RUSSIAN WRITER & POET TURNED VISUAL ARTIST, SLAVA MOGUTIN HAS BEEN A PROFESSIONAL SINCE HE WAS A CHILD, SO TO SPEAK. FORCED TO LEAVE RUSSIA IN HIS EARLY 20s AFTER BEING PROSECUTED BY A RIGID GOVERNMENT FOR YEARS OF WRITING PRO-GAY WORKS OF LITERATURE, SLAVA ARRIVED IN NYC AND HIS BODY OF WORK AS A VISUAL ARTIST BEGAN. PERHAPS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS PROVOCATIVE HOMOEROTIC PHOTOGRAPHY, SLAVA HAS BECOME A FIXTURE IN THE ART WORLD, AND A SORT OF HERO FIGURE BACK IN RUSSIA.
ASIDE FROM SHEDDING HIS CLOTHES FOR DIRTY, SLAVA ALSO SHED SOME LIGHT ON HIS EXPERIENCES GROWING UP IN RUSSIA, HIS NEW BODY OF WORK REFERENCING TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND WHAT HE PREFERS BEST: SEX OR MASTURBATING.
TEXT Paul Bruno
PHOTOGRAPHY Ray Lego
DIRTY: TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU REMEMBER OF GROWING UP IN RUSSIA.
SLAVA MOGUTIN: My family left Siberia when I was 7, so I have very vague recollections: long, brutal winters and short summers. In the summer my Dad would spend weeks fishing and hunting in the Taiga. We always had lots of dried fish around the house, which was our favorite snack. And then we used to go mushroom picking—one of the happiest memories of my early childhood.
D: DO YOU HAVE ANY BROTHERS OR SISTERS?
SM: I have an older sister Alyona and younger half-brother Gleb, who’s 23 years younger than me. My parents got divorced when I was 13, and my Dad re-married twice after leaving my mother. My brother was born when my Dad was in his 60’s and I was already living in New York, so I barely know him. Of my entire family, I’m now closest with my nephew Dmitry. He’s 17 and we’re friends on Facebook.
D: SHORTLY AFTER MOVING TO MOSCOW AROUNG AGE 14, YOU STARTED WORKING AS A JOURNALIST. HOW DID THAT BEGIN?
SM: I’m a third generation writer, so I guess I have it in my blood. My parents had a huge library—more books than furniture. My Dad hated TV and wouldn’t allow us to watch it, so I used to read non-stop. I started writing in my early teens—first poetry and short fiction, then journalism and criticism. When I moved to Moscow, my ambition was to become a great Russian poet. I was drinking heavily, had long hair down to my shoulders and was in a rock band called Moscow Martyrs—isn’t it ironic? I was writing really dark, misanthropic poetry and thought of myself as a reincarnation of Arthur Rimbaud. I quickly gained a reputation as an enfant terrible for my outrageous poetry readings and performances, which often ended in striptease and drunken brawls. But poetry didn’t pay the bills, and I started freelancing for a few newspapers and radio stations. I also worked for one of the first independent Russian publishers, Glagol, where I edited the first Russian translations of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, and some other underground classics.
D: WHAT WERE SOME OF THE QUEER WRITINGS THAT YOU WERE CRITICIZED FOR? WHAT SORT OF THINGS DID YOU TALK ABOUT?
SM: I was the first openly gay journalist in the mainstream Russian media and I was writing about gay issues from a personal perspective, which was unheard-of and dangerous in the country where homosexuality was still considered a crime and a total taboo up until the early 90’s. Naturally, I became a sore in the eyes of the authorities with my outspokenly gay articles and interviews. I was charged with “open and deliberate contempt for generally accepted moral norms,” “malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence,” “inflaming social, national and religious division,” and “propaganda of brutal violence, psychic pathology and sexual perversions.” There were 2 highly publicized criminal cases against me and at some point my lawyer advised me to leave the country if I didn’t want to end up in jail.
D: HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU WERE FORCED TO LEAVE RUSSIA? HAVE YOU BEEN BACK SINCE?
