Octavio Zaya

Slava Mogutin’s Grotesque Realism

Essay for Lost Boys


Cadets dressing up for the parade, Moscow, 2004


It is almost a given, it seems already inevitable, to misread a foreign artist’s work when he is on his way to the marketplace. When it is not exoticized or essentialized, sugarcoated or sanitized, it is stripped of its background, of its original context, and “Americanized,” connected to such and such domestic trends, and thus “internationalized” or “universalized.” Sometimes the artist needs to drop his name. Sometimes he needs to drop his pants. A Brazilian avant-gardist is construed as a reflection of “preceding” New York currents. A Mexican artist is celebrated while being rendered without any reference to the culture and experience that, to begin with, made his work possible. A South-African master is dispossessed of his local implications, of his historical resources, of his wit, of his critical edge… In many, perhaps most instances, the artist seems to be a willing participant in this kind of transformation; in many cases he is an accomplice.

The case of assume vivid astro focus (AVAF)—a collective entity under the whim and discretion of Brazilian supernova Eli Sudbrack, with whom Slava Mogutin collaborated in the past—illustrates this pervasive practice and its turnabout, its strategic inversion, for AVAF has been mostly acclaimed for its sweet, retro syrup of psychedelic effects, pop kitsch and kitsch pop, while its connections to the Brazilian anthropophagic movement of the 1920s and Tropicalia of the late 1960s have been customarily ignored. And yet the multidisciplinary practices of the Russian dissident poet, photographer, performance and video artist Slava Mogutin may serve as even better example for us to unfold the intellectual and existential project of the artist confronting such reductive understandings of identity within the creative process.

There’s no doubt that Slava Mogutin has placed himself within the art practices that are focused specifically on contemporary life, more precisely on the alternative lifestyles and urban subcultures of young men and their feelings of melancholy, alienation, their rebellion against the conformism of our hyper-capitalist consumerist society. In this sense, we can say that Mogutin relates himself to the group of artists interested in multilayered, disjointed stories about the emotionally unsatisfied, transient lives of young men, as at one point or another we could have also found in or inferred from the photographs of contemporary photographers, friends and colleagues of Mogutin, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Pablo Leon de la Barra, Marcelo Krasilcic, Ryan McGinley, Michael Meads… Of course, we could have mentioned Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson and Mark Morrisroe, and we could have even recalled Larry Clark…

Like most of them, Slava Mogutin may seem to be playing the game of turning inward, to his immediate surroundings, to more intimate views, everyday images, with some distance and self-consciousness. With his photographs we no longer put up with things the way we used to. The distribution of desire within us has changed, our relationship with speed and slowness had been modified; a new kind of anguish, but also a new serenity, has come upon us. If his photographs show what a moralist would call nihilism, they also testify to the power of fascination exerted upon us, openly or secretly, by our own ordinary living dramas, our failures and our fragmentation.

Mogutin confronts his own “authentic” image of “Russia’s biggest export,” concocted by the Western media with an equivocal and challenging set of images based on his extensive travels and intimate encounters. He convincingly avoids dealing with fixed national identifications and averts succumbing to the cultural clichés of some other contemporary photographers whose practices rarely move beyond the mere replication of the mainstream view of the marginal subcultures from which these practices derive their raison d'être.

Mogutin’s work often has been correlated or identified with “post-gay” discourse and sensibility, and indeed, as long as we understand his photographs as being absorbed with the reality of experience that is simultaneously caught up in the mythology of identity and the allegory of commodity, we may say that the artist leaves it to the viewer to forge that kind of connection. In any case, his pictures purposely frustrate any distinctively functional narrative and disable any expectations, because they don’t contemplate or aim for any will to expose, critique, or transform, but merely to shock. Taken together, this shock value amounts to an exercise in disintegration, to an artistic practice that, at the very least, would prevent “gay identity politics” from becoming a vanguard culture of constraints and proscription.

In this case, the photographs are a collection of different archetypes of the modern youth culture: punks, skinheads, skateboarders, football hooligans, street hustlers, rasta boys, military cadets… The push and pull of identity, the sense of not knowing where or to whom you belong, is at the core of this series. As Mogutin explains it, “I thought Lost Boys was a good title for this series because I was photographing all these kids around the world who were actually lost in one way or another, caught up in the world of their subcultures and fetishes.”[1] And yet, he wants to be clear, “I don’t want to be limited by any stereotypes, whether they are straight or gay.” And later on, referring to his personal interests, “You can’t be a complete and fulfilled person without exploring different sides of your nature and sexuality. Especially if you are an artist… It’s best if you can afford to have them all: boys, girls, she-males, gender-benders. I guess it’s just a matter of access.”[2]

