<em>Dvizhenie Dèla</em>: Yulia Tsvetkova’s First Solo Exhibition
Artistic Practice (13/29)

Dvizhenie Dèla: Yulia Tsvetkova’s First Solo Exhibition

The entangled artistic and activist contexts of these drawings reveal the complex political regime under which artists are working in Russia today.

The title refers in Russian both to “Progress of the Judicial Case” [движение дела] and to “Body Movement” [движение тела] in performance art and street activism.

The exhibition at DK Rosa (Rosa House of Culture) was part of “Naked Truth,” a series of events in support of Yulia Tsvetkova, curated by Lada Anikina. The inclusion of this work in ArtsEverywhere’s Artistic Practice series was curated by Nikolay Oleynikov.

Alongside this collection of drawings, ArtsEverywhere has published a Labour Day statement by Yulia Tsvetkova in which she declares a hunger strike in protest to the Russian state’s cowardice. Read the statement here.

At the DK Rosa (Rosa House of Culture) in Petersburg an exhibition opened, featuring the work of Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist, activist, and director from Komsomolsk-on-the-Amur. The entangled artistic and activist contexts of this exhibition reveal the complex political regime under which artists are working in Russia today. Yulia’s works in the exhibition can be roughly divided into two categories. The first are her activist and educational works: poster-drawings for public websites, comic strips, and so on. The second are works with more artistic freedom across genres, including sketches on large sheets of paper, themselves subdivided into several series. A few of these works reference Japanese and Greek mythology; there is a theological inversion of the meme from Michelangelo’s fresco depicting the creation of humanity, in which Goddess, surrounded by cat-angels, reaches out to touch the hand of Eve. However, a division into “activist” and “free” categories is rather arbitrary, as the line between them is tenuous; they all tend towards a special kind of meme or poster expression (“quick activist writing”, as the curatorial text says). They are all to one degree or another pedagogical and even the most abstract works among them acquire a political meaning. Most of these works feature female figures and faces: women enraged, women dancing, women torn apart, women assembled from parts, scary women, calm women, free women. Some of these works are elementally powerful—they affect us in unexpected ways, almost as a force of nature.

Lately, Yulia has made a name for herself in the Russian activist and art scenes. She is currently one of the best-known Russian artists internationally. In 2020 several of her works were acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and she received an international award from the Index on Censorship in the Arts category. She also made the BBC’s list of the 100 most influential and inspiring women of 2020. However, this fame and international recognition are not tied to any conventional form of artistic success, but rather to the headline-making legal and judicial persecution of Yulia in Russia.

Yulia’s problems with the authorities began in 2018 when the local administration and police disrupted the Saffron Flower festival of activist art that she had organized. At that time, Yulia was organizing the Merak experimental children’s theatre fair, producing plays without scenery or sets, in which the young actors were also co-authors. Four shows were prepared for the Merak festival; of these, the most triggering one for the authorities was the play about gender stereotypes, titled “The Pink and The Blue.” (Revealingly, the authorities had not actually seen the play, but the title itself, devised by an 11-year-old actor, was incriminating enough.) Police and security forces approached the children at school, called their homes, interrogated them in the absence of their parents, and made threats. Although the festival was disrupted, a closed performance of “The Pink and The Blue” did take place.

In Autumn 2019, criminal proceedings against Yulia began in connection with her work as an administrator of a feminist group called The Vagina Monologues on the Russian social network site, vk.com. More precisely, because she published schematic representations of vaginas on this activist and educational public page, she was accused of distributing pornography (a serious offense in Russian law, potentially facing a prison term of two to six years). A group of “experts,” none of whom was an art critic or historian, handed down an opinion that these depictions possessed no artistic or cultural value, and therefore constituted pornography. From November 2019 to March 2020, Yulia was held under house arrest, which was eventually commuted to a travel restriction order. The legal proceeding is ongoing, regardless of public outcry, regardless of numerous public statements and campaigns in support of Yulia. (The participants in these campaigns have themselves been subject to persecution by the authorities.) What is particularly alarming in this situation is the absurd excessiveness of the interpretation and the charges; the government sees pornography where there clearly is none, at the same time as it coexists harmoniously with actual pornography. (This slippery moral position of the government itself borders on the pornographic in its shameless gratuity.) In addition to all of the above, when the criminal trial was already underway, Yulia was additionally charged three times with “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors“—an openly discriminatory anti-gay law passed in 2013—for the publication of drawings expressing support for LGBT rights. In two of these cases she was sentenced to pay punitive damages.

Although Yulia’s case has elicited strong reactions both among activists and in broader Russian society—even in relatively apolitical circles—the Russian art community has so far remained fairly inert in this matter, often failing to express a minimally adequate level of solidarity. For this community, Yulia Tsvetkova in many ways is still a marginal figure. Given that, it is not surprising that the Dvizhenie Dèla exhibition is actually Yulia’s first solo exhibition with works from her mature period. After all, Rosa House of Culture is not a conventional art gallery but rather an art-activism space, oriented toward the socialist model of the house of culture.

Quite often one hears—even from those offended and outraged by Yulia’s legal treatment—apologetic expressions in the spirit of, “It doesn’t matter if you are a bad artist or a good artist…”, which ultimately can be expressed by the question: is it art at all? A similar question constantly arises in connection with art activism or politically engaged art, as if it has now taken over the role of the avant-garde in the constant redefinition and loosening of the border between the artistic and the non-artistic. In Yulia’s case, doubts about the artistic worth of her work are further burdened by a hint of reproach, implying that her works have only acquired their importance due to her prosecution. On the one hand, indeed there is no longer any way of looking at Yulia’s work “in the abstract,” outside of the monstrous situation she has been placed in. However, is there, in truth, any need to do so? It has long been understood that the media reception of a work in the art-activist field constitutes an element in the work itself. And it was via that element that these seemingly naïve, “child-like” drawings of Yulia’s managed to set the monstrous judicial machine in motion.

Yulia’s art definitely carries within it a challenge. It is not ironic and transgressive, but an affirmative statement—not a masterpiece by yet another genius, but something immediately accessible, ephemeral, and educational. Yulia’s art dissolves the patriarchal figure of the author, as demonstrated by her work in the theatre, where children became full-fledged co-authors of the plays. According to Yulia’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, the children believed that they had created the whole thing themselves. As a matter of fact, no one had created anything; as in myths, the figure of the author is not the ultimate authority here. Yulia’s work is an art of the people, in the resonant absence of what could now be called a people (a people is a revolutionary community). So this first solo exhibition is not entirely personal. Yulia’s art works contain a lot of personal things (for example, in a comic strip about abuse); at the same time, they do not relate to any particular, exceptional experience—they are general. The challenge of Yulia’s art lies in the very possibility of speaking out, persistently, and not from a position of power. Herein also lies the elusive utopian horizon of her work.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Drawings by

Yulia Tsvetkova is a Russian artist and activist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur. On the 11th of February 2020, she became a political prisoner.

Written by

Maxim Evstropov is an artist, curator, and philosopher. He calls his art-practices “experimental political art” that exists somewhere between performative actions, implied grotesque narratives, Russian Dada-oriented absurdism, and grassroots politics.

Translated by

Timothy Williams teaches at the English Faculty of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, and translates books and articles from Polish and Russian.

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