Shifra Kazhdan is an artist from Moscow

Shifra KazhdanClick here for the artist’s CV





You Called Me a Male Man? Then You Need to Hear Me Out

By Shifra Kazhdan 

The strip of public beach gives way to a hundred meters of nudists, followed by the gay beach, which trails off into nothingness. It is no coincidence that the shortish featherless biped in its twenties is here. There is no air conditioner at its friends’ place, where it is staying, but there is a breeze here. Of course, it has been a big mistake: its back, face, arms, and shoulders are sunburnt. It has a ticket to Moscow for the following day. It has been studying for four months in Jerusalem: this is its first trip abroad. During the first days in Acre, it sunbathed amongst moms with their kids. Later, it decided to move to the gay beach. Not to have a tryst, but mostly to think and decide what to do next. Tomorrow, everything would be different and the problems from which it has escaped by leaving Moscow would return.

Children are the only group of people against whom violence has always been considered unacceptable. The reason for this attitude is hardly a humane one. In fact, they are excluded from the ranks of full-fledged social subjects. Society does what it will with the bodies of children, women, disabled people, foreigners, and old people. In ancient Rome, minors were obliged to wear insignia marking their special social status. The separation of some bodies from others was justified by the potential need to “defend” them from criminal violence. Of course, only “freeborn” citizens were required to wear these insignia. The insignia for the bodies of slaves were different.

Another biped (a man) about the same age sits down next to the first biped. We want to call this character a “man” if only because his physique is more powerful than that of the puny biped from Russia. The man tries to strike up an acquaintance, first in bad Hebrew, then in faltering English. He is probably Palestinian, one of those folks the Israelis have been scaring the biped with these past four months, an “Arab.” The scare tactics have not worked so well, and so meeting a Palestinian queer arouses the biped’s curiosity.

The biped is not thrilled about the man’s pushiness, but at the gay beach, forcing one’s attentions on someone is seen as just as commonplace as picking up a girl in a bar. The biped politely hears the man out before telling him it has boyfriend in Moscow and they will be happily reunited tomorrow. The man does not lose his composure. “He is there, and you are here,” he says mockingly.  The biped feels it is the right time to express its feelings clearly. “Buddy, nothing is going to come of it. Please stop it.” It gets up and moves thirty or so meters away. A minute later, the man also gets up and sits down next to the biped again.


The conversation continues in the same vein. The man touches the biped’s hand. The biped removes the man’s hand from her. The touch makes it think it does not find the man so revolting. The crazy thought flashes through its mind that it won’t be an adultery. Its departure to Israel coincided with a break in their relationship with the boy-friend, and returning to Moscow will only make this inconclusive fact obvious. It would not be adultery, but is it necessary? Anyway, the biped feels confused. The mothers with their kids are only two hundred meters away or so, and the gay couples are fairly close by as well. This is a public space.

In wartime, rape is used to demonstrate superiority and the fact that the losing side has been vanquished. They say that prison-rape is a commonplace, although rape is incomparably more frequent outside prisons. Rape is often explained as a punishment: “So (s)he knows what it’s like,” “So (s)he knows what real life is like”. It is used to change a person’s behavior. People invented a horrible term “corrective rape” for this. Rape functions not only as a form of social regulation but as a form of social “justice”. Same-sex feelings are usually talked about in connection with prisons and other gender-segregated communities, despite the fact they are accessible to all and have nothing to do with this line of thinking. The fear of sexual violence haunts same-sex relationships the same way as heterosexual feelings of women. Repressed feelings take the shape of friendship and comradeship, which often go hand in hand with discussion and condemnation of open same-sex feelings. Sexual violence is the basis not only of the “war between the sexes.” It is also the basis of inequality, where the “weaker” bodies of women, children, and other people function only as symbols deprived of their own subjectivity. The comrades who seek supremacy and compete with each other destroy the feelings they have for each other and the possibilities possessed by their bodies, even if they are guided by the same ideas and ideals.

The biped’s face is pressed into the sand. The man, sitting astride the biped, holds its arms twisted behind its back before forcing them back along its body and pinning them to the sand with his knees. With his free hand he covers the biped’s mouth, grabbing it by the hair with his other hand and beating its head against the sand. The biped feels the sand in its mouth, its own saliva, snot, and tears on the sand. There is not a lot of blood; what blood there is flows mostly from its nose, which has not been hurt that badly. Its resistance weakens. After pushing the biped’s legs apart with his own legs, the man commits rape. This is another level of pain. It is impossible to scream because the man still has his hand over the biped’s mouth. During one of the frictions, the hand slips off the mouth, and a scream erupts from it. As punishment, the man again pummels the biped’s head against the sand. Sudden sharp relief and, at the same time, approaching cries. The man jumps off and hides in tall dry grass. The biped turns over on its back. One of the two gays who have scared off the rapist helps it up. They are both shouting. “You couldn’t scream right away? He could have killed you! We saw you from far away and thought everything was all right. You should have called for help immediately.”