Nevertheless, it is rather apparent that with his No Love series, Mogutin focuses on the more universal themes of desire and estrangement while letting his camera range over seemingly spontaneous situations and marginal scenes. Whether they capture anonymous figures in our urban landscapes, representations of bondage, role-play, and domination, uncontrived still lifes, or intimate moments with friends, his photographs consistently evoke the tensions between attachment and isolation, proximity and distance, ecstasy and loneliness. “It’s about an increasing feeling of alienation that is so obvious in our corporate, post-apocalyptic world as a whole, and the urban gay subculture in particular. It’s about longing for love, a quest for love. It’s about love in different shapes and forms. It’s about finding it and losing it again,”[3] Mogutin asserts, apparently an echo of how Dostoevsky’s underground man laments the modern condition:

Why, today we don’t even know where real life is, what it is, or what it’s called! Left alone without literature, we immediately become entangled and lost—we  don’t know what to join, what to keep up with; what to love, what to hate; what to respect, what to despise! We even find it painful to be men—real men of flesh and blood, with our own private bodies.[4]

In Dostoevsky, unless desire can enter the real, the self is doomed to an irreparable division between the mind and the body. In Notes from Underground, the project of desire, as conceived by the underground man, is the recovery of “flesh and blood” reality from the unliving world of books. Rebelling against a despotic utilitarian reason that deprives the individual of his personal identity, reducing him to a “cipher, a statistic,” the underground man affirms the authenticity and freedom of being through desire. The relation between desire and authenticity implicit in Dostoevsky’s narrative means personal identity or freedom for the underground man, but desire turns out to be an unredeemable compulsive force, proving the association between desire and freedom as illusory. After all, desire represents lack or want, a powerless condition. And yet the desiring subject has the power to dream. Desire, however, possesses the subject and signifies incompleteness. How can desire represent authentic being, if it also represents what the self lacks?

The images and subjects in Lost Boys and subsequent series evidence a wider array of interests and sources of inspiration than those usually associated with mainstream “gay photography.” Without being too obvious or making any direct allusions in his photographs, Mogutin pays homage to a number of his cultural heroes and antecedents. As in his writing, where Mogutin thought of himself as belonging “to the European renegade tradition of de Sade, Rimbaud, Genet, and Bataille,” and believed there was “certain excitement about ‘sodomizing’ Russian literature, making it less puritan and more open and worldly,”[5] in his photography there is much fascination with and many surreptitious winks to other traditions and artistic movements from earlier generations.

Mogutin’s compositions and the subject matter of his photographs are often inspired by masters of Soviet painting, such as Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878–1939), who combined the Russian tradition of Orthodox iconography with Bolshevik symbolism and mythology, and Alexander Deyneka (1899–1969), one of the founding fathers of the Socialist Realism style. Ironically enough, some of their cult paintings could be characterized as examples of homoerotic art. Slava recalls Future Pilots, one of Deyneka’s most-reproduced paintings of three naked boys watching the airplane in the sky, as being an important image that has inspired and aroused him since childhood and later on influenced the style and composition of such photographs as Arbat Kids.

Mogutin’s photography, particularly his group portraits of Russian cadets and uniformed young men and teenagers, also corresponds with the work of Alexander Rodchenko, a pioneering photographer and graphic designer of the constructivist movement, whose documentation of the first Soviet military parades became an important element of Bolshevik propaganda. Following Rodchenko, Mogutin claims that his photographs are primarily formal and political. He conceives of his work—and more precisely of his multimedia installations—as capable of transforming perception. But of course this is not because of the putatively “objective” nature of photography, as it was the case with Rodchenko and the constructivists, but because Mogutin believes photography, and visual art in general, “doesn’t require translation,”[6] and seems to be capable of refashioning our conceptions and ideas, our experiences, of “seeing” them in a new way.

The combination of words and images in the installations that Mogutin has been creating with his partner-collaborator Brian Kenny, under the team name SUPERM, in a certain way is also derived from the necessity to expand the strictly visual information of the photographs, as in Rodchenko’s photo-collages and graphic design of the 1920s and 1930s, and to deliver another kind of aesthetic or social emphasis. However, it should be noted that neither Mogutin nor his photographs engage in social commentary or ideological critique, and they have no moralistic or didactic ambition. The social idealism of the constructivists or the revolutionary goals that Rodchenko was trying to serve are nowhere to be seen in Mogutin’s work. His politics respond to some other intentions, first in his collaboration with AVAF and more recently in the creation of SUPERM, he has been flirting with—as Rodchenko aspired to—the depersonalization of practice, that is, taking art out of the realm of individual artistic expression.

