When a delegation from the North Korean embassy in Russia arrived this past January to censor the latest exhibition at Moscow’s Ultra Modern Museum of Art, founder Alexander Viktorovich Donskoy was hardly surprised. He’d grown accustomed to unexpected visitors.
In 2006, when the flamboyant supermarket magnate-cum-mayor of Arkhangelsk, a northern port city on the White Sea, declared his intention to run for the presidency, as term limits prevented Vladimir Putin from a third consecutive term in office, Donskoy’s home and office were stormed by a heavily armed police force clad in flak jackets and balaclavas. Donskoy was held in prison on suspicion of forging his college diploma. He continued for months to carry out his mayoral duties while sleeping on a blood-stained mattress in a communal jail cell, and was only released when Putin’s preferred candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, took office.
By 2011, Donskoy—whose conviction precluded him from ever holding public office again—had reinvented himself as an outsider art provocateur. Following three years of probation, he opened Tochka G, or G-Spot, a campy Moscow museum devoted to sexual liberation. “It’s a project about freedom,” Donskoy told The Guardian newspaper that year (though he wouldn’t come out about his own homosexuality until 2017). Emboldened by its popularity, he opened two more museums in St. Petersburg, in 2013—a second outpost of G-Spot and Muzei Vlasti, the Museum of Authority—just prior to that year’s G20 conference, at the height of Russia’s anti-gay political fervor. Authorities soon seized upon both.
Police liberated G-Spot of “Wrestling,” a portrait by St. Petersburg artist Vera Donskaya-Khilko, depicting Barack Obama and a doubly-endowed Putin in the nude, in an effort to determine the painting’s compliance with the law. From the Museum of Authority, police confiscated four portraits by the Arkhangelsk artist Konstantin Altunin, whose works included a painting depicting Putin and Medvedev clad in women’s lingerie. The unexpected seizure drove Altunin to flee Russia and seek asylum in France, but the intimidation did nothing to slow Donskoy’s provocations. Instead he altered his approach, planning ambiguous artworks and exhibitions that would force viewers to make their own determinations, and denying authorities a manifesto to hold against him.
Just this past year, Donskoy kept himself in the public eye while preparing to open UMAM, his Ultra Modern Museum of Art, in Moscow. In an exercise he likened to the performance art of Marina Abramovic, Donskoy drove his Ferrari through the loading dock of a downtown Moscow shopping mall, expertly spinning doughnuts across the concourse until security drove him out. Last September, he led a leashed and barking shirtless man in a Donald Trump mask through a touristy Moscow neighborhood to shame the American president. He never explained his motivations for either incident, letting the actions speak for themselves. The episodes left the public amused and bewildered, and the government took no action. By the time Donskoy revealed UMAM’s inaugural exhibition last December, the press were all too eager to apply their own commentary, and interpret the show on his behalf.
“SuperPutin” featured 30 pandering portraits and sculptures of Vladimir Putin—firing guns, riding a bear, cuddling dogs and leopards—images of the president no more outrageous than the souvenir dolls and T-shirts sold at airports and malls throughout the country. The only difference was the intent of the man behind them. The irony of Donskoy killing Putin with kindness was too nuanced for the state-run Russian media, however, so they promoted the show at face value, further disseminating Donskoy’s satire to the Russian public. “People from the government came, and they liked it. It was meant to be satirical, but it’s huge portraits of Putin as a superhero, so they liked it,” says UMAM guide Aliia Bakytbekova.
For UMAM’s second exhibition, Donskoy looked beyond Russian politics. “Made in North Korea” opened in January at a relocated UMAM, at Artplay, a converted industrial corridor redeveloped as Moscow’s design and architectural center. The show featured the trappings of everyday life in the DPRK, all of them smuggled out of the country by Donskoy’s son Alexander Alexandrevitch. “He went there last year for two weeks,” Bakytbetkova says. “He took all the things illegally, and had to pay to get them out of the country.” One exception to the cross section of everyday objects, including postage stamps, films, candy, and traditional costumes, was a series of hand-painted propaganda posters depicting North Korean forces killing American soldiers, and destroying the U.S. Capitol Building; the government encouraged their export.
The show was the work of Donskoy and 24-year-old curator Daria Dovbenko. In the lead-up to the show, Dovbenko reached out to the North Korean embassy in the hopes that it would contribute additional items to complement the show, helping to demystify daily life in the country. Instead, the embassy was all too eager to censor the exhibition, taking more offense at the mundane objects on display than at Donskoy’s own original artworks, inspired by North Korean propaganda. Hand-painted portraits of the Kim family hanging side by side, indistinguishable from sanctioned portraits of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Il-Sung, broke multiple taboos according to the emissaries, whom the curators filmed, against their objections, for a documentary about the exhibition. Officials claimed images of the living and dead side by side were bad luck, but it was even more objectionable that they were created at all. “They said the paintings are disrespectful if found to have the slightest imperfection. Even the North Korean painters who depict the dictators, they face many controls throughout the process, and even though they found no flaws in these, they were done without observation,” Bakytbekova says.
Another objection was to a wall describing episodes of mass hunger and starvation, informed by facts Dovbenko scoured from the internet. “Any information found about North Korea on the internet is a provocation by the United States, they said,” according to Bakytbekova.
“Even when I explained we had photos to accompany the facts, they said they were false,” says Dovbenko, who included the visit in a documentary about the exhibition, over the embassy’s objections. To prevent the embassy from formally protesting the show, they removed the facts, leaving two bare walls throughout the run of the exhibition. But when the embassy also objected to a Kim Jong-Un mask on a mannequin in traditional dress, they only removed it for a day, then produced more paper masks to hand out to visitors.
As the embassy’s review of the exhibition came to a close, they caught the curators off-guard, asking if the show could stay open a few weeks longer, so they could rent out the space for a party to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-Il. Everything, they told Dovbenko and Donskoy, would have to be removed, except for the propaganda posters, and a hulking black-and-pink explosion in the middle of the gallery floor: a blossoming mushroom cloud brimming with glossy black smoke entitled “Manifest 3”—a Donskoy creation meant to embody North Korea’s nuclear might. Its superficial message to their liking, the piece was never more closely examined, relieving Donskoy from having to further explain himself. What they failed to notice is how the cloud plumed with a hundred black latex breasts. “They were leftover props from G-Spot,” Bakytbekova said, suggesting that Donskoy’s provocations can take many forms. “He just likes black women’s breasts.”