Fotograf Magazine

Slava Mogutin

No love: remnants of a modern unconsoled

Beauty is an excess: not to be confused with perfection, which is only an average.

Julien Torma


Slava Mogutin is an artist whose work has emerged from a confluence of cultures and histories. He works across different media – including photography, video, poetry and performance – conjuring volatile erotic phenomena from these clashing orders of representation. A comprehensive contextualization of his practice would require a reading of the relations between Mogutin’s visual works and other narratives in recent photographic history, and an engagement with his Russian-language journalism and poetry.

By age twenty, Mogutin had achieved notoriety in post-Soviet Russia, breaching its Criminal Code on several counts in the course of his radical investment in writing and publishing queer literature. This early literary ingenuity established his reputation as a sexual dissident, culminating in his well-publicized exile, and the subsequent granting of political asylum in the United States in 1995. Mogutin’s work begs comparison with the ambivalent genre known varyingly as insider documentary or subcultural photography, a domain whose ‘official’ cultural authority was first established by the five artists referred to as the Boston School. Of these, it is the figure of neither Nan Goldin nor Jack Pierson that offers the most useful critical foil to Mogutin’s practice but, rather, the lesser-acknowledged work of Mark Morrisroe. Morrisroe developed a unique collage-oriented style, by printing layered negatives and adding pen decoration to his photographs. He took pictures of friends and lovers, visually mapping his own multiple identities and the painful physical deterioration of his body. While Goldin accounts for her own practice as paying homage to elusive social and cultural truths, or as the visual authentication of genuine (if unusual) identities, David Joselit characterizes Morrisroe’s as an aesthetic of falsehood. Mogutin works explore photography’s posture as a compelling index of an unmediated real, while further questioning its persuasiveness through the foreign bodies and queer practices that he captures. Like Morrisroe’s aesthetic, Mogutin’s visual terrain of lost boys refuses easy assimilation, either as representations of maintainable identities – sexual or otherwise – or as the products of institutional culture.

Critical postmodernism understands that the legitimating values of documentary photography – including those projected onto it by Nan Goldin – are effects of historical photographic codes, rather than unmediated facts of formal representation. Mogutin’s photography performs this, having inherited the awareness from his literary grounding. In writing, and especially in poetry, any conjuring of neutrality or intimacy is always conspicuously rhetorical, and as such reveals itself as an effect of language, rather than a condition of authenticity or truth. As such, his photographs successfully question the nature of identity, troubling the categories by which we perceive ourselves. His images of wiggers, buddy boxers, skinheads and rooftop cadets are not figured as a pretense to explore or document actual, definable subcultures, but rather – as Liz Kotz writes of the work of Morrisroe and Jack Pierson – act as “a prop for the viewer’s fantasies and fantasized identifications, and [an] implicit address to the viewer’s own narcissism and selfrecognition.“[ref]Kotz, Liz. Aesthetics of Intimacy. The Passionate Camera, p. 210.[/ref] As such, Mogutin harnesses these affects by staging, with theatrical sway, the parenthesizing potential of self-absorption, and the wishful individualizing gestures signaled by the fetish.

 Slava Mogutin describes his aesthetic project as “the search for a new sensibility,” driven by a set of interests including “transgressive and radical explorations of masculinity, … various fetishes and obsessions of urban youth culture and adolescent sexuality,” against the background of “an overwhelming sense of alienation in our corporate, hyper-capitalist world.” Ambivalent, excessive adolescence functions in Mogutin’s work as a miming of his own sense of cultural difference. He photographs skewed representations of mythic masculinity, de-idealised erotic identifications such as the untenable swagger of the queer skinhead, and other self-stylings: ninja, hustler, pin-up, guerilla, porn star, sneaker pimp, wigger. These negotiations of faux sincerity, narcissism and voyeurism contain an internal critique of consumer culture.

