New York based Russian artist Slava Mogutin’s multi-faceted approach to artistic practice has garnered both acclaim and condemnation across the globe over the years; responding to and reacting against an oppressive Soviet background by “examining the very concept of shame by being completely shameless“, his voyeuristic style of intimate documentation, of both those around him and of himself, moulds a message protest that resonates now more than ever.
Exhibited at some of the world’s most recognised institutions and in a wealth of publications, from regular contributions to Whitewall, Vice, Flaunt, and The Stranger to i-D, Visionaire, L’Uomo Vogue, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, the artist’s work presents a strange dichotomy; seemingly relevant enough to cater to such a broad audience, but so challenging and at times provocative to insight official uproar- by the age of 21 Mogutin’s work had garnered so much attention he became the target of two highly publicized criminal cases and made headlines around the world for attempting to officially register the first same-sex marriage in Russia, forced to leave in 1995 finding asylum in the U.S. where he has worked since.
Though this has been an ongoing ordeal for the artist, one that came to a head many years prior, with what can only reasonably be described by an intelligent person as a national attack on human rights occurring just across Europe, it seemed like the ideal moment in which to address one of the fight’s leading and long-standing protagonists.
Your work is quite raw in its approach, you cover very real aspects of life in a particular way, what draws you to this and what do you hope to achieve by illuminating the perhaps more sensitive or extreme elements of life?
SM: I think my work is perfectly sensitive and poetic, although I’m naturally drawn to unconventional scenes and situations that would be considered too graphic, obscene or even shocking by some people – like a guy sniffing another guy’s sweaty armpit, skinheads urinating on each other, or a boy with a cucumber up his ass. To me these are the most intimate and honest moments that any photographer could dream of and I’m grateful for the ability to document them in the most candid, uncontrived way.
Is it fair to say you hope to be provocative?
Provocation is a valid and necessary aspect of any self-respecting artist’s practice. It’s a good way to make your audience shake off the common, used-up stereotypes, taboos and clichés of the mass culture and look at the world in a different, unconventional way. As Barbara Streisand once said, “the artist’s job is to disturb.” I’m not a fan of Streisand’s, but I think it’s a quintessential motto for artists who want to leave their mark in time and history.
If this is a means of changing perception, what specifically is it you hope to change in people?
We live in the world overpowered by perpetual war, violence, hate, hypocrisy and pollution of all sorts – from ecological pollution to endless advertisement bombardment, media brainwashing, religious dogmas, political propaganda and so on and so forth. In my world the only two things worth living for are love and beauty and I see my mission in celebrating them. After all, I believe that love conquers all and beauty will save the world.
You work across a range of media and disciplines, but your work is tied together by an aesthetic and consistent choice of imagery. What do you think influences that choice and that aesthetic?
I’ve always admired artists who could effortlessly combine and blend together different genres and mediums, from Mayakovsky and Rodchenko to Cocteau, Bataille and Duchamp. Since my teenage years I’ve been doing many things at once – poetry, journalism, activism, performance, photography, etc… – so people would get confused and tell me that I just have to settle with one thing, one genre, one medium. I resisted for years and now I feel like even my loudest critics finally get it. 21st century is the age of multimedia – or what Richard Wagner described as Gesamtkunstwerk – and I no longer feel the pressure of having to choose one medium over the other, I want to explore all of them and invent a few new ones to add to the list.
But what is it that you think draws you away from working on one medium alone?
When you achieve certain recognition, there’s always a danger of repeating yourself and becoming a “professional”, when art-making becomes a mechanical process and boring routine. That’s what they call “trademark style” in the art world, when you’re expected to come up with a successful formula and exploit it for many years in the course of your entire career. In my opinion professionalism is the death of creativity. With each and every new project and show, I’m challenging my audience and myself. For me this is the most exciting part of being an artist – freedom to choose new paths and directions and see where they will take you, taking risks and raising questions without expecting immediate answers and gratification. Sometimes failure can be the best thing that happens to an artist, it leads you to new territories and opens up a whole new world of inspiring discoveries and possibilities. You just have to follow your passion and intuition and listen to the Universe.
You’ve spoken a lot about your approach to your work in reference to the concept of shame, examining it by “being completely shameless”; where do you think that shame element a lot of people have regarding their sexuality comes from?
When I talk about the concept of shame in my work, I refer specifically to my Soviet upbringing. Similar to the Catholic concept of “shame”, we had the official Communist ban on any open expressions of sensuality or sexuality, not to mention the celebration of such. So when I moved to New York at the age 21, I was on a mission to explore the sexual underground and my own sexuality. I used to take great pleasure in being photographed nude by the likes of Terry Richardson and Bruce LaBruce and did porn just to rebel against my perspective career as a political dissident and gay activist. Of course, I disappointed some people who helped me to get my political asylum in the US by choosing an entirely different path. Looking back, I have no regrets.
How do you feel your act of protest on this will affect people’s perception of sexuality and sexual issues, particularly those societal ones that are so prevalent at the moment?
We live in the time of new conservatism and puritanism, with the Catholic guilt complex dominating the Western perception of a naked human body as something shameful and inappropriate. For the majority of Americans nudity is still immediately associated with sex and sex with pornography. When I first started publishing and showing my work, I felt enormous resistance from the art establishment that used to refer to me as “that Russian porn guy.” Slowly but surely this perception is changing and over a decade later I found myself exhibiting in prestigious museums and shooting commissions for HBO and the best art and fashion publications. Quoting Warhol, “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” I’ve always felt like the agent of change and I’m happy to witness that my message of nonconformity, compassion and tolerance resonates with more and more people around the world.
You’ve been known for your fight for LGBT rights (particularly that of Russia’s recent pressure on the community). Could you tell us a bit about your experiences of intolerance in Russia?
I can testify that Russians are no more homophobic than any other nation. I don’t recall experiencing homophobia on [an] everyday basis while living in Moscow, but I did get in trouble when I came out publicly and started speaking out against the official homophobia and tried to register the first same-sex marriage in Russia. That’s when I became the target of criminal prosecution, anonymous death threats and continuous harassment in the media. Since my exile in 1995, things have gotten much worse and the recent anti-gay legislation is just the latest example of the rampant homophobia, which goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the Russian Orthodox chauvinism, xenophobia and the general crackdown on the basic human rights and freedom. It’s a troubling and sad situation and we must use whatever means necessary to put pressure on the Russian government in order to abolish these draconian laws and put an end to this state-sponsored hatred.
What made you decide to use art as a means of trying to change things, as a kind of political protest?
I don’t have any faith in politics or politicians. I learned from early age that you could achieve so much more through literature and art than political slogans and demonstrations. When I started publishing my poetry and journalism and the first translations of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, I think it had a much bigger impact on the Russian audience than any attempts to import Western-style gay liberation model. Whether in my writings or art, I was always speaking from my heart, telling stories of real people, emotions and experiences, and I’m proud and humbled to know that over the years my work has helped many people to find their own voice and path in life and art.