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Review: Scream Along With Pussy Riot

Downstairs at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, about 20 miles north of Copenhagen, a woman is urinating on President Vladimir V. Putin. Balanced on a table above a black-and-white portrait of the Russian leader, her blonde hair and face shrouded in a bright-red balaclava, she hitches up her loose dress and answers nature’s call, drenching the photograph before kicking it to the ground.

This video work reprises a recent stage performance by the art collective Pussy Riot and opens the largest presentation of the group’s work to date, the first in a major museum. (It runs through Jan. 14, 2024.) A neon-hued cacophony of rooms beckons, filled with photographs taped to walls at rakish angles, more videos, grainy footage, handwritten texts and drawings.

Curated by one of the group’s founding members, Maria Alyokhina, “Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia” charts 12 years of anti-Putin protest actions by the fluctuating collective of between 10 and 20 feminists who have described their work as “dissident art,” “civic activism” and “political action that engages art forms.” In its early days, the group was often referred to in Western news media as “a band,” but it has always worked across artistic mediums.

Maria Alyokhina leading a guided tour through the exhibition “Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art last month.Credit…Sergei Gapon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This genre evasion is deliberate, anarchic and D.I.Y.-oriented, encouraging broad and spontaneous participation: According to jagged letters made from yellow tape on a magenta wall at the Louisiana, “EVERYONE CAN BE PUSSY RIOT.” “You just need to put on a mask and stage an active protest of something in your particular country, wherever that may be, that you consider unjust,” Alyokhina has said.

Early works from 2011, opposing the rigging of Russian elections, poor prison conditions and misogyny, are scrappy and ad hoc, but establish Pussy Riot’s enduring aesthetic: A handful of women in neon balaclavas, vibrant tights and short-sleeved dresses (even in the Russian winter) stand atop buses, on scaffolding erected in the metro, in the streets amid high-end boutiques, on the roofs of Kremlin-affiliated bars and outside prisons. They yell, pump their fists, wail on their guitars, set off flares, cause a fuss.

The lyrics of Pussy Riot’s songs, screamed as loudly as possible, are funny and provocative (“Occupy this city with a kitchen frying pan / Come out with a vacuum cleaner, get an orgasm”) and many use language that can’t be printed in this newspaper. Some invoke the Arab Spring of the early 2010s: a nod to global solidarity in rebellion, as well as to the role that digital technologies and new media platforms might play in disseminating revolutionary ideas.

To protest Putin’s 2012 re-election and the increasing closeness of church and state, five Pussy Riot members stormed the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin!” they yelled, standing in their homemade outfits at the altar, where women are forbidden. A large space in the Louisiana show is devoted to this “Punk Prayer,” for which the state handed two of the group’s members — Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova — two-year prison sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The performance itself had lasted 45 seconds.

Members of Pussy Riot performing the action “Punk Prayer,” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012. Credit…Mitya Aleshkovsky

The court case, seen by many as a Stalin-esque “show trial,” is delineated in detail, including the language employed by officials: An investigator refers to the women as “demons,” an Archpriest says they are “not girls, but creatures” whose children should be taken away, a lawyer insists that “feminism is a mortal sin.” (The prosecution also argued the women had been possessed by demons.)

The event, which was widely reported by international news media, garnered support from prominent politicians and cultural figures in the West, and launched the group onto the cover of Time magazine. In cities across Europe and North America, protesters donned vibrant balaclavas and marched in the streets exhorting “Free Pussy Riot!” It didn’t work, unsurprisingly, and the two women were imprisoned under brutal conditions, then immediately returned to Pussy Riot activities.

The group’s art is at its best when it is chaotic, surprising, visually striking, bold. “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland” documents, in film and photographs, the making of a Pussy Riot music video at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where the group was surveilled by the Russian security services and violently accosted mid-song while performing in the street. In “Policeman World Cup Enters the Game,” four members dressed as security personnel ran onto the pitch of the 2018 soccer final, comically pursued and dragged off the field by guards. (One managed to high-five Kylian Mbappé.) A video simultaneously released on the group’s YouTube channel demanded fair elections and the release of political prisoners.

Pussy Riot’s anarchic and D.I.Y.-oriented approach is reflected in the exhibition at the Louisiana. Credit…Kim Hansen/Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

In these displays, the gallery is enlivened by Pussy Riot’s correspondences with art historical movements that were similarly invested in live action, rather than finished objects: Futurism, Dada, Situationism, Fluxus, Actionism, feminist performance, Riot grrrl. When the exhibition strays into documentation of more basic activities (holding signs, erecting pride flags, spraying pro-Ukraine graffiti), it is no less interesting as a chronicle of bravery under worsening authoritarianism, but the art is difficult to locate.

It is often said that all art is political, whether overtly or not. Alyokhina’s exhibition is a retrospective but also a road map to the evolution of Putin’s regime, culminating in the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is a tacit reprimand, too, of the complicity of Western nations that ignored so many warning signs, turning a blind eye to pursue business interests while Russian citizens, including opposition politicians, were imprisoned, poisoned and murdered.

Recent years have seen many exhibitions whose interpretive texts provide long lists of political aims that are hard to find in the work. Such tidy assertions are lazy and cynical if we still believe that art might effect change. What does it mean to have skin in the game, so to speak? To occupy space that is prohibited to you? Pussy Riot belongs to a line of artistic social practices in which activism is a part of everyone’s responsible citizenship, artist or not. Everyone can be Pussy Riot, after all.

Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia

ThroughJan. 14, 2024 at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark; louisiana.dk.

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