SM: I was 21 when I arrived in New York and asked for political asylum. It was March 15th, 1995 – I’ll never forget that date. I feel really lucky that I managed to escape prosecution before they introduced computerized databases at the Russian customs. Then I found out that a few days after I left, there was a warrant for my arrest. I couldn’t go back for 5 years, until the regime change. The drunkard Yeltsin was gone, the entire power structure has shifted, my old criminal cases were dismissed, and all of the sudden I was treated like a hero. There was a whole new generation of Russians who grew up on my writings. I was awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards, invited to be a part of the Moscow Biennial and appeared on magazine covers and prime-time talk shows. But most importantly, I took lots of pictures that later became Lost Boys, my first book of photography.
D: PRIOR TO THAT, HOW DID BEING YOUNG IN AN ENVIRONMENT THAT DID NOT SUPPORT HOMOSEXUALITY INFLUENCE YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARDS BEING GAY?
SM: The old Soviet attitude towards homosexuality was shaped by the prison mentality. Gay sex was widely practiced in the Gulag as a punishment, a form of degradation or humiliation. Only the weaklings who got raped were considered faggots—or “roosters,” in prison slang. They were the lowest cast of the criminal underworld and that stigma got spread throughout the mainstream society. Traditionally there was a prejudice against effeminate gay men in Russia, and many of them adopted that image. Even though I strongly identified with the gay subculture, I never felt the urge to look or act like them. When I first moved to Moscow, I was gay-bashed for having long hair. As soon as I cut my hair, started working out and wearing a Harley Davidson jacket, I was no longer a target for everyday homophobia. Although, occasionally I did still get in trouble for wearing earrings!
D: TELL ME ABOUT BEING GAY IN NEW YORK AT THE TIME.
SM: In the mid-90’s New York was definitely a far more exciting place! Coming from a homophobic country like Russia, I was blown away by the glorious New York gay scene and night life—places like Palladium, Tunnel, Twilo, Sound Factory, Limelight—sadly, all of them now defunct. I used to be a regular at The Lure—my favorite fetish-leather bar in the Meat Packing District, before its obnoxious yuppie gentrification. There on different occasions I met Jean-Paul Gaultier and Terry Mugler, among many other celebrities. When I did NYC Go-Go, I wanted to pay a tribute to the golden era of New York gay scene and document what was left of it. And I’m glad I did—most of the seedy downtown gay joints where I was taking pictures are now gone!
D: WHAT MADE YOU SHIFT FROM BEING A WRITER TO A VISUAL ARTIST?
SM: When I left Russia, I lost virtually everything—my language and audience, my family, friends and enemies, my celebrity status… I had to start my whole life all over again and re-invent myself as a person and artist. I didn’t want to be become a part of the Russian ghetto or be perceived as a dissident writer. Besides, I lost interest in writing as soon as achieved my ambition of becoming a great Russian poet. After publishing 7 books of writings and doing journalism professionally for over 10 years, I realized that I want to try something new, something entirely different. For years I’ve been taking pictures as a hobby, so when I came to New York, I had plenty of time to develop that hobby into my new language. Unlike writing, it doesn’t require translation, it’s totally universal and it’s free for interpretation. I don’t feel the need to explain and articulate everything anymore!
D: COMPARE YOUR WORK AT THE TIME TO YOUR WORK NOW.
SM: Ultimately my visual art is a continuation of my writings and I remain a poet in everything I do. I want my pictures to tell stories of real people and real experiences. I’m a big admirer of documentary photography and photo journalism and I still prefer analog to digital. Over the years I’ve experimented with different film and processing and tried many cameras. Lately I’ve been moving away from urban portraiture and documentation of youth subcultures into a more formalistic and minimalist direction. My current motto is LESS IS MORE. It’s my realization of the fact that the most difficult thing is to do simple things—I think it’s true for any genre or medium. Recently I started shooting with medium format film and I’m really happy with the results. My current New York show at AS IF Gallery is based on a new series shot last summer with a cheap plastic Holga camera. The show’s called Suddenly Last Summer – it’s a reference to an early Tennessee Williams play about homosexuality, lobotomy and cannibalism—a seemingly perfect combination!
D: WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO PICK UP THE CAMERA? TO MAKE WORK?
SM: I’m always inspired when I travel to new places and meet new people. I really enjoy taking pictures and making art—documenting my life and sharing it with others. I never think of it as a burden or a “job.” I wish I could just do that and nothing else, but the more work you produce, the more processing it takes!
