Ranging from a stress-ball-like bust of Vladimir Lenin to the campaign office of a fictional New Haven aldermanic candidate, the pieces in a new local exhibition aim to convey diverse conceptions of protest.
“Vertical Reach: Political Protest and the Militant Aesthetic Now,” which opened Friday night at the contemporary gallery Artspace, features work by artists from New Haven, New York, Russia, Poland and Ukraine. According to Martha Lewis, educational curator and co-organizer of the exhibition, the international scope of the show was something of a milestone for Artspace, as the gallery typically focuses on local art. Sarah Fritchey, Artspace’s visual arts coordinator, gallery manager and the exhibition’s other co-organizer, added that the show also serves as a testament to the universality of political protest.
“Protest was going on in New Haven as we were working on it,” Fritchey said. “The response to the Ferguson verdict was on everyone’s minds. We’re really excited to make a show that people can relate to.”
On Friday night, dozens packed the gallery to take in the exhibition for the first time. Featured pieces included a television screen that broadcasted a 2012 performance by Russian protest rock band Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Zbigniew Libera, a Polish artist who gained notoriety for his 1996 work “LEGO Concentration Camp,” sent Artspace a piece called “Economic Nuremberg” that imagines criminal trials for politicians and bankers involved in the global financial crisis of 2007–08. Large photographs are presented alongside a mock newspaper article describing their crimes. Lewis said she enlisted professors from Yale Law School to translate Libera’s work from Polish to English.
Fritchey said the task of transporting work by artists who reside in other countries posed a logistical challenge for the exhibition. Featured artist Anastasia Ryabova’s piece, which consists of empty flagpoles affixed to the gallery wall, cost $770 to ship from Moscow and could not be assembled until the rest of the exhibition was installed.
One of Ryabova’s earlier projects, “More than a Banana,” involved placing fruit and vegetables in empty flagpoles around Moscow as a challenge to the nationalist symbolism the flagpoles typically represent. Fritchey said that an irreverent approach to protest characterized much of the work in “Vertical Reach.”
“We were really interested in bringing in works with a sense of humor and satire,” Fritchey said. “Urgency isn’t necessarily the message you need to bring someone in.”
The exhibition was organized in collaboration with a conference that will take place at Yale in April, “Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics After Socialism.” Marijeta Bozovic, co-organizer of the conference and an associate professor of Slavic Languages & Literature at Yale, said conference attendees would visit Artspace for meals, a poetry reading and other events. The exhibition is meant to provide an edgy, real-world counterpart to the academic conversation, Bozovic noted.
“It’s one thing to talk theoretically about protest culture,” Bozovic said. “And it’s another to think about how people live this.”
Yale students were well represented at the opening. Bozovic invited students in her course “Putin’s Russia and Protest Culture” to the event, adding that the Slavic Languages & Literature Department included the event on their weekly email newsletter.
Joseph Haberman ’17, a Russian Studies major, pointed to a work criticizing former President George W. Bush ’68, which hangs in a companion exhibition titled “Heads Will Roll,” which is located within the “Vertical Reach” exhibition space. He described the piece as a sign of the show’s transnational outlook.
“This is very much a radical leftist exhibition of ideas,” Haberman said. “You absolutely run the risk [of promoting a propagandistic anti-Russia message], but I don’t think that’s at the heart of this show at all.”
On March 7, local bar Café 9 will host a karaoke event that centers on a performance art piece titled “Another Protest Song: Karaoke with a Message.” The piece by Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere invites participants to choose a song to perform from a karaoke songbook. “Another Protest Song” was previously staged in New York City and Toronto, and recordings from the New York City performances are displayed in “Vertical Reach.”
“It’s thinking about protest as an expansive idea,” Nevarez said. “Anything you feel needs to be contested.”
“Vertical Reach” runs until May 2.