</Quiter Voices>
author: Lilia Bakanova
Images of women and objectification of the female body are still central in our culture, dehumanizing women and portraying them as sexual objects. Therefore, corporeal representation is one of the fundamental issues of gender studies. This essay discusses female gaze on bodily subject and nudity within the feminist context in Russia.

The idea of ‘male gaze’ was introduced in 1975 by Laura Malvey, British feminist and film theorist, who criticized corporeal representation as being skewed for the viewing pleasure of men. In her essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' she reversed this pattern: “We can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides.” Abstract videos of own nude buttocks by Yoko Ono, exposed body of Marina Abramovich, audacious performances of Valie Export and other prominent feminist works pushed the limits of the physical body in order to create an uncertain tension for both audience and artist.
However, this feminist wave did not reach the USSR.

While in the Western world feminist art rapidly developed in 1960-1970-ies in line with the Women’s Rights Movement, in Russia there was a time lag of nearly 30 years. Curiously, Russian women believed their rights were not infringed. Having a job had never been a privilege for Soviet women but rather an obligation, which deferred dissemination of feminist ideas in Russia. The government had always proclaimed equal rights for men and women, therefore Western feminist theory needed some tailoring to take into consideration peculiarities of the USSR and provide deeper explanation to attract followers. This lack of theoretical background was also restrained by exile of the most prominent feminist philosophers and writers before the Olympiad in 1980. As a result, even female artists who raised feminist questions did not associate themselves with feminism.

Publishers of the magazine Woman and Russia, all exiled in 1980: Yulia Voznesenskaya, Tatiana Goricheva, Natalia Malakhovskaya and Tatiana Mamonova, the most illustrious Soviet feminist theorists in 1970-ies.

There was another major deviation from the Western feminism standard. One of the activists exiled in 1980 was a philosopher Tatiana Goricheva, who presented Virgin Mary as a model of an ideal human, which was very uncommon for the classical feminism avoiding religious connotations. Ironically, the most famous feminist Russian performance by Pussy Riot, A Punk Prayer (2012), also references Virgin Mary, however this time it was a political act that effectively marked the end of freedom in Russia and turning back to censorship. In the Soviet times, there was no place for political discourse except for completely underground practice.

The situation was aggravated by manly nature of the art community. Feminist art in 1970-1980-ies was merely possible due to extreme sexism of the art scene. Masculine character of art collectives, male camaraderie squeezed out female artists to performing support functions, or ‘being a muse’. In the best case, fellow male artists expected their female colleagues to stick to ‘appropriate’ themes in art.

“…I have no intention to say that a woman’s role is in the kitchen, but <female> works <of that time> are mostly portraits of friends; there is something soft, comforting, escapist, an escape from the Soviet reality. The conceptualism cirсle, on the contrary, was a rather tough environment, the art was also tough.”

Nikita Alekseev*

There was a rather harsh but explicit comment from Konstantin Zvezdochetov*, who explained masculine approach of conceptualists and highlighted the features of the Russian context: “The fight for women’s rights at that time was associated with stout women in orange vests, Valentina Tereshkova and wives who had two jobs to support their alcoholic husbands. Our dames and mademoiselles were fed up with the Soviet feminism and deep inside desired to be sugar babes.” Evidently, this is why his wife, artist Larisa Rezun-Zvezdochetova, was famous for her hospitality and housekeeping talents, maintaining food to all artists living in their house, and working on her paintings at nights at the expense of sleep.

Probably the most famous Russian female artist of 1980-ies was Irina Nakhova, who later represented Russia at 2015 Venice Biennale. She was a member of Moscow Conceptualism school, however female names were eliminated from the history of this movement (for example, Moscow Conceptualism, edition of 2005, mentions only two female artists: Elena Elagina and Sabina Hensgen).

