Inside Pussy Riot, Saatchi Gallery – Review

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire

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Members of Pussy Riot in Moscow

Even though ‘officially’ the oppressive Soviet regime ended at the end of 1992, under Vladimir Putin’s leadership the practises of the KGB era still endure and in terms of the sorts of civil rights enjoyed in the West, little has changed from the Soviet years. Produced in collaboration with Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, theatre company Les Enfants Terrible have developed an ‘immersive experience’ that gives its audience a taste of what it was like for the members of Pussy Riot who were arrested in 2012 and details of their time in imprisonment.

The beginning of this ‘experience’ is of a symbolic nature, as everyone congregates at the ‘Chapel of the Patriarchy’. Within this room, the ‘stained-glass windows’ feature likenesses of men such as of Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch – a style that is reminiscent of the faux-stained glass artworks of British artists Gilbert & George. The sermon initially starts with words from St.Paul, but dovetails into Trump’s “Grab her by the pussy” speech –  sexism endorsed by the highest level of ‘authority’.

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Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova arrested on 3rd March 2012

All the audience at this point are wear balaclavas, similar to the ones worn by Pussy Riot. Once arrested for their respective ‘crimes’ (such as speaking out about gender equality for all) the audience makes its way to various holding rooms while they are being ‘processed’, given instructions throughout. Some people like me had their hands bound with disposable restraints, which while not unduly tight, served as a reminder how uncomfortable such cuffs are. The apperance before court is of an absurdist nature, bereft of rationality. One would find more ‘sense’ in the trial in Alice In Wonderland.

Overalls and a number are also assigned to each individual, a reminder that the State strips away any vestiges of being human, in more ways than one… While in some rooms the audience/prisoners are ‘passive’ – standing behind bars or listening to authority figures reiterating the futility of refuting the charges made – in other areas the audience are assigned physical tasks. Some are of a manual nature, such as sewing while another performer reads out the impossible quotas prisoners are supposed to meet.

Jonas_Akerlund_3On a more physical level, there’s a Soviet-era excerise regime that prisoners have to participate in – something that is identical to what is described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, there are many other things in the ‘tour’ that are of an Orwellian nature – a reminder of the book’s warning of Stalinist Russia and any totalitarian regime. While there is no ‘Room 101’ in this ‘experience’, there are chambers such as a facsimilie of the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’ in Trainspotting. Here, small facts and anecdotes can be read on the walls regarding the psychology of punishment in prison, including the flushing of heads down latrines.

With Russia’s alleged manipulation of public opinion via social media prior to the last US election and Donald Trump’s subsequent aggressive reversal of civil rights – especially those pertaining to women – it could be argued they are two side of the same coin and that it’s in Putin’s interests to have another world leader with an identical conservative agenda. This being the case, it is perhaps not so surprising the need for public protests has arisen – against government policies and those that endorse these agendas. As Inside Pussy Riot shows, the erosion of women’s rights at a state level is the one thing necessary for the future predicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to come true.

© Michael Davis 2017

Inside Pussy Riot runs at the Saatchi Gallery until 24th December.

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