The new exhibition of Russian works at the Saatchi Gallery in London makes an important contribution to the debate on contemporary art. The show curated by Charles Saatchi himself features eighteen emerging artists in Russia. The title of the show, ‘Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia’, is derived from a speech by Joseph Stalin in 1935. A number of the artists use humour or political satire in their works making this an apt title.
What is significant about this show is the range of works on display and the fact that many of the artists have never had their work shown outside of Russia. A highlight of the exhibition has to be Boris Mikhailov’s major photographic series ‘Case Study’. In the late 1990s Mikhailov took pictures of people in his hometown of Kharkov in the Ukraine. The image of men and women, young and old, chronicle the extremes of life on the streets for those people who became destitute following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The original series encompasses 413 photographs and Saatchi have acquired an impressive number of works which fill two rooms of the gallery. Together they document the living conditions of people who resided in Russia in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism.
The most political work on display is Gosha Ostretsov’s large installation ‘Criminal Government’ (2008). The work consists of a series of cells which hold realistic, life-size human figures in business suits covered in blood. Several of the figures are missing limbs, in one cell the amputated hand is chained to the wall behind. Crude graffiti and symbols of torture abound in this fantasy, comic-book world. The figures wear latex masks depriving them of an individual identity inviting the viewer to associate the figures with people of their choosing. The artist says that the grotesque scene explores the representation of power in post-Soviet culture.
On the floor above his wife, another artist Liudmila Konstantinova, has created a work that recalls the Suprematist compositions of Kazimir Malevich. On the wall she has hung a series of rectangular blocks. The geometric shapes are painted in bright colours such as pink, yellow, purple, red and green. The blocks at first resemble a Soviet avant-garde work. However, the title ‘Paintings for Holes’ (2011) reveals something else. The artist wanted to comment on the decorative quality of painting. As the title implies, the pictures have another purpose: they can be used to hide imperfections on the wall such as cracks or peeling paint. Unlike Malevich’s designs, she invites the collector or curator to rearrange the rectangles on the wall.
The range of mediums presented in this show demonstrate the breadth of experimentation in the Russian contemporary art world today. Dasha Fursey’s totem like tower of glass jars ‘Boundary Post of a Cat Bajun’ (2012) consist of different fruit and vegetable preserves. The artist says it is her riposte to Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark. It can also been seen as a comment on the role of women’s role in society in keeping with Fursey’s interest in sexuality.
Sculptures by Daniel Bragin lie across the floor in another gallery. He creates awkward material juxtapositions. In ‘Bedtime Story’ (2012) he creates a pile of windshield glass and PVC strings and adjacent lies the body of his life-size ‘The Lady’ (2010) made out of PVC filled with sand.
This exhibition shows the influence of Russia’s early modern masters such as Rodchenko and Malevich on artists today. It is also a provocative show that challenges the viewer and provides a good overview of contemporary art in Russia. Well worth a visit.
“Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia”, November 21 – May 5, 2013 at the Saatchi Gallery, free entry.