Yesterday, the Russian art world was struck by the news that the much-adored artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe had been discovered, drowned in a shallow swimming pool while on vacation in Bali. Most famous for his impersonations of his namesake, Marilyn Monroe, or her Soviet equivalent, Lyubov Orlova, the artist more recently has become something of a social media icon for gay rights in Russia. While the Russian art world has lost some of its own before – quite recently even, with the passing of Oleg Vassiliev - Monroe’s death registered as a shock, not only because he was all of 43 years old, but also perhaps because the artist had always seemed larger than life to begin with.
Gallerist and provocateur Marat Guelman confessed that at first he thought it may be an elaborate hoax, in line with Monroe’s playful practice. Artist Sergey Bugaev-Afrika – who came of age alongside Monroe in Leningrad – publicly declared that he suspected something darker, noting that Monroe had signed the infamous 2010 petition “Putin Must Go”: “The word on the street is that he drowned. He was always a bit of a hooligan, it’s true, but the ability to drown in less than a meter of water was not one of his skills. His death looks a lot like murder, but I doubt we will ever find out what happened…”
It seems that personalities like his are entirely fake, just an invention, but then at some point you come to realize that everything is actually absolutely genuine. Nothing else. Vladislav was a master of the mega-magical transformation. People like that can be everyone and no one, all at the same time.
Monroe entered the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Leningrad was ruled by squats. He was a fixture as the first wave of raves hit what-would-soon-be St Petersburg, a close ally of Timur Novikov, Andrey Khlobystin and Afrika, collaborating with curator Kathrin Becker on “Pirate TV” – placing Monroe within the ranks of the first video artists to emerge in the Post Soviet era. You can get a sense of his charisma in the short film below, January Blizzard, 1991, which was made by director Evgeny Kozlov (who is included in this year’s Venice Biennale.)
Later, Monroe would branch out, exploring other identities, both male and female. For his part of “STARZ” (a parallel project to the First Moscow Biennale in 2005, that focused one floor each on artists Monroe, Oleg Kulik, AES+F, and Dubossarsky&Vinogradov – the link is down, otherwise we would provide it), the artist styled himself over in such controversial get-ups as Jesus Christ, Hitler, the Pope and Putin. You can get a sense of his mastery of slapstick in Cafe Elegant, a 2008 clip that was part of his New Pirate TV program:
Predominantly known for his warmth and sense of humor, Monroe had a tenderness and toughness that made him an ideal advocate for gay rights. The cross-dressing in his work did not only apply to the artist himself. In 2010, Monroe presented a series of portraits of the members of the GKChP (State Committee on the State of Emergency, who attempted a coup against Gorbachev in 1991), now touched up with drag make-up. That same year, when the artist was savagely beaten on the streets – a flagrant act of gay-bashing – he documented his recovery process through Facebook, speaking out about the culture of homophobia in Russia (a culture which is only increasing, now with the national Duma considering enacting Petersburg’s infamous statute against “homosexual propaganda.”)
Monroe will be laid to rest in St Petersburg. Meanwhile, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art has announced that admission to Monroe’s current exhibition – images from his turn on stage playing Polonius, presented as part of the Olga-Sviblova-curated “Festival of Fashion and Style in Photography” – will be free for the rest of its run.