D: YOU HAVE PUBLISHED TWO BOOKS OF PHOTOGRAPHY, LOST BOYS AND NYC GO-GO, AS WELL AS MANY BOOKS OF YOUR WRITING. ANY OTHER BOOKS IN THE WORKS?
SM: I’m finishing a new book, Panoramic View, based on my panoramic travel photos taken all over the world over the past 10 years. Another project in the making is a limited edition artist book of collages and text pieces, Stock Boyz and Headline Poems. I’m also putting together a collection of English translations of my poetry and short fiction, most of which were originally published in Russian.
D: WHAT KINDS OF GUYS DO YOU LIKE TO PHOTOGRAPH?
SM: I don’t have any particular type, but I’m not into “bears” or muscles. And I’m not into photographing professional models or guys who look like models.
D: COMPARE WHAT WAS SHOCKING WHEN YOU WERE A KID TO WHAT IS SHOCKING NOW. IS ANYTHING SHOCKING ANYMORE?
SM: When I was a kid, everything was shocking. Back in the Soviet times all the most interesting and radical things were banned—books, movies, art. So when I discovered all those great writers and artists – de Sade, Genet, Bataille, Henry Miller, Burroughs, Bukowski, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz – I felt shocked and inspired at the same time. I remember, at 14 I saw a Gibert & George show at the Central House of Artists in Moscow and I was blown away by the giant colorful piece depicting a spread butthole. It was one of the most disgusting and beautiful things at the same time! They say there’s nothing new under the sun, especially in our post-post-post-modern world, where everything has been mimicked, gimmicked, and mocked, but I’m always surprised that a lot of people out there still find nudity shocking and offensive. I personally think that there’s nothing more beautiful than a naked human body, but the truth is that we live in the times of new conservatism and Puritanism. Nudity is immediately associated with sex and pornography and therefore it’s being censored. And nowadays censorship is stronger than ever, especially on the Internet!
D: WAS THERE EVER A MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER AS AN ARTIST WHEN IT HIT YOU THAT YOU HAD BECOME A SUCCESS?
SM: As Rufus Wainwright once confessed to me, SUCCESS IS EXHAUSTING! I think success is an illusion, it’s all relative… In my head I’m much further ahead, but I’m grateful for what I have now. Nothing ever fell from the sky for me, I worked hard to get where I am today and never compromised for the sake of my career. To this day I refuse to think of myself as a career artist.
D: YOUR WORK AGENDA FOR 2011 IS KIND OF INSANE — DO YOU ALWAYS WORK SO MUCH?
SM: I like staying busy and always work best under deadlines. What can be better than making art for living and traveling the world with my work!
D: WHAT ARTISTS WORKING TODAY INSPIRE YOU?
SM: It’s a long list! Many people I was fortunate to meet and work with, like Bruce LaBruce, Terry Richardson, Richard Kern, Attila Richard Lukacs, Rainer Fetting, Bjarne Melgaard, Ron Athey, Franko B, Marina Abramovic, Rita Ackermann, Gelitin… Amazing Russian artists Oleg Kulik, Sergey Bratkov and Andrey Bartenev. Lots of young artists featured on my blog over the past few years: Alex Rose, Gio Black Peter, Nicolas Santos, Gosha Rubchinsky, and, of course, my boyfriend and partner-in-crime Brian Kenny!
D: DO YOU MAKE ANY OTHER CREATIVE WORK, ASIDE FROM BEING A VISUAL ARTIST?
SM: Occasionally, I still write poetry and journalism. I like incorporating text into my collages and installations, mixing different genres, styles and mediums. A lot of my work involves sound, movement and performance. For me it’s the same creative process.
D: WHICH DO YOU PREFER: SEX OR MASTURBATION?
SM: Most definitely—SEX! Quoting Bruce LaBruce, MASTURBATION IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY!
D: TELL US SOMETHING DIRTY IN RUSSIAN.
SM: Well, you can just publish one of my dirty poems!
All artwork images courtesy of the artist and AS IF Gallery.
Slava’s latest body of work, Suddenly Last Summer, is on view at AS IF Gallery through the end of July, 2011: AS IF GALLERY
He also has a show titled ‘Interpenetration’ opening in September 2011 at LA PETITE MORT GALLERY in Ottawa, with partner Brian Kenny