Robert Summers

 Slava Mogutin: Lost and Bound

Book review in ArtUs Magazine, May-June 2007


Yellow Billboard, Moscow, 2004


                    I don’t want to please [the audience]. I don’t want to entertain them.
What I want is to dominate the audience, get control over them. Since they came to see me, I want to let them have it.

 Slava Mogutin, Index Magazine, February 2002


If art criticism is indeed the family romance of art history, if art itself slides onto the fetishistic home base of loss disavowal, and if both art making and writing are base sublimations, then what would such a discipline be called that acted out these delegations, performed these fetishes, or worked through these withholdings? Reviewing Slava Mogutin’s recent photography book, Lost Boys (powerHouse Books, 2006), offers a handy opportunity to referee some close calls.

At once photographer, poet, performance and body artist, one could say that Slava identifies as minor/master, top/bottom, Sadean/trickster, hence an accomplished back-slider and stallion: his theater is all sexual abandon and abandonment. In 2002, during Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis’s “Platinum Oasis” festival at L.A.’s notorious Coral Sands Hotel, Slava performed a double act—Porcile, a perverse little number with Bruce LaBruce (after Pasolini’s 1969 film), showing the former Russian, astride a blood-soaked bed, wearing only a plastic pig mask and white pants; and as on-site therapist in his own “Superhuman SuperSex” room. As the evening wore on, Slava read some of his abjectly beautiful, filthy yet seductive poetry, and afterwards wandered through the queer proceedings. Later that night, I ran into him in the “Glory Hole Room”—or rather he drove his point home to his core audience. A hole-in-one can overflow with desire and empty out as loss—the authentic body art experience, to say the least. Finally he went but didn’t come; my pleasure remained hard to find.

This is a close reading, after all. In Slava’s Cigarette Burn (Andre) (2000), who’s actually doing it to this guy and why? The usual list of suspects doesn’t quite cut it, nor does the suspended hand and arrogant, lost look. The same goes for the Skin Piss and Skin Spit (2000) diptych, in which the shared erotic charge lies in the total lack of eye contact--all attention is focused here on the act itself, and not those giving or receiving it. Whether or not the dominant id is in control, and it usually is, the actual point of view or interest isn’t the man behind the camera or the grossed-out guys, nor even the part-objects themselves, but rather that self-consumed and –consuming interzone of all misplaced glances. Roland Barthes wanted to know why “burning is far better than lasting.” Thanks to this (missing) universal gaze, the participant becomes open to a range of out-of-body experiences, the least of which concerns genitalia and the media folderol of sex-at-a-distance.

To “know” Slava is to know that looking and participating, photography and performance, poetry and pulchritude go together like the proverbial horse and buggery. Maybe he isn’t exactly what Donald Preziosi modernistically described as “author-as/and-his work,” or even Foucault’s (postmodern/Hellenistic) “art as a way of life,” unrelated to objects and the Western hoarding of personal existence (“What strikes me [i.e. Foucault] is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life”). But the artist has defiled even this boundary. Working through and beneath the conventional all-seeing eye (of God), his photography simultaneously pierces the veil of orderly, self-centered revelation and proclamation while allowing itself to be consumed by, and thus to ignite into being, a sudden spark of human freedom. “The judgment of God, the system of the judgment of God, the theological system, is precisely the operation of He who makes an organism, an organization of organs called the organism, because He cannot bear the Body without Organs, because He pursues it and rips it apart so He can be first, and have the organism be first” (Deleuze and Guattari). Can it be that along the wall of many holes lies the glory and final judgment of God?


Yaroslav (Slava) Mogutin is a kind of art world lost cause, moving errantly between art and porn, poetry and documentation, love and lust. Born in 1974 in Kemerovo, an industrial city in southwestern Siberia, Slava’s notoriety invites the urge to read into pictures like Nude Beach in Crimea (2004) his own youthful misadventures. Even without considering the many extracurricular agenda or hauntings at play here, or trying to rattle the homoerotic chains of such socialist realist influences as Alexander Deyneka and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, images like Arbat Kids (2000) do strike a chord with early years of rough living. Slava won’t say why he returns to these streets and alleyways, but we already recognize from his Moscow Punks (2004) the sweet but outspoken hooligan he must have been upon arriving in Moscow at the tender age of 18, to begin work as a journalist. By age 21, his candid writings were both critically acclaimed and officially condemned—for engaging, according to the trumped-up charges, in “open and deliberate contempt for the generally accepted moral norms; malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence; corruption of public morals, propaganda of sexual perversions, psychic pathology, brutal violence; using profane language; inflaming national, social and religious division.” As his Wikipedia entry confirms, Slava became “the first openly gay personality in the Russian media.” The straw broke on April 12, 1994, when he applied to the Moscow Palace of Weddings for an official license to marry Robert Filippini. Facing up to seven years imprisonment, Slava sought asylum in the U.S. with the support of Amnesty International and PEN American, eventually obtaining an artist’s visa in 1995. Apart from being an author of seven books in Russian, winner of the prestigious Andrei Bely literary prize, porn star in Bruce LaBruce’s queerly acclaimed 1999 Skin Gang (in which he is billed as Tom International), and now performance artist (with assume vivid astro focus, among others) and photographer, somehow Slava’s reluctance to settle down, settle for the norm, jumps out of his multiple personae and trajectories.