Нands trembling, the biped manages to put on its clothes and shoes. It hobbles with the gay couple to their car, parked on the side of the road. They go to the police station and report the incident. The policemen’s reaction is fairly blasé. They lazily (maybe the heat is to blame) document the injuries with a photo camera and show several criminal photos. The biped recognizes the rapist in one of them. The officer calmly informs “we know this man”. The biped is leaving the country the next day, and so the police do not open a criminal case.

In rape culture, an incredible amount of time is spent blaming the victim and justifying the rapist. — Olga Burmakova, “Rape Culture”

Domodedovo Airport, Moscow. Charred and sporting bruises around the eyes that extend beyond its sunglasses, the biped gives a bouquet of sunflowers to the people who have come to meet it. A week after it goes to the specialist. Sizing up his patient’s appearance, the strict doctor asks whether it has had sexual contact, and the biped tells him about the rape. The doctor says nothing. Happily, the tests come back and everything is ok. The bruises are recorded on a few photographs required for documents, and six months later they gradually fade away, like the other physical injuries caused by the sexual violence. The biped puts up a good front, explaining it got the bruises in a random fight. For the next seven years, it avoids any potential intimate contact with anyone whomsoever.

In rape culture, the constant threat of sexual assault affects the daily actions of women. In rape culture, girls and women are taught to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you behave, where you go, when you go there, who you go there with, who you trust, what you do, where you do it, who you do it with, what you drink, how much you drink, who you look in the eyes, when you’re alone, when you’re with a stranger, when you’re with a group, when you’re with a group of strangers, when it’s dark, when a place is unfamiliar, when you’re carrying something, how you’re carrying it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to make a run, what kind of bag you’re carrying, the jewelry you’re wearing, what time it is, what street you’re on, what the situation is, how many and which people you’ve slept with, who your friends are, who you give your telephone number to, who is around when a package is delivered, whether you can see who is at the door. Before opening it, you need to check who is there. Before opening the door to a deliveryman, you need to get a dog or buy a bark imitator. You must not live alone. You must take self-defense classes, always be alert, always be attentive, always keep track of everything, always be ready, and never relax for a second. Otherwise, you will be raped, and if you don’t follow all the rules, it’s your own fault.


—Olga Burmakova, “On Rape Culture”

Sixteen years later, this same biped, who given its age should be called a spinster, would for the first time read a sympathetic phrase about the rape, written by a feminist semi-acquaintance. When you touch your own temple it is as if you are touching a dead body or someone else’s body.

Most of the people mentioned in Russia’s homophobic law reacted quite calmly to its passage. They understood the law’s ultimate target was their own lives and bodies. In many ways, their expectations have been shaped and constrained by notions of the “sexual revolution,” which has been emancipatory primarily in relation to male identity and often just as non-judgmental about sexual violence. Russian society and the Russian state employ different types of care, identifying and contrasting “minors” and “adults” who practice “non-traditional conjugal relations.” The level of homophobia is so great that there are no non-invective words in the Russian language for these identities, only undesirable borrowings from English. The unwillingness to introduce English words into legal practice is not only a rejection of the know-how of identity politics (however we may feel about it) but also a continuation of the shift towards a biopolitics in which people exist not as social multitudes or groups but are controlled in accordance with their individual bodily behaviors.

When she spoke at Palestinian anarchist conference in 2011, Judith Butler titled her talk “Queer Anarchism and Anarchists against the Wall.” She demanded that the state of Israel recognize the equality of the two peoples living together in the same land. Answering a question posed by a queer activist, she gave a specific example: the openness of Israeli LGBT clubs to Palestinian LGBT is insufficient for their emancipation. There has to be equality in all parts of life. My body accidentally became part of the conflict, and I cannot speak of justice, but I agree fully with Butler’s argument and example. I want to try and talk about something else.

