Rarely Seen Photography and Video of Russian Counterculture

April 10, 2013

Rarely Seen Photography and Video of Russian Counterculture During Perestroika

at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers

New Brunswick, NJ – Young people restless in the late 1980s turned to art to express themselves in a city repeatedly at the forefront of change, embracing a do-it-yourself attitude in all their endeavors. They experimented with photography and the newly available medium of video; their music declared personal and global anxieties. These artists were not in London, New York, or Los Angeles: they lived half a world away in Leningrad – now St. Petersburg – Russia. “Leningrad's Perestroika: Crosscurrents in Photography, Video, and Music,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University from April 20 to October 13, 2013, examines – through the eyes of these artists – the final years leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as its immediate aftermath.

With more than 60 photographs and videos, the exhibition presents – for the first time – photographers, musicians, and video artists as active members of groups, rather than individuals, to underscore their collective goals. Most of the works in the exhibition, which were created between 1985 and 1993, have not been seen in the United States. In addition, newly translated interviews with – and critical writings by – the artists present firsthand accounts of participation in these cultural networks.

Drawn from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, this exhibition presents the largely overlooked, provocative underground milieu that existed in Leningrad during the time frame. “Interest has focused on painting and sculpture,” explains Corina L. Apostol, a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers, who organized the exhibition, the first in the United States to consider this fertile material. She continues, “Despite lingering state censorship, this era represents an unusual time of artistic freedom, collaborations, and experiments among and between artists working in photography, film, and video.”

From 1985 to 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, instituted a series of ambitious reforms known as “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness), which were intended to upgrade the existing Communist system rather than overthrow it. These efforts continued through 1993. During this period, many artists had “day jobs,” allowing them to make a living in a relatively inexpensive and stable economy while finding time to pursue their creative visions.

Under these circumstances, photography flourished in the hands of artist who freely experimented with new subjects and processes. In Russia during the Soviet era, photography was not considered art; it essentially served as a documentary tool for state propaganda. This attitude allowed photographers to flourish without the restrictions of official oversight. Two artists in the exhibition, Alexey Titarenko (b. 1962) and Dmitry Vilensky (b. 1964), experimented with photographic processes to create new visions of Soviet life. “Nomenclature of Signs” (1986-1991) by Titarenko is an example of rarely seen conceptual photography from this era that presents a world of unrealized hopes, where time seems to stand still. Vilensky developed a process of overlapping images from different times and places that he called “Photo-archeology,” in order to create scenes that are familiar, yet distorted and dreamlike.

Music also flourished in these years, even though musicians faced greater government oversight than photographers. Western music was officially banned in the Soviet Union but Russian rock and roll emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Citizens smuggled cassettes or covertly tuned in to news, music, and cultural programs on Radio Free Europe, BBC, and Voice of America broadcasts. Musicians found inspiration from a variety of influences and Leningrad became the center of a music revolution, with bands such as Alisa, Avia, DDT, and KINO based in the city. Photographer Andrei Usov (b. 1950) chronicled this underground rock scene, creating an extensive archive of images of musicians and their audiences. His iconic 1985 photograph of the legendary band Akvarium (Aquarium) pits their rebellious rock-and-roll attitude against the traditional onion domes of the well-known Russian Orthodox Andreyevsky Cathedral in Leningrad.

While state-owned television and theaters did not show experimental creative work, it was widely popular in the underground art world. Video quickly became the favorite medium for documenting the Russian rock scene in the 1980s. One of the most significant of these documentaries, Alexey Uchitel’s “Rock” (1989) vividly portrays the gritty reality of these musicians’ lives. Film and video also emerged during this period as outlets for performance artists, actors, and writers, among them a group known as the Necrorealists, who filmed themselves staging provocations in public spaces, to the surprise of passersby. “Piratskoe Televidenie” (“Pirate Television”), produced by several artists between 1988 and 1992, was an alternative news source that combined performance art with clips from official state television. Through broadcast programs, as well as video installations at local venues, these artists depicted the underground artistic community in Leningrad and provided provocative commentary about news reported by the Soviet media. Most notably, “Pirate Television’s” anchorwoman, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (1969-2013), became the Soviet Union’s first public transvestite. His popularity reflected the growing acceptance of gay subculture in Leningrad of the time. The full 90-minute film “Rock,” Necrorealist short films, and clips from “Pirate Television” are presented for the first time at the Zimmerli. 

