After last year's terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, and President Vladimir Putin's subsequent steps to strengthen his political power, Marat Guelman formulated a response of sorts. It was an artistic doctrine and a political declaration, a social and cultural challenge to the state of what he called Russia 1.
Guelman, owner of one of the country's first post-Soviet art galleries, called his project Russia 2 and opened it with an exhibition of paintings and other works intended to parallel Moscow's first biennial of contemporary art last January and February. The exhibition's tone was irreverent, subversive and piercingly critical of Putin, the Kremlin and, significantly, the Russian Orthodox Church.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Russia 1 has struck back.
A group of nine artists unaffiliated with the exhibit has filed a civil suit against Guelman and the exhibition hall where the works first appeared, the Central House of Artists. They are see-king the equivalent of US$175,000 in compensation for the "moral injury" caused by four of the works, by some of Russia's most prominent contemporary artists: Gor Chahal; Marina Kolodobskaya; the comic pair Vyacheslav Mizin and Aleksandr Shaburov, known as the Blue Noses; and the trio of conceptual artists calling themselves A.E.S.
"The openly confrontational, provo-cative and scandalous nature of the exhibition does not fit in any account to any understanding of art and has nothing in common with it," the artists' complaint reads. A court in Moscow began hearing the case this month, and its next session is scheduled for Monday (Dec. 5).
Next Thursday, a large selection of Russia 2 is to go on view in New York City at the White Box gallery in Chelsea. Other works from the Moscow show are to appear at Magnan Projects' Annex in Chelsea and at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in TriBeCa from Dec. 8 to Jan. 11.
The complaint filed in Moscow cited provisions in Russia's Constitution protecting human rights and religious freedom and an article in the criminal code against inciting ethnic and religious hatred. That article was the basis earlier this year for the criminal conviction of the director and a curator at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow on a charge arising from a 2003 exhibition of paintings and sculptures that many saw as ridiculing the Russian Orthodox Church. The director, Yuri Samodurov, and the curator, Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, were fined US$3,600 each, although not imprisoned as prosecutors had demanded.
Like the Sakharov case, the dispute over Russia 2 has thrust into opposition two groups -- artists and the religiously observant -- that suffered enormously under state-imposed ideology in the Soviet Union but have flourished since the state unraveled in 1991. It also underlines what Putin's critics argue is the emergence of a new ideology, with the church at its foundation, that rarely tolerates public criticism of the state and its symbols.
Which was Guelman's point in the first place.
"It is not at all like it was in Soviet times, when art was underground," he said in an interview in his loftlike apartment, which looks out on the newly rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral. "It is just that there are two countries that exist today in Russia. Russia 2 showed this."
The exhibition drew complaints from the start. A group of nationalists in the Russian Parliament quickly appealed to prosecutors, as did members of the church. It was a group of artists, though, who filed formal charges, in both criminal and civil court. They are all members of the Moscow Union of Artists -- a sort of official academy -- who are Orthodox believers.