Across Nakhova’s tremendously diverse output, perhaps the most feminist work was Stay with me (2002). Stay with me consisted of several paintings and a large textile sculpture with pink entrance, where a visitor could come in and, sandwiched in the tight space between soft walls, hear to a female voice. The suffocating embrace of mother’s womb was strengthened by the pleading tone of the voice asking to stay for a while. This devouring gesture could be seen as a metaphor of birth, or close embrace of motherhood, or even a trap.

Stay with me, Irina Nakhova, 2002

Obviously, this installation would have not been possible in the Soviet times, when Irina Nakhova was focused on gender-neutral art. All works decoding her personal relationship to being a woman were created only after the collapse of the USSR.

Despite early sprouts of feminism, it could not spread in Russia before perestroika. In 1990-ies the movement experienced burst of activity; numerous art communities, feminist circles, political groups, female writers’ or scientists’ unions emerged independently and almost simultaneously, which obviously spurred development of feminist art. The opening of the borders resulted in vast flow of information from the West and even some funding from the foreign foundations. What is more, the process was supported by the largest state-funded museums, which seems incredible now. In 2002 the Tretyakov Gallery held an exhibition Femme Art that showcased a large number of feminist and female-made works and was opened by a greeting letter from Hillary Clinton, who confessed her adoration of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

This short 20-year period of proliferating feminist art is best illustrated by ŽEN d’Art exhibition at Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010, focused on the emergence of gender-oriented art in the post-Soviet era. The show was curated by Oksana Sarkisyan (feminist artist and curator) and Natalia Kamenetskaya (who was at the forefront of gender studies in Russia and in 1989 co-founded research feminist group Idioma). The idea was to present most fully and vividly all the diversity of female artists: Žen d’Art exhibited both ‘feminist art’ and ‘art made by women’, as many participating female artists did not claim themselves as gender-conscious but did cover similar topics. For example, Irina Nakhova has never called herself a feminist, however her works of that period clearly represented feminist ideas. This exhibition presented her work with irons and ironing boards depicting nude male back, which apparently flipped over the male gaze.

The show illustrated that numerous authors called for ‘corporeal turn’ through their interest to female embodiment. In her Girl’s toy, Anna Alchuk explored the male gaze by reversing the situation and granting viewing pleasure to women. Her installation represented a female head (so that there is no objectification of the body) looking at photographs of ‘antique’ male torsos, beheaded and evidently objectified. The similar shift of the gazing stereotype was made by Tatiana Antoshina. Her Woman’s museum photographic series ironically remade classical paintings: Olympus (a young man in the setting of Manet’s Olympia), Boy on the Ball (half-naked boy instead of Picasso’s girl), Are You Jealous? (two nude men on a beach, after Gaughuin), etc. This inversion of gender roles reduced men to passive objects of desire, addressing the issues of body acceptance and reflecting on perception of women in art – patient, accessible, introvert and often naked.

ŽEN d’Art became the largest archive of feminist exhibitions of 1990-2009, representing such groups as 4th Hight, Cyberfemin Club, Factory of found clothes and VMS as well as artists of all generations starting from the Moscow conceptualism.

It should be noted however that feminist activity predominantly gravitated towards Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, the most influential group was Cyberfemin Club. Cyberfeminism, or feminism activist in the Internet, fights representation of women as technophobic as well as encourages women to take more power in the IT segment and take part in defining policy of the net, creating content and guidelines, as nowadays information is predominantly delivered via Internet. In Russia, this movement was represented by Cyberfemin Club that emerged in 1994 when Irina Aktuganova and Alla Mitrofanova invited a German ship Stubnitz to St. Petersburg. This vessel carried an exhibition of new media, which raised enormous interest among local artists. Notably, most of these artists were women, so they set up a club supporting new media art and feminism through extremely diverse spectrum of activities: exhibitions, philosophy café, conferences, Media Art Fest, etc.

