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REYKJAVIK — Shortly before its current exhibition opened, Kling & Bang’s website was hacked, presumably by Russians, who inserted a crude, anti-Ukrainian message. Apparently, Vladimir Putin and his minions consider Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia to be a serious threat, even at an artist-run gallery in faraway Iceland.

Innovatively curated by Dorothee Kirch, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, who worked closely with Pussy Riot founding member Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, this exhibition is among the most compelling and consequential that I have experienced in years. 

It is also the first overview exhibition for Pussy Riot, who have been incorporating art in various guises — music, theater, performance, photography, video, clothing, and text — into their courageous and strident activism since 2011.

Some walls, including temporary ones installed for the show, are painted red or green and feature copious photographs; handwritten texts, including excerpts from Alyokhina’s excellent 2017 book Riot Days; bold, jagged titles in cut, colored tape; and multiple videos on differently sized monitors, transforming the gallery into an immersive and labyrinthine timeline — a decade of Pussy Riot’s fierce resistance and defiant antics. Photos affixed to the walls with colored tape have a DIY look. Short videos play simultaneously. The writing (in English) is informative, impassioned, ironic, conversational, lively. This sound-filled exhibition rocks.

The first work is a large, striking video of Pussy Riot member Taso Pletner wearing an orange-red balaclava and a blue gown. A collaboration between Pussy Riot and renowned Icelandic artist Kjartansson, it was filmed in Reykjavik three days before the opening (though planned considerably in advance). Standing on a small desk, Pletner pulls up her gown to piss on a framed photograph of Vladimir Putin, right on his head. She uses her female body to treat the relentlessly male dictator — who elsewhere is called “the little grey KGB agent Putin” — with total disdain. 

Installation view of Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling & Bang, Reykjavík (photo by Vigfus Birgisson)

Pussy Riot is part of a rich heritage of Russian dissenters. I am reminded of Osip Mandelstam’s poem “The Stalin Epigram” (1933), which includes (in the translation by W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown) such caustic lines as “the ten thick worms his fingers” and “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip.” For this, the great poet was sent to the Gulag, where he died five years later. 

Pussy Riot’s guerrilla punk concerts in locations where, according to the text, “rich Putinists congregate” (“Kropotkin Vodka,” 2011) and, daringly, on the roof of a Moscow detention center where political protesters were being held (“Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest,” 2011) are among the early, disruptive works represented. Videos and photos convey the audacity and energy of these performances. 

In January 2012, following large protests against the fraudulent State Duma elections, Pussy Riot performed “Putin Pissed His Pants” (sometimes titled as “Putin Pissed Himself”) in Red Square, climbing atop the snow-covered Lobnoye Mesto, where decrees were once issued and wars declared in Tsarist times. The video and iconic photos are stunning; wild women in colorful clothing, including their signature balaclavas, singing and raging in the center of Russian political and cultural power. “Revolt in Russia,” the song goes, “We exist! Revolt in Russia – Riot! Riot! Take to the streets!” For this, Pussy Riot members were convicted of misdemeanors and fined.

For “Punk Prayer: Virgin Mary, Banish Putin,” Pussy Riot infiltrated Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, leapt near the altar where women aren’t allowed, and briefly belted out their “prayer,” including “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin!,” before being subdued and thrown out. Consequences were severe. Ultimately convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were imprisoned for almost two years, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich for eight months.

Installation view of Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling & Bang, Reykjavík. Pictured: “Rainbow Diversion” (2020) (photo by Vigfus Birgisson)

No hatred of religion was involved, as the wall installation emphasizes. Instead, Pussy Riot was protesting the collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church, the increasingly dictatorial Putin, and moneyed interests, in a cathedral frequented by Putinists. On the wall are photos with comical speech balloons of condemnatory men. Wild-eyed cleric Dimitry Smirnov calls Pussy Riot “creatures” not “girls”; he strongly supported the church’s blessing of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Russian Orthodox head Patriarch Kirill laments that some Orthodox Christians are sympathetic to Pussy Riot. Like Putin, he is former KGB. Now “His Holiness” (as the church’s website calls him) is a chief cheerleader for the brutal war on Ukraine.

Information and image-filled wall installations flesh out the political contexts and motivations for Pussy Riot’s activities, with a punk rawness. Numerous small photos show Pussy Riot members on trial, in police vans, flashing the “rock on” sign while in handcuffs, as Alyokhina does in one photo. Their humanity, dignity, and rambunctious humor are palpable, especially when contrasted with their harsh, predictable, overwhelmingly male antagonists. 

Protesting state censorship and control of communications, Pussy Riot launched paper airplanes at the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the security agency FSB, and formerly of its predecessors the KGB, Stalin’s NKVD, and the Bolsheviks’ Cheka (“Paper Planes,” 2018). The action has echoes of Fluxus. Countless people have been interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, and killed in this infamous building. A photograph of a stalwart and serene Alyokhina being hustled away yet again by two grim, beefy policemen is mesmerizing. 

Protesting how the police can swoop in on anyone in Russia and disrupt their lives, four Pussy Riot members, dressed as police officers, sprinted onto the pitch in the 2018 World Cup final (in Russia) between France and Croatia, disrupting the game (“Policeman Enters the Game,” 2018). A video displays the event; a nearby photo of the smiling Veronika “Nika” Nikulshina high fiving Kylian Mbappé of France is a total treasure.

Installation view of Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling & Bang, Reykjavík (photo Gregory Volk/Hyperallergic)

Some videos, photos, and texts are harrowing — Pussy Riot members assaulted and bloodied or locked in a courtroom cage. Coursing through the show is graphic evidence of how these spirited women have been constantly attacked by the patriarchy, including police, nationalists, pious Christians, Putin-loving thugs, and government officials. Pussy Riot’s struggle is against Putin and authoritarianism, but also for freedom for women, LGBTQ+ people, and everyone else — for basic human rights.

In her book, Alyokhina writes that protests should be “desperate, sudden, and joyous.” The exhibition conveys this, in droves. For years, Putin has demonized and oppressed the LGBTQ+ community in Russia. Pussy Riot took things into their own hands, literally, on Putin’s 68th birthday. Surreptitiously or impersonating municipal employees, they installed rainbow flags on five of the most heavily guarded buildings in Moscow, including the Russian Supreme Court (“Rainbow Diversion,” 2020). A video shows them outfoxing a security guard as they installed one flag. Photos of all five buildings, with flags, are shown in a row. However temporarily and symbolically, Pussy Riot transformed Russia and made it more open and freer.

The exhibition ends on a jarring note. A convincing “police officer,” guarding a door, gruffly instructs visitors to relinquish their possessions: phone, wallet, keys. You enter a bare bones prison cell, with one bright light blazing and the Russian national anthem blaring; that’s how Masha, Nadya, and Katya were awakened in prison each day. The claustrophobic room is bearable for a few minutes, but what about two years? Or more? Right next to the exit is the video of Pletner pissing on Putin’s image.

With Russia as a full-blown fascist dictatorship and Putin’s horrid war on Ukraine, this is the right show at the right time. Pussy Riot is a visionary collective. This is a visionary show.

Installation view of Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling & Bang, Reykjavík. Pictured: “Paper Planes” (2018) (photo Gregory Volk/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia at Kling & Bang, Reykjavík (photo Gregory Volk/Hyperallergic)

Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia continues at Kling & Bang (The Marshallhouse, Grandagarður 20, Reykjavík, Iceland) through January 15. The exhibition was curated by Dorothee Kirch, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir.



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