Enjoy Your Liberty
To say that I am shocked by the announcement of the apparent suicide of feminist art activist Oksana Shachko is an understatement. I have maintained an interest in art as activism for many years now, and it comes in many forms. Shachko was a beacon for many as one of the founding members FEMEN. Her passing represents a very great loss to the protest art movement.
In 2014, Oksana Shachko was viewed as a figurehead of the feminist art-activist organisation FEMEN, an organisation that fought corruption and patriarchal political systems both in her home country of Ukraine and the wider Europe. In Alain Margot's film I Am Femen, she was portrayed as the group's creative backbone, though she was by no means its only seemingly fearless member. Art as the enemy of dictatorships takes many forms, and it is something I've been writing about for some time, now, but never have I seen quite such an assault on the abuses of power than I witnessed in the protest actions of Oksana Shachko. For some artists their art is a mere posturing against the regimes that they claim to target, but FEMEN was and remains something quite different, indeed.
In hearing of Shachko's suicide, I have been going over in my mind the many examples I have encountered of artists who have had something to say about dictators and dictatorships over recent decades, but nothing seems to come close to what Shachko represented. While dictators and despots have made full use of the power of the image throughout history (Hitler and Stalin being most often cited in that regard) protest art and reflections on 'Power' from artists themselves has equally been deployed to varying degrees of success by those fighting tyranny, too. The simple fact is that, on the one hand, even the mere sniff of fascist sympathy can result in widespread castigation for an artist, but on the other a flirting wth the aesthetics of totalitarianism and tyranny can seem, at times, permissible – for the most privileged, at least.
The art of dictatorships is a touchy subject. That much we know. Some years ago when former-Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry told the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag of his admiration for the work of Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer, and for the aesthetics of National Socialism, his comments led to widespread condemnation from religious leaders and cultural commentators alike. In The Independent, the UK statesman and former war crimes investigator Greville Janner was reported to have said that he found Ferry’s comments so deeply offensive that, in true statesmanlike fashion, he wanted Ferry to be dropped from his position as the public face of a leading high-street clothing brand (a fate usually reserved for cocaine-binging supermodels).
What the issue raised however was not just the matter of Ferry’s poor judgment in revealing this detail to the German press, but also the fact that opinion is still fiercely divided on how to approach and interpret the aesthetics of Fascism – indeed, how to deal with totalitarian regimes per se. For some cultural commentators, fascist aesthetics have now become a definite 'no-go' area. Period. As the artist and author Kriss Ravetto has aptly put it in her book The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics, the accepted cultural edict is that now, 'one must not know fascism or Nazism because knowing, in the case of evil, always involves tasting some forbidden fruit; that is, it is perceived as a process of contamination.’ That said, as we have seen over recent decades, it is not just fascist aesthetics that are a no-go area. Communism too has come in for some taboo-establishing scrutiny.
In December 2006, for example, the late A.A. Gill wrote of his dismay when he was informed that a ‘reputable St. James’s auction house’ would be unable to sell a portrait of Stalin that he was seeking to dispose of. Company policy was not to sell Stalin or Hitler memorabilia he was told, and so he began setting about testing the limits of that policy. To cut a long story short, Gill asked his friend, the artist Damien Hirst, to add some detail to the portrait – namely a red 'nose' – and, needless to say, Gill’s Joe Stalin was soon sold – though as a ‘Hirst,’ and by Sotheby’s, for the vastly inflated price of £140,000.
What led to the breach of policy in Gill’s case was undoubtedly his willingness for all proceeds from the sale to go the charity Comic Relief of course, but in Denmark several years ago, a similar concern about a portrait of a known despot struck at the very heart of a museum’s sense of itself as a place of learning and knowledge.
In 2005, one of Andy Warhol’s many portraits of Mao Zedong became the centre of a scandal at the Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst when the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten led a campaign for the work to be removed from the museum in recognition of the 37,828,000 deaths that are still chalked up against Mao’s name. The museum’s director, Poul Erik Tøjner, responded forcefully in The Copenhagen Post with the comment that ‘Warhol’s painting doesn’t hang at Louisiana because we want to idolise Mao,’ yet his critics pointed to a belief among certain historians that Warhol’s many 'Maos' might have influenced President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s decision to open a diplomatic door to China in 1972, so powerful were the artist’s ‘apolitical’ portrayals of Mao as an apparently benign leader.
