Russian lawsuit testing limits of free expression

March 23, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- Oleg Kassin objected to them all: the portrait of a robed Jesus Christ, his face replaced by a Mickey Mouse head, among his disciples; an icon of a halo-adorned Virgin Mary done in dots made to look like caviar; the photo of a crouched woman in a brassiere, thong and high-heeled boots with her rear to the camera.

So he and the Russian Orthodox church group to which he belongs went to court this week, claiming not just questionable artistic taste, but an outright crime.

For the second time in recent years, an exhibit at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center has become the object of a legal fight here and a touchstone for debate on the right to - and limits of - free expression in Russia, which, as it turns out, often comes at a cost.

"There are traditional Orthodox symbols, relics," said Kassin, coordinator of the People's Council, which brought the lawsuit in Moscow court, charging the exhibit's organizers with violating a law against inciting religious and ethnic hatred. "It's considered blasphemous to mock Christian feelings. It's like insulting the American flag."

The exhibit, Forbidden Art -- 2006, contains two dozen works, each of which was barred from public display in Russian galleries last year, according to the show's organizers. The pieces - which also aestheticize obscene language and nudity - are provocative, like much art: One shows the Order of Lenin medal, with Jesus' head where Lenin's should be, while Christ is nailed to the cross. Another recasts a line from the Bible - "Be fruitful, and multiply" - into sexually explicit language. Still another depicts Jesus alongside the golden arches of McDonald's. "This is my body," it says.

Even the way the works are displayed taps the theme of the forbidden: Entering the one-room gallery, one sees only an installation of four white walls on which are hand-printed the artists' names and the works' titles. The art is accessible only by looking through peepholes, engaging in what feels like an act of voyeurism.

"We wanted to draw attention to the problem of censorship," said curator Andrei Yerofeyev, who was prevented from showing many of the pieces in exhibits he curated at the State Tretyakov Gallery's modern art museum in Moscow.

"In Soviet times there was a special censorship committee which either forbade or allowed particular works of art - or it could be a call from officials," said Yerofeyev, who heads the Tretyakov's department of modern trends. "Now, it's self-censorship of modern institutions of culture."

The art isn't anti-religious, he said, it's simply misunderstood.

The church and its believers have had harsh words for the exhibit, which Kassin said he could stomach for only 10 minutes. A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate called the exhibit's organizers "absolutely immoral" and "not worthy of a handshake." The Moscow branch of Orthodox Citizens, another church group, suggested that they be examined.

"It would be right to have a psychiatric examination of the exhibition's organizers and participants," a statement sent by Orthodox Citizens to the Interfax news agency said, "because their blasphemy mania may be a result of a sexual pathology, for instance exhibitionism."

"Every illegal action first of all proves weakness of those who commit it," the statement said. "Our goal is to secure due respect for our sacred objects by lawful means."

This has happened before. In 2003, the Sakharov Museum ran an exhibition called Caution! Religion, which satirized the church and modern culture. One work, a companion piece to Forbidden Art's "This is my body," had Jesus' face with an ad for Coca- Cola that said, "This is my blood." The exhibit included a model of a church fashioned out of bottles of vodka - a poke at the tax breaks the church received for selling the liquor - and an installation of a faux religious icon, with a hole where the face should be so people could insert their own.

Caution! Religion was closed after four days, following protests from church believers and the ransacking of the museum and center. Charges against four of the men accused of the crime were dropped. The other two were acquitted.

In the end, punishment was meted out in an altogether different form: In 2005, the center's director, Yuri Samodurov, and a colleague were convicted in a separate case of inciting religious hatred and fined the equivalent of $3,600 each.

Samodurov said in an interview this week that he hadn't expected another lawsuit. He is not hopeful that the court will uphold the right to display the show, which runs through month's end; even the board of directors of the Sakharov Foundation, named after the scientist, dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, has been discussing whether to close it.

"The problem is interpretation," Samodurov said. "Those people who say it should be shut down and say it's a disgrace, I understand that they interpret these works from the religious point of view.

"According to the constitution, we're a pluralistic society," Samodurov said. "Our state is not religious. That's why there shouldn't be any obligatory religious censorship."

Yerofeyev, the curator, had wanted to include several of the works in two of his shows at the New Tretyakov - one on Russian pop art and Andy Warhol, the other on so-called "sots art" - but was told he couldn't. The icon made to look like caviar had been on display in the gallery, but was later taken down after the Patriarchate registered a complaint, he said.

"The problem is, they don't want to discuss it," he said of the Tretyakov's leadership. "They simply say it's forbidden. Maybe they are right; some things should be forbidden. But there should be arguments, professional ones."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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