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When the theater becomes a warzone
Written by /Julia Kvasok   
, 19 2006

Novaya gazeta

Now showing at the Andrey Saxarov Center is an exhibition by John Keen, the official military artist of Britain. Itis dedicated to the tragedy at the Dubrovka theater



In all his interviews artist John Keen states: I studied the tragedy at Dubrovka because the terror act happened in a theater, that place where people go in order to escape from reality. Butit was right here that their most terrible reality caught up with them.
For Keen, the official British artist of the postwar generation, war is a reality often disregarded by contemporary society and the arts. Hesays that violence must be studied in order to prevent it in the future, and he strives for authenticity.




T
he exhibition is being held at the Andrey Saxarov Center, and is titled '57 Hours in a Theater'. Oncanvases and posterboards, with the aid of oil paints, are frames from videos made by the terrorists, FSB soldiers, and Dan Reed (from his documentary film 'Terror in Moscow'). Characters appear here and there, and then the worn-out icon of death peers from the uneven canvas or more precisely, the agonizing, narcotic expectation of death. Victim and terrorist both await it. Theyexchange glances and cry quietly. Theliving stare into the camera, while the corpses stare nowhere. Theyare converted into shadows, decolorized and made equals by clouds of lethalgas.
Beneath the video scenes are captions: I remember well their faces Mom, Idon't want to die"As Allah is our witness, we desire death more than you do life" Suddenly a girl appeared in the hall.
The pictures are repeated, increasing and decreasing in size like splashes of an untuned and intrusive memory, or refrains from a special news broadcast. Allaround are decorations from the burned and destroyed brick walls of a school gymnasium, the future Beslan.
Alongside the pictures a chronical of the time is shown on a television screen, proof of the fact that in real, linear time, nothing significant is occurring. Thenature of documentary is not always authenticity, but what is a military artist to do withoutit?
As far as authenticity is concerned, in our country the boundaries between fact and fiction, between life and the cinema, have been erased. Ido not know if this British artist is ready for this, but all he needs do is stretch out his hand and it will be filled by Andrey Sharov with his acrylic photo-paintings of pop idols. OrAleksander Dryuchin with his ornamental pictures of convicts sleeping in the prisons, or Aleksey Kallima's graphic site on persons of the Caucasian nationality first chased on the Russian roads, then swirling about with the houris in paradise. Butabove all of these stands Konstantin Khudyakov. Hehas cloned Gibson's holy martyrs into 50thousand high-quality photographs so that, as he puts it: they are more alive than the living.
While working with a select mass of inferior video frames, Keen has canonized a human crowd doomed to death. Perhaps he is the opposite of Khudyakov. Keendoes not reach the level of such a respected artists as Warhol and Richter, but within such a theme as Nord-Ost', any artist would probably start to write one way and think in another.
The people who gathered at the exhibition people had as little in common with the Londoners who were shown the pictures during April of this year as modern people might have with their descendants. Theywere not everyday people who came to remember their tragedy and others' on the eve of its four-year anniversary, but human rights activists and eyewitnesses who were gathered together to discuss the subject. Members of the Human Rights Movement Center, representatives of Civil Assistance Committee, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Russian public organization Nord-Ost, and the Yabloko human rights faction
They gathered because, in contrast to the London terror acts, Nord-Ost has, until now, continued to hang in the air like a gas that will just not dissipate. Iwatched the former hostages, those who are still alive today. Ilistened to them speak about how they still suffer from diseases and deprivations, without ever having received help from the government. Ilooked at the suicide bombers sleeping on the screens, and heard from the hostages how they were killed while still asleep, without a trial, without being questioned, and after which an entire wave of terror acts broke out and among them the Beslan tragedy. Ilooked at the Chechen in camouflage and heard how those who tried to prevent the terror act, or negotiate with the terrorists, now rot in prison: Mikhail Trepashkin, Zaulbek Talkhigov.
I watched Olga Romanova's little figure dissolve in the air (you remember how she simply decided to enter the building and was shot). Ilistened to how Anna Politkovskaya carried water to the hostages through that same entrance, how not long before her own death she protected one Chechen and his family from the long arm of 'justice'. Ilooked at the 'Beslan walls' and thought about that stupid and boorish 'registration' of Georgian schoolchildren. Ilooked at the artistic patina and cracks on the posterboards, and heard how the terrorists still had 20minutes in which to blow up the building after gas attack, but they did not do this, and the building remained standing as a decoration of imperial ambitions authentic, and the one and only object, in the opinion of those gathered, that the government tried to protect at Dubrovka, and in Beslan.
But whatever kind of artist is this John Keen, his pictures, mixed with Chechen decorations and the Moscow gallery, shed vapors of urgency and convert the passer-by into a participant and eyewitness.

The symbol continues to live and act, penetrating far beyond the zone of the artist's or curator's control. Itwas not just because Sakharov Center director Yuri Samodurov could not decide whether to bring this exhibition in Moscow, and the long process of writing explanations to the Russian customs house took up time. Pictures were sold before the exhibition even arrived. Without exception, however, they were images of the hostages; the suicide bombers proved to be unwanted byall.
Even now, in Moscow, they are noticeable as they quietly occupy the exhibition hall, replacing the plot of the terror act with a collective biography: here a beauty embraces her baby, here she is ironing her death clothes, here she stands with an assault rifle, here she sits, swallowing her tears, together with Russian children. Hereshe is asleep, poisoned by the gas, and here she is on the floor, already dead. Butno one buys these pictures. Afew more purchases and the exhibition will become the sanctuary of the Chechen madonna -suicide bombers, killed in theirsleep
Your parents probably read Hemingway, Iask John. But what do you read? Recently Iread a book about the American Lionel Shriver, We need to talk about Kevin. Itis a story about a mother. Herchild turns out to be a killer. Itis a very strong book, and it is a favorite of mine.
I did not read it, but perhaps Iwould have found it my favorite as well. Itjust seemed a little ridiculous why was it not a Russian, but an Englishman who chose Nord-Ost as his theme? Andwhy did the idea of having it shown in Moscow have to come from Human Rights Watch? Isuppose that we are too close to the event's epicentre, and while holding it in our bare hands some of us cry out from the pain, while others out of habit hold their hands over our mouths to shut usup.
In Britain a play by Natalia Pelevina, titled 'In Your Hands', is enjoying success. Itis on the subject of Dubrovka, and if it goes well enough, John Keen may produce it as anopera.
Here from time to time they run 'September.doc' on blogs, about the Beslan tragedy. Onecannot read and write there for long, it is too authentic for the public. Adocumentary art video called 'Bitch' by Igor Voloshin, about the war in Chechnya, is being shown everywhere. Toogood for an unknown director.
In the hall one of the visitors takes John Keen to the lists hanging from the ceiling the floor. Itis a list of those killed at Nord-Ost. Thevisitor points to her surname on the list; it is her sister.

At the Andrey Saxarov Center until 30November.

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