:: Article

Open Contempt for Generally Accepted Norms: An interview with Slava Mogutin

By Stephen Lucas.

Slava, Self Portrait, Oregon, 2001

Slava Mogutin fled Russia for New York in 1995. His outspoken writing on gay issues had sparked anonymous death threats, made him the conservative media’s favourite whipping boy and triggered a criminal case that could have resulted in a seven-year prison sentence. He had grown up on a diet of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet, and was the first to translate the work of Dennis Cooper and William Burroughs into Russian. Upon his arrival in New York he jumped the language barrier by shifting his focus to photography.

The result? NYC Go-Go – a look at the Big Apple’s underground sex and Go-Go dancing scene that stands as an epitaph to the nightlife Mayor Giuliani declared war on. He still views his photography as an extension of his writing: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he tells 3:AM. He read some of his “mind fuck” poetry in Bruce LaBruce‘s art porn outing Skin Flick, in which he played Tom International.

Slava has also co-founded the art collective Superm with boyfriend and fellow artist Brian Kenny. Their shows have toured London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and modern art museum MUSAC, in León, Spain. This month he lands at La Fresh Gallery, Madrid with his solo Lost Boys exhibition, February 19 to March 20. The show comprises photographs of Russian soldiers on their down time, slumped ravers on their come-downs, you name it, Russian life and its many facets are captured here. Work from his Stock Boyz series will also feature. The New York Times financial pages are the backdrop for images lifted from European porn sites. They could be a bleak comment on the commodification of flesh or a matter-of-fact statement that when everything else crashes, sex still sells.

3:AM: How did your focus come to shift from writing to photography?

Slava Mogutin: I’ve been documenting my life and taking pictures as long as I remember myself, since my early teenage years. I used to have a darkroom set up in my mother’s bathroom, and that’s where I printed my first photos taken at some rock concerts in Moscow. When I started doing journalism, I would often accompany my articles and interviews with my own pictures. But it’s not until later, when I moved to New York, that I started thinking of photography as my main passion and a new language. Meeting and working with many great artists like Wolfgang Tillmans, Terry Richardson, Bruce LaBruce and Jack Pierson gave me the confidence and the knowledge to develop my own voice and vision. Photography certainly helped me to jump over the language barrier, but I still think of it as a continuation of my writings. It’s just a different, more effective and universal way of telling stories: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” as they say.

3:AM: How bad did it get in Russia?

SM: After being under criminal investigation for almost 3 years and living in constant fear of being arrested and thrown into jail, I was advised by my lawyer to seek political asylum in the US. It was clear that I was a sore in the eyes of the authorities because of my outspoken gay journalism and activism. I started writing on gay issues before homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, and I remained the only openly gay journalist in Russia up until my exile in 1995. My attempt to officially register the first same-sex marriage with my American boyfriend made headlines around the world, but only further fueled my persecution, making me the target of a new criminal case, a vicious homophobic campaign in the conservative media, anonymous death treats and late-night militia raids. At that point I could no longer publish my work and my life simply became unbearable. I was lucky to escape the country before the prosecutor issued the warrant for my arrest.

Slava Mogutin

3:AM: Is the situation improving for gay people in Russia?

SM: Russia still remains a largely homophobic society. There were several attempts in the Russian Parliament to make consensual gay sex a crime again. The mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov repeatedly banned Gay Pride parades, calling them “satanic.”

3:AM: Can you visit Russia now?

SM: Luckily, after years of my exile, the regime in Russia has changed a couple of times and my old criminal cases have been dismissed. I went back there a few times with my shows or when I was promoting new books. To this day I have the worst nightmares about being harassed, arrested, or jailed in Russia. Still, it’s a unique, beautiful place, and a true photographer’s paradise, where I took some of my best pictures.

3:AM: Can you tell me about your show at La Fresh Gallery in February?

SM: I met Topacio Fresh back in 2006, when I did a show with my boyfriend-collaborator Brian Kenny at MUSAC in León. We became friends and Brian and I stayed at Topacio’s place when we visited Madrid for the first time. I fell in love with this city and wanted to come back here with my work. In 2008, when Topacio and Israel opened La Fresh Gallery, they invited us to be a part of their inaugural exhibition. My February show is based on the traveling exhibition Lost Boys with large-scale portraits from my monograph published in 2006. Last spring it premiered in Krakow, Poland, and then, in the fall, traveled to Luxembourg. I’m also showing Stock Boyz, a brand-new series of inkjet prints on the financial charts from the New York Times, documenting the recent market crash.

Yellow Billboard, Moscow, 2003, Slava Mogutin

3:AM: What was it like working on Bruce LaBruce’s porno film Skin Flick?

SM: It was my first acting experience and my first porn, so, naturally, it was very exciting and challenging. I never wanted to become a porn star, but doing porn helped me to satisfy my exhibitionism and overcome certain insecurities. The role I played was written specifically for me, and Bruce incorporated my own ideas and language into it. I learned a lot from working with him, and it helped me later on with my personal work. Looking back, I realize that I feel much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it.

3:AM: LaBruce let you read some of your poetry in Skin Flick. I noticed that you were almost laughing when you read the poems in the film. Why was that – is there a story there?

