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Life as art: Joseph Backstein remembers iconic performance artist Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe

Life as art: Joseph Backstein remembers iconic performance artist Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe acted the roles of Jesus, Hitler and Marilyn Monroe. In the process he became Russia’s most iconic performance artist. Joseph Backstein celebrates a life cut tragically short

26 March 2013
Text Joseph Backstein

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, one of Russia’s most significant performance artists, died on Saturday 16 March after drowning in a hotel swimming pool in Bali, where he had lived since 2007. His unexpected death shocked Russia’s artistic community, underscoring his place as a key figure in the Russian art world and his charismatic personality. The 43-year-old, also known as Vlad Monroe, was best known for his impersonations of prominent figures from Hitler, the Pope and Putin to Marilyn Monroe, after whom he was affectionately nicknamed.

I first met Mamyshev-Monroe when he was a young man in his native St Petersburg in the Eighties. He was a protégé of the late philosopher and artist Timur Novikov and a member of his New Academy movement. At that time, the art scene in St Petersburg was wildly different to that in Moscow where we were eagerly following international trends, especially those in western art. In St Petersburg artists worked in a much more isolated environment, which engendered a much more idiosyncratic approach.

“Mamyshev-Monroe was the embodiment of that no-limits era”

Even at that young age, Mamyshev-Monroe’s charisma, talent and flair were already self-evident. In addition to being a gifted artist, he was completely open about his homosexuality, something that remains a taboo in Russia to this day. He first dressed as Marilyn Monroe when he was in the army in the Eighties, making his costume out of a pair of curtains and some doll’s hair. His first performance as the Hollywood star resulted in his swift discharge and a brief stint in a psychiatric ward.

All of Mamyshev-Monroe’s performances were as electric. He would dress as a historical or political figure and audiences would be captivated by the depth and naturalness of his acting. But it was much more than just acting — it was performance art at its finest. I would, without hesitation, put him in the same league as Marina Abramovic. Over the years, he portrayed a number of well-known individuals including Dostoevsky, Elizabeth I, Charlie Chaplin and Jesus. His 2007 remake of the classic Soviet comedy Volga Volga, in which he digitally replaced the female lead Lyubov Orlova with himself, not only won him the prestigious Kandinsky Prize but also cemented his reputation as one of Russia’s foremost video artists.

“His openness about his sexuality made him a gay icon”

In another of his most celebrated performances on Pirate TV (Piratskoye televideniye), a spoof television series, which he founded with Novikov, he posited the thesis that Lenin had turned into a mushroom after his death. His deadpan delivery left viewers perplexed about the authenticity of his theory. What was particularly interesting about Mamyshev-Monroe was the way he blurred the boundaries between his public and private life. Even when he wasn’t working, he was still performing. No matter what he said or what he did, he would inevitably become the centre of attention.

I remember talking to him at the Frieze Art Fair in London a few years ago. We were both at the XL Gallery stand, which was selling several of his artworks. He was dressed rather casually and we were chatting in Russian yet within minutes, a crowd had gathered. There was something about his manner of speaking, his presentation and the way he gestured that turned every single moment into an artistic statement. He mesmerised audiences and this, I would say, was his most compelling talent. In more recent years, his cross-dressing and openness about his sexuality made him a gay icon. In 2010, after he was beaten up for being gay, he documented his recovery on Facebook, speaking fearlessly about homophobia in Russia.

I suspect that in the last few years he felt increasingly nostalgic about those early days. In the beginning of the Nineties, when underground artistic communities were in the limelight, everything seemed possible. For example, I don’t think anyone would be able to organise a politically-charged exhibition in a functioning prison today like the one I curated in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka jail in 1991. Mamyshev-Monroe was the embodiment of that no-limits era. After things began to change, he grew disappointed with the new reality and spent more and more time in Bali. His death is a loss for Russian art. He was a key figure in the Russian contemporary art scene right from the outset and his absence will be strongly felt. There is no one left that embodies the complexity of last three decades quite so vividly.

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