August 10, 2012 8:38 pm

Church and states of shock

An exhibition at the Arts Santa Mònica in Barcelona reveals a particularly Russian artistic obsession with icons

For iconoclasm to be fun, somebody a) has to be annoyed by it and b) not be so annoyed by it that you end up being put in the slammer.

For the Pussy Riot Three, lampooning President Putin in a church has been no fun at all, though this week’s criticism of their trial by Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (among others) may at least bring them some comfort.

A stylish clip on YouTube records the feminist collective’s now-famous “punk prayer”, which took place in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in March. Genuflecting in coloured balaclavas, the Pussy Rioters launch into a gutsy bricolage of punk and plainchant – “Virgin Mary, drive away Putin” – while security agents try to drag them off.

Some witnesses say the whole thing lasted about a minute. For this act of “insult to Russian Orthodoxy”, prosecutors have asked for three-year jail terms for the three women on trial, all members of Pussy Riot, but who all deny participating in the “prayer”. They have already spent five months in jail, in a judicial process heavily criticised by Amnesty International.

By coincidence, this year’s summer exhibition at the Arts Santa Mònica in Barcelona is dedicated to Russia’s main contemporary art award, the Kandinsky Prize. The prize claims to have no links to the state, and a transgressive spirit runs through In An Absolute Disorder. There’s no ironic kitsch here: when you go in, you’re greeted by a life-size model of a policeman lying on his face with an axe in the back of his head.

If, as Russia-watchers tell us, the resurgent power of the Orthodox church is currently playing itself out in the Pussy Riot trial, the Barcelona exhibition reveals a particularly Russian artistic obsession with icons.

Alexander Kosolapov’s “Icon Caviar” is similar to a piece that got him into hot water back in 2005. A gilded icon frame is filled not with its usual figures, but with a surface resembling caviar. It’s fascinatingly black and shiny – pregnant, you feel, with some oblique satire.

There is more icon-related art here too, though not all pieces are so provocative, and some more straightforwardly echo the importance of icons in the tradition. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. The term “iconoclasm”, as we use it now, implies that the avant-garde does the smashing while tradition does the protecting – even though, historically of course, the icon-smashers often came from reactionary quarters.

Take the Edvard Munch show at London’s Tate Modern. The Norwegian artist’s instinct was not “iconoclastic”: instead of mocking sacred images, Munch, like Van Gogh, wanted secular art to appropriate the role they had played in the western Christian tradition.

Clearly, the Catholic Church was less than happy at this muscling-in, as well as being horrified by the formal direction modern art was taking anyway. In 1954 the Vatican’s newspaper denounced that year’s Venice Biennale as an “artistic debacle”, where “entanglements of wires are considered statues”. Since then, things have changed, and while it would be a safe bet the Pope is no fan of Pussy Riot, his papacy does look as if it’s trying to engage with contemporary culture. Next year the Vatican will even host its first stand at the once-scorned Venice Biennale. If you can’t beat ’em ...

The once-persecuted Russian Orthodox hierarchy, on the other hand, now allied with a state that tramples on all forms of expression it doesn’t like, is sadly not having to evolve in the same way.

. . .

Another intriguing exhibit at the Kandinsky Prize show is Oleg Kulik’s “Tolstoy and Hens”, an installation complete with a life-size model of the writer at work. Seated at his desk inside an elaborate hen coop, the venerable novelist is bespattered by droppings, yet stoically writes on.

Indeed, if you’re inclined to look for it, scatology crops up in all sorts of places this summer. One place you might expect to find it is at the Louvre in Paris, currently offering a survey of recent work by Wim Delvoye. The Belgian conceptualist is famous for, among other things, tiles featuring images of his own faeces.

It turns out, though, that Delvoye has “mellowed”, as one critic puts it, reflecting a general assumption that scatology must inevitably equate with being shocking. Yet the very opposite was the case in BBC Radio’s excellent adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which remains for me one of the summer’s cultural highlights.

Radio lends itself perfectly to Leopold Bloom’s famous visit to the outhouse. Accompanied by some of the BBC’s most convincing sound effects, Henry Goodman’s Bloom sits at stool reflecting on work, mortality and his wife’s infidelity, and so launching the basic plotline of one of the greatest English novels.

The scene is not conventionally shocking. It’s not like Delvoye’s “Cloaca” or Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung “Virgin”, pieces that win with ease that glib media epithet, “controversial”. Yet, on the 90th anniversary of the full publication of Ulysses, Bloom’s gentle morning crap still startles: pure toilet pathos, a sublime visit to that central, daily drama of our lives, where few novelists have ventured since. For all the transgression around, excrement still seems at its most transgressive when it’s not trying to be.

‘In An Absolute Disorder’, Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona, to September 29 www.artssantamonica.cat

Peter Aspden is away

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