In August 2022, a well-known Moscow art gallery opened a show called “Black Calendar.” Against a dark-brown background, ghostly white figures engage in hand-to-hand combat, point weapons at one another, sink into swamps, cower in shelters, unroll endless coils of barbed wire, and peer out of lookout towers.
To fully appreciate the impact of these works on Moscow gallery-goers, you have to imagine the atmosphere in the capital of a country at war, where even pronouncing that word (to say nothing of voicing antiwar sentiments) can land you in prison. In stores, public transportation, at work, the elephant in the room is never mentioned – it’s too dangerous. Never in the history of modern Russia has voicing an opinion been treated so harshly. According to figures from the human-rights project OVD-Info, between February 24, 2022 and January 2023, 420 criminal and 5,600 administrative cases have been initiated. Approximately 20,000 people have been arrested, some for publicly protesting, others for social media posts, wearing a potentially antiwar t-shirt or button, or just for saying the wrong thing. At police stations, arrestees are often beaten.
So how does an art gallery get away with holding an anti-militarism show in the center of Moscow? The trick was to throw the powers that be off the scent by making the descriptions of the works as misleading as possible. While all of the paintings were dated 2022, it was emphasized that the series was begun in 2020, when the artist traveled to the North Pole. The curator wrote about some nomadic tribes battling a harsh climate and hostile natural environment to make a home for themselves.
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