Avdei Support Group on Sun, 23 May 1999 12:01:04 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Avdei Ter-Oganian

[see also previous postings on nettime about Avdei's trail]

Avdei Ter-Oganian

By Charles Freund and Julia Volfson

We wish to bring to your attention the case of the Moscow artist Avdei
Ter-Oganian, who is currently facing a possible prison term of up to four
years for "crimes" of art. Mr. Ter-Oganian's case, in which he is pitted
against a disturbing alliance of Russia's religious and political
establishments, represents an important turning point in the struggle for
free speech in post-Soviet Russia: Whether he is exonerated or imprisoned
will have a lasting impact on free and open expression in Russia. Any
attention that can be given to Mr. Ter-Oganian's case outside Russia is
welcomed not only by him, but by all Russians who support the continuing
development of a free, secular society. Ter-Oganian's "crime."

Last December, Avdei Ter-Oganian took part in Moscow's Art Manege Fair.
His contribution was a performance drawn from a five-year satirical art
"project," in which he performs as the director of an imaginary art
gallery with the Futurist name, "Forward!" (Ter-Oganian runs a real art
school in Moscow: The School of Contemporary Art.) This project's purpose
is to reflect and comment on the Russian art scene, which is attempting to
reassert itself in the midst of notorious economic corruption, a
continuing "sovietized" social mentality, and a general preference for
visual realism. Ter-Oganian believes that contemporary Russian art
galleries face the choice of either being prisoners of the money and
tastes of the Russian nouveaux riches, or non-profit organizations.

The art fair installation presented a satirical portrayal of naive
"nihilism": It featured a provincial artist who was responding to foreign
cultural influences by aping Western radicalism. Specifically,
Ter-Oganian's installation offered to "sell" modish "degeneracy" to any
paying customer in the following way: The "young nihilist" would desecrate
a cheap, mass-produced religious icon for 50 rubles; the client could
desecrate an icon under the tutelage of the nihilist for 20 rubles;
desecration consultations could take place at the client's home for 10
rubles. The targets of this satire were those galleries trading in
commercialized Western radicalism. A number of fairgoers entered into the
spirit of the performance, and eight "actions" took place. Some cheap
icons were destroyed with a hatchet; one was painted over with a
profanity. However, others objected to the treatment of these icons,
although they were low-quality, cartoonish reproductions sold on the
street (and thus themselves commercial lampoons of the real thing). As the
scandal grew, Ter-Oganian's exhibit was closed, and further performances
were prohibited.

The consequences

Ter-Oganian controversy intensified, with numerous attacks appearing in
the press. Religious authorities seized on the issue, citing the artist as
a literally satanic influence in Russia. His case came to be perceived by
officials as a matter of state importance and a threat to the credibility
of the Moscow Patriarchate. In TV appearances and in newspaper articles,
Russian Orthodox priests openly called for the artist's punishment as
"Satan's man." They proclaimed it a necessity to control the action of
artists in general, because, as they framed it, the artist's soul is the
easiest target for satanic temptation. Ter-Oganian soon came to be
associated with all of Russia's problems. In the Russian parliament,
handbills were distributed appealing for action against Ter-Oganian so as
to protect Russia from further economic crises. In the end, the Moscow
prosecutor initiated a criminal case against him, charging him with
incitement of religious hatred.

The stakes

Avdei Ter-Oganian is currently ill and awaiting trial in Moscow. (The
trial has been postponed pending his recovery.) Defending him in the
popular press has become next to impossible, because the issues have been
successfully framed by church authorities as Good vs. Evil. An especially
disturbing aspect of the case is that state officials have made common
cause with religious zealots against the artist. One political official, a
reconstructed Communist, actually asserted to the Russian press that
"Orthodoxy is the basis of Russia's political and judicial system," and
that therefore Ter-Oganian and his supporters are enemies of the state.
One of the leading witnesses against Ter-Oganian will be no less than the
Dean of the authoritative (and heavily subsidized) Department of Visual
Arts at Moscow State University, who will testify in support of
Ter-Oganian's imprisonment on the theory that, whereas art should be
"constructive," Ter-Oganian's art is "destructive." Associating oneself
with Ter-Oganian has become dangerous. A recent effort by the Guelman
Gallery in Moscow to stage a benefit for him drew a group of
hatchet-wielding, anti-Ter-Oganian Cossacks who threatened the lives of
both the artist and the director, and who defaced Ter-Oganian's work.

Members of the Russian press assembled to cover the trial on its scheduled
opening date were attacked by a large crowd of anti-Ter-Oganian
demonstrators. Contemporary Russian artists are emerging from long years
of Soviet control, and are attempting to re-establish a broken tradition
of experiment and creativity. Russian aesthetic modernism was actually
born in the 1860s with the withdrawal of the "Wanderer" painters from the
Petersburg academy. Despite having to contend with Tsarist censorship, a
succession of painters, poets, composers, novelists, and, later,
filmmakers established one of the world's great avant-garde traditions,
encompassing visual and poetic constructivism, literary mystic
sectarianism, advances in cinematic montage, and other movements that,
while perhaps unfamiliar to many Westerners, are an integral part of the
world's artistic heritage. This remarkable vitality was driven underground
by the Communist regime. In attempting to re-establish the tradition,
today's Russian artists find themselves in the contentious role once
occupied by such creators as Stravinsky, Jarry, the Dadaists, and the
painters of the Salon des Refuses. Controversy is endemic to critical

Mr. Ter-Oganian does not regard himself or his work as immune from
criticism, either of the sort invited by his performances, or from
criticism that arises from unintended responses. In a democratic society,
Orthodox believers have as legitimate a role in the discourse of art as
anyone else. But at stake is the issue of freedom itself. By demonizing
Mr. Ter-Oganian and seeking to imprison him on trumped-up charges, the
Orthodox establishment and its political allies threaten to impose a
regime of de facto censorship as rigid as that of the Soviet commissars
from which the nation and its culture have only recently escaped. Already,
critics and journalists sympathetic to Mr. Ter-Oganian's situation have
become wary of supporting him. Many of Mr. Ter-Oganian's supporters in
Russia see his case as the most significant threat to freedom of
expression since the collapse of the Communist regime.

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