SM: Well, I was laughing because my English was so bad and I was just struggling with the translations of my poems that I still remembered by heart, only in Russian. Those poems are really sick and funny, but I think most of the sickest and funniest moments got lost in translation. One poem was called ‘Story of a Betrayal’, it was about me becoming a Nazi sex slave during World War II and betraying all my Red Army brothers for a single whiff of a fascist cock. Essentially, it was a spoof on the old Soviet war propaganda. Another poem was ‘Toilet Dreams’, written like a fairytale, where I imagined myself first as a toilet slave in Ancient Rome, and then – as his master. Of course, my texts were a total mind fuck, that’s why Bruce loved them so much and that’s why it was so difficult for me to keep a straight face while reading them.

3:AM: Which artists inspire you?

SM: I grew up reading Genet and Bataille and watching Pasolini and Fassbinder. I published the first Russian translations of Burroughs and Dennis Cooper. I’ve always admired artists and writers who pushed the boundaries of the generally accepted moral norms. Actually, one of the criminal charges against me was “open and deliberate contempt for the generally accepted moral norms”, and it would be a perfect compliment, if only it didn’t carry a potential prison sentence, along with “propaganda of brutal violence, psychic pathology and sexual perversions”… I’m not interested in making conventional art. I’m looking for beauty in marginal, transgressive expressions of human nature and sexuality. My work is not about shocking or provoking anyone, it’s about expressing myself in the most honest and radical way. It’s about rejecting taboos and stereotypes and celebrating diversity, life and love in different shapes and forms.

3:AM: I read that your first sexual experience with a boy involved role-play with guns. Is that right? Did this mark the beginning of your love affair with the fetish scene?

SM: Growing up in the environment where any notion of gay sex was immediately associated with danger, I learned from the early age how to make the best of it and even enjoy it. I’m not a vanilla person and I’m not into vanilla sex, so naturally role-play and various fetishes are a big part of my aesthetics.

3:AM: What does your family think about your work?

SM: Of course they are aware of my work, but I’ve never showed them my books or my art. I come from a totally dysfunctional family. My parents got divorced when I was 13, and I’ve been living on my own since 14. I don’t think my family ever understood what I was trying to do with my life or what I wanted to say and achieve with my work. My father is a homophobic born-again Christian Orthodox fanatic who calls my writings “anal filth”. I think my little nephew is the only one who looks up to me. He’s 17 and I was just talking to him on Skype and he said that he wants to become a photographer, like me.

Cadets of the Suvorov Academy, Moscow, 2000, Slava Mogutin

3:AM: I read that your Dad said you were ugly but smart. And this was the reason you went into porn. To prove him wrong about your looks. Is that right? And does he know that this was the effect his words had on you?

SM: Well, they say that in order to become a real artist you have to kill your parents. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my family in general and my Dad in particular. I did a lot of things in order to overcome the complexes that my parents planted into my mind. I haven’t talked to my father in years, but recently he was interviewed for a documentary about me that was broadcast on Russian TV, and he was talking about me as a total failure, the biggest failure of his life… Luckily, I don’t need, or expect, his praise or approval anymore.

3:AM: How have you gained the trust of people for your more extreme photos?

SM: I mostly photograph my friends or people who want to be photographed by me. Obviously, they are already familiar with my work and pretty much know what to expect. For me it’s never a problem finding subjects or convincing them to do this or that. When I photographed a couple of Berlin skinheads pissing and spitting on each other, it was their idea. And when I took a photo of my other friend Joey sniffing his boyfriend Carlos’s sweaty armpit, it was just something that happened naturally… or my ex Anton, fucking himself with a huge cucumber… I don’t see these situations as extreme, on the contrary – to me they are perfectly innocent and romantic.

3:AM: I’ve seen ‘Red Hat’ from your No Love series of photographs on a porn site. Does playing with the porn aesthetic interest you?

SM: ‘Red Hat’ is a portrait of Xevi Muntane, a good friend and one of my favorite subjects. I never made a secret that porn is one of my major inspirations, especially Internet porn. So, in a way, it’s only fair that my photos are now posted all over various fetish and porn sites. It means that my work has gone full circle and is now back in the public domain, for everyone to enjoy. It’s also a great compliment for me because I feel like in my photography I’ve managed to achieve a certain level of intimacy and honesty that can only be seen on some amateur porn sites. Even if some of my photos were staged, the final result looks totally natural and spontaneous.

3:AM: The photographs in NYC Go-Go, your second book of photography, seem like a joyous, devil-may-care celebration of the gay scene…

SM: NYC Go-Go is a straightforward documentary of a vanishing downtown gay scene and sex underground. When I first moved to New York in the mid-90s, it was a very horny and seedy place, full of sex and strip-clubs and dark rooms. I was never into public sex, but I’m a voyeur, so I would go to those places to watch guys stripping or having sex. Go-go is such a New York phenomenon and I found it totally fascinating. Then, under mayor Giuliani, I witnessed a transformation of New York into a conservative corporate place full of homophobic cops. Giuliani started the war on nightlife, which ultimately resulted in shutting down the best clubs like Palladium, Limelight, Roxy, Tunnel, Twilo, Sound Factory, Gaiety… When I started working on NYC Go-Go, I wanted to document the last glimpse of what this city used to be famous for: “a joyous, devil-may-care celebration of the gay scene,” as you put it. At that time Brian was dancing and bartending at some remaining downtown gay bars like Boysroom, the Cock and Mr. Black. Thanks to him, I had full access to those places and met all the dancers. Sadly, half of those bars are already gone. So when I look at those pictures, to me they seem kind of sinister. It’s like that whole chapter of our lives is over, for better or worse…

[Excerpts from this interview ran in Vanidad]


Stephen Lucas is a freelance journalist based in Madrid.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 17th, 2010.