By ALVA FRENCH
Oleg Mavromatti, a Russian performance artist and filmmaker in limbo in Bulgaria, wants your vote -- and he says his life could depend on it.
Mavromatti is wanted in Russia for a live crucifixion scene he performed in 2000 when he had himself nailed to a cross. He said he is planning to strap himself into a homemade electric chair on Nov. 7 and ask online viewers to vote on his fate.
"The electrical discharge will be generated automatically after the first 1,000 votes against him. It is actually a punishment," Boryana Rossa, the artist's wife, explained in a recent Skype interview with him from Bulgaria.
Mavromatti's electrocution experiment is meant to highlight what he contends is his persecution and censorship by the Russian government over the past decade. He spent much of the last five years in New York, but was forced to leave in July over visa problems and is seeking refugee status in his wife's native country.
The 45-year-old artist's case has drawn international interest, as well as attracting the attention of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D- NY), who wrote a letter of support on his behalf to the Bulgarian government.
"These cases I take very seriously because it is part of my job to help our New York families in these grave crises when immigration is the fundamental issue and the fundamental reason these families are suffering," she said.
Mavromatti's art, which he calls "body criticism," draws inspiration from a medieval Eastern Orthodox form of expression known as "yurodivy," referring to "holy fools" who achieve sainthood through mad, eccentric or disruptive acts. His work has been featured in the past at Exit Art, a Manhattan gallery.
The infamous crucifixion scene, originally intended to be part of a longer film called, "Oil on Canvas," was broadcast internationally and is now on YouTube. After the broadcast, Mavromatti was charged with inciting religious hatred, making a parody of the Christian crucifixion and offending Orthodox Christians, under Russian Federation law. He faces up to five years in prison, if convicted.
The Russian police confiscated his production materials -- including his hard drive -- leaving him unable to complete the film, his wife said. In 2000, Mavromatti left Russia for Bulgaria, and in 2005 arrived New York with Rossa.
"The meaning of the action was not to offend anyone, it was to create an archetype of pain, repent and suffering," said Rossa, who is more comfortable speaking in English than her husband. "Of course, his art is controversial and not all the people like it."
Mavromatti said his latest performance art -- what he calls his electrocution "experiment" -- will be live-streamed.
"This is a Milgram experiment re-enactment," said Mavromatti, referring to the famous series of psychological tests on obedience carried out by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.
"This is an experiment that is not a suicide, but it can end up with his death. This is part of the whole process, because we kind of want people to think about this, " Rossa said. "We are going to use electricity through a device that is going to produce real electricity to his body. Of course, there is some risk for his life in the whole thing."
Ron Feldman of Ron Feldman Fine Arts, a gallery in Manhattan, is skeptical Mavromatti will actually go through with the electrocution, but acknowledged, "He is very brave and his work is strong. He is trapped by the powers that be."
Fears for Future
Although Mavromatti does not yet face extradition, he's worried his refugee status request won't be heard quickly enough to avoid a separation from his wife. Rossa is fearful he won't be with her when she returns to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. at the end of November to complete her doctoral degree in electronic arts.
"My understanding is he approached our office in Bulgaria and was provided with advice, and my understanding is that he has filed an asylum application with the relevant authorities and that is now being processed," Tim Irwin, a spokesman for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"If he returns to Russia right now he will be arrested at the airport and put in jail until the court listens to his case," Rossa said.
When Mavromatti tried to renew his expired Russian passport in February 2010 at the Russian Consulate in New York, he was told to come back in July, his wife said. Mavromatti worried that with an expired US visa, the couple would be better off renewing the passport in Bulgaria where he had permanent residency status. He had no problem renewing his passport in Bulgaria in the past.
According to Rossa, on September 8, 2010, the Russian Consulate in Sofia told Mavromatti that he not only was he not going to get a new passport, but he was still being sought by Russian authorities for the crucifixion performance.
Feldman, who is familiar with the work of pre-Glasnost Russian artists fighting Soviet persecution in the 1970s, sees many parallels with Mavromatti's case.
"It seems there's a righteousness with the government," he said. "They can act with impunity. They control all levels of government and virtually all communication and they're afraid of the work of an artist?"
The Mavromatti controversy has touched France's yearlong celebration of Russian culture, which culminates with the current Louvre Museum exhibition of contemporary Russian art.
Show Must Go On
Russian artist Avdey Ter-Oganyan asked that his works be withdrawn from the high-profile show to protest Mavromatti's plight. However, since Ter-Oganyan's works belong to the Marat Gelman Gallery in Moscow, the artist's request was denied. Ter-Oganyan, who was charged in 1998 under the same Russian law targeting Mavromatti, has refugee status in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, Mavromatti is vowing to go through with the electrocution performance -- even if the Bulgarian government grants his refugee request.
The artist's wife explained in an email, "The experiment is not meant to force any institution to act in Oleg's favor. It is addressing only the Russian censorship..."
"The responsibility for Oleg's artistic actions are only his. Nobody else should [share] any responsibility -- except of course the people who vote for his conviction."