Have you heard the one about the wealthy Russian art patron whose picture, seated on a sculptural chair depicting a naked black woman, was published online to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. day? If so, you might be shocked; you probably shouldn’t be. The timing, to be clear, is beyond unfortunate, but the Russian woman in question–Dasha Zhukova–isn’t about to sign up for some Muscovite branch of the KKK, and her credentials are a bit more impressive than certain press clippings (describing her as a “socialite” and “girlfriend of…”) would have you believe. She runs the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, for instance, an institution that most recently hosted a show by John Baldessari. Somewhat humorously, given the context of this controversy, Garage has a floating sculpture by the Kabakovs installed out front; it’s called The Ship of Tolerance.
Oddly, when the Guardian initially covered this tempest, they failed to note that the sculpture is a work by the notoriously provocative Bjarne Melgaard, who has basically made a career out of taboo-smashing and controversy-courting. (Jonathan Jones did address the specific provenance of the chair in his own column). What if Zhukova had been photographed with this NSFW beauty hanging over her pristine living room couch, for instance?) I’ve never met Melgaard personally, but he once contributed a special project for the magazine I help edit. It included a series of unobjectionable, almost childlike paintings alongside text from a novel of sorts; the fictional passages in question contained enough S&M, torture, and other gleeful gruesomeness to make Dennis Cooper blush. My point is, Melgaard (while a highly interesting and prolific artist) is also well known for pushing the envelope of taste into some truly uncomfortable, nasty territory (albeit territory that’s so knowingly over-the-top that it can’t help but feel like a shocking cartoon). Hence we get this supposed “bombshell”: A beautiful, very white Russian woman appearing to make the most tactless furniture choice since Bruno’s satirical “Mexican chair people.”