Since anyone can remember, Russian writer and artist Slava Mogutin has used his voice to disrupt and defy the mainstream.
First, it was as a poet and journalist in the former USSR, whose homophobic values and legally entrenched discrimination he systematically poked at until he was forced to claim asylum in the United States in 1995.
He made this decision in the face of criminal charges that were brought against him by the state for, essentially, being so flagrantly queer. Once in New York, he began to use his voice primarily as a visual artist and performer — not didactically, but always with an affecting, effective message.
Over the past 16 years, Mogutin’s work has expanded to include portraiture, performance art, landscape photography, collage, video, sculpture, porn and painting.
He has created two books of photography so far, Lost Boys and NYC Go-Go, and he is about to publish a third. He and his partner/collaborator, Brian Kenny, also form the performance duo Superm.
In September, Mogutin and Kenny will bring their first Canadian solo exhibit, Interpenetration, to Ottawa’s La Petite Mort Gallery.
Ottawa looks forward to Mogutin and Kenny’s Canadian premiere next month. In the meantime, here’s what Mogutin had to say about life, love, art and his love-hate relationship with his homeland.
Xtra: When you came to New York from Moscow in 1995, you made what seemed to be an abrupt shift from writing to a multidisciplinary career that’s mostly focused on visual art and performance. You’ve been quoted as saying, “I remain a poet in everything I do.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
Slava Mogutin: I spent over 10 years writing poetry and working professionally as a journalist, critic, translator and editor for Russian publications and radio stations. When I ended up in New York, I realized that [it was] time to try something new, something entirely different. I couldn’t imagine myself having a career in the West as a dissident writer or being a part of the immigrant Russian culture, which is traditionally conservative and homophobic. I started focusing on my visual work and had plenty of time to experiment with photography before I felt confident enough to start showing and publishing it, and eventually it became my main passion and language. I do think of it as a continuation of my writing, and my literary background has a huge impact on my visual work. It gives me a certain perspective and angle.
Xtra: As a third-generation writer, did your parents or grandparents have anything to say about your career change?
SM: My grandparents are long gone and my parents are barely aware of my work. My strong belief is that in order to become an artist you have to kill your parents. In my case, I feel like they killed me first. My father, Yuri Mogutin, is a children’s writer who had a long career and published 20-some books, but he’s mostly known because we share the same last name. A former Communist and a born-again Christian, he’s a homophobic Orthodox fanatic who refers to my work as “anal filth.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Luckily, I’m past that age when I need my parents’ approval — or anyone’s approval for that matter!
Xtra: As Russia’s first openly gay mainstream journalist, you’ve undoubtedly influenced a whole new generation of Russian queers with your writings. Do you have any anecdotes about encounters with people whose lives have been changed by your work?
SM: I still get plenty of fan mail from young people who grew up on my books and journalism. I find it ironic, considering that I stopped writing in Russian years ago. I think my work and personal example inspired many gay people to come out and rebel against the system. Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much since my departure, and homophobia still prevails in Russian politics and media. However, my asylum case in the States has set the precedent and opened the door for many other cases of gay refugees from the former USSR. I take pride in the fact that my personal struggle made it easier for them.
Xtra: What was it like to return to Russia a hero after the Yeltsin regime fell?
SM: It was a weird, surreal experience. After years of harassment, persecution and exile, I was hailed as one of the best poets of my generation and a role model for the young Russians who grew up after the fall of Communism. I was awarded a prestigious literary award, invited to prime-time TV talk shows and appeared on magazine covers. If I decided to stay in Russia, I’d probably end up having my own TV show or magazine, but I just couldn’t imagine myself living again in such a corrupt and homophobic country.
Xtra: What’s your relationship to your homeland now?
SM: It’s a love-hate relationship. On one hand, I still have nightmares about going back to Russia and being arrested, thrown [in] jail or killed there. On the other, I feel terribly nostalgic about my culture and language, the friends and audience I left behind. I start every day with listening to the Russian radio while having breakfast. And, even after living in the States for 16 years, I still proudly call myself a Russian artist.
Xtra: You’ve said that real art is about breaking down taboos and stereotypes. With your newest photography book, Panoramic View, you focus on landscapes, spaces and cultures instead of portraiture. Would you say this work nonetheless represents an assault on taboo and stereotyping?
SM: I think the most dangerous thing for an artist is to become “professional” — get comfortable and start repeating yourself. After the success of Lost Boys, the easiest thing for me would be to continue doing urban portraiture and male nudes, “hardcore” pictures of pretty boys getting naked in front of my camera. But I’ve never wanted to satisfy anyone’s expectations or become a slave [to] my audience. I want to challenge myself and my fans. With Panoramic View, I’m taking my work in a new direction — expanding my horizons, so to speak. There are still some occasional portraits and nudes in it, but this book is more about spaces than people, sort of sensual landscapes.
Xtra: Bruce Benderson once wrote about your work that you understand that “exploitation is the new flirtation.” What’s your response to that statement?
SM: I love Bruce because he’s not a stranger to controversy and always comes up with ideas and statements that many people find outrageous. That’s why I asked him to write an essay for my book NYC Go-Go, and Bruce certainly didn’t disappoint: his intro actually offended some of my friends. In this particular quote, he talks about the hustler scene I’ve documented, and I cannot agree more — it is about exploitation. Sharing, selling or buying pleasure. It can apply to a larger global gay scene, which at this point is completely and hopelessly commercial and based on purely material, consumerist values. Youth, sex [and] nudity are the currency in the meat market, commodities in this universal trade.
Xtra: Where would you say your work is going these days — any new directions you’re taking or new techniques or ideas you’re playing with?
SM: I just had a show in New York based on my most recent series, Suddenly Last Summer. Both stylistically and formally, this new body of work is entirely different from anything I’ve produced up until now. It’s a series of abstract portraits shot with a medium-format camera that Brian gave me as a gift for my birthday a couple of years ago. Not coincidentally, he’s one of the subjects of this series. I still consider it a work in progress, but I’m already planning on bringing an extended version of the show on the road and making a book based on it.
Xtra: What’s it like for you to work and travel with Brian?
SM: Brian and I met almost seven years ago, and we’ve been collaborating, literally, from day one. Before Brian, I couldn’t imagine myself with anyone for more than three years, and his longest relationship was three months. Years later, I can say that I feel fortunate that I’m able to live, fuck, work and travel with the man I love. I think the reason we’re still together is that we’re very different — both personally and artistically — and these differences complement each other in a very unique way. Also, we are both very stubborn and ambitious, so we never let each other get too lazy or comfortable.
Xtra: What are you two planning on bringing to La Petite Mort Gallery in September?
SM: It’s a two-person show of selected works by Brian and me, handpicked by Guy Bérubé during his last visit to New York. It’s a diverse and intimate selection that represents different periods of our respective oeuvre — perfect for our first solo presentation in Canada.