Pop Art has had a profound influence on the art world since it emerged in the 1950s, inspiring numerous artistic offshoots around the world. An exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, Post Pop, which opens this week, seeks to capture Pop Art’s enduring legacy with the largest survey of the movement to date. One of the three curators responsible for the show is the Russian Andrei Erofeev, a provocateur whose exhibitions in Russia have angered both the church and the state. The Calvert Journal talked to him about Post Pop, protest art and Putin’s Russia.
The exhibition features works from artists from China, the former Soviet Union, Taiwan, UK and the US. How did you begin to consider the links between artworks from artists who come from fundamentally different cultures and ideological backgrounds?
The west’s discovery of art from eastern Europe and Asia began only recently. Artists from the Soviet Union and from China entered the world of modern art through communication and dialogue with western art, and, in actual fact, principally through Pop Art. But this communication was extremely limited, often taking the form of art reproductions, which saw the artworks usually reproduced in black and white. Much of this, like it or not, was conjecture, but this only strengthened the distinctness of the eastern version of what Pop Art was. Moreover, as Russian artists started to forge their own way creating Sots Art, following American and British samples, so in turn did the Chinese come up with their Political-Pop [also known as Cynical Realism], which featured a lot of techniques borrowed from the Soviets’ Sots Art.
What was the criteria for selecting the artworks for the exhibition?
Five people were involved in the selection of the artists to be involved in the exhibition — three curators, the organiser Igor Tsukanov and the Chief Executive of the Saatchi Gallery Nigel Hurst. Each person had their own criteria, though what seemed to be shared by every one of us was to the desire to feature artworks from the main figures of Russian Pop Art and Sots Art. However, because the space in the exhibition for Russian art inevitably ended up being smaller than we originally thought, we didn’t totally succeed in our task. We show Komar and Melamid, Kabakov, Sokova, Kosolapova, Bruskina and several other bright young artists, but could not, for example, include the work of Ivan Chuikov, which is a great pity. My British and Chinese colleagues wanted to introduce new names instead of showing artists from a definitive list. Therefore, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin don’t appear in this exhibition, which for me is a strange thing.
How and why did you and the other curators select the six themes in the exhibition — habitat, advertising and consumerism, celebrity and mass media, art history, religion and ideology, sex and the body?
Pop Art can exist in different contexts for artists and the six themes we chose came out of our exploration into the legacy of the art movement today. The exhibition is called Post Pop, so we were searching for a variety of different manifestations and variants of Pop Art in contemporary society. For example, the theme “habitat” features artworks which show the human, domestic use of Pop Art, Pop Art in the home. “Celebrity and mass media” is different, it presents Pop Art against the backdrop of celebrity, magazines, reproduced fashion and so on.
What would you say is the legacy of Pop Art today?
Pop Art largely continues to shape the art of today. It is the foundation, the sphere of predominant influence, the main instructor of so much of the art which comes from today’s artists. But, as it happens with any academy, Pop Art is both praised as well as constantly subverted.
“Pop Art ... is the foundation, the sphere of predominant influence, the main instructor of so much of the art which comes from today’s artists”
Do you think the Soviet Union’s Sots Art and China’s Cynical Realism still have an influence on contemporary art in both countries?
Yes, of course. After all, what is Sots Art? Sots Art corrects the relations between power and people which have been corrupted by authoritarianism through laughter and parody.
How do you think the return of state censorship in art and culture in Russia has influenced artistic trends in the country?
This return of state censorship mostly influences the scope of the popularisation of our art and thus drastically reduces the sphere of communication between the viewer and the artist. If you expand the question and talk not only about censorship but about repression, like the imprisonment of Pussy Riot or the four simultaneous court cases of performance artist and activist Artyom Loskutov, then this can hardly be called “censorship”, but rather the beheading and bloodletting of politically motivated protest art.
Do you think there is a definable art movement which has emerged in recent years in response to Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
Yes. Art activism — the participation of artists in collective acts of rebellion, in meetings, in court hearings, pickets, in unauthorised interventions such as painting the stars and spires of Stalin’s skyscrapers in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In the regime’s response to this, they produce “patriotic graffitism”. This is the act of hired amateur artists, who are paid a considerable fee to paint the walls of Moscow with pro-government slogans and pictures. They also operate as hooligans and partisans without the consent of municipal authorities, the Town Planning Board and other bodies who are responsible for the arrangements of their city. But, of course, the authorities won’t dare attempt to deal with this matter.
How would you characterise contemporary art in Russia today?
I’d say it is in a state of confusion and shock, as though after being knocked out or assaulted. In general, or so it seems to me, this is what most of Russian society is feeling right now.
“Those who are offended and shocked by art usually are because they already planned to be, out of some kind of dislike for contemporary art”
Because political tensions between Russia and the west don’t show signs of detente, do you think the topic of east meeting west in art is particularly important to explore now more than ever?
Especially important, it seems to me. In Russia, there is opposition to Europe at the moment, a real rejection of the European facets to Russian society, people and art. The words “Russia is not Europe” have also floated around. But this opposition to Europe is not constructive for art and it should not be left to continue unabated.
Several of the exhibitions you have curated in the past have shocked Russian authorities and the church, and in one occasion resulted in you being fined by the courts after you were accused of inciting religious and ethnic hatred. Do you think that part of art’s function is to shock its audiences?
I have never set myself such a goal. Those who are offended and shocked by art usually are because they already planned to be, out of some kind of dislike for contemporary art. The people who judged me in court [for the 2006 Forbidden Art exhibit], as they admitted, were judging me for a exhibition that they had never seen. It was just the priest from the pulpit that urged them to condemn the “blasphemer”. But after all that, the priest never even came to the exhibition and I became the victim of a deliberate distortion of the facts.