Russian contemporary art pokes fun, and an enormous penis, at the Kremlin’s corruption and cronyism.
The bold Russian tradition of poking fun at political leaders extends to the country’s contemporary artists, who use both humour and controversy to express their discontent with the political status quo.
There was a joke going around Russia a few years ago. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev wake up in the Kremlin in 2023 with a terrible hangover. Putin says to Medvedev: “Which of us is president and which of us is prime minister today?” “I don’t remember,” Medvedev replies, “I could be prime minister today.” “Then go fetch some beer,” Putin says.
Putin and Medvedev’s famous political tandem has become the ideal target for the rather dangerous Russian tradition of poking fun at leaders. After reaching the two-term limit for presidents in 2008, Putin switched jobs with Medvedev, who had been his prime minister. Four years later, the two men switched jobs again. The power-sharing agreement between the president and the prime minister has become a joke and has been satirically highlighted by several Russian artists.
Vladimir Kolesnikov and his sardonic signatures
In his “Signature” project, Vladimir Kolesnikov used the main emblem of political power – the president’s signature. He produced a series of portraits on large canvases using handmade stamps with the signatures of the leading political figures. For Medvedev’s portrait he used Putin’s signature and vice versa, for Obama’s face it was Kim Jong Il’s signature, and Ahmadinejad’s portrait was made with Obama’s signature. According to the artist, every country has its own political ideology, and our opinion about the leaders of the country is often based on their official statements, political decisions and media manipulations.
For example, the image of the Iranian president seems to be shaped by the American democracy with its leader Barack Obama. In Russian politics, it’s obvious that Medvedev was not exactly elected as president, but rather appointed by Vladimir Putin, and with Putin being the current president of the country, the Russians can’t help but wonder how long their reign is going to last. Putin and Medvedev have been ruling the country for over a decade now, manipulating the entire society with Putin’s almost unlimited political power. And their signatures are one of the main symbols of their personal responsibility and accountability for their actions.
Viktoria Tsarkova’s “art to make you smile”
Another Russian artist, Viktoria Tsarkova, has created a series of amusing portraits featuring the most controversial figures from the worlds of politics and culture, combined in unexpected ways. Her project, called “NO POLITICS. JUST A JOKE“, includes large drawings such as: Adolf Hitler as Shiva, Joseph Stalin as the Terminator, Muammar Gaddafi as Captain Jack Sparrow, Pope Benedict XVI as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Mao Zedong as Marilyn Manson, Queen Elizabeth II as Kiss, Nicolas Sarkozy as Napoleon, and Obama as Ronald McDonald. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are in one joint portrait as Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” By using a very strong political and cultural context in her drawings, Tsarkova’s work has raised eyebrows, but the artist claims that her intentions were simply to make people smile and relieve tension.
An earlier portrait by Viktoria Tsarkova showing Putin and Medvedev was used by Andrey Zakirzyanov in his short animated film based on the popular song from the cult movie “Buratino“, a Russian adaptation of “Pinocchio”. Andrey Zakirzyanov, a Russian artist based in Berlin, utilises satire to express people’s dissatisfaction with the presidential elections in 2012. During the elections, there were accusations of numerous falsifications and criminal activities from the Putin administration. Feelings that Putin and his gang, desperate to secure Putin’s dictatorship, acted against the law and human rights, ran high; those feelings only increased after the Kremlin regime won a seemingly unlikely “democratic” victory.
Putin works the strings on Russia’s greatest puppet show
Zakirzyanov’s animation casts Putin as the fox character Alice, who is articulate, and Dmitry Medvedev as the cat Basilio, who just repeats whatever the fox says. The two dance around trying to steal Buratino’s coins. The fox, Putin, pulls the strings of the others running the puppet show, and the characters dance to his tune. Buratino (Pinocchio) is an innocent boy who represents the people of Russia. He is being used as a shuttlecock in a game of badminton, cut in two by the fox and the cat, who throw daggers at him and trick him. The title of this short animated film is “Say Goodbye to Your Money”, which is self-explanatory.
Watch Andrey Zakirzyanov’s short animated film on youtube.com below
With the emergence of online media and SMS text messages, Russians today can openly joke about their political leaders; however, this option is not available on national television. Since Putin came into power, the Kremlin has tightened controls on the mass media. A combination of growing opposition against Vladimir Putin, claims of election fraud and limited freedom of press have spurred artistic dissidence in the streets and online. Anti-Putin activists find creative ways to speak out through unconventional demonstrations, including rallies incorporating toys, media projects, animation, street art and impromptu street performances.
The art group, the phallus and the KGB
Voina, a controversial Russian street art group supported by Banksy, won a state-backed art prize for painting a 65-metre penis on a drawbridge. Voina, which means war in Russian, is known for pushing the boundaries of their performances and taking their protests to ever greater extremes. They dedicated their “graffiti work” to Voina’s imprisoned members, who were arrested in the past years for overturning police cars and attacking the vehicles with Molotov cocktails.
Voina artists painted the massive phallic symbol on a drawbridge that, when raised, faced the FSB (former KGB) building, Russia’s main domestic security agency. The graffiti was scrubbed off the bridge by the Russian authorities after a few hours, but pictures of it became an internet sensation. The work, entitled Dick Captured by the KGB, was awarded the 400,000 Roubles (around USD 15,000 ) Innovation Prize by the National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Moscow in January 2011. The prize, which is supported by the Ministry of Culture, was awarded after weeks of wrangling, during which Voina’s entry was excluded and subsequently reinstated. Voina activists refused to show up to receive the award, but the organisation issued a statement saying it would donate the prize money to political prisoners.
Street art in Russia may be at the extreme of contemporary art, but it is also political art. Art like this has changed the course of history in some countries and it will continue to do just that. Voina can be compared with Ai Weiwei not because of their artistic abilities, but because they employ art as a means of political protest against the social and political injustice, governmental corruption and limited freedom of press. Do you really think that Putin’s Russia is open and democratic? Try to stand in the Red Square with an anti-Putin banner…. Let’s see how long you last.
Anna Dudchenko is a professional artist and art consultant of Russian origin living and working in the Sultanate of Oman since 1999.
This series is made up of articles written by contributors selected for their knowledge and experience of niche topics.
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