Out of Russia: Moscow beats the art of indifference

MOSCOW - The guests munched on canapes of soggy sausage, and gulped down glasses of vodka. Artists in scuffed corduroy jackets mingled with Moscow glitterati, men with pointy lapels and silk ties, women powdered and perfumed, lips daubed a brighter red than old Communist slogan boards.

A few years ago a similar crowd might have gathered to honour the latest product of Moscow's dissident avant-garde, a frisson of fear adding to the pleasures of a generously catered vernissage, as the Russians describe an exhibition opening.

And excitement there was, too, the other day at a private gallery off Tverskaya Street. Once again there was the thrill of treading close to the edge, the novelty of bucking stale convention. Times, though, have changed.

Next to the drinks table at the far end of the gallery, housed in an annex of the Moscow Children's Art School, stood the main attraction: three sombre busts in white plaster. Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and, in a gesture of what now passes for artistic daring, the ultra-nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Alongside hung what would once have been the focus of attention - lurid tableaux of pointed political satire, abstract squiggles and flamboyant nudes. Freedom, though, has turned the world upside down. Boring is shocking, counter-culture convention, orthodoxy dissent.

As Russia rushes to remove statues of past tyrants, toppling Felix Dzerzhinsky from his pedestal before the headquarters of the KGB he fathered, selling off busts of Lenin to Western collectors of socialist kitsch, a few artists have decided to swim against the tide.

Helping them is Pyotr Tulenev, a crew-cut former architect who makes his living trading art and who helped organise the party. 'Fashion changes,' he says. 'People want different things . . . Some statues go up; others come down.'

Mr Tulenev sent invitations to the three men sculpted in plaster. Mr Gorbachev and Mr Yeltsin declined. But Mr Zhirinovsky, ever eager to promote his plans to annexe Finland, expel all Africans and fix exchange rate for the rouble at one-to-one with the dollar (it currently trades at around 250 on the open market), did attend.

He liked his sculpture. It made him look like a Roman emperor. Mr Zhirinovsky rather fancies himself as an emperor. Though a fierce anti-Communist, he hankers after the empire Communism held together. One of the regular activities of his Liberal Democratic Party - a body noted neither for its liberalism nor commitment to democracy - are protests in support of the jailed plotters behind last year's coup. Many Russians might dismiss him as an unhinged buffoon, but six million others voted for him when he stood for president against Mr Yeltsin on a platform of cheap vodka and strident nationalism.

Posing for photographers beside his bust, he took up his favourite theme: Russia's lost empire. The target was Japan, whose demand that Moscow return four islands captured at the end of the Second World War is the outrage of the moment for Moscow's hard right. 'Japan attacked us and we defeated them. We will never give up a single inch of territory.'

A handful of supporters nodded. Other guests looked on in dismay. Their art exhibit had become a political rally. But then politics is never far from art in Moscow. And Mr Zhirinovsky's followers have every intention of bringing them closer: they want to move the bust to their hero's birthplace, Kazakhstan, another bit of territory he wants back.

Mention of Kazakhstan triggers a fresh barrage. 'These two have destroyed Russia. They gave everything away,' booms Mr Zhirinovsky, gesturing to the busts of a vacant-looking Gorbachev and a pug-nosed Yeltsin. 'What the artist of these works is saying is that we need a new leader, a third man who can correct their mistakes.'

Unfortunately, what the artist, Vyacheslav Shcherbakov, really meant to say with his plaster busts is not known. He was out of Moscow so could not be on hand to explain.

Whatever his intent, he has already secured a rare prize - interest. Some guests suspected a cheap publicity stunt; others saw a dry political joke. Vladimir Feoktistov, an art critic, disagreed: 'They look too serious to be a joke. They're an affront to everything else in this gallery.'

And so, with all eyes on the plaster busts, the arguments went on. No small achievement in a city where abstract art - banned in public places only a decade ago - is old hat, the nude portrait about as shocking as snow in winter, and freedom, not repression, posing the biggest threat of all: indifference.

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