Slava Mogutin: Polaroid Rage

Talking transgression and transcendence with the Russian-American multimedia artist.

Publication: Sissy Screens

I first encountered Slava Mogutin as bisexual skinhead Reinhold in Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick. Sporting a shorn scalp and slinging Russian profanities between fucking and reciting self-penned sadomasochistic poetry, this performance proved a hardcore yet fitting introduction to the brazen artist.

A true polymath, Mogutin’s work spans mediums, genres and continents. As a poet, journalist and publisher in his native Russia, the artist endured years of persecution by authorities for his pro-gay writing and activism (read his sobering account of events here). Faced with a criminal case for trumped-up charges carrying a potential prison sentence of 7 years, the then-21-year-old fled for New York and was later granted asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of homophobic persecution.

It was in his adopted homeland that the self-touted documentarian added visual art to his oeuvre. Mogutin has since exhibited internationally, published three photography monographs—along with seven books of writings in Russian and one in English—and had his work appear in countless magazines.

With his photography series Polaroid Rage and Black is Beautiful currently exhibiting in Stuttgart’s Galerie Kernweine, Sissy Screens Editor Tali Polichtuk spoke to Slava Mogutin about his exile experience, creative collaborations and the transcendental power of art.

Q: In Russia you were known for your journalism, poetry and work as a translator and publisher, but since your forced departure your creative practice has evolved beyond words. How has exile shaped your art?
A: My exile and immigrant experience shaped me both personally and artistically. Displacement and identity are central to my work, regardless of the genres and mediums.

When I moved to Moscow as a teenager, I was immersed in the underground art and music scene. I took my first pictures at rock concerts and was doing poetry readings and collaborations with artists like Andrey Bartenev, Alexander Brener and Katya Leonovich. After moving to New York I had to reinvent myself and start my life and career all over again. I continued to write in Russian and published seven books of writings in my native language before switching to English and focusing more on my visual art. It took me about 5 years before I had the confidence to start publishing and exhibiting my photography, and later I branched into video and multimedia art.

Q: In ‘Gay in the Gulag’, you explore the history of legislation and attitudes towards homosexuality in the Soviet Union. It’s a harrowing read. Since the publication of that piece in ’95, the so-called “gay propaganda law” has been enacted in Russia. What’s life like now for queer people living there?
A: I always say that Russia is no more homophobic than any other nation, but it’s the government that creates this hostile environment. The infamous “gay propaganda” law triggered a wave of gay bashings all over the country, some of them documented on YouTube.

I myself was gay bashed in my teenage years in the middle of Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow and in broad daylight. A gang of hoodlums surrounded me and started mocking me for my long hair and earrings, then the punches started coming from all directions. Luckily, someone came to my rescue and the punks ran off. That violent encounter made me even more proud of my queerness, more determined to talk about gay rights and bring visibly to the Russian gay community, which has been marginalised and persecuted by the authorities for so many years.

Q: When was the last time you went back to Russia?
A: It was over 15 years ago. I had two shows during the first Moscow Biennale. It was in the middle of a brutal winter and the place where I stayed had no hot water so I had to take ice-cold showers. I normally don’t drink vodka but in those circumstances it was the only way to warm up, I would start drinking at lunch. One night after dinner with friends, my boyfriend Brian and I found ourselves on a street filled with snowmen of all shapes and sizes. It was a surreal sight, and in the midst of it a few drunk babushkas were passing around a bottle of vodka. When they learnt that Brian was an American, they started singing “Happy Birthday” to him. Only in Russia would you see people drinking outdoors at night with a temperature below -20 C. I love my people!

Q: I love that despite your experiences, you maintain in your artist statement that “being different is a blessing, not a curse”. Have you always felt this or have time and distance changed your perspective?A: Being queer was always the most natural thing, I never hid my identity and sexuality. If someone has a problem with it, it’s their problem not mine.

Q: Moving onto photography: your work is often raw and unapologetically sexual, yet there’s a real sense of intimacy to your images. How do you find your subjects and are your shoots a collaborative process?
A: I mostly photograph my friends and most of my friends are creative and artistic. Every picture is a collaboration. Being naked and sexual in front of the camera is a talent not everyone has. My work is a celebration of sexuality, not exploitation. It’s about trust and compassion. It’s not meant to be arousing but challenging and provocative. It’s certainly not for puritans and most of it is “not safe for (corporate) work.”

