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Homophobic Censorship at the MAMM Museum

September 12, 2012

via and David Ter-Oganyan’s facebook page


Artist David Ter-Oganyan’s exhibition, “Speed of Light,” which opened on Wednesday, September 5th 2012, at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (MMAM), was subjected to homophobic censorship perpetrated by the museum administration. One of the artist’s works, a video-project using shadow projections which was initially entitled “Propaganda of Homosexuality,” was censored, thus completely distorting the original meaning.

At the opening, the initial title of the work was changed to “Untitled,” without the consent of the author. Apparently, museum director Olga Sviblova considers that, the infamous law “on the prohibition of homosexual propaganda” (which was recently passed in St. Petersburg) is not only an acceptable cultural norm, but should be adopted as a manual for appropriate behavior throughout Russia.

Olga Sviblova and David Ter-Oganyan at the opening of “Speed of Light”

David Ter-Oganyan’s work in question is a projection of human shadows on the exhibition walls, for which he invited real LGBT activists and artists who supported their struggle.

In Ter-Oganyan’s conception of the piece, museum visitors entering the exhibition hall would be passing in front of a light-projector, which would result in their shadows mingling with those of the afore-mentioned gay activists.  In this way, audience members themselves would be represented side by side with those who advocate for LGBT rights in Russia. The artist’s intent was to “create a different kind of museum space, in which the real would be combined with the virtual.” According to the artist, his work was supposed to be a metaphor for the erosion of social borders erected on the living social body by the authoritarian government that recently instituted the homophobic laws.

David Ter-Oganyan, Propaganda of Homosexuality, video projection at the MAMM

However, the explanatory text in the exhibition at the MAMM (a piece of paper placed on the wall narrating the meaning of Ter-Oganyan’s work), only talked about the combination of the real and the virtual inside the museum space.

The opening of the exhibition was attended by six LGBT activists from among those who participated in Ter-Oganyan’ video-project, and who noticed the change in the title and explanation of the work. The artist did not realize that before the opening he should have checked if the curator (Ekaterina Inozemtseva) was begin honest with him. When he turned to the organizers for explanations, they assured him that on Friday (the third day of the exhibition) they would correct the title and explanation of his work. But on Saturday night he learned that he had been deceived. It was then that it was finally revealed to him that the museum had no intention of correcting anything.

David Tar-Oganyan commented on the censorship and the discussion around the name of the work before the opening: “I suggested to install the work “Propaganda of Homosexuality” – the museum agreed – at the opening the museum promised to correct the title – but the next day I was told that nothing was going to be changed.  According to the artist, he didn’t want to start a scandal right then and there, and instead tried to solve the problem behind the scenes, to fight against the censorship of his work. Desperate to change the situation, he wrote the following post on his facebook page:

Censorship, fucking censorship! Gays are being driven out of museums

My work involving shadows on display at the MMAM was censored in the most merciless way, by changing the very meaning of my statement! The museum changed the name of my video-work to simply “Untitled.” – instead of my original title “Propaganda of Homosexuality,” referring to the new law – which I am not sure exists yet. This is the real problem: they are driving gays out of museums!

Obviously the problem was not resolved behind the scene and that is why decided to publish this material.


Reactions to this case in the blogosphere

–       They arrived at a great metaphor for invisibility. State Power and society allow the existence of gays and queers in general – but only as long as they remain invisible.

–       If the MAMM wanted to exclude the artist, they should have done so from the beginning. It would have been a “normal” gesture, albeit unpleasant and with homophobic overtones, there would have been negotiations perhaps.  Ekaterina Inozemtseva (the curator of the exhibition, who bears the responsibility for everything that has happened), knew the title of the work in advance and did not object to it; she then tried to cover up the change in the title and finally promised to change the label on the third day of the exhibition (although she well knew that no change would occur); only on Saturday night David Ter-Oganyan learned that the title and the text accompanying the work were not corrected after all, that no one was going to correct anything.

–       Idiots….and they call this an art museum!

–       Suggestion to include in the installation the shadow of a bulldozer!

–       The homophobia and queerphobia at the MAMM has not been a secret for some time. When they presented the exhibition of Nan Goldin, for example, they managed to silence her biography, and her work is largely auto-biographical! And what about the annoucement for the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, whose work is also autobiographical? A foot-long text mentioned all her relatives but there was not a word about her beloved, who is represented in her photographs, as though she [her beloved] had never existed!

