Jock Sturges photo exhibition in Moscow closes after child porn allegations

A man visits Jock Sturges' exhibition at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography.

A man visits Jock Sturges' exhibition at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography.

Andrei Makhonin / TASS
An exhibition of nude pictures by American photographer Jock Sturges, displayed in Russia for the first time, has been closed down over accusations of child pornography. In the meantime, a public debate is raging over whether these photographs can be considered art or not.

A Moscow exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges, best known for his images of nude adolescents and their families, has been shut down over accusations of promoting pedophilia.

Outrage online, a complaint to the prosecutor’s office, threats, protesters blocking the entrance to the gallery, and an act of vandalism involving urine – in a matter of two days, the Sturges exhibition at a private gallery in Moscow sparked a debate about the boundaries of what is permissible in art and fresh accusations of hypocrisy against the authorities.

Photographer provocateur

This is the first ever exhibition by the artist in Russia. Since the early 1970s, Sturges has been photographing nudists living in communes in California, France and Ireland, with particular emphasis on girls and young women. The exhibition “Absence of Shame,” open to visitors aged 18 and over, opened at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow on Sept. 8.

Until Sept. 24, the pubic in Moscow did not seem to have anything particularly negative to say about the exhibition. According to its curator, the images of naked people were intended to serve as a reference to artworks of the 19th and early 20th century. However, the publication of a post by Lena Miro on popular blog site Livejournal titled “Exhibition for pedophiles in Moscow” saw a dramatic shift in the kind of attention Sturges’ work was attracting in Russia.

“I am stunned: Works by the inspirer of all pedophiles, Jock Sturges, have been brought to Moscow. <…> What are the law-enforcement agencies waiting for? Why is there an exhibition in Moscow of somebody who photographs naked young girls in sexually arousing poses?” Miro wrote in her post, attaching works by Sturges she had found online. It later turned out that those were not the works displayed at the Moscow exhibition.

Reaction to the appeal to look into the photographer “who was exploiting adolescent sexuality” came from senator Yelena Mizulina (known for her outspokenly conservative views on issues of family, sexuality and morality) and the newly appointed children’s rights ombudswoman, Anna Kuznetsova. Both asked the prosecutor’s office to check the “Absence of Shame” exhibition for suspected propaganda of pedophilia.

“I am convinced that the works depicting naked little girls that are on display at the exhibition cannot be interpreted as works of art,” said Mizulina.

‘The exhibition is within the law, but…’

After these accusations, the gallery was bombarded with threats and had to close an hour earlier on Sept. 24, which – according to eyewitnesses – left Russian Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo (in January 2015, Enteo and his supporters vandalized an exhibition of Soviet avant-garde art at Moscow’s Manezh exhibition hall) “very much upset” as he had intended to visit the exhibition.

On the following day, the place was taken over by activists from the non-commercial organization Officers of Russia [according to their declared goals, they seek to prevent crime and promote patriotism among the public]. Without having any authority to do so, they surrounded the building and did not let anybody in, with the exception of journalists and the head of the Russian Public Chamber security commission, Anton Tsvetkov, who arrived “to inspect” the exhibition.

Posing as a journalist, an activist from the pro-Kremlin movement Serb managed to get inside, after which he took out a bottle with what looked like urine and started pouring it on Sturges’s works. Earlier, Serb activists had gained notoriety for their attacks on pacifist rallies, during which they threw feces at the protesters.

Stepping out of the gallery, Tsvetkov passed his “verdict”: 15 percent of the works were “provocatively pedophilic,” he said, adding that the live shield created by the “officers” was about “crime prevention.”

“It will take the police 30 days to consider a complaint, then they will send some formal reply without much substance, and throughout all that time the wrongdoing will continue to be committed,” he said.

In the end the “officers” got what they wanted: The management of the gallery decided to close the exhibition down. The exhibition is within the law, “but we live in Russia, where in addition to law there is also public opinion,” the gallery’s management said at an impromptu news conference.

Conservative activists as arbiters of taste  

Writing on Facebook, director of the gallery and curator of the exhibition Natalya Litvinskaya was more frank.

“The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography had its ‘moment of glory’ today. Our Jock Sturges project came under fire from madness… We have brought this author to an open and democratic society, proving and showing to the international art community that this country is ready to be normal. Please, let’s not let them bury us again,” she wrote, adding that all the nude models in the Moscow exhibition were grown-up women, who were of age.

Inevitably, the Jock Sturges controversy provoked a debate about standards in art and about the asexuality of the photographer’s models. However, those on his side in this debate were most outraged by the way in which an exhibition can be closed in Russia these days.

“Everybody rightly pointed out to the main thing in this controversy with the exhibition: It was shut down not by the prosecutor’s office or Roskomnadzor (the media watchdog), but by enthusiasts in uniforms,” wrote opposition politician and former State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov.

“Ignorant bigots. The Officers of Russia are now artistic censors, conscience and taste,” wrote journalist Katerina Gordeyeva, a trustee of the Gift of Life charitable foundation.

For his part, Jock Sturges said he was “saddened” by the controversy. He told the channel REN TV: “Those photographs have been published all over the world. Galleries and museums all over the world did not see any pornography in them. Because there is none there.”

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