Relevant Right Now Art: Pussy Riot at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Extended Indefinitely

The best cultural institutions are those whose visitors walk away with new insights, but with more questions than answers.

Leaving the Alertes! exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo, big questions loomed: Why protect free speech? What is hate speech and what is blasphemy? Why is keeping church and state important?

Neither a palace nor located in Tokyo, The Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum in Paris, keeps itself ever-of-the-moment by inviting artists and curators to create and install work in a gallery reserved for the purpose of responding to breaking news and current events. Giving timelessness to the thirty seconds of protest that Pussy Riot staged in February in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, this installation draws attention and awareness to events that precipitated the protest on the part of the government and the Russian Orthodox Church to a larger, international audience, and extends the conversation questioning the rights to free speech, and where the principles of religious freedom and free speech conflict, the rights to protest, and how and why church and state should be separate.

Russia’s “most provocative art curator” and critic Andrei Erofeev created the Palais’ first Alertes! gallery, about the feminist protest punk-rock band, Pussy Riot, on exhibit now. Initially slated for an October 31 close, it’s likely the Palais recently extended the Erofeev installation because Pussy Riot was announced as a finalist with two other nominees on Tuesday, October 9, for a prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given annually by the European Union Parliament, for their protest against the Russian Orthodox Church and the current Russian administration under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The 2012 Sakharov laureate will be announced on October 26 following a decision of the EU Conference of Presidents. The winner will receive €50,000 and join a cadre of well-respected thinkers, artists and activists awarded the laureate since the award was created in 1988.

Officials of the town of Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany nominated Pussy Riot for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The nomination for the award renewed the international attention and scrutiny to the state of the Russian state and Orthodox church because of Wittenberg’s religious and political significance. Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany is where Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 theses against the Catholic Church decrying papal abuses on the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche (Castle Church). Not incidentally, Kirill I, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, recently came under fire for having a photo of himself retouched to erase a luxury wristwatch he was wearing. The market price of the wristwatch, from the Swiss brand Breguet, is € 20,000. The Wittenberg nomination for the Sakharov Prize itself is a further critique of the Russian religious patriarch already leveled against him by Pussy Riot.

On February 12, 2012, Pussy Riot staged a protest on the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, the main sanctuary of the Russian Orthodox Church. During their August trial, according to the Associated Press in USA Today, the band stated they were protesting Kirill I’s public endorsement of the 12-year Putin administration (longer than Stalin’s rule, pro-Pussy Riot observers point out), the former calling the latter “a miracle from God.” In March, amidst protests, Putin won re-election for an unprecedented third term, replacing his previously anointed successor. The Huffington Post reports that the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, dominated by Putin’s United Russia Party, is changing the criminal code to introduce jail sentences of up to three years for individuals convicted of offending religious feelings. Potentially, this would, critics say, blur the line between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church, and that the new law could stifle Putin’s critics. According to In These Times, such actions occur “despite the fact that Article 14 of the country’s Constitution stipulates that ‘the Russian Federation is a secular state,’ and precludes any overt political activity by the Church.”

The multimedia installation at the Palais includes video of the 30-second protest, an obscenity-laden “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary, asking her to become a feminist and rid Russia of Putin (see video below with English subtitles). A comic strip retelling of events, video excerpts from public statements in reaction to the Pussy Riot protest given by Putin and Kirill I to believers are also on exhibit.

 

After the protest, three Pussy Riot band members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were incarcerated and later sentenced to two years each for blasphemy and hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. On August 8, each of the accused band members gave closing statements at their trial which well-articulated their motivations and levied harsh criticisms against the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin administration and the prevailing culture and attitude of Russian citizens themselves. The women in their speeches aligned themselves in the tradition of Russian thinkers, artists and political dissidents and even with Jesus Christ himself to underline their point that critique in and of itself – even and especially when governmental and religious institutions are its subjects – is not a crime. While during the trial, many Russians believed Pussy Riot to be nothing more than rabble rousers and trouble makers that deserved being made an example of, the womens’ pointed and educated closing statements gave weight to their cause among many Russians.

From Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement:

That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.

From Maria Alyokhina”s statement:

There is no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner…

Having spent almost half a year in jail, I have come to understand that prison is just Russia in miniature…

But for me this trial is a “so-called” trial. And I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of falsehood and fictitiousness, of sloppily disguised deception, in the verdict of the so-called court.

Because all you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom.

From Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s statement:

There are many supporters, and I know it. I know that a great number of Orthodox Christians speak out on our behalf, the ones who gather near the court in particular. They pray for us; they pray for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. We’ve seen the little booklets the Orthodox pass out containing prayers for the imprisoned. This fact alone demonstrates that there is no single, unified group of Orthodox believers, as the prosecutor would like to prove. This unified group does not exist. Today, more and more believers have come to the defense of Pussy Riot. They don’t think that what we did warrants a five-month term in a pretrial detention center, let alone three years in prison, as the prosecutor has called for.

Every day, more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for thirty seconds with such vehemence, it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent.

The entrance to the Alertes! gallery is before the ticketed entry to the main exhibits of this contemporary art museum in Paris, so anyone can enjoy it for free. The Palais de Tokyo is an unusual museum that is worth the price of admission ( €8 full price). Inside its white marble and oxidized bronze finishings on the Art Deco space astride the Seine, the spacious yet labyrinth-like underground galleries suspend the viewer from the everyday, and in so doing, prepare the audience to confront art that responds to the modern moment. Open from noon to midnight everyday except Tuesday, the Palais de Tokyo is located at 13, rue de President Wilson on Métro line 9, nearest stations Iéna and Alma Marceau.

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