Moscow, 2013. Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, and Nicholas Roerich were myth-makers. They engineered the famous scandal that erupted at the premiere of the ballet “The Rite of Spring” in Paris in 1913. But did this scandal not have more to do with the ballet’s brutal story than with its groundbreaking choreography, music, scenery, and costumes? Some Parisians redubbed the production “The Massacre of Spring.” Various Russian articles report that the ballet is plotless, but some English-language ones reveal that it describes violent rituals. If you examine the narration, the ballet turns out to be a myth, a new myth created in the early twentieth century. Stravinsky and Roerich conceived the narration for the original production of “The Rite of Spring”: Scenes from Pagan Russia in collaboration with the famous impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Modern anthropology, neither today nor at the time when their production was mounted, has absolutely anything to say about springtime human sacrifices in pagan Russia. Researchers have ventured the guess that the story combines images from poem cycles by the symbolist Sergei Gorodetsky (1884–1967). Although Stravinsky was familiar with Gorodetsky’s poetry and set several of his poems to music, he claimed the music for the ballet had appeared earlier than the story. Stravinsky gave various, conflicting explanations regarding the work.

Choreographer Maurice Bejart mounted another well-known production of the ballet. He speaks the language of metaphors, the central one being the comparison of the male body with an animal and the female body with a plant. Hegel’s notion of feminine and masculine rhymes here with Gorodetsky’s images: female trees are cut down to the glory of the pagan god Yarila. In the original ballet, physical violence is shown as a normative practice, despite Stravinsky’s vehement attempts to identify the ballet’s characters as “forces of nature” rather than real people. Nijinsky’s original interpretation of Stravinsky’s score began with the choreographer’s own body: according to eyewitnesses of the rehearsals, he quite impressively demonstrated his ideas to the female dancer who premiered the role of the Chosen One, that is, the sacrificial victim. In Bejart’s rendering (1959), the act of violence is replaced by the suggestion of contact between a man and a woman, interpreted as sexual contact. Both choreographers treat “sacrifice” as a “natural” issue.

Usually those who report on violence speak from the supposedly neutral stance of defenders or the stance of observers and analysts. This stance is seemingly situated between the positions of the subject and object of violence. This discourse tells us that violence happens and we cannot stop it. We must systematize our knowledge of the economy of violence, our knowledge of who benefits in this unidirectional process and who loses everything. This is the only way we can stop the flood of accusations crashing down on the victim and thus exclude the attacker. Who now owns the symbolic and real product of the economy of violence? Who benefits from the logic of so-called “victimhood” in relation to the oppressed, according to which the victim supposedly “makes itself the victim” or is “inclined” or “predisposed” to become a victim? The attacker or his ally, of course.

Moscow, 2013

Pina Bausch’s production of “The Rite of Spring”(1975) is probably a story in terms of its genre, a genre that even now is not always taken seriously, being seen as excessively democratic and located on the lower rungs of the genre hierarchy. Examining the social world, Bausch arrives at generalizations, expressed in the form of metaphor and symbol. As the music begins, Nijinsky and Bejart leave the curtain closed, after which the male group of dancers is the first to appear on stage. Bausch’s ballet opens with a single female dancer, who is then joined by the other female dancers. The musical “Introduction” is turned into an exposition of dramatic action.

The female dancer lies on the ground. Does Bausch mean to say that the feminine is the social pre-opening to any existence? The laying on the red fabric female dancer is given “instead of the curtain”, as if we took the curtain to be a skirt. The body lies on the ground. This is a story in which a break with the tradition of oppressing the body as an object occurs. Bausch describes the mechanism of oppression, thus freeing the bodies of the female dancers and male dancers from it. The mythmaking of the original ballet is dropped, leaving the body as a language that speaks of the reality of trauma and the fear of violence, about how society chooses the victim and gets rid of it, about the fear of becoming the victim or perceived as a victim. Bausch’s staging transforms the social memory of bodies into a story about the social ritual of exclusion, beyond all connections to any “natural” logic.

The entire stage is covered with soil. The choreographer has placed the figure of the dancer at an angle on the stage. The body awakens. From sleep? From fainting? From violence? From sexual contact? The female dancer gradually finds herself among other female dancers, who rapidly cross the stage at angles, fearfully holding hands. She finds herself among people whose condition is quite similar to her own: uncertainty, loss, and the attempt to discover the sensations of one’s own body.

The dancer raises her face from a piece of red piece of fabric. It is against this backdrop that her face makes the first move in the production. Closer to the finale, it transpires that the piece of fabric is a red dress, but we do not know this yet. The second female dancer runs at an angle onto the forestage and lifts up the hem of her bodily coloured dress, covering her face with it and exposing the lower part of her body. Several dancers lie down on the ground. Their movements resemble a literal attempt to “merge with nature,” seemingly in order to learn how to distinguish their own bodies from what is underneath them.

