Extreme Apologies for Extremism
ST. PETERSBURG — Jake and Dinos Chapman’s exhibit The End of Fun at the newly refurbished contemporary wing of The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is under attack from Russian Orthodox Christian believers, who feel insulted by aspects of the brothers’ show, even though the exhibit is prohibited to anyone under 18 years of age. Offering “extreme apologies” to believers, the brothers vowed never to set foot in the country again.
Critics believe the sculptural installation of nine glass display cases with tiny toy fiberglass figures in a “landscape of hell in which the figures ceaselessly kill one another with diabolical cruelty” is especially offensive because it show details of various stages of crucifixion, especially of Ronald McDonald and some teddy bears. They were cited by the city’s prosecutor’s office under Russia’s “extremism” law, the same law that allowed the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Of the 114 letters or more of protest that were lodged, most shared the same language and seem to have been written by a previously unknown group calling itself “The St. Petersburg Cossacks.” However, as of this writing the exhibit has just been found not to have violated any laws.
The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, whose father Boris Borisovich Piotrovski was director of the Hermitage from 1964 to 1990, unequivocally supported the show and criticized the “flourishing of a culture of informants in our society.” “This [investigation] is an attempt to dictate conditions to us by mob rule and we should not allow this,” he added. A move like this is especially ominous, as it echos the chilling repression of the former Soviet era. “We all remember the role of ‘society’ in repressions,” Piotrovsky said. “Museums showing recognized master artists should not be afraid that anyone can set the prosecutors on them … This is a powerful anti-war, anti-Nazi piece. The image of the swastika is not prohibited in works of art. Those who deny the anti-fascist character of Chapman brothers’ work, could be accused of protecting Nazis from attacks. In other words, these people are the preachers of Nazism.”
In “The End of Fun,” which took three years to construct, “the Nazis of the past and the Nazis of the future kill each other by thousands.” This is an especially relevant theme to the citizens of St. Petersburg, as they fought off the Nazis during the famous siege of Leningrad during World War II, an event well commemorated throughout both the city and the country. The Chapman brothers were also well aware of the analogies to Francesco Goya’s series The Disasters of War. In fact, an exhibit of Goya’s work, titled There is no one to help them: Tragic subjects in the graphic art of Francisco Goya runs concurrent with their installation.
The Chapman Brothers, whose various pieces contains scenes with Adolf Hitler and the scientist Stephen Hawking speaking with Adam and Eve, issued a slightly sarcastic statement: “We are extremely sorry that some of the visitors to the exhibition The End of Fun at the Hermitage were extremely upset. Extremely sad to receive accusations of extremism — especially from religious groups. We hope that the public prosecutor assigned to investigate charges of extremism, accept our apologies to the extreme.”
There are deeply unsettling political undertones in the protests, coinciding with a rise in religious and nationalist pride in Russia. President Vladimir Putin has aligned with the Orthodox Church to consolidate his power base after squelching the large protests over his election when he began a new six-year term in May. St. Petersburg’s political establishment, including the deeply conservative and religious governor Georgy Poltavchenko, has been at the forefront of this movement as it became, despite its long cultural history, one of the first cities to adopt a law banning “homosexual propaganda.” Conservative Russians recently sued Madonna for spreading gay “propaganda” at a concert she gave in St Petersburg in August, though the case was eventually dismissed.
I was recently in Russia and saw The End of Fun, which was monitored by the Hermitage’s staff, including someone always present to discuss and interpret the troubling imagery for visitors. It is displayed in the newly renovated general staff building, which faces the Hermitage’s famed baroque façade. The space includes a new glass ceiling, forming an atrium out of the building’s former courtyard. The assistant curators who personally escorted me through the exhibit were proud of both the new refurbished wing of the Hermitage (the museum is undergoing a massive restoration and modernization project in preparation for the museum’s 250th anniversary in 2014) as well as the progressive nature of the Chapman Brothers exhibit. This was approximately a week before the charges were leveled by the prosecutor’s office.
The Words Of a Former Hermitage Curator
Afterwards, I had a long talk with a former curator of contemporary art from the Hermitage who shared her feelings and observations on the current state of art and culture inside Russia. I have adjusted her comments for syntax and continuity, though she did speak freely in English. It would be helpful to note that in 1934, during the Great Purges by Stalin more than 50 Hermitage curators were imprisoned and/or exiled. The Asian art expert at the time was accused of being an “agent of Japanese imperialism” and the medieval armor curator “accused of harboring weapons.”
“Russia was born as an empire and they [now] don’t know who they are and what they do. [The newest developments] are the result of this great loss. Under Stalin Russia imagined itself as the greatest country in the world, the dictator of the world, they imagined the total communist world. The current Russian economic and political crisis comes from that remembrance of the empire. [Now] they don’t know who they are. Culture is a part of self-identification. They lost their self-identification
The Revolution was the strongest in Russia, with great aesthetic achievements. The Soviet avant garde was actually supported by Bolshevik government. People don’t like to hear that because for the Russian intelligentsia, art belongs to society and government is a contradiction to society.
Now there is a big brain drain. What prospect do these young people have? Russia as a nation is frustrated, upset with politics. Their pride is wounded because they live on the sale of oil and really don’t produce anything else anymore. The government is just crony capitalism. People just want comfort and to live safely. However art does not depend on an easy life, but on ideas and movements. Big art appears in times of big changes.
Media in open spaces is very important and recently the government made a regulation you have to get a permit of anything that you place on a big poster. Video mapping on buildings is forbidden, but you can project images from inside and building to the outside, it is not forbidden, but you have to get the right permits.
In 1992 during Perestroika, it was a time of hope and possibility, when you could do anything. The Soviet elite was gone and a newcomer could do everything.
This time of hope is over, we lost this possibility but I don’t like to say that everything is lost. If there is no hope at all, I emigrate.”
Jake and Dinos Chapman’s The End of Fun continues until January 13, 2013 at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.