MOSCOW (Reuters) - Faked photographs of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cavorting naked on a sofa with U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, a giant styrofoam throne and pins in rubber erasers are vying for Russia's top modern art award.
The display of heavily politicized art by finalists competing for the Kandinsky Prize is considered a knock against Western critics who say freedom of expression has been curtailed by the Kremlin, though Russia's deputy minister for culture, Pavel Khoroshilov, sits on the prize's council of trustees.
"There is no censorship today and everyone can participate, Russian art is very open, there's a fair chance for everybody," Friedhelm Hutte, director of global art at Germany's Deutsche Bank, which is a partner in the prize, told Reuters TV.
One of 32 first prize finalists will win the top prize worth 40,000 euros ($51,180). Twenty nine other finalists are in the running for a young artist or media project of the year award. Russian insurance and financial group IFD Capital are the sponsors of the awards.
Siberian art duo Blue Noses are in the running with their video installation that includes photographs of posed naked male and female models whose faces have been replaced by those of Russian and world politicians.
An enormous white styrofoam "Throne" bearing Russia's double-headed eagle symbol by Sergei Shekhovtsov, is meant to show a link between the head of the Russian state with the country's Tsarist past. Security cameras and a crown are attached to its top, which is bathed in a swathe of pink light.
It was first shown to the public on the day of Russian presidential elections on March 2 of this year -- a nod at Western criticism that the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president was neither free nor fair.
Sewing pins in rubber erasers make up the outline of Putin's face in Diana Machulina's 'Rubber Soul'. A diagram shows how to use the rubbers to brand the image onto human skin.
"The force of the Russian powers-that-be lies in the erasure of any oppositional view," Machulina said in a handout at the exhibition, which was covered by state-controlled local media.
"Those who are offering us a false right to choose are successfully taking us for crazy."
A large, red and black digital artwork by Sergei Skachkov shows a red man teaching rows of identical, all-red people how to fly. The colors, font and structure of the piece makes it instantly recognizable to Russians as looking Soviet.
"Russian art is taking a big step forward, it is moving into an entirely new environment, where it can be individual," said Andrei Erofeyev, a Russian art critic and curator.
Curators said they were proud to have Blue Noses, a group co-founded by Slava Mizin, feature at the exhibit, despite their works being withdrawn from an exhibition in France just over a year ago.
The Russian government had said their art, which included a piece showing two policemen kissing and caressing each other's buttocks, would bring shame on Russia and was called "provocative."
Russian colors and motifs feature heavily amongst the prize contenders' artwork, which includes several pieces showing the head of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union.
Enormous bras whose cups are shaped like the onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church and a priest's golden robes with large badges of Lenin's face in small beads make up Dmitry Tsvetkov's 'I'm proud!' collection.
A long trough filled with mini styrofoam balls is motorized to produce footprints of a man's shoes, which disappear and reappear every few seconds. It forms part of a three-piece installation called 'Recycle' by young artists Andrei Blokhin and Georgy Kuznetsov.
"Before, art came from the USSR, now we actually have Russian art. Russia has quite a deep history of its own. You can't just mask it with crude imitation. Some momentum has to come from within the country itself," said Blokhin, 21, who works with his 23-year-old artistic partner Kuznetsov.
The pair, who are from the southern Russian city Krasnodar where they study art at university, say they have created art together since childhood.
Interest in the motherland's art by Russians at home and abroad has grown over recent years as the economy boomed.
Russia's new super-rich have been using their vast fortunes to bring native art back to Russia in what experts say stems from their desire to re-connect to a pre-Soviet cultural heritage.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman