Javascript is not enabled! Please turn on Javascript to use this site.
Fifty Seven Hours in the House of CultureFlowers East, London, 2006;  Andrei Sakharov Museum, Moscow;  
From Novaya Gazeta, 19th October 2006


From Novaya Gazeta, 19th October 2006

Now showing at the Andrey Sakarov Center is an exhibition by John Keane, the official military artist of Britain. It is dedicated to the tragedy at the Dubrovka theater

In all his interviews artist John Keane states: "I studied the tragedy at Dubrovka because the terror act happened in a theater, that place where people go in order to escape from reality. But it was right here that their most terrible reality caught up with them."

For Keane, the official British artist of the postwar generation, war is a reality often disregarded by contemporary society and the arts. He says that violence must be studied in order to prevent it in the future, and he strives for authenticity.

The exhibition is being held at the Andrey Saxarov Center, and is titled '57 Hours in a Theater'. On canvases and posterboards, with the aid of oil paints, are frames from videos made by the terrorists, FSB soldiers, and Dan Reed (from his documentary film 'Terror in Moscow'). Characters appear here and there, and then the worn-out icon of death peers from the uneven canvas - or more precisely, the agonizing, narcotic expectation of death. Victim and terrorist both await it. They exchange glances and cry quietly. The living stare into the camera, while the corpses - stare nowhere. They are converted into shadows, decolorized and made equals by clouds of lethal gas.

Beneath the video scenes are captions: "I remember well their faces" ... "Mom, I don't want to die"..."As Allah is our witness, we desire death more than you do life" ... "Suddenly a girl appeared in the hall".

The pictures are repeated, increasing and decreasing in size - like splashes of an untuned and intrusive memory, or refrains from a special news broadcast. All around are decorations from the burned and destroyed brick walls of a school gymnasium, the future - Beslan.

Alongside the pictures a chronical of the time is shown on a television screen, proof of the fact that in real, linear time, nothing significant is occurring. The nature of documentary is not always authenticity, but what is a military artist to do without it?

As far as authenticity is concerned, in our country the boundaries between fact and fiction, between life and the cinema, have been erased. I do not know if this British artist is ready for this, but all he needs do is stretch out his hand and it will be filled by Andrey Sharov with his acrylic photo-paintings of pop idols. Or Aleksander Dryuchin with his ornamental pictures of convicts sleeping in the prisons, or Aleksey Kallima's graphic site on persons of the "Caucasian nationality" - first chased on the Russian roads, then swirling about with the houris in paradise. But above all of these stands Konstantin Khudyakov. He has cloned Gibson's holy martyrs into 50 thousand high-quality photographs so that, as he puts it: "they are more alive than the living."

While working with a select mass of inferior video frames, Keane has canonized a human crowd doomed to death. Perhaps he is the opposite of Khudyakov. Keane does not reach the level of such a respected artists as Warhol and Richter, but within such a theme as Nord-Ost', any artist would probably start to write one way and think in another.

The people who gathered at the exhibition people had as little in common with the Londoners who were shown the pictures during April of this year as modern people might have with their descendants. They were not everyday people who came to remember their tragedy and others' on the eve of its four-year anniversary, but human rights activists and eyewitnesses who were gathered together to discuss the subject. Members of the Human Rights Movement Center, representatives of Civil Assistance Committee, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Russian public organization Nord-Ost, and the Yabloko human rights faction...

They gathered because, in contrast to the London terror acts, Nord-Ost has, until now, continued "to hang in the air" like a gas that will just not dissipate. I watched the former hostages, those who are still alive today. I listened to them speak about how they still suffer from diseases and deprivations, without ever having received help from the government. I looked at the suicide bombers sleeping on the screens, and heard from the hostages how they were killed while still asleep, without a trial, without being questioned, and after which an entire wave of terror acts broke out - and among them the Beslan tragedy. I looked at the Chechen in camouflage and heard how those who tried to prevent the terror act, or negotiate with the terrorists, now rot in prison: Mikhail Trepashkin, Zaulbek Talkhigov.

I watched Olga Romanova's little figure dissolve in the air (you remember how she simply decided to enter the building and was shot). I listened to how Anna Politkovskaya carried water to the hostages through that same entrance, how not long before her own death she protected one Chechen and his family from the long arm of 'justice'. I looked at the 'Beslan walls' and thought about that stupid and boorish 'registration' of Georgian schoolchildren. I looked at the artistic patina and cracks on the posterboards, and heard how the terrorists still had 20 minutes in which to blow up the building after gas attack, but they did not do this, and the building remained standing as a decoration of imperial ambitions - authentic, and the one and only object, in the opinion of those gathered, that the government tried to protect at Dubrovka, and in Beslan.

But whatever kind of artist is this John Keane, his pictures, mixed with Chechen decorations and the Moscow gallery, shed vapors of urgency and convert the passer-by into a participant and eyewitness.

The symbol continues to live and act, penetrating far beyond the zone of the artist's or curator's control. It was not just because Sakharov Center director Yuri Samodurov could not decide whether to bring this exhibition in Moscow, and the long process of writing explanations to the Russian customs house took up time. Pictures were sold before the exhibition even arrived. Without exception, however, they were images of the hostages; the suicide bombers proved to be unwanted by all.

Even now, in Moscow, they are noticeable as they quietly occupy the exhibition hall, replacing the plot of the terror act with a collective biography: here a beauty embraces her baby, here she is ironing her death clothes, here she stands with an assault rifle, here she sits, swallowing her tears, together with Russian children. Here she is asleep, poisoned by the gas, and here she is on the floor, already dead. But no one buys these pictures. A few more purchases and the exhibition will become the sanctuary of the Chechen madonna -suicide bombers, killed in their sleep...

"Your parents probably read Hemingway," I ask John. "But what do you read?" - "Recently I read a book about the American Lionel Shriver, We need to talk about Kevin. It is a story about a mother. Her child turns out to be a killer. It is a very strong book, and it is a favorite of mine."

I did not read it, but perhaps I would have found it my favorite as well. It just seemed a little ridiculous - why was it not a Russian, but an Englishman who chose Nord-Ost as his theme? And why did the idea of having it shown in Moscow have to come from Human Rights Watch? I suppose that we are too close to the event's epicentre, and while holding it in our bare hands some of us cry out from the pain, while others out of habit hold their hands over our mouths to shut us up.

In Britain a play by Natalia Pelevina, titled 'In Your Hands', is enjoying success. It is on the subject of Dubrovka, and if it goes well enough, John Keane may produce it as an opera.

Here from time to time they run 'September.doc' on blogs, about the Beslan tragedy. One cannot read and write there for long, it is too authentic for the public. A documentary art video called 'Bitch' by Igor Voloshin, about the war in Chechnya, is being shown everywhere. Too good for an unknown director.

...In the hall one of the visitors takes John Keane to the lists hanging from the ceiling the floor. It is a list of those killed at Nord-Ost. The visitor points to her surname on the list; it is her sister.

At the Andrey Sakarov Center until 30 November.

Julia Kvasok