–       I advise the artist confronted with this situation to withdraw from the exhibition […] – the curator violated the artist’s right to freely choose the title of his work, she [Ekaterina Inozemtseva] should not be able to interfere and change the name of the work. I consider this as a real crime – the change of the name completely perverted the meaning of the work, it killed it. Explain to me why this is not an act of vandalism?

–       The position of the artist is not that important – but the reality of the homophobic politics operating in the field of contemporary (or visual) art. Also, that Olga Sviblova chose to extend the law in St. Petersburg (the so-called “Milonov” law) onto the territory of the MAMM.

–       [Ter-Oganyan’s] Installation was an action – and the reaction to this action was, if not more important, on par with his statement.

Reactions from the artistic community

–       Young people, who did not live under the Soviet regime, are surprised to learn of such acts of censorship in public places. This case bears witness to the return of Soviet Power in all its “beauty,”  maybe in a softer variant, resembling the period of Perestroika which began in the second part of the 80s.(Sergey Mironenko)

–       In Evgeny Zubchenko’s photographs at the opening of the exhibition it is clear that David and Sviblova were engaged in a conversation which seemed unpleasant for both of them. I also noticed this exchange while passing through the exhibition gallery, but I didn’t give it much attention at the time. I found out later about the censorship.  (Anton Nikolaev)

–       I would have projected the shadows of gay men with erected penises. It would have been more fun. The shadows of the audience would have inevitably bumped into them.  (Dmitry Vrubel)

via Valery Lebedev/

Interview with David Ter-Oganyan on his case of censorship


How was your project originally conceived?

– My work was inspired by the law banning so-called “propaganda of homosexuality” which was passed in St. Petersburg  in the spring of 2012 and in Akhangelsk in the fall of 2011. I was disturbed by these developments and decided to do this project. I met with LGBT activists and their supporters and filmed them – in the video they were simply standing as in a kind of video-picket.

– So in a way you tried to re-enact an action or picket?

Yes, it was an allusion to that. In the final piece, visitors entering the exhibition and passing in front of the projection beam would case their own shadows which would merge with the shadows of the activists projected on the screen. The title of the piece is “Propaganda of Homosexuality”. I wanted to make a political work, not an abstract one.

– How does this work relate to your older project “Shadows”?

– I basically re-filmed that work. This is another piece altogether, yet it looks similar. I turned it around, looking at it from a different perspective.

– Did the organizers know what your new work was about, were they aware of its content?

– Yes, they were aware of everything. The exhibition’s curator, Ekaterina Inozemstreva knew about my work as early as August 28th –  there was email correspondence between us about this. (The exhibition opened September 5th). The only thing they asked me was that I not include any nudity or pornographic scenes, but there was nothing like that in my work and I wasn’t going to include any [nudity, pornography]. And then at the opening of the exhibition I saw that my work had a different name and a different label.

– Did the organizers explain these changes to you?

Yes, I approached Katya [Inozemtseva] and Olga Sviblova and asked what was going on. They just told me: just don’t say anything, don’t make a scandal, we will change everything back tomorrow. They explained that these changes to my work were supposedly done only for the opening of the exhibition so as not to attract negative attention.

– And did they make those changes?

– No, they didn’t and on Monday I was finally told that that they will not change anything back because of a new law which, according to them will be instituted in Moscow soon.

– Were they referring to the federal bill , which was recently submitted for consideration to the State Duma?

– Sviblova simply said that there are “certain” people who may respond negatively to my work, some powers in Russia, whom she doesn’t want to cross. I then approached the curator and she told me she did everything she could but that Sviblova insisted on changing the name. I could have just withdrawn my work from the exhibition, but I’m not going to do that. At the time when this happened I felt really helpless. My work lost its principal meaning. I thought it as a concrete statement, not an abstract one – referring precisely to the current law that was instituted in St.Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Arhangelsk. And now the work is presented without a title, and with an abstract description – and the museum says they will not change anything, that everything is as it should be. This is censorship.

Could this situation have been predicted? After all, this is a museum which is supported by state funds – and the topic of your work is quite acute.  

