As one reads Masha Gessen’s telling of the story of Pussy Riot (Words Will Break Cement – The Passion of Pussy Riot), it becomes clear that the group’s distinctive quality is a reliance less on verbal statements than on visual and gestural ones. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour action on February 21, 2012 involved the performance of a song containing the “holy shit” (срань господня) line contributed by Andrei Tolokonnikov. Its main intended purpose, however, was to create a shock situation, something akin to the 1960s “happenings” of the American painter and performance artist Allan Kaprow. These were scripted events, consisting of visual and aural cues that prompted both performers and audience to create a work of art together.
Like other Pussy Riot actions, the Cathedral event was designed primarily as a live experience. It was also to be filmed and presented on video via the Internet, though the chaotic circumstances of the brief action made it hard to produce a coherent volume of footage. The action had a political element, but was essentially an act of prayer, with the title Богородица, Путина прогони! (Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!). Thus, in addition to being a work of New Media Art, it was consistent with being a religious ritual, and could hardly be described as blasphemous. The song’s opening melody and refrain were borrowed from Rachmaninov’s Богородице Дѣво (Rejoice, O Mother of God), from the All Night Vigil.
Masha Gessen presents a good and detailed account of the cruel and farcical Pussy Riot trial, as well as sympathetic portraits of the group’s members. Some of the book’s most instructive chapters are the early ones in which she discusses the development of the group’s artistic and aesthetic aims. These are elaborated further in the extracts from the members’ statements given during the trial, and one wonders if there might be a case for gathering them, along with others, in a separate volume, as they help towards a theoretical and practical understanding of the group’s artistic project. As Maria Alyokhina stated at the trial:
I am very irritated that the prosecution refers to contemporary art as “so-called art.” I would like to note that the same expression was used in the trial of the poet Brodsky. His poetry was referred to as “so-called poetry ” and the witnesses who testified against him had not read it. Just as some of those who testified against us did not witness what happened but only saw the video on the Internet.