Mogutin’s eye produces enduringly narcissistic accomplices, in both the photographic mise en scene and the culture at large. These interests found their genesis in his experiences as a queer teen in Russia, and sought a mode of articulation in the poems and journalistic articles that he began writing and publishing at an astonishingly early age. A series published in 1993 – including an incendiary interview with the gay entertainer Boris Moiseyev – instigated a backlash of public outrage, and brought Mogutin to the attention of the state authorities. In an essay published in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review in 1995, Mogutin states that his harassment was part of a campaign against queers, as well as a broader campaign against freedom of speech directed explicitly at independent journalists and the underground press. This characterization of Russia’s political and social climate in the early 1990s – and specifically of its treatment of sexual minorities – is striking in itself, yet more so in the context of Mogutin’s literary activity in the same moment. Carrying a sentence of up to five years imprisonment, Mogutin’s charges solicited the intervention of Amnesty International and PEN American, who acknowledge the violations of his human rights and organized his removal from Russia.

Forcibly jettisoned from his place of birth, and alienated from its official history and culture, Mogutin nevertheless maintains several of Russia’s repressed traditions, specifically Vladimir Mayakovsky’s radical calls to arms, and the elegiac, erotic memoirs of Yevgeny Kharitonov. Mayakovsky’s writing, like Mogutin’s, stages radical outsider identifications, deploying loneliness and isolation as a structural coding of the impulse to violate the cultural limits imposed upon the body and its needs. Finding their extension in language, this strategy nevertheless bleeds into Mogutin’s photographic practice, retaining the radical influence of Mayakovsky in collision with the mobilization of tactics specific to visual phenomena. Mayakovsky writes that “Each of us holds/the bridle of/the world in/his dirty grip,” refusing to universalize human experience while affirming the legitimacy of diverse pleasures, activities, values and perspectives.[ref]Mayakovsky, Vladimir. A Cloud In Trousers: A Tetraptych (1914-15), Electric Iron, trans. Jack Hirschmann and Victor Erlich, Berkeley: Serendipity Books, 1971, n. p.[/ref] Similarly, Mogutin’s imagines this conception as erotic reportage, revising Mayakovsky’s urban poetics by offering photographic instances where the pastures of the street double up without a mouth. Slava Mogutin’s visual practice similarly retains the influence of the queer dissident writer Yevgeny Kharitonov, whose seedy, morose testimonies to Moscow’s homosexual demimonde remained unpublished before his death in 1981. Kharitonov wrote caustic, razorsharp rejoinders to the entailed injustices of homophobia and heterosexual privilege, and mourned what he deemed the crucial flaw in our attempts to engage with the bodies of others: the cruelty of lovers, and the impossibility of love. Like Kharitonov’s bleak anti-humanism, Mogutin’s photographs compulsively reinvent sexuality and belonging, rethinking the erotic relation as something both rough and untenable. Moreover, despite their insistently erotic sensibility, Mogutin’s photos – perhaps unlike his poetry – tend to resist the spectacle of the fuck; his camera loiters in its preludes and lingers on its aftermaths.

Housed in the “prison of culture,” Kharitonov imagined the poet as a peculiar being “sentenced to labour in an alphabet cornfield,” a tormented witness to the deceptions maintained by the regime of “monstrous, dispossessed normality.”[ref]Kharitonov, Yevgeny. A Russian Who Doesn’t Drink Vodka. Under House Arrest, trans. Arch Tait, London and New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1998, p. 147.[/ref]  Following Kharitonov’s lead, Slava Mogutin’s sensibility pursues fugitive thoughts about normality, sexual relations, and the possibility of love. As such, Mogutin’s images are scenes of inconsolable identities and unhomely cultures. As traces of the modern, they are unflinchingly contemporary, conditioned by the artist’s acute historical memory. As images of lost moments that lacerate by being over, they are ghosted by the suppressed voices of dead poets. Doubly haunted, Mogutin’s photographs are screened events that lay supine and seductively broken: the exhausted remains of a modern unconsoled.

Dominic Johnson