The Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale might be isolated this year—its artists and curator resigned from their posts in solidarity with the people of Ukraine—but it’s found itself as the stage for a guerrilla protest performance pulled off by Ukrainian actor Aleksey Yudnikov on Friday, April 22. Even if the artist had the space to himself, though, he was still being watched by skeptical eyes.
The one-man show with several characters was performed by Yudnikov, who was born and raised in Ukraine before relocating to Moscow to be an actor in an oppositional group. Yudnikov fleed Russia last month, and is now in the refuge of the Safe Haven in Helsinki set up by Artists at Risk, a nonprofit protecting artists who are in political jeopardy or are escaping oppression and war in 19 countries.
Yudnikov began his act dressed as Fantômas, a criminal mastermind in a 1964 French comedy film that was widely received by the Soviet Union. Plastered over his crotch, however, was a picture of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
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The actor then hid in the nearby bushes for a quick change, returning as the Russian gangster stereotype, or gotnik, with a tank top, Adidas sweatpants, and a gold chain. Putin’s photo was now on his face, completing Yudnikov’s caricature of the president’s use of casual language to seem relatable to the public.
While playing both parts, Yudnikov re-enacted bits from The Nose, a satirical short story written by Ukrainian-born Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol in 1835. The absurd story follows a low-ranking Russian official whose nose detaches itself from him during his sleep, and then works its way to overtaking his position and becoming State Councillor.
This whole time, cops were watching the artist from a discreet spot near the Nordic Pavilion. A troop in riot attire emerged at the end of the stunt and took him to a police station for questioning, Artists at Risk recounts. The artist was said to have been detained for “more than 40 minutes… without recourse to a lawyer.”
Law enforcers probed him to translate some of the Russian speech in the segment. It turned out that they were more bothered about whether Yudnikov was spilling insults about Italy or Italian politicians than anything.
“When he answered in the negative, they quickly let him go,” note Artists at Risk co-directors Marita Muukkonen and Ivan Stodolsky. They furthered: “Is NOT criticizing leaders a condition of artistic freedom in the EU today? In preparing this performance, we thought this was a Russian problem.