While the jury may still be out on whether Warhol really rescued the reputation of one of the most despised political figures of recent times, certainly a Mao by Warhol is not considered too risqué today. Indeed, in May 2007, a 1972 Warhol screen-print of Mao Zedong sold at Phillips, de Pury & Company for a princely sum of $72,000. The same year, a big attraction at the Vienna Art Fair was ironically a 7.6cm miniature transcription of Warhol’s Mao by the American artist Richard Pettibone, whose diminutive recreations of modernist masterpieces were once described by The New York Times as ‘pitch-perfect downsizing.’ In China, meanwhile, when it was announced that the original famous painting of Mao by Zhang Zhenshi was to be sold by a Chinese American for an estimated $125,000, the proposed sale sparked a national outcry that eventually led to it being acquired by the country’s National Museum instead.
Attempts to reinterpret the image of a dictator can take many forms of course, from the blue-eyed Ali H in T-shirt and baseball cap by the controversial Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout (a representation of Adolf Hitler as the homey we all love to hate) to Polish artist Seweryn Swacha’s multiple portrait of Saddam Hussein. Van Lieshout, who first made a name for himself internationally in 2003, when he represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale, was only ever indirectly interested in Hitler as part of his wider commentary on the taboo subjects of extreme right-wing politics, homosexuality, and racial conflict of course, whereas Swacha drew upon magazine images of Saddam Hussein for his Top 10 in a manner not dissimilar to Britain’s Peter Blake (at least on a superficial level).
As Swacha once told me, ‘Top 10 was created under the influence of two articles that I found in the popular Polish magazine Viva. One of the articles was about visual art in Iraq during the time of Saddam, and what interested me was the fact that almost all of the pictures of art in Iraq at that time were of paintings of the leader.’ A few pages further into the magazine, he says, ‘there was an article about the ten most beautiful actresses.’ In his conflation of the two sources, Swacha appears to have had something to say about what is at once both arbitrary and yet specific; the conveyance of an ideology in solely pictorial or visual terms, regardless of whether it be the ideology of the Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party dictatorship or the body-fixated visual culture of a wholly different corporate capitalist ideology – something that Oksana Shachko had been fighting for a long time, now.
Three artists that I have found most fascinating with regard to their portrayal (or parodying) of past leaders are all from Eastern Europe however, and all have sought to articulate something very urgent about a Europe in various states of transformation. Kamen Stoyanov, for example, is from Bulgaria and in a work from 2003, Hello Lenin, he pictured himself in photographic series, climbing a plinth on which a statue of Lenin once stood in his home town. Today it is just a graffitoed slab of concrete, but ‘I do remember the statue,’ he says. ‘The younger people, they don’t recall it. They just walk past without noticing it, but where did that Lenin go? One day he was there, and then the next he was gone!’What followed the removal of not just Lenin but the regime that his statue represented was, for Bulgaria, economic collapse of course, and there was, for a time, an understated warning in many of Stoyanov’s works not to embrace too heartily 'a false utopia'.
While Stoyanov replaced Lenin with his own image, Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie (who was recently reported to have been experiencing a surge in the prices of his work on the international art market of late) was to erase Stalin, or at least comments on Stalin as 'false memory' rather than fact. ‘The object of my painting Stalin’s Tomb is very much conceptual,’ Ghenie told me a few years ago:
It deals with the post mortem memory of Stalin and with the post mortem memory of dictators in general. I was always amazed, considering how strong was Stalin’s personality-cult during his lifetime and how people, after his death, either refused or were unable to remember him. I asked many people, both old and young, if they remembered a picture of Stalin’s tomb and they all were surprised that they didn’t.
Whenever Ghenie asked people a question about their memories of Stalin’s tomb, the response was always the same, he says. First they would say; ‘Yes, I remember Stalin’s tomb,’ and then, ‘Wait... no... that was Lenin. Stalin’s tomb? I don’t actually remember it!’ For Ghenie, this investigation led to a series of paintings that ‘portray a great evil, sealed by a mechanism in a kind of tomb covered in ash – an object that nobody wants to open again because if they do they will be soiled by it.’ The history of Eastern Europe since 1989, he said, was like ‘an ideological Pompeii; a throwing up of a kind of ideological dust coming from the collapse of a system,’ but the dictator himself was dust also, and his image is nowhere to be seen.
There is a marked difference in this regard to the portrayal by Marina Naprushkina of the current day Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenko. Born in Belarus, Naprushkina lives in Berlin where she has been settled for many years. ‘After a while I realised that the view from both inside and outside are insufficient concerning the reality of Belarus,’ she once told me: ‘Inside there is a lack of information because of the state-controlled media (you have only filtered news) whereas outside Belarus you have no knowledge about what it means to live in Belarus, or how the everyday-life of the Belarusian people is.’
When one thinks of Belarus today however, ‘you can’t avoid thinking about President Lukashenko,’ she said:
Alyaksandjr Lukashenko rules Belarus in a Soviet style and he is everywhere; Lukashenko has shaped the life, consciousness and the visual landscape of the Belarusian people, and as an artist I am really interested in how his dictatorship works, and by what means he makes his regime attractive to so many of the Belarusian people.
