The Cursed is a utopian magazine, the only one that was lucky enough to have this interview with Russian dissident artist Slava Mogutin featured.
As an artist, you use all the medias possible: photography, writing, acting, collaging, journalism… Even real-life performance is there if we take into account a signature story of your public gay marriage attempt in mid-90’s Russia, which was destined to fail.
Slava Mogutin: Yes, and I was exiled from my bitter motherland in 1995 for the mentioned ‘performance’, together with my transgressive journalistic activity. Back in Russia, poetry and written word were my preferred medium. My father and grandfather were writers so I started following them in my early teens. My poetry was very dark, antisocial and even violent. Writing it was my way to rationalize my phobias, anxieties and my rage against the machine.
When I was granted political asylum in USA, I had this language barrier so I started doing visual art too. I settled down in New York and everybody there was telling me I’m doing too many different things together and it’s confusing.
In 2014, you’ve published ‘Food Chain’, your first book of writings translated to English. But in Europe and USA, your written work is still a bit less known than your visual. Which is sad, because to me, one of the gems of your creative output is a book of entrancing and unbridled interviews that was published 15 years ago in Russian.
Yes, in that book there were conversations with cult icons, people as glorious as Allen Ginsberg, Gus van Sent, Joe Dallesandro, Denis Cooper, Bruce la Bruce, François Ozon, Larry Clark. Now I’m going to publish it in English for the first time, together with some of my essays. One of my last favourite interviews was the one with celebrated gay writer Edmund White. It was also interesting to meet my inspiration, Marina Abramovic. Regardless of her radical work, she’s very charming in real life. Look, she even gave me her book with a trace of her hand and foot. Amazing, isn’t it? Interview can be a very interesting opportunity and also it is a great genre. And I way more prefer to interview someone than to be interviewed!
Lord forgive me.
I first came to Moscow at the age of 14 and I wanted to pursue a journalistic career. I was a provincial punk teenager, a kid trying to make my way in the capital. I even had to lie about my age in order to be published. Conducting interviews was my way of meeting people whom I found fascinating. It was also a way for me to learn from these people.
Now you’ve made your way far beyond. How do you feel a recognition may change a once-marginal artist and his work? How did it affect yours?
The beauty of being successful — and I’m saying this because I worked really hard to get where I am today — is that you can get away with way more if you are an outsider artist. Once you had one museum exhibition in your resume, and once you had your book published with major publisher, it certainly opens lots of doors for you. And it’s up to an artist to decide whether you want to choose commercial, mainstream path, or you want to continue things that you are passionate about, something that goes from heart and guts, not from brain and calculations.
But can one evade any calculations when living in a megalopolis? I heard a Brighton Beach lady on the plane calling today’s New York ‘a labor concentration camp’ — seems to be the truth.
My photographic book ‘NYC Go-Go’ about hustlers is a celebration of New York as it used to be, a decadent place where everybody could find a niche or a roof. Now lots of artists who I love, my friends, had to move to Los Angeles, where rents are twice cheaper and the weather is nice. The now-sterilized New York is not what it used to be. I live in my apartment in Greenwich Village for more than 20 years now. I’m actually in the heart of gentrification up here and at the moment I’m paying for the neighborhood, not for this actual place.
If I cared for money, I would be able to afford more for myself. But a lot of projects I spend time on, are partly or completely not commercial. When you work on a book, it takes you months and months, but the book is a thing to remain. And you can do a fashion campaign that no one’s gonna remember, but it will pay your bills for months. I have a long page of titles already; it’s kind of satisfying, as you don’t necessarily have to do something that would be a disposable, commercial product.
You’ve been naturalized as a US citizen in 2011, only 16 years after you’ve actually moved there. How did it affect your life, or the people’s acceptance of you as a person or artist?
I feel like New York is a place where it’s easy to be an outsider and easy to be a foreigner. Honestly, I wouldn’t care if I was an official citizen or not, it was just really essential for my work. First, now that I’m officially American, I’m feeling more liberated to express my views on problematic local issues, the ones that are the core of my work: generally accepted moral norms, perception of sexuality, etc. I mean, passport is a sweet piece of paper that makes your life easier, but I still identify with outsiders who don’t necessarily have a citizenship. I think for many of people I’m still kind of an alien, no matter what citizenship I have (laughs). I’m a New Yorker for sure. But I don’t know if I feel 100% American, no matter how much time I’ve spent here.
What are the misconceptions about your work that you confront most often?
So many of them, all the time. The work that got me in trouble in Russia some twenty years ago is still getting me in trouble now. When I was doing promotional readings for ‘Food Chain’, there were people offended by my writing and it was the same when I was a teenager, presenting my first poetry book in Russia. Obviously, I’m not a teenager anymore but deep inside I still have the same rage and same contempt for generally accepted moral norms, the neglectance of which was one of the criminal charges against me in Russia. So it’s something that doesn’t go away.