The metaphysical worldview offers us a duality in which attacker and victim figure are a couple that inextricably linked with each other. This couple is used to explain concepts of good and evil. According to a certain metaphysical twist, the victim is often termed the “winner.” The attacker is allegedly declared forgotten and condemned. Supporters of secular rape culture get the same benefit as believers in religious morality in maintaining the illusion of this ethic. The victim’s so-called win is a con savored by attackers, who use the memory of the victim to affirm the necessity of violence.

Male figures appear only in the fifth minute, abruptly dividing the group of female dancers. This could be perceived as an attack, but Bausch seems far from embracing this idea. For her, the two groups shown in the production are not predetermined. It is no coincidence that the strict segregation of the dancers through the two types of costumes they wear underscores the differences of bodies from each other within each group. The transgender manifestations in one body or another are obvious to me, and only the clothing of the two types marks their sex. Who are the characters in Bausch’s “Rite of Spring”? The male dancers are naked to the waist, while the female dancers wear loose dresses. The movements of the female dancers are not as soft as is customary in classical ballet. The movements of the male dancers are likewise free of exaggeration. The female dancers abruptly slap their stomachs and tenderly raise their arms in the air. The male dancers also alternate between fluid and jerky movements. It could be argued to claim that their expressions of bodies are gendered. The traces of social memory of the bodies are used to shape the characters.

Understood as an oscillatory motion or vector from male to female or female to male, (trans)gender is inscribed in relations of power, even when that motion occurs within a single body. Something is given and something taken. The exchange economy is not fair. Erich Fromm’s distinction between having and being has ceased to function, as being has come to mean either having or not having. Seen from a binary perspective, transitioning is a psychological trauma leading to a variety of consequences. Gender binarity and sexual binarity, which society and state consider the norm by default, is actually the oppression underlying an unjust culture that threatens human lives.

In connection with feminism and dance, it is sometimes said that one should dance either before or after the music. This argument is based on the fact that the classical composers are men and, therefore, when a woman dances, she collaborates with “male” culture. This idea could have an essentialist incarnation, but this seemingly does not happen in Bausch’s ballet.

The first movement on stage is the stroking of the dancer’s cheek and temple against the cloth. This happens before the music begins, and we could say that movement precedes music. Is there an element of resistance to Stravinsky the male in this movement lasting a few seconds? We cannot say for sure, especially because the subsequent choreography is based on rhythmic connection. Does this involve submission to Stravinsky? Certainly not.

Dead baby jokes are not regarded as reproducing violence, and attempts at preventing a person from telling a sexist/homophobic/transfobic joke are often seen as violent or coercive. If hate and violence are understood as a “lust for life” or a “natural demand,” they really cannot be stopped. Sometimes revolutionary violence is justified by the charm of the “nature” of the revolution itself. The society we know owns this kind of hate capital to oppress some chosen individuals or identities.

Pina Bausch begins with a touch, the dancer’s face touching the red dress. Is this stroking a symbol, the memory of the one who wore the dress? Throughout the production, it is the only prop shown with the optics of the female dancers. The male dancers seemingly do not notice it at all, whereas the female dancers react extremely emotionally to this object. The only prop aside from the dusty earth under the dancers’ feet is shown as an occasion for shame, fear, contempt, and hatred. Becoming a dress only when it is put on the dancer, the red thing wholly transfers to the dancer a symbolism that was assembled earlier. The male dancer dresses the female dancer, and she start the Sacrifice dance of the Chosen One. Isn’t this how LGBT identity functions, as an object of hatred? Who dares to don an identity in a circle of hatred? Does society punish the one who dared brush her face against the red dress? What does the dancer’s temple feel?

XL Gallery, Moscow, 2005.

Introducing her performance, Elena Kovylina talks about the system that generates a competitive spirit among artists. She represents the competitive system as a boxing ring, which she goes into herself. I am bit put off by the connection between her concept and its embodiment, but I come to the gallery on the show’s opening day. I am a budding artist and member of the group Leto (Summer).

It is crowded and noisy at XL Gallery. A real boxing ring has been set up in the middle of the gallery. I’m with my friends and colleagues in the crowd. Lena, who has been training with a professional boxer, enters the ring. She is silent. The audience is excited. I think I can make out two assumptions amidst this excitement. The first is that “no one can hit a woman”. The second is that “she is ready and willing to fight”.

