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Perspective | Pussy Riot arrives in Iceland, urinates on a Putin portrait

The primary Pussy Riot retrospective reveals the Russian artists at their defiant greatest

Maria Alyokhina, member of Pussy Riot, on opening night of the exhibition “Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia” at Kling & Bang gallery on Nov. 24 in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Maria Alyokhina, member of Pussy Riot, on opening evening of the exhibition “Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia” at Kling & Bang gallery on Nov. 24 in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Heiða Helgadóttir)

Remark

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — For greater than a decade, Pussy Riot — a feminist, anti-Putin artwork collective — has been staging good, disruptive and sometimes poetic political stunts. These “actions,” because the group calls them, have been a part of its ongoing try to show the absurdity and cruelty endemic in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

For his or her efforts, Pussy Riot members have been subjected to authorities harassment, surveillance, beatings, detention, pressured labor and now exile. They’ve additionally been championed by pop stars, together with Madonna, and defended by human rights teams corresponding to Amnesty Worldwide. They’ve been the themes of documentaries, books and segments on “60 Minutes” and have graced the duvet of Time journal. All of the whereas, as Pussy Riot’s fame has grown, their pressing warnings about Putin have come to look more and more prescient.

“Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia” is the primary overview of what Pussy Riot has been as much as the previous 10 years. Improvised, anarchic and viscerally intense, the exhibition — at Kling & Bang, an artist-run gallery on the Reykjavik waterfront — could be a very powerful of 2022.

The primary work you encounter as you enter the present is a brief, sensationally provocative video. Filmed solely days earlier than the opening within the studio of Ragnar Kjartansson, Iceland’s most well-known modern artist, the video reveals Pussy Riot member Taso Pletner, in a crimson balaclava, standing on a desk over a propped-up portrait of Putin. Pletner hikes up their black smock and proceeds to urinate on the portrait, earlier than kicking it to the bottom.

That is political artwork at its most brave, least ambiguous and most devastatingly heartfelt.

Once I arrived at Kling & Bang, it was 3 p.m. in Reykjavik, and the solar was already fading. In two hours, the doorways would open. Among the many anticipated company can be Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir. The very first thing she and her entourage would see? The video of Pletner urinating on a portrait of … oh, simply the nuclear-armed chief of a belligerent nation not all that removed from Iceland.

If this was going to be awkward for the prime minister, the present’s curators — Kjartansson, his spouse, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, and Dorothee Kirch — appeared unconcerned. This was Iceland. They have been free. In addition to, they counted the prime minister as a private buddy. Actually, earlier within the day, Jakobsdóttir and the visiting Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, had met with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, certainly one of Russia’s most well-known dissidents, to debate Ukraine.

Alyokhina, identified to her buddies as Masha, was now crouched on the gallery’s flooring, writing textual content in black marker on the wall. Her buddy Kjartansson was standing on a close-by stool, utilizing silver masking tape to jot down a title. Not one of the screens have been switched on. The digital file of 1 video was nonetheless lacking (it was ultimately uploaded two minutes earlier than the opening). Individuals scurried forwards and backwards because the clock wound down.

Pussy Riot is used to flying by the seats of its pants. The group’s members improvise. They agitate. In the event that they hit an obstacle, they pivot and push in one other course. All of them however outline urgency. Though identified to many as a punk band, they’re greatest understood as artists working within the custom of efficiency artwork. Extra particularly, they’re political efficiency artists.

In fact, there’s political artwork and there’s political artwork. The primary variety preaches to the transformed. It often entails arcane allusions to the grievances of an identification group and infrequently reaches an viewers exterior the artwork world. The opposite variety dares to interact within the precise political enviornment. It’s oppositional, providing clear statements grounded in private conviction. It understands, by way of bitter expertise, what’s at stake. And but it’s made with exuberance, an embrace of the absurd and antic, undaunted pleasure.

The thought of a Pussy Riot retrospective hadn’t occurred to Alyokhina till about six months in the past. The 34-year-old has an astringent, understated charisma. An unlikely amalgam of Sid Vicious, Greta Thunberg and Harry Houdini, she has been resisting Putin’s regime with humor, smarts and an indefatigable model of radical innocence for many of her grownup life.

Kjartansson first instructed the concept of mounting a retrospective in December, 2021. When, the next Could, he and Sigurjónsdóttir confirmed her Kling & Bang, Alyokhina had solely simply escaped Russia, the place she had been residing underneath so-called “restriction of freedom,” a type of home arrest. She bought out disguised as a meals courier, with assist from Kjartansson and an undisclosed European authorities.

“I used to be fairly skeptical,” mentioned Alyokhina, sitting in Kling & Bang’s again workplace two days after the opening. Pussy Riot, she defined, carried out avenue actions; a retrospective would possibly kill their spirit.

