Born in Siberia, Slava Mogutin is a New York-based visual artist and writer, whose multidisciplinary work delves into themes of transgression, gender politics, culture clash, adolescent sexuality, and more. Banned from Russia in 1995 for his critical writing and open vocalization of gay culture, as well as his attempt to register the first same-sex marriage, Mogutin received political asylum in the States. Author of two acclaimed photography books, Lost Boys and NYC Go-Go, as well as seven Russian publications, Mogutin is now at work on a book of panoramic travel photos, as well as upcoming art exhibits: “Diana World Tour” at Lomography gallery store opening September 27th, and “Skin Graphs/Metabods” at Envoy Enterprises on November 15th.
Since it took you 16 years to gain your citizenship and you were under political asylum for that long, I am curious if the themes of displacement/detachment were prevalent to you while making your work?
Having the kind of experience that I have gives me a certain angle and perspective, different from my American-born peers. Looking back at all the trouble I went through as a teenager in Russia, I consider myself lucky to be alive. But, as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s. Naturally, my work is a reflection of this journey. Becoming a US citizen certainly made my life much easier, but I still consider myself a Russian artist and I’m very much influenced by my dissident and literary background.
How easy was it for you to become immersed into NYC culture and call it your home?
When I first moved here, I hardly spoke any English or knew anyone. But I was fortunate to meet and work with some amazing artists, like Allen Ginsberg, Gus Van Sant, Bruce LaBruce, Terry Richardson, and Wolfgang Tillmans. I learned something from each of these people, which gave me confidence to start publishing and exhibiting my own art. 17 years later, I’m still in love with New York and happy to call it my home.
In your artist statement you talk about the idea of escaping shame, which the Soviet mentality imposed on people. By embracing “shamelessness” are you searching for liberation and escapism from these conservative ideas? If so, what does liberation in text and art mean to you?
I started writing poetry and taking pictures back in my early teens. All I’ve always wanted to do as an artist is to express myself in the most radical and honest way. It seems like the most obvious goal for a creative person, but growing up in a very conservative and oppressive society it was equal to rebellion, going against the system—without self-censoring or compromising or making the “right” career choices. I wouldn’t call it escapism, but rather exposing the evils of our world and celebrating the joys. That’s what my work is really about—celebrating the beauty that exists outside of the conventional norm and rebellion against hypocrisy, censorship, bigotry, sexism and homophobia, religion and conformity.
Describe the transition from Moscow to New York, in particular the experience of the response to gay culture, but also physically, from a cold and vast, conservative and strict place to an urban, multi-cultured one.
Being gay was never an issue for me or my friends, but it was an issue for the authorities. After attempting the first same-sex marriage in Russia back in 1993, I saw what real homophobia and hatred looks like. Fast-forward 20 years, and people in Russia are still being prosecuted and harassed for being gay or even publicly talking about it! I’m getting more and more emails from Russian gays desperately trying to leave the country. Luckily, my political asylum opened a door to many similar cases and helped others to find a refuge in the US. But let’s not forget that the situation with gay rights here is also far from ideal. It’s an outrage that after being in an 8-year-relationship with my American boyfriend, we still don’t have access to collective rights that straight couples do. The point is, as long as religion exists, the gay issue will remain a political one, and it’s always a good indicator of how progressive and civilized a country really is. Until this injustice exists, the fight must go on!
What sort of response does your work get in Russia and the States now compared to when you were emerging?
When I went back to Russia years after my exile, I was awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards and found myself on magazine covers and prime-time TV talk shows. It’s funny to say, but in Russia I’m still mostly known as a writer and in the West very few people are familiar with my writings. Visual art helped me to jump over the language barrier and reach a much wider international audience. I consider myself a citizen of the world and nothing makes me happier than traveling the world with my work.
What was the change that inspired this forward thinking in Russia that allowed for you to be accepted eventually? And what are your feelings about the new homophobic policies recently introduced in St. Petersburg, as well as the treatment of radical groups like Pussy Riot and Voina?
There’s a whole new generation of Russians who are more free and independent than people who grew up under Communism. Sadly, in recent years political situation has been getting worse and worse. As the trial of Pussy Riot demonstrates, the old Soviet propaganda has been replaced by a new Orthodox fanaticism and chauvinism. Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin performance was brilliant and brave, just like the radical actions of Voina. As a result, they were charged with the same criminal offenses as me years ago – “hooliganism” and “inflaming social and religious division.” Still, the recent mass protests against the rigged elections and the emergence of new counter-culture in Russia leave us with hope that not all is lost.
You’ve maneuvered from text to visual image to video. Is there a medium that you haven’t used yet but would be willing to take on?
For me creativity is not limited by any particular genre or medium. We live in the time of multimedia and the most interesting and exciting artists for me are those who combine many different elements in their work. I think it’s much more exciting than exploiting one ‘trademark style,’ as it’s been traditionally accepted in the art world. A few years ago, I was commissioned to direct a feature movie, but unfortunately this project never realized because of a disagreement with the producers. This is something I would love to do again in the near future—direct a feature movie.
Do you have an archetype when searching for subjects, or rather, what do you look for in your subjects?
Well, usually it’s other way around—my subjects find me. I cannot say that I have a particular type and prefer not to use professional models. Most of the subjects I photograph are either my friends or people I meet while traveling. I also get quite a lot of solicitations, which in some rare cases lead to interesting collaborations.
Other than extremely sexual, your images and texts also have elements of violence to them. What sort of reaction do you wish to gain from your viewers?
Only a fraction of my work can be described as extreme or sexual, it’s more about love in different shapes and forms. As for the violence—we live in the world of permanent war, blood and gore and my work is a reflection and reaction to it. As my friend Kembra Pfahler said after our recent performance with Bruce LaBruce, “war should remain only in galleries.” I cannot agree more.
What are you working on now for 2012/2013? Any new books, projects, collaborations in the works?
I’m working on a book of panoramic travel photos and a couple of limited edition artist books. Plus a solo show at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, a few gallery shows in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Bergen, Madrid and Barcelona, and artist residencies in Vienna and rural Ireland. And I’m always keen on collaborating with other like-minded artists—exchanging ideas, exploring new territories, spreading love… that’s what we’re here for!
Photo of Slava by Michael Alago.