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Piss-Poor - The Russian Authorities' Understanding of Pussy Riot

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One of the last times I posted something on Pussy Riot I was waxing lyrical (literally) on what I saw as the underlying radicalism of Pussy Riot's situationist-style art-cum-music stunts.

I reckon it's pointless looking at them as "political musicians", still less as a musicians trying to carve out a career in the music industry. They're clearly a bunch of politically-minded activists adept at using the props of a rock band (guitars, defiant vocal stylings, costumes) as well as other modern art-world techniques - videos, public stunts, manifestos, "scandalous" exposure of bodily parts. It's one part Jake and Dinos Chapman, one part Laurie Anderson, one part ... er, well one part Pussy Riot!

I don't want to overdo the comparisons - every artist obviously has all sorts of motivations and inspirations - but another connection worth mentioning is the Forbidden Art event from a few years ago. This was the exhibition in Moscow in 2006 that featured a Mickey Mouse Jesus Christ and other "sacrilegious" exhibits. It upset Russia's Orthodox Church and led to the organisers being fined for supposedly fuelling religious hatred. This week's news that a painting depicting Putin and Medvedev in women's underwear has been impounded from a St Petersburg gallery - because it and similar works "violated existing legislation" - seems to be more of the same.

Russian prosecutors are not, it's fair to say, great students of art history. If they were - or indeed if they'd even bothered to Google a few precedents for Pussy Riot's artist-provocateurism - they would surely have abandoned their foolish and heavy-handed prosecution of Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova last year. Pussy Riot's "shock art" approach is decades old - going back to at least Marcel Duchamp's Urinal (1917) and including well-known works like Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987). As Sam Leith says, this kind of "shock art" has gone in and out of fashion over the years. It's not the shock of the new, more the shock of the old-but-still-able-to-cause-a-reaction. But still, no-one had done precisely what the three Pussy Riot women did in Moscow Cathedral last February. In context, it was new, unconventional, even shocking, but criminal it surely wasn't.

Anyway, in my pigeonhole at work last week I received a copy of Let's Start a Pussy Riot, the chunky Rough Trade art book published earlier this year. I was asked to write a few words about it and ... here they are.

All your favourites are in this Pussy Riot-inspired miscellany - Billy Childish, Jeffrey Lewis, Bo Ningen, Sarah Lucas, Kim Gordon, Cornershop, Yoko Ono, Vivien Goldman, Laurie Penny, Lee Ranaldo, Antony and the Johnsons, plus plenty of contributors I hadn't personally come across previously. (After reading Alice Bag's account of Mexican migrants' labour protests in California in the 60s and 70s, I was, for example, quite keen to check out the L.A. punk band The Bags, with Alice doing some pretty lively stuff on vocals).

Another contribution I rather liked was from No Bra, an electro-art band I saw play live in east London a few years ago. Their offering is a nicely humorous poem-type affair which includes this:

"On a date with the devil / The devil said / When I was younger / I was so desperate / To fall in love / That every time I ever met someone / I was so nervous / I couldn't say anything / So I changed my mind / And decided to become evil / And become the devil / And tempt other men into being evil / And being the devil / And I said / If you're not nervous / It's boring..."

Ah, I know the feeling (not about becoming the devil, just the young person dating thing ...). I would have thought the poem's main refrain - "More evil than the devil" - is unimaginable or even shockingly irreligious if you're a devoutly religious person. But it is perfectly imaginable if you're an artist and should be perfectly permissable as a piece of artistic expression. The poem may exhibit artistic sympathy for the devil (just like Milton in the 17th century) but it doesn't mean it's genuinely devilish. Sorry, it can be tiresome to have to spell this out but you do feel that some governments around the world need to have these elementary distinctions highlighted.

Artists like No Bra were already doing their stuff well before Pussy Riot's brush with international fame/notoriety last year, but it's still good to see an array of cutting-edge artists paying tribute to the young upstarts from Moscow. The Pussy Riot effect is likely to be significant in art circles for years to come, but it's also significant in activism circles. This week Yekaterina Samutsevich, the freed Pussy Riot member, said she supports the gay rights campaign building up around the Sochi Winter Olympics. I'm sure there's going to be a lot more of this cross-over with Pussy Riot and other campaigns. (BTW, if you're in the London area on 3 October and feel the need to top up your own Pussy Riot campaigning red blood cells - check out the free screening of the Punk Prayer Riot documentary at Amnesty's HQ).

Meanwhile, apart from now being the (slightly accidental) owner of the Let's Start a Pussy Riot book, I also have another artefact from Russia's modern "culture wars" in my possession.

It's a clockwork icon made by the Russian artist Oleg Yanushevski, one of his "contemporary icons" series from the early noughties. For these pieces of art, ironic comments on modern materialism and a lack of contemporary spirituality, Oleg was vilified on state television, he and his family were threatened and harassed (his son was physically attacked) and he was told the police wouldn't be investigating the attacks. He eventually gained political asylum in Britain with the assistance of the freedom of expression/anti-censorship organisation ARTICLE 19 (see their report on his and other Russian art cases). My girlfriend worked at A19 at the time and was involved in his case - as a thank-you Oleg gave her the clockwork icon. (Thanks Oleg).

Final thought - I'd never want to sell Oleg's icon, but I did see that some of his work has previously come up for auction in London. If you yourself fancy a quick dabble in the online auction world, try this one of pop memorabilia being sold to raise money for Amnesty. Elton John's platform boots! He inspired LA punk rocker Alice Bag. He supports Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot wear big boots. Hey, I want those boots ...

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