Pinko Commie Fag
I first met Slava Mogutin at a party at the club Mother, appropriately enough: he was from Mother Russia, and I was a Motherfucker! Slava was working on a book of interviews with remarkable faggots to be published in Russia, so he nailed me down for an interview the following day. We were fast friends from that day forward.
I was always a huge fan of Slava’s poetry, some of which I had him recite in my movie Skin Flick, but I was a little skeptical when he made the decision to move full steam ahead into photography. His first photographic works were purposefully out of focus and formalistic. Although I didn’t like them too much, I thought it was a good sign: he obviously had a strong point of view, and he was interested in exploring photography as both pornographic product and visual art, as opposed to the usual banal body portraiture or piss-elegant erotica of so many gay male photographers. His photography quickly developed into a synthesis of his sexual fixations and fetishes on the one hand, and his overriding political critique of various orthodoxies and oligarchies on the other. Today, along with his boyfriend and partner in the art duo SUPERM, Brian Kenny, he prolifically works in a variety of genres, ranging from photo-journalism (his book NYC Go-Go documents the male stripper scene in New York) to art video to multi-media gallery installation.
I always sleep on Slava’s couch when I’m in New York City, and it never ceases to impress me how his apartment has become such an exciting hub of spontaneous creativity and artistic inspiration. From that couch - which, if it could tell stories, I would be in jail - I recently threw a few questions at him for East Village Boys.
Bruce LaBruce: How old were you when you lost your virginity, both hetero and homo? What were the gory details?
Slava Mogutin: As a kid I was sexually confused. At school I was in love with a boy and a girl at the same time. But dealing with girls seemed more complicated, so at the age of 11 or 12 I found myself naked and fully armed with my best friend, the son of a local KGB officer. His dad had an impressive collection of confiscated guns and pistols. We used to play with them when we were home alone, forcing each other to do things at a gunpoint. I think it's very symbolic that my first homo experience was associated with KGB, guns and the overwhelming feeling of danger. My first hetero experience took place a couple years later when I went to school in Moscow and briefly dated a girl who happened to be the school’s beauty queen. She was a virgin and a witch. I didn’t mind the blood part but after our first clumsy drunken fuck she claimed that I got her pregnant, so it just confirmed that dealing with girls was way too complicated.
BLAB: You were born in Siberia, but moved to Moscow at a young age. What were the circumstances that brought you to Moscow, and what were some of your most memorable experiences in school there?
SM: My parents got divorced when I was 13 and I wanted to get away from my dysfunctional family as soon as I could. So I went to Moscow at 14, and have been living on my own ever since. I went to a couple of schools but was expelled for "amoral behavior" and drunken brawls. Back then I was a total punk and was constantly getting in trouble on the street, in the subway or at some rock concerts. On a few occasions I ended up in sobering stations, which was total hell. The cops would beat me up, empty my pockets, steal all my money and valuables and then strip me naked and throw me on a concrete floor under an icy cold shower to "sober up." Ever since I fucking hate cops! On one such occasion the cops stole my golden Orthodox cross. I got baptized shortly before that and was very religious at the time. Later on I wrote a poem about the incident: “I realized that my God had turned away from me and my religion wasn’t even worth my vomit”. I was a very angry and angsty teenager, and my writing helped me to channel my violent temper and antisocial tendencies.
BLAB: You became the youngest journalist in Russia to be openly gay and writing for major mainstream newspapers. How did this happen? What were some of the most controversial articles you wrote?
SM: I started out as a poet and gained certain notoriety for my readings and performances at some underground clubs and gatherings. It was the time of Perestroika, a very exciting and euphoric period, because all of the sudden we were exposed to all the stuff that had been censored in the Soviet Union - all those amazing books, movies, music, art - I was reading Rimbaud, Genet, Burroughs, Nabokov and watching Fassbinder, Pasolini and Godard and was very inspired and compelled to express myself in the most radical and honest way. So I began writing for the first liberal independent publications that mushroomed in Russia in the late 80s, early 90s. One of my stories was called “How I Was Shoplifting in Paris”, a tribute to Genet’s The Thief's Journal based on my personal accounts of my first trip to Paris at the age of 18. Another controversial article was “Homosexuality in the Soviet Camps and Prisons”, tracing the history of gay prosecution in the USSR back to the early 1930s. I was the first openly gay personality in the Russian media at the time when homosexuality had just been decriminalized and still considered a total taboo. My gay writings ultimately became the reason for my prosecution and exile from Russia.
