Why Slava Mogutin is Russia’s greatest art rebel

The journalist, photographer, poet, and Russian dissident shares an exclusive look at a new book featuring 15-years of work that questions the codes of machismo

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Slava Mogutin’s Bros & Brosephines
Slava Mogutin’s Bros & BrosephinesPhotography Slava Mogutin

Born in Siberia, Slava Mogutin left his family and moved to Moscow at the age of 14. A third-generation writer and self-taught journalist, Mogutin worked for independent newspapers, publishers, and radio stations, where he was hailed as one of the foremost voices of the post-Perestroika news journalism and the only openly gay personality in the Russian media.

Using the press as his platform, Mogutin openly challenged the taboos against homosexuality in his native land, becoming the target for two highly publicised criminal vases that charged him with “malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence.”

In 1994, Mogutin attempted to officially register the first same-sex marriage in Russia with his then-partner, American artist Robert Filippini, making headlines around the world and fuelling persecution by authorities. A year later, at the age of 21, he was forced to flee and became the first Russian to be granted political asylum in the United States on the grounds of homophobic persecution.

“The pictures I take are not to arouse or entertain but to make you think and raise questions” – Slava Mogutin

His arrival in New York launched a new chapter of his life centred in the visual arts. Using photography, Mogutin continued to challenge the status quo, introducing radical narratives that peeled back the veneer of polite society and respectability politics. With the 2006 publication of his first monograph, Lost Boys (powerHouse Books) Mogutin achieved global recognition for photographs that blurred the boundaries between sex and style, fusing the genres of nudes, portraiture, documentary, fetish, porn, fashion, and fine art into images that were as provocative as they were profound.

Mogutin is an unstoppable force. On August 1, he will release Bros & Brosephines (powerHouse Books), a collection of 240 photographs from 17 professional and personal series made between 2000-2015. While some of the images were made on big-budget sets, others were done relying on the kindness of friends and strangers. As diverse as the styles and subjects are, the one thing they share in common is their commitment to the avant-garde.

Mogutin gives us an exclusive look at the book and speaks about how art is the perfect catalyst for creativity and play, as well as a means to taking a stance and speaking truth to power.

I remember when Lost Boys came out, how it affected straight men and women alike. They were a bit discombobulated by your work. How do you think photography has the power to change our understandings of life, be it other people’s or our own?

Slava Mogutin: In photography, you can pose a subject or picture but you cannot fake emotion. The pictures I take are not to arouse or entertain but to make you think and raise questions.

Why do we still find nudity so offensive? Why do we act and dress the way we do? Why do we submit or rebel? Why do we want to blend in or be different? And what makes us so different? Is being different a bad or good thing? I’m asking these questions through my photographs and letting the viewers decide and think for themselves.

How did the success of Lost Boys create new opportunities and possibilities for you as an artist?

Slava Mogutin: At the time when I was taking those pictures, I couldn’t imagine them to be ever published. You don’t see a lot of books with pictures of kids, bondage, and animals under one cover. Looking back, Lost Boys had a very distinct 90s punk feel, it’s very nostalgic and apocalyptic. It was kind of a cross between my Russian past as a dissident writer and present as a visual artist.

Lost Boys came out over a decade ago and it certainly opened many doors for my work. It has turned into an ongoing travelling exhibition that travelled the world from the US to Poland, Luxembourg, Spain, Argentina, and Greece. Last year, it was proudly displayed on four-meter billboards in the heart of Prague. And later this year it will be shown at a museum in Budapest. My lost boys traveled in space and time from east to west and back to east again!

When I look at your work I think of poetry, of the way that it breaks down our perceptions and reorganises it into a new reality. As a poet, activist, and artist, how do you use the medium of photography to both describe and transform the way we see the world?

Slava Mogutin: I do believe that art and poetry can transform the world, just the way they transformed my life. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the power of a written and spoken word, because all the best literature was banned. It’s the banned books like George Orwell’s 1984, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal that I was studying as a teenager, not the official propaganda they were feeding us at school.

In the era of fake news and info wars, it feels truly surreal to see that the Trump government operates on the level of the old Soviet brainwashing machine. It’s up to the artists to stand up against this corrupt regime and speak the truth. It’s up to all of us to use our God-given talents and tools for the betterment of all, not just the rich and powerful.