– They asked me not to include any explicit nude scenes in my work, saying that they will review all the material and that they are afraid of provocation, that I would repeat the mistakes of my father. But in fact my work did not contain any such provocations. I think that what ended up happening was quite horrible.

 – How was the idea of your work conceived? Is it part of a larger project in which you are reacting to the current situation [in Russia]? Why do you, as an artist find it necessary to make a civil action?

– I thought that this is a topic that needs to be raised. It seems to me that the LGBT movement is currently part of a counter-cultural avant-garde. This movement is one of the most radical fronts in the current protest spectrum, and the recent adoption of the law banning “homosexual propaganda”- is a clear confirmation of this. State power fears gay activists and it tries to silence them when it can. This struggle is being waged inside society – it is a struggle which represents the corporeal and subjective (referring to subjectivity) desire to resist the patriarchal order imposed by Power. In this struggle, desire and protest act as engines of a concrete and materialist view, demystifying and calling into question the very foundations of the current regime and exploitation in contemporary society. I conceived of my work when the law (banning “homosexual propaganda”) had just come out – at the time it was feared that in Moscow there would also be something like that instituted. I also wanted to show a version of this work in another exhibition, in a parallel project of the Kiev Biennale. It was not shown there, but for other reasons, mostly technical ones. I wanted to make a political statement through cultural forms: when a person comes to the museum, he/she carries a certain attitude inside. And this attitude would be engaged in a reality which would begin with the name of my piece and then that person would unexpectedly be included inside my work.

It seems that critical projects are more and more difficult to implement in museums – do you think that there are specific topics that have become taboo?

Yes I think that’s obvious and also that it is usually done quietly, without the artist’s consent. I was very confident that I could have a dialogue with the museum. Provocation, if it indeed existed in my work was mostly cultural and not aggressive, it was about understanding the problem and reflecting on it.


 Is there any documentation to prove that the organizers were well aware of everything in advance?

–  Yes, the email correspondence between us exists. Everything was prepared quite chaotically but the curator was updated about everything. And there was also our correspondence prior to the opening. Olga said that there would be such a law prohibiting “propaganda”, and especially the “propaganda of homosexuality,” which would be announced on the 8th of September. She declared that she herself supports the gay movement, and that the work would remain as it is and she will talk to me more in person. She long-told me that my work is bad and that the wall text looks stupid. She said that this speaks to my lack of professionalism, that it is impossible to change the name of the piece during the installation. In my opinion, the curator distorted things to her benefit.


Alexander Galkin, who helped David Ter-Oganyan produce the video-projection, commented on this case

We got in touch with a number of LGBT organizations, got to know their members personally and invited them to take part in the video-installation “Propaganda of homosexuality,” explaining them the idea behind the project. They were all interested in doing a good job and were not interested in vulgar provocation. The activists worked long hours on the video-shooting. We invited all of them to the opening, telling them that we wanted to support their social movement and on the part of the museum, to make such a video-protest on the walls of the museum. However, at the opening the activists did not find themselves mentioned in the project altogether. Neither I nor David had checked the labels in advance, because we thought that was the job of the museum. And after the opening, David was led to believe that they would correct the labels. We did not want to make a scandal, and David said that his duty was to change the title of the work back to the original. But the director of the museum intuitively felt as if the law (against propaganda of homosexuality) had already passed. And the way they behaved in this situation was as if the law was (informally) in place. We consulted a lawyer – at the state level and in Moscow there is no such prohibitive law.


Editor’s Note. Originally published in Russian here. The interview has been edited slightly in English to make it more readable.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 9:11 PM

    Two days after this story Sviblova made statemens like the represantive of kandinsky Prize (the main contemorary art nomination in Russia). She told about causes of refusing to includ the documentation of Pussy Riot’s work. Sviblova explained that ihis decision is not because of politic.

  2. September 12, 2012 11:47 PM

    Yes, it is in translation together with a longer interview with Ter-Oganyan about his case

  3. abramova.evgenia permalink
    September 12, 2012 11:45 PM

    hope art-leaks will add Sviblova’s response

    • Victor permalink
      October 11, 2012 8:27 PM

      Do you mean where she says “…as far as I remember homosexuality is not punishable in our country…”? I don’t know where one gets the balls to say a thing like that after she herself participated in a talk show where the law was discussed.

      Sviblova could have given some semblance of a decent response, but somehow she has failed to do so in the month since. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have one.




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