Basic Instinct

The world of contemporary Russian art lives by practically puritanical laws, and the absence of themes like sexuality (in the works of artists as well as in the very representatives of the art world) is discussed seriously by Russian critics. SERGEI POPOV, founder of Moscow's pop/off/art gallery, told Artguide why there is no place for this kind of art in Russian culture and why it is helpful to look at naked bodies. 18+

Titian. Venus of Urbino. 1538. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence

The themes of sensuality, erotica and even, if you wish, pornography in art call up inescapable interest throughout the world, yet in Russia these remain taboo zones in large part because there is no culture of experiencing this kind of art. On the one hand, there has never been a sufficient quantity of works on these themes created in Russia, while on the other hand even those authors who have intentionally used these themes to try to provoke and shock have frequently gone unnoticed.

Gregory Maiofis. Europian design. From the Artist and the Model series. 2004. Van Dyke print. Edition of 15. Courtesy pop/off/art, Moscow — Berlin

Today in Russia, people prefer to view art of a social variety, although it is evident that a metaphysical element is more important for understanding art: Every person is born and dies, and what happens to them after death, nobody knows. And all great art in one way or another is connected with this great mystery. Even erotic art is connected with this: Sex is conception, the battle of the sexes, it is an animal, base instinct and there is nowhere to hide from it, it is built into the individual. This is why this physiological aspect is so important for art: from the temple complexes of Khajuraho and Angkor Wat to Courbet, not to mention contemporary art — this theme is present everywhere. In think that this is the real reason for the appearance of the nude genre in classical art: the depiction of flesh — the ideal object for lust, sublimation and, one could say, copulation…

Arkady Petrov. Orange camertone. 2013. Oil on canvas. Courtesy pop/off/art, Moscow — Berlin

But in Russian culture this theme has been monstrously marginalized: eroticism here has been practically forced into the darkest corners of the consciousness, and if it bursts out, then it is frequently in pathological, mutated forms — rape, obscene words. Sexual organs are named with rude or shameful words; in the Russian language it is difficult, without resorting to obscene words, to somehow describe the act of love between people. All the vocabulary existing for this in Russian has a deeply masculine character — Russians cannot tenderly describe the act of love from the position of a woman, in the Russian language there simply are not the words.

Dmitry Gutov. Kylix I. From the Genius Needs an Orgy series. 2012–2013. Metal, welding. Courtesy Triumph Gallery, Moscow

Several of my gallery's artists work within this complex context. We show projects in which the theme of sex is present not just for the sake of the theme itself, but so as to uncover specific artistic or sociological questions. Almost all our projects or series of this kind balance on the edge of serious research, in which the historical, political and liguistic aspects of sex and pornography are all touched upon. Rostislav Lebedev's project “Cherished Fairy tales,” which received the full spectrum of reactions, provides an example of this [the project was created on motifs of erotic folk tales gathered in the 19th century by folklorist Alexander Afanasiyev — Artguide]. Someone decided that Palekh artists [Palekh lacquer miniature is an antique Russian folk art — Artguide] sold to American child molesters, collectors of historic Palekh were attracted by tempting subjects, but in general viewers and critics adequately received this project as a smart, focused work with taboo, excluded zones of Russian consciousness and culture. Arkady Petrov, another artist of my gallery, is also not so simple-minded in his exultation at the beauty of the naked body as it seems at first glance. This artist has worked all his life on the theme of sensuality through the language of kitsch. In Petrov's new series of paintings, “Erotic Square,” a colored square camerton (orange, strawberry and so forth) can be found on each canvas — it arises elementally from the fact that the artist did not understand how to name the works in a way that would not be cliché, perfunctory or offensive. “And how else can I name it,” he tells me. “'Ass in perspective' or “Vagina — a view from above'?” These words became further proof of how there are almost no normal words for expressing sensuality in the Russian language and the consciousness of the Russian.

While I prepared the exhibition, I looked at all these marvellous naked bodies, thinking that the gallery, unlike other artistic institutions, has much in common with a maternity ward: white, sterile space, in which specially trained people help good art to see the light, they slap it on the bum and set it free. So if museums are often compared with cemetaries, then what we have is a delivery room.

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