The Trimph of Fragility

Cyberfemin Club was at the core of the St. Petersburg gender activism and nurtured other groups. Perhaps, Factory of Found Clothes (FFC) that was located at the premises of the club was the most remarkable among them. This art group that existed from 1995 to 2014 was composed of two artists: Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya and Olga Egorova. FFC started from the question of vulnerability of female body, using romanticized image of a high-school student: white dresses (real or paper) and allusions to the Russian classic literature. The name of one of their performances – The Trimph of Fragility – best reflected their art of that period. During this performance the infinite rows of naval academy cadets are endlessly walking around the city holding white dresses symbolizing the contrast between masculine and feminine, force and fragility.
What is more, the dresses are empty, the bodies are missing. The theme of missing body was also present in clothes that Factory of Found Clothes created for sale, which could be decorated with a sudden beaded blood stain or a rough beaded seam resembling a scar.

Later on, being interwoven with their personal experience, FFC’s art encompassed various social problems related to gender. For instance, the group shot an opera Three Mothers and a Chorus about motherhood, which was based on narratives of real exhausted mothers backed by the Greek chorus represented by the families judging the mothers.

In Moscow, art environment was featured by less activism and higher concentration on personal projects. A rather striking show speaking about female body was Collection-2000, solo exhibition of Natalia Turnova in Regina Gallery in 2000, presenting paintings and colorful sculptures. The works were supplemented by text that was very typical for medical staff working with pregnant and women in labor. The artist reflected on medical violence, traumatic experience of physiological humiliation and sense of own insignificance. Turnova viewed the Russian maternity health care system as the underside of love, or penitentiary structure punishing women for having sex.

Highly radical performances within the Moscow actionism movement were attributable to Baryana Rossa, a Bulgarian artist who was a partner of another Moscow actionist Oleg Mavromati. She stitched up her vagina, sewed herself to a large wheel and repeated performance by Valie Export. The latter, being topless, put on a cardboard box with two holes in the front, and offered anyone to touch her naked breasts. As Rossa experienced mastectomy, she offered to touch her scars in the same manner. In this way, the idea of fragility was pushed to the limits, but at the same time this work addressed the problem of body acceptance, especially after a surgery.

Elena Kovylina, the most famous female performance artist in Russia, accentuated vulnerability of a female body, mapping her work around the themes of violence, victim and fragility. The artist also published feminist newspaper called Stone Milk. In 2006 she won Innovation prize for performance Pick up a girl. Stripped to the waist, she attached photos of girls to her skin with pins. In other performances, also half-naked, she pierced her skin with jewelry, or totally naked lay on the grand piano at the central square of Salzburg as a muse, expressing her embarrassment by the role of women merely as muses in art. Physiological audacity revealed the essence of Kovylina’s art – her works were first and foremost about shame.

All of the above signified the golden age of feminist art in Russia, peaking at early 2000-s. However, the political situation was changing and implying more limitations, so the censorship issues emerged. ‘The personal is political’, the motto of the second wave feminism, came to Russia only in 1990-ies but could not stay long. After the outrageous trial of Pussy Riot in 2012 and growing demonstration of force by the state the political narrative gradually became quieter but has never faded. Surprisingly, the number of ‘feminist’ and ‘gender’ exhibitions in 2013-2015 soared, hyped by mass media and sometimes even state-funded. However, their content was far less relevant to feminism and generally misleading.

Age restriction law of 2010, Internet censorship that came into effect in 2012 and anti-gay propaganda law of 2013 significantly contributed to changing art scene. In 2019 the case of Yulia Tsvetkova, the feminist activist artist, who faced 6 year imprisonment for her images of vagina and body-positive nudes, drew international attention. In 2022, she was acquitted by a court, but the prosecutors appealed for a resentencing. Since Russian galleries, art fairs and museums are not welcoming gender art anymore, the feminist art scene has moved to alternative grounds. Direct political gestures are now hidden by allegorical, Aesopian language, while nude breasts are shown with masked nipples. As for vaguely phallic or vulvic images, there is a real threat of criminal prosecution.

