Yevgeniy Fiks, Still from the video Thematic Language, 2018
MOTHER TONGUE by Yevgeniy Fiks
9 March—11 May 2019
Private view, 8 March 2019, 7:00–8:30 pm
Panel Discussion, 8 March 2019, 6:00–7:00 pm with Yevgeniy Fiks, Juliet Jacques, Sarah Wilson, and Dan Healey
Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA | Free Entry
Exhibition opening hours
Thursday, Friday, 11:00 am–5:00 pm
Saturday, 1:00 pm–6:00 pm
Grad and Pushkin House are proud to present Mother Tongue/Родная Речь, the first London solo exhibition by New York-based Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks, exploring historical gay Russian argot or slang. This coded language dates back to Soviet times and can be compared to Britain’s polari, the jargon used in the past by gay and other subcultures.
Through this exhibition Fiks elevates this themed language into a poetic code, celebrating its wit and nuance. Mother Tongue/Родная Речь reclaims and celebrates Soviet-era Russian gay argot as a unique cultural phenomenon and gives a historical context to today’s post-Soviet LGBTQ community whose language partially evolved from it.
The exhibition takes the form of an installation, recreating the environment of a classroom, equipped with a blackboard, alphabet charts, texts books, and a language instructional video, designed as formal introduction to the vocabulary and usage of the argot.
Soviet era pleshki or cruising sites are presented in a series of photographs of Moscow, many of them famous tourist destinations, devoid of people and subverting standard perceptions of the city.
Fiks envisions the language of the pleshka as a complete and distinct language, separate from standard Russian. A semi-humorous instructional video gives a lesson in how to use and construct phrases from this themed language. Like polari, Soviet gay slang contributed to the sense of the separate identity of queer communities of the time, and allowed users to communicate openly about things that could have seen them excluded from mainstream society, or even imprisoned. Thus it was a defence mechanism that provided safety.
The exhibition is accompanied by the recently published Mother Tongue/Родная Речь, a book by Fiks, both about, and written in, Soviet-era Russian gay argot. In the book, this is conceptualised as a literary language fit for the production of high culture, including written literature. The book includes a linguistic introduction to Soviet-era Russian gay argot and a collection of conceptual poetry written by Fiks in that language.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the globalisation era in the 1990s, a cosmopolitan (mostly Anglo-American) gay slang has fused with Soviet-era gay speech, and many original Russian queer terms that were used before the 1990s have been replaced with Anglo-American borrowings, diluting the unique Soviet culture of sexual and gender dissent. After decades of persecution and attempts to eradicate sexual and gender non-conformity, male homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993. The period between 1993 and around 2013 was characterised by slow and difficult improvements to the conditions of gay life in Russian. This modest progress was interrupted, and is in the process of being reversed, with the introduction in 2013 of the so-called gay propaganda law, which ushered in a new wave of state and social homophobia. At the same time it led to LGBTQ issues in Russia becoming central to public debate in an unprecedented way.
Artist’s statement by Yevgeniy Fiks
I define my position, as a post-Soviet artist, as having the responsibility to raise a proper understanding and critical reflection of Soviet history in order for post-Soviet societies to move forward. My works are based on historical research, usually of forgotten and unresolved 20th century micro-historical narratives. Some of these topics include the shared histories of the Red and Lavender scares during the McCarthy era in the USA; communism in modern art; Soviet LGBT history, and the African, African American, and Jewish diasporas in the Soviet Union.
About the artist
Yevgeniy Fiks was born in Moscow in 1972, and has been living and working in New York since 1994. Fiks has produced many projects on the subject of the post-Soviet dialogue in the west, among them: Lenin for Your Library? in which he mailed Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism to one hundred global corporations as a donation to their corporate libraries; Communist Party USA, a series of portraits of current members of Communist Party USA, painted from life in the Party’s national headquarters in New York City; and Communist Guide to New York City, a series of photographs of buildings and public places in New York City that are connected to the history of the American Communist movement. Fiks’s work has been shown internationally, including exhibitions in the United States at Winkleman Gallery and Postmasters Gallery in New York, Mass MoCA, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Moscow Museum of Modern Art and Marat Guelman Gallery in Moscow; Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros in Mexico City; and Museu Colecção Berardo in Lisbon. His work has been featured at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, the 2011 Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art , and the 2015 Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art.
About Pushkin House
Pushkin House is an independent arts charity specialising in Russian culture. Our programme encourages open-minded, explorative discussion. It was founded in 1954 by two generations of émigré Russians, to create a welcoming meeting place for the enjoyment, understanding and promotion of Russian culture in all its forms, and for the exchange of views in a lively, informal atmosphere, with freedom of speech a core principle.
Since opening its first base in 2013 at London’s Fitzrovia, Grad has operated as a Kunsthalle, a platform and forum for debate while researching, curating, commissioning, and producing over a hundred critically-acclaimed projects. Equally known for its historical shows and contemporary exhibitions exploring urgent social realities, Grad instigates intellectual inquiry and builds connections amongst artists, individuals, and communities from different continents and cultures. Grad challenges cultural bias and preconceptions, and champions an experimental, interdisciplinary approach with a focus on new media and technologies.