NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers announced that "Mister Deviant, Comrade Degenerate: Selected Works by Yevgeniy Fiks," will be on view June 15 through July 31.
The nine works, consisting of still photographs and multimedia installations, address the subject of the political deviant, the sexual outlaw, and the uncensored artist, who all became the shared “others” for the Cold War-era Soviets and Americans, and remain a problematic political legacy that resonates today. Fiks will attend an opening reception on Saturday, June 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
“Within the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, political, sexual, and artistic nonconformists were conflated and viewed as dangerous internal enemies that terrified insecure government leaders, whose paranoia trickled down among their citizens," said Zimmerli director Thomas Sokolowski, who organized the exhibition.
Earlier this year, the artist explored similar themes in Mother Tongue/Родная Речь, his first London solo exhibition, which focused on historical gay Russian argot, or slang. This coded language dates back to the Soviet era and is comparable to jargon used by gay and other subcultures in the past.
"Mister Deviant, Comrade Degenerate" confronts the instrumentalization of homophobia, anti-liberalism, and anti-modernism as tools of propaganda and ideology in both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It explores the era's persecution of various nonconformist groups on both sides of the ideological divide, including political dissidents, queers, and avant-garde artists.
Ranging from dry factuality to humor and farce, the exhibition begins with a series of prints and photographs titled “Homosexuality is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America,” highlighting the interlocking histories of the “Red” and “Lavender” scares during the McCarthy era in the United States, when anti-Soviet and anti-gay sentiments were fused together in the Cold War witch hunt rhetoric.
Pundits and government officials went as far as envisioning a sinister conspiracy in which the Soviet Union promoted homosexuality as a tool to destroy America. At the same time, the federal government purged homosexuals that it employed, calling them “security risks” and considered vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents. Ironically, in the Soviet Union, the ideological enemy of the United States, homosexuality was officially criminalized after 1934 — with a prison sentence of up to five years — and stigmatized as an anti-Soviet "capitalist degeneracy” that came from the foreign and “decadent West.”
The exhibition is not merely a history lesson for 21st Century audiences, it provides a lens through which visitors can critically examine how such witch hunts continue today. Many are preparing for a landmark pride month this June, celebrating once unimaginable social and legal gains since the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, kicked off the gay rights movement. However, the imminent 50th anniversary is by no means an endpoint for action, as physical and legislative attacks against individuals in LGBTQ communities persist not only in non-democratic nations but across the United States.