Under these conditions, personal projects outside institutions gained greater significance. Here, we present five Russian female artists whose recent work is about female corporeal representation: Nastya Serge, Anna Fromm, Aleksandra Povelikina, Alice Danelian and Daria Kuznetsova.

Nastya Serge*, whose artistic methods are based on academic background in architecture, employs drawing to design her own view inward to inner self. As a result, she deconstructs her subjects as construction drawings, and decomposes complex phenomena into simple parts. Interestingly, it is quite common for female artists to use Nastya Serge, whose artistic methods are based on academic background in architecture, employs drawing to design her own view inward to inner self.

As a result, she deconstructs her subjects as construction drawings, and decomposes complex phenomena into simple parts. Interestingly, it is quite common for female artists to use drawing as a preferred medium, which was also visible in Feminist Pencil movement (2012-2014) that focused on graphic stories, zines, graffiti and drawing as affordable and understandable ways of communication.

Serge’s series of drawings titled Body is remarkable for corporeal representation: no flesh, importance of voids but at the same time a weird sense of restraint. The agitated line and distorted forms remind of Egon Schiele, whose line was a metaphor of boundaries. Serge further elaborates this idea and claims that the borderline dictates our conscious perception of the subject.

Anna Fromm is a photographer who employs multiple exposures and collaging to deepen oddness of her subject. Her surreal works critique patriarchic society that literally creates stone statue out of a woman, denying her bodily functions. Therefore, antique statues are used by the artist as a metaphor of sexual objectification, denial of autonomy and reduction to beheaded body.

This approach is similar to representation of corporeality shown at the group exhibition Body, culture and optical illusions (2004) where works by Oksana Sarkisyan, Elena Kovylina, Tatiana Antoshina and other contemporary artists were surrounded by antique sculptures. The exhibition, as well as Anna Fromm’s collages and photographs juxtapose corporeal forms and narratives of different cultures, which provides grounds to reflect on body in the current context.
Aleksandra Povelikina comes up with another angle of the surreal point of view, especially in her work Mother's Milk. Povelikina’s bold artistic expression feels like a slap in the face. Her works keep you at close distance despite their repulsive content. The artist approaches corporeal topic with physiological nausea similar to that of Baryana Rossa. This thrilling scene with pierced breasts gazing out of the glass is about overwhelming motherhood, imposed by the patriarchic society. On the one hand, breastfeeding is seen as obligatory practice, while on the other side public breastfeeding is a taboo.
Similar audacity in approaching corporeal issues is seen in Alice Danelian’s* photographs. They depict mid-transformated female body either being altered or being decorated by weird necklace made of keyboard. Combining computer parts with feminist context, the artist makes allusions to the heritage of Cyberfemin Club.

Danelian’s work gravitates toward the unearthing of intimate and public narrative: on the one side, it is built on the power of personal history, while on the other it reassesses general perception of the female body. On the personal level, it speaks about being accepted by the family or the society. The subject is oscillating between fragility of human body and control. The body becomes information storage facility, giving the sense of sickening damage, fear of intervention and fragility.

The theme of fragility continues in the works of Daria Kuznetsova.* In her series of photographs Kvity, she pithily describes body marks in form of flowers. In contrast to their innocent form, they can look like scars or bruises. The marks raise the questions of the person who made them, possibility of violence as well as subaltern and dominating groups. In addition, this project might be viewed through the lens of performative concept of gender by Judith Batler, who further developed Simone de Beauvoir’s statement "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman". Is it that these scars and bruises metaphorically form a woman?

Here, Kuznetsova translates her personal relationship to a female body: it is soft and vulnerable, but at the same time strong and resilient. And finally, heightened sense of fragility within the oppressive environment may serve as a metaphor of the current situation in Russia.

In one way or another, personal history of these artists pervaded their artistic practice, and therefore they strive to create a language for their experience that have been left mute. Although female voices are still quiet, they are many, so there is a hope they will be heard.

*Instagram is banned in Russia.