Words by Catriona Morton
Art by Alice Clark
TW: Domestic Abuse
Pussy Riot – a household name. The feminist-anarchist-punk-protest group employ public protests and viral videos to advocate both gender equality and rights for the LGBT(and Q+?) community in Russia. Their primary goal is trying to dismantle their countries orthodox, exclusionary values along with it’s figurehead President Vladimir Putin. Their riot grrl-esque attitude and aesthetic have brought them world attention as the faces of (white) feminism intermittently over the past few years. Their igniting 2012 protest performance in the Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Moscow, led by 5 members of the group, garnered international media attention. The performance led to the arrest (on grounds of hooliganism) of three group members: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova nicknamed ‘Nadya Tolokno’, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The women were denied bail and charged, each sentenced to two years in prison. Tolokno and Alyokhina remained imprisoned for 21 months of their terms. Their imprisonment received widespread global criticism, as the women were arrested under grounds of political protest through their speech and actions, and were denied rights to defend themselves during trial. Since leaving the original faction of Pussy Riot, the two women have continued to be politically active, whilst swimming happily into the mainstream – debatably compromising the punk roots that they deemed so necessary to their works.
This November, London will see the arrival of a month long interactive exhibition, a ‘activist immersive piece’ co-written by Nadya Tolokno in collaboration with the theatre company Les Enfants Terribles. The premise of the exhibition-cum-play is that the public can partake in a mock Russian trial and prison system, of which the members of Pussy Riot endured in 2012. An exhibition open to the public to learn about the violations suffered by the women, who were silenced when trying to shout for the equality and emancipation of women in their country. Activism and the arts, a feminist led piece, co-written by one of the Western world’s biggest names in feminism… all seems pretty good right? Seems pleasing to the liberal millennial Londonites, rather ground-breaking territory, and so relevant at a time when gender-equality is at the forefront of most people’s minds in wake of the expose on Hollywood’s historical predation on women…
So why on earth is it being held at Charles Saatchi’s gallery? Saatchi’s violence towards women seems to have somehow escaped the minds of many people. Perhaps because it was a few years ago, perhaps because people mistook that ‘it was THAT Saatchi’ or perhaps because people chose to ‘separate the art from the…’ art collector? Charles Saatchi, who founded and directs the eponymous gallery, was photographed in 2013 grabbing (his then wife) Nigella Lawson’s throat in public at Mayfair’s Scott’s restaurant. Dozens of other implicating photographs were also captured. The emergence of these photographs led people to question – “if this was happening in public, what was happening in private?” Saatchi refuted that what was happening in that exchange was ‘play-fighting’ but Lawson’s quick exit from their shared home, and subsequent private divorce settlement, on grounds of Saatchi’s ‘ongoing unacceptable behaviour’, all but explicitly confirmed the abusive behaviour Saatchi was inflicting on his then-wife. Lawson has since spoken out and attained that no physical abuse occurred in private, but that she had been left with ‘emotional scars’ from his controlling and bullying behaviour, both during and after their marriage.
These events all occurred whilst Pussy Riot were in their first year of imprisonment at the hands of their oppressive government. So, why are Pussy Riot, and their collaborators, holding this feminist-revolution based exhibition at a gallery owned by a man publicly known to have harmed women? A feminist group, inspiring fighting against ‘the man’ and widening awareness for the tribulations faced by women and minorities in Russia, are raising exposure (and therefore capital) for a man who has personally caused oppression to women in his life. Seems pretty ironic right?
The ironies get worse – almost funnily so. When I first viewed the Facebook event for it, I momentarily believed it was a bold statement by the piece, but upon incredulous inspection, realised it was not. The 6 week piece will be ‘occupying’ (???) a floor in the gallery, inviting members of the public to come in commemoration for the centenary of the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, against the Tsar’s Russia in 1917. The October revolution is one of the biggest Western communist events to occur in the past century. It comprised of Lenin mobilising communists to overthrow the upper class of Russia who ruled whilst leaving the peasants in desperate poverty. It was the catalyst of most other recent Russian history, and at the time was an inspiring movement giving power back to the people, implementing Marx’s manifesto. ‘Inside Pussy Riot’ invites members to commemorate this milestone in communist history by paying between £21.50 and £37 depending on the day/time – there are various tiers of payment within those quotas just to make sure it’s extra elitist/classist, to keep it real communist inspired. And just to make it clear that it is commemorating a revolution for workers, the highest tiered price is weekend evening’s, when most full time workers would actually be able to go. To make this condition even more humorous, in 2012 Saatchi himself wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, declaring that the benefits of galleries with free admission become redundant when they hold exclusive paid exhibitions with limited access. To quote: ‘I like to think that museum directors are not elitist, would like to attract the widest possible audience and are up to the challenge of managing their museum’s affairs so that the widest number of us can benefit. Of course I could be wrong; perhaps they are just snooty types, who don’t want a lot of riffraff around. Or, worse, they could be so removed from reality that they can’t quite follow that £20 is a bit much even for a professional couple to part with every time they want to take in a show.’ So Saatchi himself, admits the ridiculousness of charging £20 for exhibitions, or in his galleries case: £21.50 or over.
I understand, partially, that the Saatchi gallery (separate from the man himself) can be commended for it’s free exhibitions and it’s support of emerging talents. But, to hold this feminist-communist based exhibition seems cruelly ironic, based on the misogyny of the gallery director and the elitism of the cost of tickets to attend the exhibition. To certain degrees, the exhibition seems informative and exploratory, an important piece to give perspective on the reality of oppressive systems. I’d like to say I get it, but the point is I don’t know their (along with thousands of other political prisoners’) tribulations. Exposing people to these events is important – but at this gallery and for this exclusory price? Really?
The exhibition advertisements invite the public to question whether they would ‘sacrifice everything for the sake of a punk prayer for a liberal world’ – but surely this punk prayer didn’t have sights of supporting misogynists and the elite bourgeois art world? Apparently ‘We are all pussy riot’, but I’d like to argue that pussy riot are not many of us.