BLAB: When you were quite young living in Russia you had an older American artist boyfriend, Robert Filippini. How did you meet, and please tell us about the symbolic gay wedding that you held in Moscow. It must have been a wild affair!
SM: I met Robert when I was 19. He had a great studio near Mayakovsky Square and was making very radical queer art. I helped to organize one of his shows in Moscow. I remember he had one piece called I Sucked Off Malevich - an old door with the title stenciled over it. It was pretty amazing to see it on Russian TV and in the press. Robert introduced me to some great queer artists like Derek Jarman, David Wojnarowicz, and you. He had a bad bootleg tape of No Skin Off My Ass and I absolutely loved it, it was very inspiring. He was a member of Act Up and Queer Nation and it was his idea to stage an attempt to register our wedding at the Central Palace of Weddings in Moscow. So we chose April 12, 1994, my 20th birthday, and sent out invitations to a handful of friends and press. For us it wasn’t so much a political demonstration as an art performance and we could never imagine that it would attract a mob scene with reporters from all the main Russian and Western newspapers. We made headlines around the world and were hailed as Russia’s gay rights pioneers, which made us heroes in the West and a sore in the eyes of the Russian authorities.
BLAB: You were tossed out of Russia for your gay activism, charged with, among other things, malicious hooliganism, extreme insolence and exceptional cynicism - three of my most favorite crimes. Your trial was nationally televised and you were visited by the KGB in the middle of the night and basically told to leave the country or face jail time. Please tell the story - I never get tired of hearing it.
SM: After our wedding attempt and a series of my interviews and articles where I outed some closeted celebrities, I became one of the most hated people in the Russian media. There were articles calling for my persecution in both conservative and liberal press. A couple of papers that came to my defense and were still publishing my work, were shut down. I lived under police surveillance and was regularly receiving anonymous death threats. When I was charged with "inflaming national, social and religious division," my lawyer Genrikh Padva, Russia's most prominent human rights lawyer, advised me to leave the country if I didn't want to end up in jail. Luckily, I got an invitation from Columbia University and managed to flee right before the order for my arrest was issued.
BLAB: What are your feelings about Russia now, and do you think you will ever return?
SM: I have a love-hate relationship with Russia. I still have nightmares about going back and being harassed, arrested, thrown to jail, but at the same time I miss being there, my friends, language, culture, food. When I went back to Russia after five years of exile, I was greeted like a hero, to my total surprise. The Yeltsin regime was gone, my criminal cases were dismissed, and all of the sudden I found myself on the covers of glossy magazines. I was awarded a prestigious literary prize, offered book contracts, museum shows and prime-time TV interviews. I still get lots of fan mail from Russian kids who grew up on my books and journalism, but I just cannot imagine myself living there.
BLAB: In my estimation, you were one of the best young poets of your generation, but you decided at a certain point to stop writing poetry and concentrate on photography and visual art, which you also have a great talent for. But I do miss your poetry. What made you make the transition, and will you write poetry again?
SM: I still occasionally write poetry and journalism. Maybe one day I'll put together a book of my translations in English. I used to write non-stop and it was my main creative outlet, but when I moved to America, I lost my language and my audience. I couldn't see myself being perceived as a dissident writer, for the rest of my life touring American colleges and universities with the tales of my exile from Russia. It would be like living in the past. I'm too ambitious to be limited by one particular genre or medium. I started focusing on my photography and eventually visual art became my main language, which doesn't require translations and is open to a much wider audience. Clearly, without my literary background I wouldn't be the person and the artist that I am now. I still remain a poet in everything I do, and my art is a continuation of my texts.
BLAB: I once saw you bop a heckler on the nose at a poetry reading, and I've also witnessed you violently throw a drunk who was bothering us out of a New York subway car! How do you control your temper, and what is that worst instance you've ever had losing it?
SM: My bad temper is something I'm not proud of. It comes from my dad who used to get into fights every time he was drunk. He was a former boxer and as a kid I saw him beating up guys left and right. Maybe it's fine when it's directed towards people who pick a fight, like that subway drunk or the asshole heckler who interrupted my reading because he was so appalled by my love poem dedicated to Andrew Cunanan, the homo serial killer who killed Versace. But sometimes my bad temper is directed towards the people I love, the people closest to me, and that can be a real problem. I'm still learning how to manage it in a civilized, non-Russian way.
BLAB: You transformed yourself from a nerdy nebbishy nothing to a sex god with the body of death. How did you manage that transformation?
