I first encountered a video by the Russian-born, Warsaw-based artist and activist Katya Shadkovska at her gallery, Lokal_30, in Warsaw. Julia (2016) exposes, via the subject’s testimony, the oppression of a transgender sex-worker in St Petersburg and her brutal treatment by the police. An intimate, claustrophobic film made with the rough urgency of a video uploaded from inside a warzone, it’s typical of Shadkovska’s portraits of marginalised figures: unfussy and chaotic, hard-hitting yet unnervingly open to interpretation.
Her latest video, Yeltsin Death Brigade / Freedom or Boredom (2019), is about the Yeltsin Death Brigade, a subcultural movement that emerged in St Petersburg circa 2014. Its members, mostly male and youngish, were children when their parents experienced the ‘shock-therapy economics’ of postcommunist Russia. Youthful distance goes some way to explaining their nostalgia for Boris Yeltsin, first president of the Russian Federation, from 1991 to 99, who, as a YDB member explains, was “a true anarchist… he just broke down the USSR, started drinking, and it was dope”.
Appropriating Soviet, Nazi and religious symbolism and donning oversize rubber masks of ‘Das Boris’ (one hypnotic scene shows two topless masked men tenderly embracing each other), YDB posits Yeltsin’s reign as a brief moment of freedom between the mental grip of the Soviet state and Vladimir Putin. In a domestic setting, three men, semidisguised in black hoodies, squash together on a sofa. “We are rightwing antifascists and leftwing nationalists. We are homophobes, sexists, macho-ists, nationalsocialists, feminists and LGBTQ,” they declare, illustrating YDB’s exaggeratedly absurdist, looping opposition to every shibboleth of the left or right. Elsewhere they cry “Inshallah!”, aping ISIS videos, the next moment donning Israeli flags – a typical expression of YDB ‘logic’.
The exhibition, in a black room with spotlit YDB merchandise and ephemera mounted on the walls, might suggest a ‘trolling’ of the sombre ‘dialogue of upheavals’ exhibit at Szczecin’s National Museum, and of the fetishising, historicising effect of ‘the institution’. Screens show further interviews with YDB members, one obsessed with “ass-fucking”, and the varying reactions of antifascist activists to the YDB. This is a provocative exhibition in Poland, where state interference in cultural institutions tracks an unfolding ultraconservatism with worrying echoes of developments in Russia. This is acknowledged in the video recording of the Speech to Poles (2019), made by Anatoly, an eccentric older guru-figure. Comically declaring himself for “P.U.T.I.N! The Party of Ultraright Transgenders and Naturals!”, Anatoly is seen being led on a leash through the streets, readily inserting a bottle up his rectum to prove he couldn’t care less if the police do it to him. This recalls a particularly East European strain of extreme performance art, or the (again) trolling activities of Tranzytoryjna Formacja Totart, The Orange Alternative or Łódz´ Kaliska. But Shadkovska – without endorsing the YDB – would argue that, as a grassroots subculture, Anatoly and his friends are far more transgressive and emancipated.
Nevertheless, Anatoly himself suggests a degree of masquerade in identifying as LGBTQ , and the notion of emancipation is subtly probed in the main video’s final scene. At a YDB gig, the camera fixes on one of the few, almost always silent young women who feature. Seemingly alone, texting, as though demonstrating to herself and others that she isn’t truly alone, she sways self-consciously, eyes lifting to the stage as she mouths lyrics learned by heart. Her T-shirt is emblazoned with the image of the old white man who represents that moment of freedom when, as one YDB member puts it, “you could slap a bitch in the face, and no one would do a thing about it”. A man jostles in front of her, oblivious and absorbed in his own pleasure. The credits begin rolling over her young face, her fingers still clamped around her phone.
Katya Shadkovska, Yeltsin Death Brigade, Trafostacja, Szczecin 17 October – 17 November 2019
From the January & February 2020 issue of ArtReview