July 5, 2024

In Search of the Miraculous: Nadya Tolokonnikova in Linz

Boris Groys

Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, 2012.

Since the Renaissance, artists have had an ambiguous relationship to religion. On the one hand, artists during and after the Renaissance wanted to liberate themselves from the dictates of religious authority. On the other, they were envious of religion’s ability to capture and dominate the minds and hearts of the people. In our very secular civilization, we cannot completely forget the time when people prayed in front of sacred images—and not simply asked about their price. Indeed, even if contemporary artists are glad when their work is found to be provocative, impressive, and moving, they know that this work will make no lasting impact on spectators, will not change their behavior in any significant way. In the times of the historical avant-garde, artists tried to influence spectators by changing the environments in which they lived. However, people quickly accommodated to the new architecture and design, and as a result simply overlooked them. The Church, by contrast, cannot be overlooked. The Church is a special place—a sacred space opposed to profane space. We can say that the Church is an artistic installation in which the visitor is confronted with the Other. However, even if many modern and contemporary art installations—like the Rothko Chapel and Christoph Schlingensief’s Church of Fear—have tried to imitate this effect of otherness, their strategies have not been successful: visitors know perfectly well that they are entering a space filled with the symbolic presence of another human being, not of the Other.

In an apparent paradox, what seems to provoke and mobilize religious feeling in our time is not traditional-looking, religiously inspired art but iconoclastic, blasphemous profanations of sacred images. Indeed, in a very strange way, blasphemous images—images that desecrate and profane traditional religious images—can still produce a shock in our thoroughly secular societies. The Church can be abandoned, but it remains respected. Disrespect towards the Church and its symbols awakens dormant religious feelings that the Church itself is unable to mobilize. In the recent past we have seen this effect time and again. Here the case of Pussy Riot is especially interesting. In the West, the “punk prayer” that made the group internationally famous was interpreted primarily as a manifestation of political protest against the Putin regime. And there is no doubt that this protest was the main message of the Pussy Riot song that prayed to the Holy Mother of God to drive away Putin.

However, for the postcommunist Russian society of the time, the most noteworthy aspect of the song was not its anti-Putin message but the fact that it was performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. In those days, the position of religion in Russian society—or at least in its liberal part—was similar to its position in other contemporary secular societies. However, there was an important difference. During Soviet times the Russian Orthodox Church was subjected to severe repression. It survived but was almost completely socially isolated. The Soviet state understood itself as atheistic. Its dominant ideology was programmatically anti-religious. Post-Soviet society—remaining, actually, totally secular—felt a certain degree of responsibility and even guilt towards the Church, celebrating any sign of compensation for historically persecuting it. One of these signs was the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This is why Pussy Riot’s performance was criticized not only by state officials but also by liberal milieus that passively, and sometimes openly, opposed this state. I remember this time well. I immediately liked the performance but very few Russian acquaintances shared my fascination. The majority thought that nobody should desecrate the Church when it was in the process of recovering from a long period of persecution and social isolation. Since then, the social atmosphere in Russia has changed. The Church’s slavish obedience towards Putin’s regime has disappointed everybody who hoped that the restoration of the Church would lead to a “spiritual Renaissance” of Russian culture. In fact, the Church’s support for the absurd legal trial against Pussy Riot—the opposite of “Christian clemency”—had a sobering effect on the liberal milieus.

Pussy Riot’s appearance in the church entailed not only a critique of the Church as an institution but also a recognition and evocation of the sacred religious energies it symbolizes. The members of Pussy Riot were not the first post-Soviet performance artists to (unlawfully) occupy—and use as a stage—a place they saw as the symbolic center of Russian culture and politics. Other artists, however, usually selected Red Square as the symbolic center; the choice of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was an innovation. History has shown that Pussy Riot was correct in its choice; indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church became a powerful force behind Putin’s drive to restore the prerevolutionary Russian empire—an empire in which the Church, it must be said, also had a subaltern position.