Now, some people dismiss me as a pornographer, for a mere reason that they saw some picture of a nude boy among my works or something like that. But I reference porn as a starting point for serious discussion about what is accepted and why, in modern society, sensuality is being replaced with mostly violence and gore.
Much of your work was purposely offensive, I would say.
Absolutely. Back in the days as a journalist in Russia, I wrote articles that would later be inflammatory. I was a provocateur — in order to check up on the status quo or something. Later on in USA, I started selling my first photographic works to real pornographic magazines like Honcho, Playgirl, Inches. And sometimes porn editors, those old stagers, would turn down my pictures because they considered them too cool and too hardcore! And I was like — fuck this, this is lame. In two years, I got my first show in New York and half of it was considered fully pornographic. Such a reaction to my work is an indicator of how open the society is. ‘They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’ That’s one of my favourite quotes from Andy Warhol.
How open is the American society, in your opinion?
In Buenos Aires, I was amazed to see giant billboards of semi-nude guys in skimpy underwear. And it was not even promoting underwear but some other weird stuff. It wouldn’t have been possible in USA and that says it all. Same time, you would see highly sexualized, 6-feet tall images promoting Victoria’s Secret lingerie on Times Square, but nothing like that with male body. Why on Earth it is such a big deal? There’s nothing more beautiful and natural than naked human body. But the compromise is that most people associate nudity with sex, and sex with porn. And porn is still such a hypocritical taboo. This is something that should remain in 19th century. But sense of shame is still a big issue.
One of the main objectives of your work is adolescent sexuality. Why is it topical to you? Your biographical essays have left me with an impression that it might be an attempt to recreate the lost Eden of vivid first feelings and physical love senses.
Adolescence is an eternal object of art since Renaissance, I can’t ignore it. I always love working with kids and teenagers, I’ve done a couple of film projects with young kids and it was really fun. I feel it has something to do with the fact that I come from a very difficult childhood and my family was kind of dysfunctional. My father was an alcoholic and quite abusive to my sister, me and my mom. They divorced when I was 13 and it was dramatic. I realized I was bisexual at school when I fell in love with a girl and a guy at the same time; I was being raised in a severely homophobic country so it was very confusing. That moment was very important in my formation. So, a lot of personal teenage anxieties attach me to this topic. In my early poetry, I talk a lot about boys and girls and boys being girls and girls being boys. One of my books starts with a text called ‘Curious family’, it’s about a family of boys. Hilarious! And you know, as far as adolescent sexuality is such a taboo in Western world…
To an extent that you’re whispering it now.
…It’s like adolescents are not supposed to have that sexuality which is simply not true. We all remember the experience of first sexual fantasies and sexual impulses when we were in early teens. Long before the age of consent. So I think it’s interesting to try to dissect the whole idea of taboo, this big scary subject.
What would you call the ultimate masculinity and where it starts to blur into femininity?
I’ve been in certain relationships where I felt I was dating a macho, but in fact he was… A brosephine. It’s not always ‘what you see is what you get’. There’s the whole spectrum of things and I really don’t think gender is something you can divide into masculine and feminine. I knew one transgender couple. He was the boy who really looked like a boy, but he had a pussy. And she was the girl with male name and the dick. So complicated!
I know you’ve been quite religious in your childhood. Did it leave any traces on you? Or you’ve ‘downed your religion’, like your favourite line from Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky says?
I’ve been very, very religious. I even wore a golden cross. I consider religion to be a highly important subject in modern world, because, unfortunately, it is still dominating the morals. Whether we will like it or not. The concept of shame and censorship has a lot to do with religious dogmas. But I don’t endorse organized religion. Believe it or not, I still regularly go to different churches and spiritual places near my place. Like non-denominational church which is more of a meditation room. Also, Our Lady of Pompeii, one of the most beautiful catholic cathedrals in New York. There’s a statue of Black Nazarene up there, he looks like black transsexual Jesus in a dress.
To you, what’s the most satisfying part of being an artist?
A feeling like you’ve left a certain X amount of meaningful beautiful things behind, be it books, films, collages or photographs, and they will remain and outlive you.
To tell you the truth, I could never imagine myself growing old and being in my thirties, even. My goal was to live fast and die young. So when I turned 40, I decided I want to focus on long lasting projects rather than doing endless shows. In Bible, there is a line that says: ‘A time to take stones away and a time to get stones together’. I feel like I’m in an age to get those stones. I’m blessed that I still have enough creative energy, juices and excitement in me. And I have my project schedule planned for 10 years ahead.
Are you a bit preoccupied by death?
Death is obviously relevant and I’m thinking about it, but I hope I have enough time to realize everything. I’m being more careful with my health, not doing as much drugs and trying to be fit in order to accomplish all the creative goals I have. I feel like I’m still quite alive.