Standing near the entrance of SMU's Hope Lobby at the Meadows School of the Arts, with its inscrutable black body fixed next to a bright wall of windows, "Monument to Berezovsky" makes for convincing and disciplined political art.
It's a guest here, and it looks uncomfortable in the setting. The work mimics the platform in which three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock band/collective, were held while on trial for hooliganism earlier this year (one was freed; the other two were sentenced to separate prison camps for causing a non-violent commotion in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The ladies are serving a two-year sentence for the offense.). And who's Berezovsky? Well, let's wrap back to him later.
"Monument to Berezovsky" is the creation of three artists out of UT Arlington - Jesse Morgan Barnett, C.J. Davis, and Michael Mazurek. (These are the guys behind Dick Higgins, which many first noticed as a gallery within Oliver Francis a few months back. But the name could also stem from their shared studio space or it could be the incantation you speak anytime these three cats get together. I can't figure it out.) So we have three artists on trial in Russia, and three artists in Dallas responding to that oppression in a meaningful way.
I looked at the piece on the Saturday morning after its Friday evening debut. Ladies who clearly aren't struggling in life sat chattering on couches nearby, not seeming to notice the big obstruction that they might have mistaken for a burnt armoire. The work's presence, which is strangely gorgeous despite its ideological origin, defies the elitism of the Hope Lobby's shiny wood paneling and carefully-selected art-as-décor. Inside this space, everything is pleasant. But "Monument to Berezovsky" is angular, hard-edged, and completely in-your-face big. Being placed so near to the window makes it all the more orphan; its darkness is framed by transparency.
But if you step back from the piece and take in the whole room, something unexpected happens. To see the slats topping the artwork, you must look up, so you will also be looking at a grid and a thick intersection of lines on the lobby's ceiling high behind the art, resulting in such visual dissonance that I did indeed begin to feel confined. Once I saw that, the austerity of the entire room spread like a contagion. I wanted out, and that's when the name Hope Lobby developed a cruel irony. If Barnett, Davis, and Mazurek are exploring ideas of control, they found the right place - controlled interior of Hope Lobby, controlled interior of Russia.
So back to the namesake. Let's chat about this Berezovsky.
The Putin-disgracing antics of Pussy Riot are rumored to have been funded by Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who's now self-exiled to London. And yeah, he's quite the character. He made his money in car dealerships and once owned the only television station in Russia. He's even been called the "Godfather of the Kremlin." The fella has a jones for litigation.
Berezovsky and Putin went on ski trips together after the former's money funded the latter's political career all the way to the presidency. One day the buds had a falling out over power, and each seeks opportunities to destroy or discredit the other. Berezovsky is a true mysterioso - even his Wikipedia page begins with a disclaimer implying that everything you are about to read may or may not be true...
"Monument to Bereznovsky" is on display indefinitely in the Hope Lobby at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts.
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