However the struggle in Ukraine had modified her outlook on the whole lot. “We steadily understood that we don’t need to simply present the movies [of Pussy Riot actions]. We needed to inform the historical past behind the actions and to clarify how we got here thus far of struggle.”

A mash-up of order and anarchy

The motion that first introduced Pussy Riot to worldwide consideration was “Punk Prayer,” a 2012 guerilla-style efficiency of an anti-Putin tune in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. That chaotic, clumsily filmed 51-second eruption of indignation led to a present trial and convictions on expenses of hooliganism motivated by non secular hatred. Alyokhina and her buddy Nadya Tolokonnikova spent two years in penal colonies. (A 3rd participant, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was launched after an attraction courtroom listening to after eight months in jail.)

The retrospective traces the phases of Russia’s descent, within the wake of “Punk Prayer,” into state-sanctioned violence and authoritarianism. (“We didn’t obtain all of the hell in a single second,” Alyokhina informed me. “There was a highway that led to it.”) The present’s structure is a deliberate mash-up of order and anarchy.

After the video of Pletner urinating on Putin’s portrait, the present introduces audiences to every of Pussy Riot’s actions within the order they occurred, starting with 2011’s “Kropotkin Vodka,” which took intention at conspicuous consumption within the new Russia, and “Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest,” a punk-style efficiency on the roof of a constructing in entrance of a Moscow detention middle holding political prisoners.

Textual content written straight onto the exhibition partitions explains not solely the actions, but in addition who did them, the context and the results. In a type of conceptual jujitsu, Pussy Riot has efficiently turned each arrest, detention and beating into new proofs of the absurdity of the authorities.

The present strikes from “Punk Prayer” to “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland,” a collection of actions (a few of them thwarted) on the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, simply after Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had been launched from the penal colonies. Throughout one motion at Sochi, Pussy Riot members have been attacked by Cossacks wielding whips. One other show revisits “World Cup: Policeman Enters the Game,” the place a number of Pussy Riot protesters dressed as police ran onto the sector through the 2018 World Cup ultimate in Moscow between France and Croatia.

Sigurjónsdóttir, who designed the Kling & Bang exhibition, intentionally created a type of labyrinth. “I needed to make the area unfamiliar,” she mentioned, in order that audiences “lose the safety that comes from familiarity.” The gallery home windows have been blocked by opaque images, in a single case of a surveillance automobile parked on the road under. In the meantime, sounds from totally different movies conflict and compete, producing a type of punk vitality hardly ever skilled in artwork museums.

Regardless of Pussy Riot’s abrasive, in-your-face audacity, a lot of its actions have a distilled, poetic, virtually childlike high quality. For “Paper Planes,” in 2018, Pussy Riot threw colourful paper planes on the constructing housing the Federal Safety Service (FSB), Russia’s principal safety company, after Russia banned the Telegram app. For “Rainbow Diversion” (2020), an motion framed as a present to Putin on his 68th birthday, they positioned rainbow flags on necessary authorities buildings round Moscow. And for “New Yr Tree,” carried out on New Yr’s Eve 2020, they embellished the Christmas tree exterior the FSB constructing with 36 colourful, balloon-shaped ornaments embellished with portraits of political prisoners.

“I actually assume that if you happen to do one thing in artwork,” Alyokhina mentioned, “it’s best to do it in a technique to make all of the individuals of various ages perceive it. It is best to discuss to individuals in a easy manner. It doesn’t matter how difficult the ideas are that you’ve got inside. It is best to make it doable for individuals to know.”

In her 2017 memoir Riot Days,” Alyokhina wrote, “That is what protest needs to be — determined, sudden and joyous.”

‘I don’t need to be silent’

In late 2021, earlier than the invasion of Ukraine, Kjartansson was in Moscow for a survey exhibition of his performance-based works, the centerpiece of which was a reside, ongoing reenactment of 98 episodes of “Santa Barbara,” the American cleaning soap opera that had captured the imagination of Russians after the autumn of communism. Kjartansson’s present inaugurated GES-2 Home of Tradition, a gleaming modern artwork area in a former energy plant throughout the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

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In a curiously inverted foretelling of the Icelandic prime minister’s go to to the Pussy Riot opening, Putin had toured the brand new Moscow museum instantly earlier than its launch. A number of doubtlessly controversial works have been taken right down to keep away from incurring his displeasure.

On the suggestion of his buddy, the photographer and journalist Misha Friedman, Kjartansson had invited Alyokhina to the Moscow opening. Over the earlier yr, she and her accomplice, Lucy Shtein, had been subjected to intensifying authorities harassment (Alyokhina was arrested six instances) over social media posts calling for avenue protests in assist of political prisoners, together with opposition chief Alexei Navalny. In a spell between durations of home arrest, Alyokhina confirmed up at Kjartansson’s Moscow exhibition.

