Interview: Exploits of Pussy Riot focus of new show Riot Days

A still from Tamsyn Challenger's exhibition. Picture: Alexander Sofeev
A still from Tamsyn Challenger's exhibition. Picture: Alexander Sofeev
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Summerhall celebrates the feminist band with a show and exhibition, writes David Pollock

With the Russian agit-prop punk band and art collective Pussy Riot back in the news following the pitch invasion by some members at the World Cup final and their subsequent arrest, their appearance as part of Summerhall’s festival programme couldn’t have been more timely.

As part of the venue’s Nothing Ever Happens Here music strand, Riot Days is the gig-theatrical audio-visual adaptation of Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina’s memoir of the same name. In it she recounts the 2012 protest performance inside a Moscow Cathedral for which the group were arrested and imprisoned. Blending film, a post-punk soundtrack and Alyokhina’s own spoken word remembrances, it was seen on a brief UK tour in late 2017.

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Complementing this live event is a curated group exhibition put together by the artist Tamsyn Challenger, whose studio is in the venue. It draws on work commissioned by a group of London feminist collectives for a book in support of Pussy Riot which was published by Rough Trade Books in 2013. Named Let’s Start A Pussy Riot, Challenger’s own work featured within its pages.

“This show is talking primarily about women’s freedom,” says Challenger. “It speaks about patriarchal power, there’s a protest archive, it considers how we use the term ‘pussy’. It talks to the trials of women everywhere. Along with many others, like Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann and Judy Chicago, I put work forward for the book, but I actually made a piece to go with it. I wanted to do a pop-up in the book but the paper was too costly, so I ended up making the sculpture; a fully operational ducking stool in the Pussy Riot colours.”

That ducking stool is in the show, a comical yet subtly horrifying artefact, as well as a text poem by Ono (which Challenger has received permission to present in an inverted triangle on the wall) and other works from the book including a confrontational external hanging by Jamie Reid, strikingly designed images by Wendy Saunders and Layla Sailor, and Billy Childish’s titular Free The Pussy, a Russ Meyer-style B-movie design in which a nearly naked woman straps on a holstered pistol.

Challenger has also included a painting of Pussy Riot by the war artist John Keane (see above), a film room showing Carolee Schneemann’s Mysteries Of The Pussies, and a number of other works. Elements of her own curation are also works in their own right; the film room is painted red like a womb; the Corridor Dancefloor is in honour of women who are forbidden from dancing around the world; and the Meow Clock counts down from 40 seconds and emits a ‘meow’.

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“Forty seconds is how long it took for the performance in the cathedral to run, before Pussy Riot were escorted off the altar,” says Challenger. “That’s how long it took for two years of hard labour. This work is more relevant than it was five years ago – you only have to look at the backlash post-Weinstein, and the continuation of that sad oppression of women. In the art world we’re not equally represented around walls.”

Challenger wants to make all of these points in an accessible manner. “Well, I feel like there’s something for the everyday misogynist in all this work!” she laughs. “I hope that people find enjoyment in it, many pieces are very funny and joyous and colourful, although there’s a lot of difficult work in there too. But women need to own the term ‘pussy’, to take it back. Yes, you have Trump using it, but I want to use it and celebrate the word..”

• Pussy Riot perform Riot Days at Summerhall, Friday until 19 August. The Free The Pussy! exhibition is at Summerhall until 23 September, summerhall.co.uk