Russia == Gaiety?

Highrise on the Raushskaya by Valery Koshlyakov

Highrise on the Raushskaya by Valery Koshlyakov

At the Saatchi gallery in the King’s Road. Two shows of Russian Art, one contemporary, one a little older featuring 20th Century work. Although they seem very much from the same stable.The former is called ‘Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union’.

I am presuming that this title is ironic.

Can life in Russia can really be so degraded as this exhibition would suggest? The images are bleak.  The tattoos of criminal gangs we are familiar with by now – almost a cliché of the darkside of post Soviet ‘freemarket’. Here they occupy the opening room: photos printed monumentally large – strong, monuments to brutality and mutilation (some guys have various bits missing as well). Another exhibit has cardboard prisoners hanging themselves in cells, another has a series of people sitting poised to jump on window ledges. Going upstairs there are dismembered hearts and a  huge but gruesomely powerful piece of reportage depicting some of the very lowest human specimens I have ever seen flaunting truly awful looking medical conditions and Vodka ravaged faces. I am not sure that this is angst, which is a European phenomenon, rather than a Russian one. It is more a kind of resignation to pain and indignity;  there are no screams. This, I think, is uniquely Russian. There should be a Russian word for it to add to the art lexicon…the French gave us Ennui, the Scandanavians gave us Angst perhaps the Russians could give us Otchayanie

There are less obviously disturbing works on show. Dasha Shishkin’s work immediately reminded me of a film called Hotel E by Estonian animator Priit Parn which depicts life on both sides of the Iron Curtain (as it was) with stark contrasts. The languorous life of leisure undercut by deprivation and exclusion that persistently intrudes itself. In the Shishkin paintings here the bright ‘gaiety’ seems belied by the deformity of the figures.

PriitParn - Hotel E

PriitParn – Hotel E

Dasha Shishkin - survival takes a good memory.

Dasha Shishkin – survival takes a good memory.










The large scale architectural paintings by Valery Koshlyakov showed no explicit Otchayanie and I rather liked them. The use of discarded cardboard was the only distopian element, which I imagine will make them a conservation nightmare.

Are giant photos of genital warts and botched operations gracing the dining room walls of the oligarchs? Unlikely, surely – this is not for domestic consumption. I think this is a sort of art that is made for institutional export, and it is an art that reconfirms the prejudices of the viewer in Western countries. A sort of inverse of the British Council’s efforts. I had exactly the same feeling when Saatchi showed art from Islamic countries a year or two ago, where there were lots of hooded figures and similar negative tropes of Islamic life. I’m in no position really to know whether that reflects an accurate view of life in these countries or not, and art is not journalism. It does not have to even pretend to be unbiased or accurate. And the Saatchi is after all just a personal collection, albeit influential.

The divergence of the domestic market and the international market is leading to work that is very limited…these institutional works utimately have as little to offer as the glitzy kitsch that I imagine an oligarch would prefer. As with so many imposing galleries there is also the perennial chicken and egg question about whether the work came before the gallery or was created to fill it. Would this work exist without  these huge spaces, or would it exist in this form? Some photographs here are printed very large and are listed as from a series ‘size variable’. That to me suggests that this art is like wallpaper. Just with more scars and warts.


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