Q: In your interview with Dennis Cooper, you comment on how the tone of his journalism differs from his other work. Your photography work has evolved and expanded over the years, but it always feels like your work whether it’s documentary, a fashion editorial, commissioned portrait or other personal project. What’s your ethos when it comes to taking on commissions and how do you balance the demands of art and commerce?
A: I still think of myself primarily as a poet and journalist in everything I do. Documentary portraiture is my specialty, but I like shooting commissions. It’s good to work outside of your comfort zone—it’s a challenge, a learning experience. I’ve experimented with different formats and cameras, both digital and analog. As an autodidact, I’m not so much interested in the technical aspect of photography, it’s about making a statement.

Q: In that same piece you admit that “sometimes it’s better not to meet the people whose work you like.” Your work shows an obvious reverence for creative elders—from publishing the first Russian translations of works of your literary idols to interviewing, photographing and collaborating with artists across many mediums. What has been your favourite interaction with someone whose work you admire?
A: Spending time with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky was an enlightening experience. I met them shortly after I moved to NY. It was an honor and privilege to work with Allen on his Russian translations. Also meeting and working with people like Quentin Crisp, Edmund White, Bruce Benderson, Bruce LaBruce, Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark, Terry Richardson and Wolfgang Tillmans, to name just a few. I recently had an opportunity to work with Genesis P-Orridge shortly before their death earlier this year. I had goosebumps when Genesis was showing me their personal journals and explaining their creative universe, it was very intense and inspiring.

Q: Speaking of collaborations, I love your bathtub music videos with Edmund White and Bruce LaBruce. How did these come about?
A: Both times I was shooting portraits for Gayletter Magazine and the videos were shot as behind-the-scenes teasers but later gained a life of their own, playing at film festivals around the world. A bathroom setting is perfectly intimate and soothing. Bruce LaBruce wanted to be pissed on by one of the boys from the shoot while singing ‘Moon River’ over and over again. And Edmund wanted to recreate a scene from Andy Warhol’s My Hustler. He was giving a bubble bath to a Russian porn star Lev Ivankov while sucking on his feet and singing Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Falling in Love Again’. At the time of shooting Edmund was 78 and Lev was 18, so the age difference between them was 60 years. I’m particularly proud of this video because I think older gay people should have more representation in art. I did get a lot of hate mail from Edmund’s fans who thought I was mocking the gay icon, but Ed himself was absolutely thrilled with this project.

Q: You appeared in Bruce LaBruce’s skinhead porn movie Skin Flick and directed a never-released porn film yourself. How was your experience making these films?
A: It was my first acting and porn experience. Back in the day, I was a total exhibitionist and doing porn was on my to do list ever since I moved to NY at the age 21. When I met Bruce I was a skinhead and he was developing a script about a gang of gay skinheads in London and he immediately recruited me to be in his film. Again, it was an amazing learning experience that helped me to be more confident both in front of the camera and behind it. At the time of filming Skin Flick, neither Bruce nor I could ever imagine it to be shown at venues like MoMA. As Warhol famously noted, “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Q: Who are emerging creatives whose work you admire?
A: I love collaborating with young talents and there’s a group of artists that I’ve been working with over many years: Brian Kenny, Gio Black Peter and Josh Lee. Some of my recent collaborations were with Brooke Candy, Cassils, Buck Angel, Sean Ford, Patrick Church, Susanne Oberbeck of No Bra, and Jordan Hall of Boy Radio.

Q: What are your most recent projects? Has COVID had an impact on your work?
A: To be honest, I was happy to take a break from traveling. In early March I had a solo show in Berlin titled My Existence = My Resistance. Unfortunately it had to be cut short because of the pandemic. I spent the past few months processing and editing my film archive and Polaroids shot over the past year between NY, LA and Berlin. And I just had an opening in Stuttgart with two recent series, Polaroid Rage and Black Is Beautiful. At the time when art shows are becoming mostly digital and virtual, I returned to analog photography and writing poetry.

Q: Finally, how do you want your work to impact the world?
A: I’ve always followed my heart and spoken my mind. I see my mission as a documentarian, I want to shine light on the darkest corners of human nature and sexuality in order to understand each other. My work is a weapon against hypocrisy, bigotry and censorship. Being exiled from my country for my writing and activism, I know the power of a written or spoken word. The power of poetry and art transcends political and social divides, it helps us to find higher purpose in life.

Slava Mogutin’s ‘Polaroid Rage’ and ‘Black is Beautiful’ are exhibiting at Galerie Kernweine in Stuttgart from September 19 – November 22, 2020. To view more of Slava’s work, visit his website and Instagram.

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