Now based in New York, he regularly visits Moscow to photograph street kids, skinheads, Rasta boys, and military cadets (they really are just darling). Critical niceties aside, this academic-cum-artistic interest in a post-USSR bodily or self-ish (queer) diaspora is what is least symptomatic of his life’s journey, which to be honest seems more about obsessively vacillating between being “lost” and staying a “boy.” How do you reconcile the law of the state (of being rooted, staying put, remaining the same) with nomadism, arrested immaturity, and the paraphernalia of oblivion? And is the color of dreams of losing oneself, or the lack thereof, a deliberate shadowing of what once was but can never be again? Even in White Self (2003), which shows dirty white sneakers, tube socks, jockstrap with cup, and hockey mask all neatly arranged on a three-tiered shelf, the pale deportments of Slava’s adopted self have a performative, reenacted sense of deep intangible loss, suggesting that these “white party” favors (white is at once the color of underwear and of lost innocence) portend something of a straw man or breed, a kind of Friday the 13th version of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the golden fleece—but only to drain it of blood. In titling the image in this way (being a unique self vs. off-the-shelf), Slava not only draws attention to the performance of self, whose aim or import we rarely have any control over, but also to disassociated acts of self-destroying refusal or non-cooperation—reminiscent of those "disidentifications" (after José Esteban Muñoz’s 1999 book of the same name) of queers who assume this very identity through their failure to turn around or respond to the authoritarian call of “Hey! You!” Just as the recurrent UMBRO brand of socks in White Self and other images points to a recycled set of inside/outside social mandates (the “Boot of Italy,” army boots, brought to heel, etc.), so Slava’s 2005 Wigger shows with partner Brian Kenny in Berlin and Moscow can be thought to cross even more overt color bars.


All of which circuitously brings us to Yellow Billboard (2004), showing a young blonde Russian boy’s smiling face against a torn and wrinkled bright yellow backdrop. What makes this two-dimensional image so ambiguous, namely too “smooth” to stratify or inhabit (here one thinks of Deleuze’s 1988 study of the Baroque fold), is its very lack of depth and flattened surface appearance. It is not only the direct result of photographing an already technologically reproduced photograph plastered on a public billboard, but because this particular visage bears unseasonable traces of the ravages of time and despoliation, one further exacerbated by random acts of vandalism and hasty repairs (isn’t that gum in the boy’s eye?). It’s almost like glimpsing a blissful mirage after days spent crawling through the scorching desert, mesmerized by the immanent prospect of very near as opposed to very distant destruction. Additionally, since Yellow Billboard simultaneously reveals and conceals the underlying advertisement, the boy seems to appear and disappear at will, into the past as much as the present—he is both here/now (on the billboard or gallery wall) and then/there (behind a different face or advertisement).

This seminal lost boy is a palimpsest, just as is all of Slava’s little league—curved ball hitters of temporal and corporeal dislocation, of the made and un-made, the chronological and circular, of Western metaphysics and color gang pataphysics. So, too, Slava’s centrifugal impulse, in which the drive to return home always concerns flight from and circling back to the eternal return or fall of things past (whether it be Iron or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, it’s still curtains). Perhaps this boy/man is ultimately an exaggerated symptom of what we now know as the postmodern condition, in which “reel” bodies are only ever simulacra or recycled phantoms of themselves, mere flashes of light in the cosmic spectacle of the (lost) society. As Foucault argues in “Theatrum Philosophicum” (1970), “The philosophy of representation--of the original, the first time, resemblance, imitation, faithfulness—is dissolving; and the arrow of simulacra released by the Epicureans is headed in our direction.” If this is not exactly Slava’s intended credo, who has never exhibited signs of nihilistic melancholy, his images certainly reference the fact that all prohibitions to do with coming of age and coming to knowledge, with growing up or running away, are always already direct invitations to engage in what Baudrillard once termed the smooth “epidermic play of perversity.”

© Robert Summers, 2007