15 49.0138 8.38624 none none 5000 1 fade http://www.smithsmagazine.co.uk 250 10

Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Review: Inside Pussy Riot

December 1, 2017
Rachel Klarnetatzi reviews the immersive experience of Inside Pussy Riot at Saatchi Gallery.

What does political activism have to do with a private owned art gallery? Is a prestigious art space the appropriate place to make a political statement? Inside Pussy Riot proves that the serious matter of repression of expression can be creatively approached and interpreted even in the prestigious Chelsea venue.

Pussy Riot, a Russian protest group founded in 2011, is classed as a team of political activists. Throughout their unauthorised performances held in Russia, they explore the ideas of human rights, feminism, and LGTBQ rights as well as strongly stating their opposition to the oppressive policy of Vladimir Putin. They started as an anonymous group of female activists (always wearing their colourful balaclavas during their various performances), encouraging anyone who wanted to take part in their performances. However, it is interesting to understand how their actions have evolved in a western approach since 2011, as they are now represented by two key figures and enjoy international appeal.

Inside Pussy Riot tells the story of members of the group’s arrest and imprisonment in penal colonies in Russia under terrible conditions. It is conceived by Pussy Riot founding member Nadya Tolokonnikova and executed by the award-winning theatre group Les Enfant Terribles. The performance storyline follows Pussy Riot’s infamous ‘punk prayer’ performance playing their song Holy Shit in the interior of an orthodox church, where three members of the group had been arrested for hooliganism and religious hatred and subsequently two of them (Nadya Tolokonnikova & Maria Alyokhina – the main members of Pussy Riot) were sentenced to two years in a labour colony.

Portrait of Nadya Tolokonnikova

Upon arrival, the audience are asked to fill in a form in which they identify themselves with a specific life statement such as gender equality, fair wealth redistribution, environmental issues, or others. After that, they are guided into a church, where they play the punk rock prayer as if they are Pussy Riot members. What comes next is the gruesome part of becoming a prisoner in a slightly surreal (with circus features) totalitarian dystopia. The all-female cast (a fact that caught me by surprise in a positive way) brutally screams out orders that the audience has to follow at each stage. The participants are sent to court, to prison cells, to a ‘disgusting’ toilet and a work room where they futilely have to engage with different meaningless tasks (thread needles or polish old coins), while being harassed (or sexually harassed in my case; a guard kept whispering inappropriate words in my ears!). By the end of the performance, the audience is guided into isolation cells, where you get the opportunity to hear the inspiring words of Nadya, who urges you to take action and break your silence. As a consequence, all audience members are encouraged to yell their initial statements at the camera, a great opportunity to basically scream at the system.

The performance left me with an overall positive experience. The sets were brilliantly made, although the circus-comical-surreal element (excessive make-up on all cast members, etc) felt a bit out of tune. Their performances were ambiguous for that same reason; there were times when you felt like laughing, while others that you felt awkwardly scared.

As part of the pre or post experience of the performance it is highly recommended to have a look at the Art-Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism exhibition which takes place at the ground floor of the gallery. The exhibition features a wide array of genres: posters and slogans, video art, staged photography and performance. It explores the issues of individual freedom of expression and in particular raises questions about artistic freedom in Russia, presented by some of the most interesting and controversial artists in the country: Oleg Kulik, Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, Blue Noses Art Group, Arsen Savadov, AES + F and Vasily Slonov.

Despite its slightly ironic location and the confusing alleged humorous elements, the performance really manages to get its intense message across: break the boundaries of oppression, fight the power of a system that has maltreat you and set the motions of the change you wish to see, in Russia or anywhere else in the world.

Inside Pussy Riot runs until December 24. Find out more information on the exhibition here.

Words and photos, Rachel Klarnetatzi