The assumption that “no one can hit a woman” is often based on the notion that women as a group are a common good. This dehumanizing consideration is basically like the ban on walking on the grass in parks because the grass is a common good. The argument makes woman, as a member of a group, into an object of paternalistic care, into a thing devoid of voice, will, and independence. In the case of a particular woman, this concern for her is not concern for the person but for an object having physical and/or symbolic value. Often, when protecting a woman, a male shows he has sufficient physical or symbolic capital to overpower or possess her. Of course, she is more attractive to him as a thing in non-battered form, just like a beautiful vase. The assumption that “she is ready and willing to fight” could be condescending. The question of winning, it turns out, is not fundamental for the most of males. Both arguments reinforce the retention of power, not the individual’s life and dignity.

Nothing happens. Somebody shouts something to the affect of “Well, who’s going to go first?” Decent folks feel awkward, but the tension builds all the same time. It is a good excuse to explain one’s own embarrassment by feeling that Kovylina is suggesting something indecent. It is easier for many to feel that she is a “bad” artist and there is nothing to discuss. No one wants to spar with her. I am struck by the thought that this could happen. I think I am beginning to understand her plan and that for it to work, somebody has to go into the ring. Nobody dares to take this step because it is a clear transgression of morality. I imagine that if no steps out, the performance will be called “bad” and Lena’s plan will fail. My feelings are exacerbated because I am her colleague and comrade, a classmate in the School of Contemporary Art. I think about how important it is for us, the young artists to prove your statement. Without realizing it, I begin to adopt the same line of thinking that Kovylina is criticizing. What was not articulated in my decision to go into the ring was my personal decision about how her statement would be better off for it. Her decision was obviously thought out and prepared, while mine was spontaneous, made right on the spot.

I have never fought before. More precisely, I have never started a fight before. I imagine that my frailty is obvious and that I am probably physically weaker than Kovylina. In any case, I took this idiosyncrasy as a given, although in reality it has no additional meaning. I had always thought that Kovylina’s works were bold and reckless. They got to me as well, often triggering outrage, exactly the sort of outrage she probably intended in the first place, the kind of outrage that, when it surfaces, demonstrates social injustice in the most concise way.

Is nothing really going to happen? I tell a friend I want to go into the ring. I say it as if in jest. My suggestion meets with approval more than anything, because we all assume this is a “pretend” situation, especially as in my case Lena is guaranteed victory in the ring. I am consciously willing for this to happen. I go into the ring and quickly lose, of course. I don’t know how to fight, and I didn’t really want to. Why did I do it? Well trained, Kovylina landed precise blows that caused me no great harm. I hope that my punches did not cause Lena any suffering, either. She won, but not in the sense that she won according to the rules of boxing. She showed how violence against women is aroused, and I was the person through whose body and thoughts she realized the idea.

Flushed but shocked by what has happened, I leave, not noticing that a much stronger opponent has gone into the ring after me. Someone told me later that he went in to “take revenge” on Lena Kovylina for me. Other pretenders followed him. I have no way of knowing whether any of this is true, especially as far as people’s motives go, and so I cannot vouch for the reliability of these stories.

I am ashamed of what I did then. I was ashamed at the time as well, but then I thought I had to do it. What I told myself then, that the performance would not come off unless I or anybody went into the ring. I had an idea to go into the ring to help Lena. All these male thinking was just an excuse.

After a while, when the reviews and interviews were published, I learned that Lena Kovylina was completely prepared for the eventuality that no one would enter the ring and even hoped this would happen. I found out she would have been glad to discover her hypothesis about bloodthirstiness and competitiveness was only a hypothesis. I felt ashamed again. At first, my shame was muffled by the sense I had been deceived. In my mind, I blamed Lena for provoking my reaction. So how had I helped her? By going into the ring, I had only dispersed the moral confusion in the audience, thus setting off the entire subsequent chain of events. I set the example for those who followed me in the ring.

Lena Kovylina neither won nor lost, and it is not only her bouts in the ring I have in mind. Her performance explained how violence works, including violence against women, and what stupid ideas can cover for it. Obviously, what is issue at here is not a certain “animal passion for violence” within me or any other man or woman who was in that crowd. Lena Kovylina made visible the stereotyped behavior that perpetuates the mechanism of violence.

I am ashamed of “being” a man. When some Germans told her they were ashamed of being Germans, Hannah Arendt wanted to tell them she was ashamed of being human. Like many other people, in this case I should not be ashamed of the fact I am human or a man. I should be ashamed I overplayed a stereotypical role that maintains the violent order of things.

Who has the real right to use the quite considerable product generated by the economy of violence, the economy of hatred, the product produced by the attaker? The victims do.

The original russian article was published in the Moscow Art Magazine, #92, pp.108-116.

Translated by Thomas Campbell. 

Courtesy the Moscow Art Magazine and the artist.