SM: Well, that transformation certainly didn't happen overnight. I was a scrawny and sickly boy and I grew up with a complex that my father planted into my brain. He used to say to his drunken buddies: "I have a beautiful but stupid daughter and an ugly but smart son!" So I grew up thinking that I was hideously ugly. It's not until later that I started getting attention from gay men and became comfortable with my own body and appearance. One of the reasons that I did porn and posed nude was to prove to myself (and my father) that I wasn’t that ugly!
BLAB: You appeared in my neo-Nazi skinhead porn movie Skin Flick, which I shot in London for Cazzo Film in 1998. What was your experience like working on that movie, and what are your current views on pornography in general?
SM: It was my first acting experience and my first porn, so the whole thing was very intense. To be honest, I have very vague recollections, except that Viagra had a weird effect on me and I got some allergic skin rash. I remember during my post-fight sex scene with Nikki Uberti, the former wife of Terry Richardson, I constantly needed help from the fluffer, the cutest skinhead in the cast, while Terry was snapping pictures. I was flattered that the role was written for me and you decided to incorporate some of my poems into the movie. All things considered, I think I'm much better behind the camera than in front of it. Still, it was a great experience and a perfect way to satisfy my exhibitionism.
BLAB: A few years ago you shot your own porno movie for Cazzo, but they confiscated your footage and never released it, claiming that it was "too arty". Do you care to take this opportunity to vent a little bit about this grotesque experience?
SM: It was probably the most exciting and exhausting project I’ve ever worked on. To make a long story short, one of the producers at Cazzo, who happened to be my collector, invited me to direct a movie for them. I proposed to do a non-narrative, experimental art-porn film based on the themes of food and bodily fluids and loosely inspired by the Viennese actionists, Pasolini, Paul McCarthy, and Lukas Moodysson. The working title was Champagne & Caviar (slang for piss and scat), but since it was next to impossible to find any good-looking actors into scat, I changed it to Food Chain. The script was developed together with the actors, an international cast from five or six countries who came to Berlin in the summer 2006 to work with me on this project. We found some fantastic props and locations. Then, in the middle of production, the producer had a nervous breakdown and left the company. Bruno Gmunder, a gay German publisher, took over the company. As soon as they saw the rough edit of Food Chain, they decided to kill the project because it was too kinky and unconventional for their taste. They told me they simply couldn’t sell it in most countries because of the piss and what could be perceived as forced sex. To make things worse, they stole my footage and told me that I had to reimburse the production costs in order to finish the movie on my own. Of course, you and many other people warned me against working with Cazzo, but I didn’t listen and paid the price for my stubbornness. Luckily, I took lots of great pictures on the set and behind the scenes and finally I’m showing them for the first time in my upcoming New York show at Envoy.
BLAB: You were born in the Soviet Union, and I've always found it enormously attractive that you've never really lost that deep-rooted Communist ethos, even though you live and participate in the most hyper-capitalistic city in the most hyper-capitalistic state in the world. How do you manage this great paradox?
SM: I still proudly call myself a Pinko Commie Fag. I was hugely influenced by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko and some classic socialist realist painters like Alexander Deineka and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. I think in retrospect the avant garde culture created during the early years of the Soviet Union will be remembered as a renaissance period in the history of the 20th century. I still appreciate the idealism and anti-materialism that were a big part of my Communist upbringing, but I was always disgusted by the Communist propaganda, just as I am disgusted by the American military propaganda and brainwashing. For me any ideology is equally boring and wrong, whether it's Communist or Capitalist, left or right.
BLAB: The art world bubble has burst. What are your views on the current state of the art world, and how do you relate to the art establishment? Don't you find them hopelessly bourgeois?
SM: I think this burst art bubble is a good reality check for a lot of people. The art market is a small model of a capitalist consumerist society, it’s highly competitive, career-oriented and success-driven. I’ve seen so many interesting and radical artists who got spoiled by money and success, great starving artists who turned into pathetic fashion whores and starfucking holes. And my heroes were always rebels and outcasts - people like Henry Darger and Jack Smith who never cared about sales, publicity or commercial success. Sometimes failure can be the best thing that happens to an artist. For the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to support myself with my art, but my prices were never inflated and I never made art to satisfy any trends or anyone’s expectations. I never received any grants or sold my work to corporate collectors, so I don’t have any relationship with the art establishment. I make art because it’s my way of expressing myself and because it’s something I really enjoy doing.
© Bruce LaBruce and Slava Mogutin, 2009