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Valery Koshlyakov. Grand Opera, Paris. 1995. Tempera on cardboard

Post-Soviet art territory at the Saatchi 0

An attempt to ghettoise Eastern art practices


The exhibition Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union is rather scattered, without a curatorial statement and without a booklet that could accompany us with some curatorial insight of why certain works have been selected for this show. There is a certain thread, however, that runs through it. In terms of medium – photography is the king. But the words that spring to mind are – harshness, violence, domesticity, and, on the different side – nothingness, abstraction and failed utopia.

All of the works in the exhibition are offering a glimpse into the consequences of the political situation in Russia in the recent past. They are striking and almost brutal in their sharpness.

Vikenti Nilin. From the Neighbours Series. 1993-present

Vikenti Nilin’s photographs reveal people sitting on the windowsills of the block buildings, which are typical for the Soviet Russia. They do not look like they are about to jump; instead they sit meditatively on the ledge. I would call it one of the best exhibits in the current exhibition, which offers a space, where the absurdity of everyday life gives lightness to one’s existence. Precisely these absent-minded positions of the body are telling us of a strange satisfaction, and, yet there is a space for resistance. What can one do when the bliss of oblivion is so near?

The homeless people in Boris Mikhailov’s photographic works are depicted drunk and naked and very often they are near some industrial buildings or blockhouses. These images repel and produce a certain sense of horror, especially for the Western eye, if one could speak of one. These sore bodies and broken fates are just a small part of four hundred images that photographer Boris Mikhailov took in Ukraine. What about the other ex-Soviet countries? Are those portraits of misery and the distressed, desperate and dying bodies the current matter of the contemporary post-Soviet space?

The project of Sergei Vasiliev is connected to depicting another marginal group of the society – prisoners. Sergej, a former prison warden, has photographed tattoos on the bodies of prisoners. Obviously, the works are much more than just a collection of tattoo images. Tattoo-making was illegal in Soviet times and these images aren’t just about producing a “picture” on the body, but is rather an act of resistance, which has been created using an extremely violent means – needles, blood and urine. These images may seem to be depicting fairy tales, but most of them are clearly encrypted messages of power and despair. Iconography and the symbolic meaning of tattoo imagery often speak about the committed crimes and are even coded messages against the Soviet system. But sometimes they do express a longing for love. These photographs were also included in the “Russian Criminal Tattoos Encyclopaedia” trilogy, which have already gained a wide recognition. And Sergei Vasiliev has been the pioneer in cataloguing the extensive range of designs that the prisoners have been leaving on their skins. 

Sergei Vasiliev. Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.12. 2010

Yelena Popova’s transparent and geometric forms recall both Russian Constructivism and Minimalism, and raise a question – what is painting today? The installation “Balance of Probabilities” represented in the Gaiety exhibition is a multi part system of paintings, which are subtle and calm in their colours. One has to note that paintings on linen were quite prevalent during the Soviet times. One could see something similar to Popova’s artworks, but not as subtle and ephemeral, displayed in the school corridors, factories and town hall entrances.

Similarly to Popova’s line of aesthetics, Janis Avotins is exploring the new painting. Latvian painter Janis Avotins is well known outside of Latvia and is also represented by IBID Projects gallery in London. Janis Avotins is offering the viewer the encapsulated ghostly world of the past. His paintings are photographic, atmospheric and historic. Softly he converts the nostalgic figures, depicted on dark surfaces, into the horror film heroes. I have to note that the Saatchi Gallery's light chosen for Janis Avotins’ paintings did not help to reveal the exceptional air of mystery that they carry. 

In general, Saatchi Gallery once again attempted to present an exhibition related to one big country – Russia. However, it is left unclear why the artists presented in this exhibition are not all Russian. Why is there such an aim to make these “overview” shows?

Saatchi’s website explains that “The Saatchi Gallery aims to provide an innovative forum for contemporary art, presenting work by largely unseen young artists or by international artists whose work has been rarely or never exhibited in the UK. The audience for exhibitions of contemporary art has increased widely during the recent years as general awareness and interest in contemporary art has developed both in Britain and abroad.” 

Boris Mikhailov. Case History. 1997-1998

At the beginning, this statement was certainly true, but today the gallery’s work as an innovative forum could be disputed. When the Saatchi Gallery opened over twenty five years ago it was the only space in the United Kingdom, which greatly differed from the state-funded art institutions and commercial galleries. It was something in between, a third space, which offered a spectacular location for spectacular art. It provided a big white-cube space for the simple, direct and visually, and aesthetically daring presentations of contemporary art. Since 1985 Charles Saatchi has discovered and showed a number of well-known artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, who, among others, formed the YBAs.

The current premises on Sloane street opened in 2008 with an exhibition of Chinese art, titled The Revolution Continues: New Art From China. It brought together the works by twenty-four young Chinese artists; including – Zhang Huan, Li Songsong, Zhang Xiaogang. But the current Gaiety show seems to lag far behind its Chinese predecessor.

Firstly Gaiety does not focus on the political issues of contemporary Russia and has no mention of contemporary political context. Saatchi’s exhibition seems miles away from this year’s attempts of the Berlin Biennial and curator Artur Zmijewski to chart the territory of activist art, emergent and very visible through the sensational reception in the local and international media. The show overlooks current art collectives Shto Delatj?, Voina (War) and Pussy Riot.

However, one can see the attempt to follow the aesthetical preferences of Saatchi for his “personal taste for the rude, sensational and epigrammatic” as described by Laura Cumming in the article “Fitting home for a veteran collector”, published in the Guardian in 2008.

Famous art critic and journalist Adrian Searle once described the Saatchi Gallery’s premises as “a study in blandness”, and the exhibition –  “a tiresome kind of entertainment” with works that “say familiar, Saatchi-type things. A giant turd coils on the floor, packed with semi-digested toy soldiers.”

Let’s hope that the next exhibitions will show an attempt to consider a more experimental or at least a bit more researched theme, in which we will be able to enjoy the new, intellectually and visually challenging approach to exhibition-making. 

The exhibition Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union is open for viewing through May 5, 2013.