Of course like many a dictator, one of the main ruling instruments of the Lukashenko regime are pictures with which, said Naprushkina, ‘he influences their minds.’ In her work, Naprushkina tries to collect the most influential images and manipulate them and transform them into art; ‘It is propaganda as anti-propaganda, or as the Serbian artist Uros Djuric has put it recently: It is fake socialist realism about fake socialism.’
As Naprushkina explained to me in 2007:
Lukashenko's use of images follows very closely the respective historical traditions of the Soviet Union with its use of images to mobilise its supporters and to create legitimacy within the people. In that perspective Lukashenko is the direct heir of Lenin, Stalin and the prolific propaganda department of the Soviet regime; images used by the Lukashenko regime are derivative upgrades of Soviet images – a carefully produced image is more robust than large amounts of text.
The image of Lukashenko as benign dictator bears strong similarities to the images of Saddam Hussein as a benign figure on the banners and murals of Umm Qasr and Baghdad that became regularly visited upon TV news audiences following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then. Naprushkina’s eye is more discerning when it comes to propagandist images though; ‘whereas Stalin and his regime had something like a core idea and a developed ideology which were in the centre of the Soviet propaganda machine, the Lukashenko regime has precisely nothing of that – it is mere marketing: pure propaganda.’
There is a chilling reality that one comes up against in Naprushkina’s painting and multi-media works, though. While the challenge (some would call it a luxury) for contemporary artists in states such Bulgaria and Romania is to interrogate yet the utopia of western-style corporate capitalism in a federalised Europe, in Belarus the state is meanwhile intolerant of contemporary art of the kind made by Naprushkina. What strikes me most about Naprushkina therefore is not just her eloquence in articulating something of the political situation in her home country, but also, quite simply, her courage.
Naprushkina's work has still not been shown in Belarus. When I interviewed her last, ‘Belarus is not a good place for modern art with a socio-critical or political impetus,' she said ,'and every time I go home to Belarus, I have an unpleasant feeling that someone will call me to an interview.’ It's no wonder, really: in 2011, Naprushkina's My Daddy is a Policeman applied a colouring book format printed and distributed via activists across Belarus by a non-government organisation called "Nash Dom" ("Our house"). It was also displayed at an exhibition, with spare copies of the work, on which visitors were invited to draw, attached to the wall. As one might expect, at home the work was not well-received by the regime.
It’s a sobering thought and an important reminder that while thousands of dollars are being paid in auction houses elsewhere for portraits of dictators once reviled for their crimes committed against their own people, for some contemporary artists the freedom to make art is still often hard-won, the price paid frequently is either imprisonment or self-exile. With the news, yesterday, of the suicide of Oksana Shacko, therefore, I don't mind saying that I feel deeply – very deeply – affected by her passing. She too lived in exile, in Paris, and she too had campaigned against the last European dictatorship of Alyaksandjr Lukashenko, as well as so many other political leaders viewed by the FEMEN movement as dictators.
Some time ago now – it seems like a lifetime ago – I interviewed Shachko. In 2011 she was among three members of a protest group who were seized by security officers following their topless protest mocking Lukashenko. Here at home we would say that she was 'arrested' but, no, she and her fellow protestors were seized. It was something quite different to mere arrest. Following that seizure, they were taken to a forest and made to strip naked, whereupon their heads were shaved, and oil was poured over them, the security services then threatening to set then on fire. It was not until 2012 or maybe 2013, I think, that she finally secured her political asylum abroad (indeed, the first post that appears on her Instagram feed that is still online celebrates that fact).
It remains to be seen what the precise events were that led to Shachko's suicide, but from the little I knew of her following my interview with her, I strongly suspect that the pressure of self-exile in Paris had a great deal to do with it, as well as disputes she was known to have had with other members of the FEMENS movement, such as her fellow member Inna Shevchenko.
A protest artist who claims political asylum in another country, as Shacko did following exile, does not live in the ever-present knowledge that they are free from harm or finally in a place of safety, though. Quite the contrary. They know what it is to live among those who often take liberty for granted. It takes a strong-willed individual to withstand that experience and the impact it can have upon every waking minute of one's life. I don't pretend to know why she took her own life but I know this was an aspect that played heavily upon her mind.
Although Oksana Shachko is said to have enrolled at Paris’s Beaux-Arts school last year, drawing upon the skills she once showed as a young icon painter in Ukraine, her recent artwork was still clearly that of a political activist. Poignant is it that the final post that Shachko made to her Instagram feed reads simply: You Are Fake. We are now left to ponder that statement as either an accusation of those around her or an act of self-loathing or self-criticism. Perhaps it means neither. Perhaps it means both. I have an awful feeling that we shall probably never know.