The 1990s was a strange time for art and institutions in post-communist countries. Newfound social liberties prompted radical street theater while institutions struggled to take roots. Brian Droitcour writes about this unique time in Moscow's history for Art in America. The full piece here.
Violent public actions like Pavlensky’s defined Russian art of the 1990s, though in those days the consequences weren’t as serious and the stakes, perhaps, were not so high. In his introduction to a volume documenting performances from that decade, critic and historian Andrei Kovalev writes that disoriented police officers, unsure what it meant to maintain order in a time of rapid social change, would release any “hooligans” they learned were artists. Even the most radical art couldn’t match reality; it just lent form to its chaos. E.T.I., a group of artists led by Anatoly Osmolovsky, lay down on Red Square to spell the three-letter word for dick with their bodies. Oleg Kulik, naked except for a spiked collar and bandaged knees, stopped traffic by leaping into the street and howling like a rabid dog. Alexander Brener donned a boxer’s shorts and gloves and shouted at the Kremlin walls, challenging Boris Yeltsin to fight.
One of the reasons for such actions in the city was the absence of institutional platforms. The perestroika art boom, when Western dealers and auction houses descended on Moscow, was over by the early ’90s, and most of the artists who made money off it emigrated. Those who stayed continued to organize shows in squats and basements, as they had in the recent Soviet past; museums didn’t know what to do with them. Outdoor actions attracted the attention not just of passersby but of the mass media. Newspapers, giddy at the freedom to publish anything, lavished coverage on actionism. It was a time when public space seemed up for grabs. Advertisements were replacing propaganda. A mob toppled the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, on the square in front of the building that Pavlensky later set on fire.
But in the 21st century, things began to settle into place. New public and private institutions hosted regular programming for contemporary art, and the old museums followed suit. Now, Osmolovsky runs an art school and makes sculptures. Kulik had a retrospective at the Central House of Artists in 2007. Brener refused to sell out. He left the country and spent the late 2000s defecating in London galleries.
*Image of Pyotr Pavlensky's Fixation (2013) Photograph: Maxim Zmeev via calvertjournal.com