Pussy Riot’s prison ordeal relived in London art show

Humiliation and forced labour are among the ordeals endured by visitors to a London exhibition recreating the interrogations, trials and jail experiences faced by Russian art collective Pussy Riot following their Moscow cathedral protest.

The immersive theatre work takes the visitor on the journey travelled by Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova as she navigates police questionings, a court trial behind bars and soul-sapping prison labour — all the time being barked at by authoritarian officials played by an all-female cast.

Each visitor is handcuffed, assigned a prison number — to which they must always answer — and is subjected to trial by social media, with potentially embarrassing photographs and tweets from their timelines being blown up on a big screen for all to see.

The harrowing hour-long piece is part of an exhibition at the esteemed Saatchi Gallery celebrating the feminist collective, who became the nemesis of President Vladimir Putin after performing the punk protest at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Visitors to the exhibition begin the theatre experience by donning colourful balaclavas — the same style worn by the band at that performance — and are preached at by actors impersonating priests.

Pussy Riot’s 2012 stunt made international headlines, but resulted in two members serving two years in penal colonies, gaining them notoriety and the support of Western politicians and mega-artists like Madonna.

The London gallery is hosting artwork from the group and other Russian activists in an exhibition entitled “Art Riot”, marking the 100th anniversary of Russia’s revolution.

Political art is as vital as ever in the country, said fellow Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina at the show’s press launch.

“Political art is a way to change something,” Alyokhina, who was also jailed for the 2012 protest, told AFP.

“We didn’t expect a prison term, nor attention, you just have to do things and see what happens,” she added. “All big things were small at the beginning.”

Such an exhibition would not be allowed in Russia, said Alyokhina while highlighting Siberian artist Vasily Slonov’s work — a pile of Lenin-era books whose spines have been sculpted into the face of author Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

– ‘Last free person’ –

The London show, where each room is dedicated to a different artist, was organised by curator Marat Guelman.

Some critics, and even allies like Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, have dismissed the group’s art as “petty crimes for the sake of publicity,” but Guelman insisted they had missed the point.

“We want to show an exhibition where the artist is important, not only the art,” he explained.

“Especially when politics goes down and there is no free media, the artist has become the last free person, who speaks to government and says truth, and is not afraid.”

The reaction of Orthodox Christians to the feminist group’s performance at the Moscow cathedral was also “very important,” he said.

“Some were more Orthodox than Christian, meaning ‘we will kill this Pussy Riot because they came to the church.’

“Some parts are more Christian than Orthodox, so (they) think there must be freedom. It was very important in helping society understanding itself better.”

Among the Pussy Riot works on show are videos of the group’s most controversial guerilla performances and giant portraits of the group’s founders in their trademark brightly-coloured balaclavas.

Other artists featured include Oleg Kulik, who lived as a “man-dog” in a belief that it embodied the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Pyotr Pavlensky, who nailed his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square in a symbolic protest.

While some try to affect change from inside Russia, Guelman said many like him had been forced to leave.

“It was impossible to do exhibitions,” he told AFP.

“It was a joke that a lot of talented people were born in Russia, but not a lot died in Russia,” he said, adding that the Russian diaspora was now a “very powerful” cultural force.

Despite the limitations, both Alyokhina and Guelman believe Russia can still be the incubator of great art.

“Everything is possible!,” said Alyokhina.

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