But it would be a mistake to see in this gesture only an expression of a critical attitude towards the Church. We can also detect in it a desire by Pussy Riot to situate its performance in the long tradition of religious rituals. After all, the Church is nothing other than a stage for performances of different types—all of them addressing, according to believers, magic powers that are able to influence and even change the course of human affairs. It is this magic power that contemporary art obviously does not have. In her commentary on her current exhibition “RAGE” (on view at OK Linz through October), Nadya Tolokonnikova, the head of Pussy Riot, writes: “When I was ten, my dad told me that the biggest thing an artist could do is to start a new religion. That has been my goal as an artist ever since, hence the cross. Can we believe in something greater than ourselves without being sexist, homophobic, transphobic, tyrant-supporting fanatics?” The cross she refers to is a symbol she made using old Slavonic calligraphy, on view in the exhibition. The exhibition consists of Rage Chapel, Mausoleum for Putin, Isolation Cell, and other installations. Here again—and especially in Rage Chapel—Tolokonnikova uses traditional Russian Orthodox imagery as a way to break with the established conventions of contemporary art. She has a precursor in Malevich, who used the tradition of icon painting in the same way. Tolokonnikova writes:

I was fifteen when I started to identify as an artist. The tradition started by Malevich, Tatlin, Mayakovsky, and other avant-garde artists was sacred to me. I was drawn to the type of art that had revolutionary ambitions … When I started making art, I set myself an impossible goal: to keep my teenage openness, curiosity, rebelliousness, and naivety for the rest of my professional life—as an artist, as a philosopher. Philosophy starts with wonder, Aristotle said. I was sixteen when I moved to Moscow to started my art practice. I looked around and couldn’t find many idealist and revolutionary ambitions in art, so I had to create my own—which later resulted in Pussy Riot.

Referring to two of her images in the exhibition, she writes further:

PUSSY RIOT BLACK SQUARE and PUSSY RIOT WHITE SQUARE use ancient church Slavonic calligraphy to write Pussy Riot into the revolutionary tradition of the avant-garde. During the Pussy Riot trial in 2012, there were calls to burn Pussy Riot at the stake for heresy, witchcraft, religious hatred, and attempting to destroy the thousand-year-old traditions and spiritual customs of Russia. If those imperialist traditions and customs later led to Russia invading Ukraine, then yes, it’s exactly what Pussy Riot members were seeking to destroy with their punk prayer.

The use of old Church Slavonic calligraphy may seem like a strange way for Pussy Riot to integrate itself into the avant-garde tradition. Here, however, this tradition is understood as an evocation of the uncontrollable forces of chaos in the middle of the ordered, bureaucratically administered contemporary world. In the closing statement at her 2012 trial, Tolokonnikova said:

The art of creating the image of an era knows no winners or losers. In the same way, the OBERIU poets remained artists, truly inexplicable and incomprehensible, even after being purged in 1937. [The poet] Alexander Vvedensky wrote, “The inexplicable pleases us, and the incomprehensible is our friend.” OBERIU’s elevated and refined pursuits, their search for thought at the edge of meaning, ultimately cost them their lives, taken by the senseless and truly inexplicable Great Terror. They paid with their lives to show that they had been right to believe that senselessness and a lack of logic expressed their era best. They made art into history.

The Church is often seen as sanctifying the existing social order. But it is also a place of rituals and discourses that look and sound strange and irrational to contemporary, secular people. The religious space is a space of the miraculous, populated not only by the righteous and saints but also by witches and demons. In his book Man and the Sacred, Roger Caillois interprets religious taboos and rules as protecting the profane order from irrational, sacred energies. As long as these taboos are in place, the sacred remains isolated from the profane, but when they are broken, the sacred pours into the profane world. Then the sacred begins to function as an infection, destroying profane orders and bringing chaos into the normal life of society. We should be happy that the divine and the demonic—they are both big Others—remain isolated and pacified inside the Church’s walls. Yet we are still anxious to reawaken these sacred forces through gestures of intrusion and desecration. The artistic avant-garde—at least the early one—was this kind of gesture seeking to reawaken chaos. In our time, few artists situate themselves in this tradition. But Tolokonnikova does precisely this. She searches for the miraculous, in the middle of the rationally, strategically operating art world.

Religion & Spirituality, Contemporary Art
Russia, Soviet Union

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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