Andrei Mitenyov: the chronicles of a Russian prison
The Moscow artist, who was sentenced to a jail term, has created a graphic saga about the grim underworld of Russian penal institutions.
If there’s one artist residency you would not want to apply to, it’s the one that Andrei Mitenyov (b. 1974) now has on his CV. The Moscow sculptor, whose works adorn the squares and parks of several Russian cities, was a well-known figure of the capital’s art scene. He had turned his studio, hidden in a basement of an old building in the centre of Moscow, into an artist-run space called ‘Это не здесь’ (“It’s not here”), a hub for underground concerts and exhibitions. All that changed abruptly three years ago, when Mitenyov was arrested for the alleged purchase and possession of illicit drugs and subsequently sentenced to two and a half years in jail. (His case was a typical one, rather than a tragic exception: over 70,000 recreational drug users were incarcerated in Russia that same year).
However, Mitenyov found his own way to keep up his spirits. He managed to obtain coloured pencils and paper and started sketching everything he saw around him. “In prison, I did not feel involved in what was happening. I was like a researcher, observing the astonishing life of this bizarre place,” the artist recollects.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Matrossky Noise'. No complaints. I don't know exactly how a patient sitting in a cage is examined, but I can easily imagine a doctor asking indifferently, without breaking away from his illegible writing: “What are you complaining about?”
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Matrossky Noise'. Cards. The cards are made from several layers of paper, which are glued together with a composition made from bread crumbs. The masks are applied using a stencil with ballpoint pens. This is probably why coloured pens are not allowed. People play cards "for interest" (i.e. for money) or "without interest". We play for matches.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Matrossky Noise'. New Year. On the third day, I draw New Year's cards without bending. A triangular Christmas tree with a "thievish" eight-pointed star at the top and three balls with the letters A, U and E. Everyone else wraps presents: they wrap cigarettes, candies and tea in paper rolls. At night, gifts and postcards are put into touching Christmas socks and sent out on rope "roads" to all the cells in the building.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Matrossky Noise'. Exchange of experience (waiting for the trial) ... like herring in a barrel. It was cold, smoky and dirty. You couldn't lean against the walls because they were dirty with something gray. Finally, we were taken out of the box, walked down a long corridor and put in a prisoner transport van. When we arrived at the court, we were searched, cigarettes with matches were taken away and we were placed in tiny cells, measuring approximately 1.5 by 1.5 metres. The walls in the cell were covered with a shaggy plaster 'coat' and painted dark grey. A dim light bulb protected by a grid did not shine, but rather cast a bizarre shadow. In addition to me, there were two other people in the cell - an unsuccessful thief who had already spent 14 years in prison and an intelligent-looking chap, who said that he had invented something like an eternal engine and was about to make mankind happy, but found himself in prison on a fabricated case.
According to Mitenyov, his drawings have not only artistic, but also documentary value. Photography and filming are not allowed inside Russian prisons, so for those lucky enough to never have set foot there, those drawings might be the only chance to look behind prison bars.
His subject-matters may seem harmless. There are no depictions of violence or abuse of power. Yet, the wardens were suspicious of his artistic mission. He received many threats for drawing activities that are officially forbidden, but unofficially tolerated by the guards, such as smoking or brewing ‘braga’, an alcoholic drink. The wardens confiscated his sketches on various pretexts. After his release, it took Mitenyov and his relatives over two months to retrieve them. About a quarter of his works disappeared for good, but the artist re-created them again from scratch. His fellow inmates, on the other hand, were curious and encouraged him to continue. Some even threatened to use physical violence if he didn’t.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series '7.5 tonnes of rotten cabbage'. Pipes. Rain. There are all kinds of jobs, but what I like most is to dig, carry and drive carts the most: sand, sacks, bricks, pipes, dusty wood, rusty iron, hard, heavy and meaningless. This kind of pastime is most in line with my ideas of hard labour and is also a kind of meditation: you load a cart with sand, move it, roll it over, load it, move it, roll it over, load it, move it...
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series '7.5 tonnes of rotten cabbage'. Exercise, 2018. Like everything else, it is done without the slightest enthusiasm, in half-alarm. For example, sometimes I would catch myself waving my arms, bending over and squatting with my eyes closed.
Andrei Mitenyov. '7.5 tonnes of rotten cabbage'. Rabica ... are as big and angry as dogs. I do not hurry to clear the narrow path between the two fences from the snow, and they are screaming incessantly and, drowning in rage, throwing their whole bodies at the grid that separates us - the mash.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series '7.5 tonnes of rotten cabbage'. Father Vladimir, 2018. On Sundays, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church visit us and have soul-saving conversations with us. I do not like these conversations and I try to avoid taking part in them as much as possible. All these devout old ladies and sugary priests behave as if they have brought good news to the lost people. This may be the case, but it is disgusting. The only exception is Father Vladimir - a very cozy, hippie-like priest who manages to create an atmosphere of trust for kitchen conversation, during which he somehow accidentally shares his spiritual experience.
Mitenyov takes the viewer on a tour of different Russian penal institutions: from a pretrial detention centre in Moscow to a provincial correctional facility. His series resemble a graphic novel or a comic book: each drawing is supplemented by a short story. It records the other inmates coming and going, as well and the changes in the artist’s own fortune. On one occasion, he is punished by being sent to the kitchen block and assigned the job of sorting tons of rotting cabbages. Another time, the wardens recognized his artistic abilities and gave him the job of putting together the institution’s stengazeta (a hand-made wall-newspaper).
In two and a half years, Mitenyov produced over 250 graphic and painted works during his imprisonment. They fall into six sections, varying in subject-matter and even in style. Sometimes, he sheds light on the absurd daily routine of prison life. At other times, he focuses on the personalities of other inmates or his own psychological changes.
“I was studying the prison's inhabitants with anthropological interest, first and foremost myself,” he says. For him, jail was a “powerful spiritual experience” and he carefully documents his own passage all the way from the depths of despair to the catharsis of repentance and, ultimately, to a quiet acceptance of his fate.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Prisoners'. Maxim. I was on the run for 9 years and when I got here, for the first time in all these years I found peace and breathed freely. For me, freedom is the absence of fear.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Prisoners'. Sasha. Freedom is when you love everything and everyone loves you.
Andrei Mitenyov. From the series 'Prisoners'. Sergei. Freedom is an incomprehensible word. It's like love. Free from what? If you are alive, you are no longer free.
He portrayed his fellow inmates and interviewed them about their notion of freedom. Shortly before his release, he started to document his own dreams. At that time, he was allowed to paint in acrylic, using old bedsheet as canvas. This latest series, ‘Prison Dreams’, which is both surreal and colourful, feels like an attempt to flee from reality into the realms of his own fantasies. Whatever he sees, be it his own visions, the faces of other convicts or ugly daily routines of prison life, he looks at it all with a strangely benevolent, forgiving eye. The name he chose to give to the whole body of his prison works, ‘Deus Caritas Est’, is in fact derived from the favourite motto of Russian convicts. According to Mitenyov, the most frequent graffiti he saw scribbled on prison walls during his journey was “Бог есть любовь”. It translates as “God Is Love”.