Some in the Western art world might feel a bit of nostalgia for a place and time that can be threatened by an artwork, as Russian officials still seem to be. However, that won't help Andrei Erofeev, head of the New Directions Department at the Tretyakov Gallery, who was dismissed this year from his position for, according to Alexander Sokolov, the Minister of Culture, “defaming” the image of Russia.
In a couple of years, Erofeev's former bastion of modern Russian art, the Tretyakov gallery, will be leveled, to be replaced by Orange, a rather overbearing entertainment complex designed by Norman Foster, one of the au courant architects of today.
The scandal that sprung up around Erofeev’s dismissal is seen by many as a sure sign of a return to state censorship. It easily recalls earlier sanctions against non-conformist art, whether of the 1970s (the legendary Bulldozer exhibition, which was violently destroyed by the Soviet establishment), back to the avant-garde art of the 1920s, the target of Joseph Stalin.
Erofeev's dismissal from the position he had been in for almost ten years (during which he suspiciously assembled some 2000 pieces of the contemporary art) came from the controversy that arose from two exhibitions that took place in 2007: “Forbidden Art” held at the Sakharov Museum in March and “SotsArt. Political Art in Russia from the 1972 to the Present Day,” on display at the Maison Rouge space in Paris.
Both shows included ironic, obscene, or provocative works by highly regarded groups and individuals — Blue Noses, Groupe PG, Ilya Kabakov, Leonid Sokov, Dmitry Gutov, Avdey Ter Oganian — that according to the head of the Tretyakov Gallery, Valentin Rodionov, garnered only accusations of “corruption” for their selection. The “Forbidden Art” exhibition for example, presented artworks that were "mocking at Orthodox symbols, icons, ideals" and according to Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, provoked in its visitors aggression toward the Orthodox Church and anti-Semitic demonstrations.”
With “Forbidden Art” Erofeev sought to establish a series of exhibitions about art purged from the official discourse of past decades in Russia. But by aiming to provoke a discussion around institutionalized censorship in his own culture, Erofeev curated a scandal, which turned on him. Accused of propagating pornography, spreading hatred, and degrading human dignity — whew! —Erofeev was summarily fired when his case was taken to the Tagan’sky district court.
The punitive sanctions against Erofeev aren't an isolated case in the newly empowered judiciary from the Putin era, of course. The Sakharov Museum, for example, which showcased “Forbidden Art,” got an even stronger response in 2003 for the exhibit “Beware, Religion!” (It's not difficult to point out the irony of a museum named after the most well known political dissident of the modern Soviet era — Andrey Sakharov — continuing to reap abuse). That exhibit was literally destroyed by enraged Russian Orthodox followers only a few days after its opening.
The fact that “Beware, Religion!” would be considered provocative isn't in question — the face of Christ overlaying a Coke advertisement with the motto “This is my blood” inscribed over (Alexander Kosolapov), or a church made of vodka bottles (Alina Gurevich). But the violent outrage and vandalism that followed seemed like a medieval religious force, unleashing a conflict between modern art and officialdom in Russia that still has not been resolved.
Erofeev must have known the controversy would continue with the “Forbidden Art” exhibition. One of the most suspect works received international attention: The Age of Mercy, an image of two kissing policemen by the Blue Noses group, took on the task of exposing homosexuality in the army. Inadvertently, the image received more publicity during the State's campaign and was re-published innumerable times during the lead up to trial.
Other works that attracted the censor's wrath included nude ‘photographs’ of George Bush and Saddam Hussein (Blue Noses again), a photograph depicting Chinese conquerors raping and pillaging in the Kremlin precincts (Groupe PG), and performance artist Vladislav Monroe dressed up as Hitler. Groupe PG along with another scandalous group, Voina, are the recent favorites of Erofeev who confused a shock factor for his curatorial premise.
To make sure everyone got the message, a prosecution psychologist, Natalia Eneva, denounced the show’s demoralizing impact on public morals, and for causing severe stress and trauma. At first, the exhibition was banned from traveling to Maison Rouge as it was, according to Sokolov, “propagating demoralization,” “fostering religious hate” and “defacing Russian military service.” The show only happened after direct diplomatic intervention by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Meanwhile, investigations into Erofeev’s “misconduct” have been launched, with the court proceedings by now reaching over 15 volumes.
The trial also swept up the director of the Sakharov Centre, Yuri Samodurov, who was forced to resign after being accused of stirring up racial hatred. The dark hand of censorship, attended to by the prosecution of independent thinking, continues to settle upon modern culture in Russia. With his trial currently in recess due to his illness, Andrei Erofeev's scandal might only be beginning.