Elena Volkova The Protest Dress: Shoot Them By Hanging (Gluklya at the Venice Biennial)

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Do you remember how you chose what to wear to the protests of 2011-2013? In winter, people got their white summer trousers out of the closet and bought white scarves and flowers. I remember how on Strastnoy Boulevard a “white knight” appeared, walking toward me out of a restaurant, carrying a bouquet of white chrysanthemums, a crane’s pink beak on his nose.   Slightly drunk, smiling blissfully, he folded a couple of paper beaks for us, and we attached ourselves to the zany flock of the insubordinate.

What nostalgia we feel today, looking back at those white jackets, trousers and scarves that were our protest clothes! They hang gloomily on our hangers, tired and disappointed, or lie on shelves, remembering their glory days at the carnival, when they found their voice and served not merely to clothe the body, but, unthinkable as it may seem, to expose the emperor’s lack of new clothes.

An artist from Saint Petersburg with the childish-sounding pseudonym of “Gluklya” (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) treats a piece of clothing as a living being.  Anna Tolstova notes that “the most ordinary dress—fragile, throwaway, worthless, the ridiculous and frivolous material that the FFC [Factory of Found Clothes] works with in performances, video and installations, was conceptualized as a kind of pan-human universal, emerging from the everyday and inserting itself into culture. The dress is both a protector of the body’s memory with its intimate experiences, a record of cultural and subcultural codes, a political manifesto, and a weapon of resistance against gender and social stereotypes.” (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2394738)

Clothes have a life of their own: they travel, march with students, go into seclusion, go scuba diving, they may even, following in the footsteps of “Poor Liza,” jump into the Small Swan Canal (http://www.kino-teatr.ru/kino/history/10/982/), or they may go to a protest march against the falsification of elections. Gluklya’s installation at the Venice Biennial is called “Clothing for Demonstrations Against Vladimir Putin’s False Elections in 2011–2015.”

Gluklya has a special affection for white clothes, and does not like new clothes, which have no personal stories to tell. In her creative duet with Tsaplya (Olga Egorova) the two of them created the FFC (Factory of Found Clothes), which existed until 2014.  I have always loved Andrei Bely and his metaphysics of the color white, so I therefore immediately took to calling the artist Belaya (White) Gluklya, all the more appropriate since one of the installations of the Gluklya-Tsaplya duet was entitled “The Psychotherapy Cabinet of the Whites” (2003).

Love for old white clothing fits perfectly with the theme of the white ribbon movement, which very quickly dropped into the past and simultaneously lives on in the protests and repressive actions of the present.

The hopes connected with these clothes have been replaced by apathy and despair; the Bolotnaya Square case became a new triumph of lawlessness and fortified the feeling of hopelessness. The subject of protests is in many ways a traumatic one: those who went out on the streets then were victims of injustice and violence, who soon became victims of a new violence, spreading into the bloodletting on the soil of Ukraine.

The white ribbon protests abound with stories, faces, images and themes that present a rich narrative for art, including the art of representing political practices, which Pyotr Pavlensky calls art about politics, as opposed to political activism using art as a means of direct action.

In an interview with Radio Svoboda, http://www.svoboda.org/content/article/27049832.html Gluklya said that the installation contains “a certain amount of ambivalence, without which, in my view, art does not exist. But at the same time it was very important for me to leave it ‘black and white’ in terms of my position. And that was a surprisingly difficult task. All my energy went into that.” Her mighty effort created a multiplicity of meanings.

Ghosts on Stilts

A few dozen tall T-shaped wooden poles stand by the wall. “Talking” clothes with slogans delicately embroidered in red on a white background (such as “Russia will be free”) hang upon them, with others written in black on white or orange (“You can’t even imagine us,” “NO,” “Power to the millions, not the millionaires,” “America gave me $10 to stand here,” “Does Russian mean Orthodox?” on a Russian Railways vest), or in red on black (“A thief must sit in jail”).

They look like a column of ghosts who have stepped out of the void to remind us about the recent demonstrations. These apparitions appear to be the rebellious spirits of protest. One-legged, they also bring to mind clowns on stilts, conveying the carnivalistic atmosphere of the first marches and rallies. The associations with ghosts and clowns add a multitude of visual and literary resonances to the viewer’s impression.

Tau Crosses

A simple pole with a crossbeam was used in the southern and eastern parts of the Roman Empire as a site of execution, on which criminals were crucified. This type of cross is known by various names: Tau cross (after the letter in the Greek alphabet), St. Anthony’s cross, crux сommissa, among others. It is highly probable that Yeshua of Nazareth was crucified on just such a cross. There is also a long white shirt—the charred “sackcloth of shame” in which criminals were led around the city—reminiscent of the robes of Christ.

The wall of “elevation of the cross” references Christian images of crucifixion, and more broadly, the typology of execution. The artist seems to have created an amalgam of different types of lethal execution: the trousers without a top and the shirt without trousers conjure up a dismembered body, the dress on poles a beheaded, hanged, or crucified one, and what is more, they are all placed up against the wall, as if in front of a firing squad.

This array of crucifixions can be seen, of course, as hyperbole about repressions or the expectation of wholesale slaughters of protesters, but today, with the police ready to declare their right to shoot in crowded places, including at women, Gluklya’s installation looks like something out of the evening news.

The Female Body

There is a girl’s white dress bordered with a blood-red thread; a ballet tutu with a rusty hammer-and-sickle bottle opener in place of a head (a vivid symbol of our culture); on the back of an overcoat, an image of a woman being dragged into a paddy wagon by OMON agents (riot police); on a summer frock, a drawing of a “witch” tied to the stake, on fire.

The theme of the sacrifice of women puts the viewer in mind of Pussy Riot, who have elicited people’s bloodthirsty fantasies and calls for the most horrendously cruel forms of punishment (pussyriotlist.com). The exhibit also contains headgear made to resemble a balaclava helmet. Not explicit, but ambivalent, a kind of hint.

Gender violence is one of the recurring themes of the tragic parade of clothes. It seems to be no accident that Gluklya’s exhibit at the Venice Biennial opened around the same time as Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s installation at the stadium in Prishtina, Kosovo (http://www.wonderzine.com/wonderzine/life/news/214075-thinking-of-you; Xhafa-Mripa, born in Kosovo, lives in Great Britain): there, a few thousand dresses and skirts, hung up on white ropes, testify to the sexual violence that occurred on a mass scale during the armed conflict in Kosovo of 1998–1999.

Dress Code

In Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel The Funeral Party, Robins formerly Rabinovich, the far-sighted owner of a funeral home,  “had difficulty in determining the client’s property status” at a funeral attended not only by Jews but also by blacks, American Indians, rich Anglo-Saxons and “numerous Russians,” comprising both “respectable citizens” and “out-and-out scoundrels.”  Can social status be determined by protest clothing? Here, too, were various sorts of people: office clerks in waistcoats, hippie-punk-goths, sophisticated women and Poor Lizas, ballerinas and Lovelaces. Their clothing—the body of their souls—is torn and in danger. They, too, are the targets of Gluklya’s reproach: “Are all of us really like this torn old rag?”