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On September 20th, 2012, the art collector Viktor Bondarenko and the young artist Evgeniya Maltceva opened an unprecedented exhibition entitled “The Spiritual Combat” at the Vinzavod Center for Contemporary art in Moscow. It showcased “contemporary icons” created by Evgeniya Maltceva based on the images of the members of the “Pussy Riot” group. The exposition triggered a major scandal. Members of some conservative organizations blocked the entrance to the Vinzavod and provoked riots in front of the exhibition center. Eventually, the exhibition was closed a couple of days later, but it still led to some tangible tension within the Russian society.

How did such a low-scale event make the headlines? What does the public reaction to the project tell us about the cultural and social life in modern Russia? Was it all an unprecedented act of blasphemy or rather a new chapter of the history of the artistic endeavors inspired by the Christian themes?

Eager to explore those issues and to find answers to those questions, the internationally acknowledged scientist and public intellectual Alek Epstein ( thoroughly researched the history of the representation of the sacred images in the art and published an outstanding volume dedicated to the comparative historic analysis of Christian images in the art. It traces the history of the religious themes in the European art all the way from the Middle Ages to the latest developments, including Evgeniya Maltceva’s exhibition. The book was published in November, and the presentation that was held on December 3rd. 

Alek Epstein has given several interviews since his book saw the light of the day, and in February he shared his ideas in Saint-Petersburg where he participated in two important events. First, on March 2nd he took part in the international conference entitled “Word and deed. Intellectuals, artists, poets and the social and political processes in Russia” where he gave a speech on the artistic activism and the development of the range of issues addressed by the protestors. He dedicated a major part of his speech to the “Spiritual Combat” project. The conference was organized by the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the Saint-Petersburg State University and it was attended by the dean of the Faculty of Sociology and Political Science of the European university Artemiy Magun, by the professor at the California university in Berkeley Aleksey Yurchak, by the professor at the Pennsylvania university Kevin Platt, by the head of the New Literary Observer publishing house Irina Prokhorova, by the Andrei Bely award laureates writers Aleksandr Skidan and Pavel Arseniyev and others.

On March 4th he gave a lecture at the faculty of sociology of the Saint-Petersburg State university. It was entitled “Between the sociology of culture and the sociology of pogroms: exploring the artistic activism on the field of the spiritual combat”. The lecture also featured some cuts from Alek Epstein’s interview given in Paris.


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