the middle of the night – a monument supposedly marking the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust but failing to acknowledge Hungarian involvement in it – a group called Free Artists were at the forefront of the response. They helped organise an alternative “Living Memorial” next to the statue, encouraging people to leave photographs and objects related to the Holocaust and start conversations about the past. Two years later, the Living Memorial is still alive.
In 2011 Slovak-born “artivist” and curator Tamara Moyzes co-opted another memorial for her own ends, asking attendees to reconsider their priorities. Crowds had gathered in Prague’s Old Town Square to pay tribute to three Czech hockey players who had died in a plane crash. Moyzes and a colleague held up placards bearing the names of towns in northern Bohemia where neo-Nazi demonstrations against Roma were taking place at the same time.
In Romania, graphic artists like Dan Perjovschi and guerilla poster collective MindBomb have played a key role in political protest, notably in 2013 when mass demonstrations prevailed to prevent the government from allowing a Canadian company to mine gold in the Roșia Montană area. But there is also a growing trend for Romanian artists to lead the way in social activism. Bucharest collective Ofensiva Generozităţii put on art workshops and plays in deprived areas with the aim of bringing the community together and strengthening its political involvement, and in 2012 the art organisation ColectivA transformed a disused field in Cluj for the benefit of the area’s working-class neighbourhood, putting in allotments, a playground and a “neighbours’ circle” for community gatherings. Such activities may be local and unspectacular, but they are making a difference.