Slava Mogutin: A Confrontational Russian Artist

Anna Hilderman,

At the age of 21, gay-rights activist Slava Mogutin was forced to flee Russia after facing criminal charges for his incendiary writings. Since settling in New York two decades ago, Mogutin has thrown himself into visceral installation work, performance art, and poetry that force us to confront our perceptions of sex and homosexuality. Food Chain is his latest English publication, “a blend of memoir, political satire and magic realism.”

A self portrait from Mogutin’s Instgram feed.

Q: Hailing from a Siberian town, how did you get started in activist journalism at such young age?

A: Both my parents are intellectuals and I’m a third generation writer. I grew up in the house with more books than furniture and have been writing poetry since my early teenage years. When I moved to Moscow at the age 14, I got involved in the underground art and literary scene, which was exploding at the time of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. Eventually I started making my living as a reporter and editor for several independent newspapers and radio stations. In the beginning I had to lie about my age in order to get published and be taken seriously, but I quickly gained a reputation as the enfant terrible of the new Russian journalism for my personal accounts and articles dealing with gay issues and outing prominent cultural figures and politicians at the time when homosexuality was still a taboo in the post-Soviet society and mainstream culture.

Q: Was the path to earning recognition as an LGBTQA+ artist any “easier” in the United States?

A: I had to fight for my existence and acceptance since the very beginning of my career, first as a journalist and poet in Moscow, then as a political exile and artist in the West. My work is still being routinelycensored on social media as “unsafe”. I take it as a compliment, I think it only demonstrates how prude, rigid and homophobic the Western culture remains despite all our civil rights achievements of the past 40 years since the Stonewall.

Q: What do you say to those who dismiss your art as overly provocative or even obscene?

A: I feel sorry for people who still consider nudity offensive. It’s a lack of education in general and art education in particular. Human body and sexuality have been celebrated in arts from the beginning of our civilization, and I find it ridiculous that in the 21st century we still have this discussion about nudity posing a threat to society. The real threat comes from the culture of guns, violence and perpetual war promoted by the corporate mainstream.

Q: Much of our own hate is fueled by shame–of ourselves or the shame we believe others should have to feel. How do you leave those perceptions behind?

A: I come from such a hostile, conservative and homophobic background that rebelling against injustice, taboos, brainwashing and propaganda of any kind became my natural instinct, my survival mechanism. Shame, just like Catholic guilt, is a terrible complex and is as damaging as any form of hatred or self-hatred. I always found my strength in being true to myself, and found my refuge and peace in poetry and art. If my work helped someone else overcome their shame or guilt and find their own voice, I consider my mission accomplished.

Q: Beyond homophobic persecution, your multimedia work has also targeted the surveillance state and the political treatment of non-Westerners. Are these issues that can be tackled by art?

A: I paid my dues as a political refugee and a secondclass citizen. I turned my exile into a creative experience and it shaped me as an artist. I think it’s important to remember your roots and don’t get stuck on any ideology or propaganda. I always wanted to use my creative powers in the rebelliousway for the betterment of all. I believe artists and writers can create a dialogue, revolution, social shift that no career politicians can ever dream We’ve seen it with the Beat movement in the US We’ve seen it with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the USSR. We’ve seen it with Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution in Czech Republic. We’re yet to see it in today’s Russia.

Q: As a self-described anarchist, do you believe anarchy necessary to defeating social injustice?

A: Quoting Oscar Wilde, “the form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all”. The sobering result of the rigged US presidential elections demonstrates how corrupt and rotten the entire capitalist system is. Same goes for the so-called US “democracy” where the popular vote doesn’t count in the end, and that’s how we got Donald Trump elected. It’s a sad time to be an American, but it gives us even more reasons not to trust our government, or any government for that matter. It’s time to think for ourselves and stop relying on cheating and lying politicians who only worry about stuffing their pockets and sucking on the taxpayer’s money. Gangster capitalism and monsters like Trump are the biggest threat that our civilization is facing and we must defeat it by all means necessary.

“Spotted this lovely poster at a local bakery in Connecticut”  (taken from Mogutin Instgram feed)

Q: What is the response in Russia to your current work?

A: I haven’t been back to Russia in 12 years, since my last show during the 1st Moscow Biennale. I still get a lot of press requests, fan and hate mail from Russia, but—most importantly—many personal messages from gay people who’re desperately trying to leave the country following the adaption of the infamous anti-gay legislation. Luckily, my political asylum in the US set a precedent for many gay refugees from Russia and other former Soviet Republics who recently adapted similar homophobic laws. Until these unjust laws exist, I don’t feel comfortable showing my work in Russia, although I continue to speak out against Putin’s corrupt regime.

Q: How do you engage with the international community on a collaborative level, such as with your SUPERM multimedia partnership?

A: Collaboration is one of the key elements of my practice, and I’m always open to working with other artists, both emerging and established. For many years I’ve collaborated with Brian Kenny under the umbrella of SUPERM that also included many of our friends like Gio Black Peter, François Sagat, and Matthieu Charneau. I’m now finishing my latest photography book, Bros & Brosephines, which includes some of the projects that Brian and I did together over the years.

Q: Your recent collaborations include projects with such iconic artists as Bruce LaBruce, Edmund White, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air and Susanne Oberbeck of No Bra. What else do you have coming up?

A: This year is promising to be very eventful. Besides my photography book, I’m working on a new collection of poetry, Satan Youth, and a book of essays and interviews covering over 20 years of my journalism, Gay in the Gulag. I’m also doing a new series of text drawings and abstract paintings for my upcoming solo show in Berlin, recordingan album featuring collaborations with some of my favourite artists, developing my fashion line.

the writer

Anna Hilderman

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