When you enter the gallery at 709 Penn Avenue, Anna Politkovskaya's life envelops you. Giant puppets, papier-mâché sculptures and canvas banners fill the space in Amy Trompetter's installation work Requiem for Anna Politkovskaya, adapted from her puppet opera of the same name.
Trompetter, a New York-based artist, discovered puppetry in the '60s with the famed Bread and Puppet Theater. She typically retells stories that ask how people can live together in the world, like The Barber of Seville and Salut au Monde. Requiem commemorates a Russian journalist who openly opposed Russia's military occupation of the breakaway former Soviet republic of Chechnya.
During the regime of President Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya persisted in her clear-eyed reporting, despite being poisoned, suffering a mock execution and enduring multiple death threats. On Oct. 6, 2006, she was fatally shot in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
The puppet opera, created by Trompetter and Russian composer Alexander Bakshi, debuted in New York City on the anniversary of Politkovskaya's death.
Now, with the recent violent deaths of both another Russian journalist and a human-rights lawyer there, Requiem seems all too timely. To Trompetter, Politkovskaya is like a Joan of Arc, someone who fought for justice, regardless of the consequences.
"It's a sad story that an extremely good person who is reporting the truth is not a useful part of society," says Trompetter.
Trompetter, lately visiting Pittsburgh to teach and work with collaborators including the ArtUp collective, says puppetry has its own eloquence. "Puppets are very refreshing because they are frozen in a single moment," she says. "They have an integrity and purity in that they can't participate in the travesties."
The installation at 709 Penn tells Politkovskaya's story in a profoundly poetic way, even without the opera's narration and music. On the right wall, a biography of Politkovskaya based on the nursery rhyme "Solomon Grundy" moves through the days of the week, with each day represented by a banner. Papier-mâché reliefs of Politkovskaya sit between the banners, as if she's watching her life unfold.
Long canvases filled with angels painted in subdued primary colors cover the back wall and ceiling. With outstretched arms, the angels receive Politkovskaya's white soul, which floats upward from the central horse-drawn hearse. The final wall shows the horrors that Politkovskaya saw in Chechnya. Soldiers stand under red arches, guns pointed at naked civilians cowering in the pits below them.
"[Anna] took such a high road in [a] society that is more than intolerable to journalists who are reporting the truth," says Trompetter. "We know they are killed. They are killed in Russia and in other countries every day."
Trompetter hopes that her work will inspire others to create a better world.
"We have to take [the opportunity] that we have in the U.S. to be taking the high road and being visible about it," says Trompetter. "My friends in Russia say, 'You have freedom and you don't use it. We don't have freedom, we can't use it.'"
Requiem for Anna Politkovskaya continues through Feb. 21. 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-471-6070