“That was the opposite state go to,” Kjartansson mentioned with fun, telling his facet of the story in the lounge of the Reykjavik house he shares with Sigurjónsdóttir. He was amazed, he mentioned, by Alyokhina’s fearlessness. “Masha was the one free particular person I met in Russia.”

When Kjartansson got here again to Moscow in January 2022, it was clear to Alyokhina that struggle was imminent. Foreshadowing propaganda that the Russians would use towards Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the authorities had begun to solid her and Shtein (who, like Zelensky, is Jewish) as Nazi propagandists. When he noticed that, Kjartansson remembers considering, “‘Wow, these guys have a humorousness. They’re hilarious.’ After which they invaded Ukraine.”

By now, mentioned Alyokhina, the political police had began placing “indicators on the doorways of activists saying, ‘That is an enemy of the state’ or ‘collaborator.’ An indication like this, with a photograph of Lucy, went on our door.”

Alyokhina realized that she wanted to talk out towards the struggle. “I needed to jot down an antiwar tune and, along with my collective, shout as loud as doable about what’s going on. I don’t need to be silent.” She knew that she might do this solely from exterior Russia.

Getting out wasn’t simple. Her flat was surrounded by police. Her passport had been confiscated. She disguised herself within the inexperienced uniform of a meals courier, left her telephone behind as a decoy, and had a buddy drive her to the border with Belarus, from the place she hoped to cross into Lithuania. Two makes an attempt failed. With Kjartansson’s assist, Very important help got here from Kjartansson, who inspired the officers of an undisclosed European nation to challenge a journey doc giving Alyokhina basically the identical standing as an E.U. citizen. The doc was smuggled into Belarus and Alyokhina boarded a bus that took her to Lithuania.

Within the hectic lead-up to the Kling & Bang exhibition, Alyokhina, together with Pussy Riot’s Olga Borisova, Diana Burkot and Pletner, toured Europe with performances primarily based on Alyokhina’s “Riot Days.” They carried out in entrance of 100,000 individuals in Prague, headlining an outside avenue competition marking the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent motion that ended communism within the former Czechoslovakia.

The ultimate efficiency of the tour was in Iceland’s Nationwide Theater the evening after the Kling & Bang opening. In entrance of a packed viewers, the quartet chanted lyrics tailored from “Riot Days.” Burkot, the group’s musical core, thrashed away on drums and keyboard. She wore an orthopedic boot on one leg, having damaged it earlier within the tour.

Throughout one tune, Borisova, a former police officer who has been a part of Pussy Riot since 2015, repeatedly sprayed the viewers with water. After an intense crescendo of punk-style screaming, flutist Pletner stood on a desk behind the stage and once more urinated on a Putin portrait. The present concluded with an antiwar, pro-Ukraine coda and a plea to donate cash to a youngsters’s hospital in Kyiv.

Again on the gallery the following day, Alyokhina sat scrolling by way of telephone messages, puffing away on her vape pen. Her demeanor was cool, businesslike — arduous to sq. together with her ferocious stage presence the earlier evening. Kjartansson recalled the time somebody in Alyokhina’s presence had talked about Petr Pavlensjy, the Russian activist who nailed his testicles to Pink Sq.. “Masha mentioned, ‘Sure, however the nail solely went by way of his pores and skin.’” Kjartansson erupted in laughter.

“She’s manufactured from one thing harder than most of us are,” mentioned Sigurjónsdóttir, who additionally mentioned she admires the way in which Alyokhina “virtually respects the system. She makes allies of individuals inside it.”

I requested Alyokhina what the prime ministers of Iceland and Finland had mentioned to her throughout their assembly.

“They have been listening,” she mentioned. “I informed [Finnish Prime Minister] Sanna Marin concerning the significance of an embargo. This [war] is all made on European cash. It’s so clear that with out European cash, [Putin’s] machine is not going to work. If Europe and the U.S. had imposed heavy sanctions in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea, 2022 wouldn’t have occurred.

“The idea of European values is the significance of every life. Now Ukrainians are dying. Their complete vitality system is collapsing. They’re combating out of pure bravery — it’s not as a result of the sanctions are working.”

Leaders within the West, Alyokhina added, “are all afraid of a 3rd world struggle. However simply think about one easy factor: If Ukraine loses this struggle, the Russian military will go once more to Kyiv and what’s going to occur subsequent? How will all of us reside with this?”

Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia by way of Jan. 15 at Kling & Bang gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland.


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