Following the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, we can get to the carnivalesque “grotesque realism” of Mogutin’s photographs as “ambivalent” solutions within a situation of cultural asymmetry. Indeed, Slava uses an anti-illusionistic language that remains physical, carnal, and material, while telling social truths, although it does so in a stylized, sometimes parodic, sometimes hyperbolic, rather than naturalistic manner. Mogutin shares with the historical avant-garde and with his contemporaries a common impulse toward formal, social, and sexual rebellion, but this rebellion is here allied with, rather than hostile to, popular adversary culture, as in the cases of de Sade, Rimbaud, Genet, Buñuel, Pasolini, Godard, and other luminaries and visionaries who unequivocally cast a large shadow in Mogutin’s entire output — from poetry and fiction to photography to film to performance.

Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony also provides further understanding of Mogutin’s work. This music-derived image, which was originally formulated in relation to the complexity of multiple voices in the works of Dostoevsky, refers to the same phenomenon that Bakhtin designated by the terms dialogism and heteroglossia. This concept of polyphony points out to the coexistence of a plurality of voices—whether in a text or in an extra-textual situation—that do not fuse into a single consciousness but exist on different registers, generating a dynamism among themselves. It is not heterogeneity as such but some other angle at which voices are juxtaposed and counter-posed so as to generate something beyond themselves. Each one of these voices exists in dialogue with other voices, but not in some kind of “tolerance”—allowing another voice to add itself to a preexisting entity—but a polyphony of reciprocal, celebratory, and displacing voices, an exchange that leaves all the parties or interlocutors changed. It is not pluralism either, but a multiplication of mutually enriching discourses. It is a shared territory that inoculates Mogutin from the individualistic assumptions that support romantic theories of art. It is a constantly shifting cultural field for the contradictions that constitute the subject as the site of conflicting and competing discourses, where the realities of class, gender, and nationality get more complex.[7]

SUPERM is a particularly elaborate and far-reaching example of Mogutin’s polyphonic and dialogical emphasis in his multidisciplinary project. SUPERM is the team name that Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny have been using since 2004. Together they merge their raw, in-your-face aesthetics to produce layered multimedia installations combining photography and video, drawings and murals, graffiti and stencils, sculptures and found objects. Using themselves and their friends as models, they then position these narcissistic figures into elaborate erotic compositions that range from autoeroticism and exhibitionism to bondage and domination, creating a unique, self-centered and self-absorbed fetishistic universe.

Mogutin’s syncretic carnival of identities and identifications is constantly traversed by the outrageousness of Dada; the Situationist practice; the gore and violence of the Viennese Actionists; the mocking of conventional temporal decorum and jumbling of the accustomed categories of narrative time in Buñuel; the allusions to the entire range of high- and low-brow culture in Godard; the disordering of time and space and vulgarities and excess in Pasolini…in a permanently adversarial relationship to power and mainstream culture. This varied company engages Mogutin in the liberation from the norms of decency and etiquette, degrading all that is spiritual and abstract, relegating the sublime to a brute material level, where the cheerful vulgarity of the powerless is used and displayed against the hypocrisy of the powerful, often transferred to an erotic and at times scatological plane, that of the body’s “lower stratum” that was one of Bakhtin’s core subjects and one of Pasolini’s treasured obsessions.       

Mogutin’s interest and disposition is to subvert identity, pervert it, leading the viewer, or the reader, into usually-overlooked or disregarded modes of thought. In one of his stories, entitled A Curious Family, a girl and her parents are all boys. Because this hopeless situation makes them ineligible for a decent new government apartment, the father and mother regularly beat their daughter to a pulp. In another story, The Death of Misha Beautiful, the author recalls getting a blow job from an ecstasy-addled boy in a string of Moscow alleys and doorways, as sniper bullets whiz past during the 1993 putsch. In the poem Prague Holiday, Eastern European political debasement is viciously lampooned as sex tourism. And so on. This is indeed hallucinatory writing, but grounded in harsh realities that, as much as in Mogutin’s photography, question and subvert certain commonplace notions: that the self’s identity needs to be rooted in a firm sense of boundary distinction, that identity carries with it certain assumptions about sexuality, gender, and emotional experience, that family and history work on both conscious and unconscious strata of the self…

Seductively subversive, Slava Mogutin’s work responds to a world of disintegration and fragmentation with an approach to self that celebrates entropy, without security, without structure, as a continuing and haunting indeterminacy of being, something akin to a perpetual teenager.



[1] Wayne Northcross, “From Russia, with Love,” Instinct, April 2003, p. 105.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jamie Hakim, “From Russia with Lust,” Attitude, April 2004, pp. 32-35.
[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (1864), translated by A.R. MacAndrew, NY: New American Library, 1961, p. 203.
[5] Reed Massengill, “Tsar Turn,” blue #34, August 2001, p. 58.
[6] Timmy Dowling and Tracy Stewart, “Open and Deliberate Contempt: An interview with Slava Mogutin,” They Shoot Homos Don’t They? Issue 001, 2005, pp. 12-15.
[7] Robert Stam, Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

© Octavio Zaya, 2006