As with most revolutionary periods, the legacy of “perestroika” has been a mixture of failure and success. While the sought-after free market did emerge from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it has proven to be a difficult and chaotic transition to capitalism, resulting in a much higher cost of living, deprivation, and homelessness for many. Ironically, artists who enjoyed creative freedom during “perestroika” are now – some two decades later – working harder to make ends meet and have less time to devote to their art. In addition, social intolerance has resurfaced, as recently enacted anti-homosexual legislation in Russia and last year’s imprisonment of the punk rock band Pussy Riot make clear. 

Nonetheless, as Apostol states, “The era remains a source of inspiration for the artists of the time and those of later generations.” Vilensky, who began his career in 1980, continues as an active artist and writer. He is also a founding member of ChtoDelat? (What is to be done?), a Russian collective of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers who share the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism. The rock band Akvarium has announced plans for a series of summer concerts and the release of a new album in 2013.

Young protestors of the 21st century have adopted such anthems as KINO’s “We Want Changes!” to voice their discontent with current economic and political conditions. And until his recent death, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, a prominent performance artist and gay activist, continued to confront public figures and discrimination, as well as perform in contemporary theater productions. Apostol argues, “Like their avant-garde predecessors from the 1920s and 1930s, artists in St. Petersburg – 20 years ago, as well as today – seek to reorganize their world and rewrite official histories.”

“The Zimmerli’s role as a teaching museum allows us to provide these one-of-a-kind resources to students who seek to study art, as well as its active role in recent history,” states Suzanne Delehanty, the Zimmerli’s director. Delehanty adds, “We are very fortunate in having the Dodge Collection, which attracts talented students like Corina from all over the world. And we are grateful to receive support from the Avenir Foundation to support these students in their graduate studies and give them the opportunity to delve into the many facets of the collection.”

Corina L. Apostol, who grew up in Romania, has a longtime interest in St. Petersburg’s alternative culture and rich history. She researched this topic for two years in the city during her appointment as a Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli, with support from the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund. Apostol works with advisor Jane Sharp, an associate professor in the Department of Art History and research curator of the Dodge Collection at the Zimmerli. At Rutgers since 1999, Sharp has organized more than ten exhibitions of Soviet era art and published such books as “The Great Utopia:  The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-32” and “Russian Modernism Between East and West: Natalia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde, 1905-1914.”


Leningrad's Perestroika: Crosscurrents in Photography, Video, and Music” is spotlighted on May 1 during Art After Hours: First Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. The evening includes an exhibition tour, a screening of the short documentary “Chronicles of Perestroika” and talk with the filmmaker Dmitry Vilensky, and a performance by the New York-based Russian punk rock band Kooperativ Zvezda (Star Cooperation). Admission ranges from free to $6.

Dmitry Vilensky returns to Rutgers on Thursday, May 2, from 10 a.m. to noon, for a discussion about his work with the artists’ collective Chto Delat? and strategies of political narration in contemporary photography and film. Presented by the Developing Room at Rutgers, the event is free and open to public. It takes place at the Plangere Writing Center in Murray Hall, Room 302, on the College Avenue campus.

Schedule a guided group or class tour of “Leningrad’s Perestroika.” Docents are available to lead tours in English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian. In May, special tours led by exhibition organizer Corina L. Apostol are available. Please schedule at least two weeks in advance by emailing education@zimmerli.rutgers.edu.


The exhibition and related programs are supported by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund.


The Zimmerli Art Museum’s collection includes more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.


The Zimmerli Art Museum is supported by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, as well as the income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment Fund, and the Voorhees Family Endowment Fund, among others. Additional support comes from the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. Contributions from other corporations, foundations, and individuals, as well as earned income, also provide vital annual support for the Zimmerli’s operations and programs.


The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.


Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Wednesday of each month (except August), 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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