“I’ve been always fascinated by the body language and codes of machismo, which is very often borderline with homoerotic affection and narcissism” – Slava Mogutin

Please talk about the title Bros & Brosephines. What are the aspects of gender that you are playing with here? 

Slava Mogutin: The titles comes from two stories that I shot for VICE. “Bros Blowin’ Shotties” was about suburban bromance, straight kids bonding while smoking weed together and doing shotties, AKA blowback. I’ve been always fascinated by the body language and codes of machismo, which is very often borderline with homoerotic affection and narcissism. This was a story inspired by the pictures these kids post online in various chat rooms specifically devoted to this shotties fetish. We actually printed out a bunch of those pictures and turned them into a storyboard for this shoot. The kids were so enthusiastic about getting baked on the set, everyone was completely stoned. Ironically, I was trying to quit smoking at that time so it took a lot of willpower and discipline to get through the shoot without a single puff!

“Brosephines” was another story I shot for VICE, and it was my tribute to Oscar de la Hoya and his coming out as a cross-dresser. It was more of a frat house Halloween scenario where boys were secretly trying on their girlfriends’ clothes and lingerie and showing off for each other in a very metrosexual or millennial way. I think the millennials know way more about gender than their parents, they’re more comfortable with trying new things and being gender-neutral or fluid. Bros & Brosephines is about that gender-fluidity and neutrality.

Can you tell us about your decision to bring feminine elements into your work. It’s so interesting to see the way in which this takes hold in your photography.

Slava Mogutin: I feel like I’ve explored machismo thoroughly enough in my earlier work and I wanted to examine different aspects of sexuality and sensuality. I also think now more than ever we could all use more feminine energy. I find the whole macho man concept very outdated and a little scary. Too much testosterone is a recipe for disaster. There’s a reason why they call it body fascism.

I think androgyny is a sign of our times and I’m very fascinated by the blending of genders and genres. Let’s lose the labels that divide us. Let’s look at the truth naked and find that divine pussy within.

They say life imitates art – what are your thoughts on what we are seeing today, with the issues of non-binary gender, transsexuality, and gay rights integrated into the mainstream?

Slava Mogutin: Let’s not forget that we live in a liberal bubble that only covers some patches of our planet, with nearly 80 countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, illegal or semi-legal. Sadly, this long shameful list includes three most populist countries: China, India and Russia, the entire Arab world and most of Africa.

Let’s face it: we’re far from achieving universal rights and equality and the fight goes on even in the US, the birthplace of the LGBTQ liberation movement. What you see in the western mainstream is a sterile castrated camp being sold as the “gay norm.” Radical, unfiltered queer imagery is nowhere to be seen on TV or in glossy magazines, it’s being routinely censored on social media and excluded from most institutions.

That’s why I often feel like a queer insurgent or infiltrator, being able to show and publish the kind of work I make, using it as a weapon against bigotry, hypocrisy, and censorship. Let’s think outside the bubble but let’s defend our bubble because it’s the only bubble we have.

“I often feel like a queer insurgent or infiltrator, being able to show and publish the kind of work I make, using it as a weapon against bigotry, hypocrisy, and censorship” – Slava Mogutin

On a technical level, your work has evolved past straight photography, becoming something entirely new, as seamlessly complex as your style and subject matter. How would you describe your evolution as a visual artist?

Slava Mogutin: For me, poetry is photography and poetry can be virtually anything – painting, sculpture, video/audio piece, installation, performance, etc… As Allen Ginsberg told me when we first met, “Poetry is like a radio station that broadcasts long after you’re dead.” I started out as a poet and journalist and I think now more than ever is a good time for both poetry and journalism, through all means and mediums necessary.

What compels you to go beyond the boundaries of the known into uncharted waters?

Slava Mogutin: Every new project is an opportunity to try something new and push myself outside of the comfort zone. The goal is not to become a professional in anything I do. I never studied journalism or photography. Professionalism is the death of creativity. My creative motto is, WORK IS PLAY.

You don’t need to go to an expensive art school and get a degree to have a vision. Everyone is born creative but some forget how. Unleash the child within you, surround yourself with creative people, learn something new every day. It’s all in your head, in your heart and hands.

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