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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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alek_D._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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Contemporary icons and paintings inspired by the Pussy Riot members.


The joint project by the contemporary art ideologist and collectioner Victor Bondarenko and the painter Evgeniya Maltseva includes contemporary Christian images - new icons demonstrating the live perception of the religious art, as well as paintings based on the characters created by the members of the feminist group "Pussy Riot". "The Trinity", "The Savior", "The Mother of God" and "The Antichrist", finished litterally days before the exhibition are accompanied by another four works created in a show of solidarity with the civic protest of the "Pussy Riot" group. All the presented works are exposed for the first time.



 


Several years ago the very same spot hosted an exhibit showcasing works by Dmitriy Gutov, who recreated conventional images coming from the byzanthine iconography, and on August 10th the presentation of the album "Art on the barricades" took place, published by Victor Bondarenko, featuring a preliminary version of one of the paintings included in the exhibition. Seems like the former Guelman Gallery is faithful to the innovative approach towards the cintemporary art: it is easy to imagine the rage that these "new icons" displayed right next to the blasphemers' portraits can provoke in certain circles.



Evgeniya Maltseva's and Victor Bondarenko's press-conference is scheduled for September 20th at 18.00, the exhibit opens on September 20th at 19.00. Both events will take place at the prestigious Guelman Gallery at the Moscow 'Vinzavod' Center of Contemporary Art.

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"Pussy Riot" is a feminist punk-rock group that promotes the ideas of gender equality, LGBT rights and political freedoms. It is heavily influenced by such successful American groups as Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill and others. The group performed a punk-style prayer in the Christ the Saviour's Cathedral in Moscow on February 21st expressing their disagreement with the Church's involvement in secular politics. In the month of March three women from the group were arrested for offending the feelings of the faithful, and as of today they have been held in custody for almost five months. Moreover, recently the court extended their detention by another six months. Those young women face up to seven years in prison if convicted. Their trial started yesterday.


Hundreds of eminent Russian musicians, artists, actors, writers and poets wrote letters to the Patriarch and to the President, begging them to release the women who suffer from this arbitrary treatment, and tens of thousands ordinary people joined them for it is clear that though the women crossed the line, the punishment is inadequate, it is too harsh. Amnesty International recognized the women as prisoners of conscience because of the extremely severe response by the authorities.



Some of the greatest international stars have spoken out for the arrested women, among them Sting, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Faith No More and Franz Ferdinand. In Germany there was a concert in support of the women on July 31st, and among the artists there were be such groups as Radio Havanna, Smile And Burn and Anti-Flag.

And most importantly, the women met unprecedentedly wide support among Russian artists. During the past five months dozens of prominent Russian contemporary artists created various artworks to protest the unjust treatment of the women. One of Russia's best-known sociologists Alek D. Epstein (Алек Д. Эпштейн) who had taken a great interest in Russia's protest movements and who had written a book about the "Voina" art-group published a beautiful compilation of artworks dedicated to the arrested women by approximately 50 Russian contemporary artists. It is entitled "Art on the barricades: "Pussy Riot", the Bus Exhibit and the protest art-activism" ("Искусство на баррикадах: "Pussy Riot", "Автобусная выставка и протестный арт-активизм").


   


 


This book features numerous artworks accompanied by an integral scientifically structured text that by itself represents an extensive pioneer sociological piece of research of the "Pussy Riot" phenomenon and its cultural background and impact, it also looks into various aspects of representation of the Mother of God in the contemporary art since She is the main figure mentioned in the punk prayer. The visual component of the book concists of the numerous photos, drawings, paintings and sketches posted online by friends and supporters. Among them you find truly intriguing pieces of work such as documentaristic comics by Viktoria Lamasko or sharp-witted cartoons by Sergey Yelkin, a funny drawing by Dmitriy Bulygin that openly demonstrates the meaning of the group's name, and also a touching portrait of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova drawn with lipstick by Lena Hades during a court session. Among other artists who contributed their works are Evgeniya Matlseva, Lusine Dzhanyan, Alexey Knedlyakovskiy, Anton Nikolaev, Alexey Iorsh, David Ter-Oganyan, German Vinogradov, Vladimir Kozin, Oleg Hvostov, Artem Loskutov, Leonid Danylov and many other prominent Russian contemporary artists. Alek Epstein also included some of artworks by foreign contemporary artists dedicated to the Mother of God while analyzing this figure's representation in the art while conducting his research.

Alek Epstein went to great lengths to accomplish this goal and faced a lot of challenges, but he finally pulled through: he published the album on July 19th, and the presentation is scheduled for August 10th. This is a tremendous event for Russia's contemporary art and political opposition as well as for all of us who hope for the women's soon release.

It is hard to expect the book to change the outcome of the legal process. But there is absolutely no doubt that it is necessary to speak about it. So, please, if it is only possible, help us spread the word...

It is really important that the world sees the genuine consolidated support expressed by Russia's cultural world. So here are some links:




A review by the ArtGuide portal with some images: http://www.artguide.ru/ru/articles/23/226

Original review by Valeriy Ledenev: http://artchronika.ru/blog/epstein-pussy-riot/

Selected pictures from the album:
http://forum.artinvestment.ru/blog.php?b=190197&langid=5

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