21. NOVEMBER 2012 – 9. JUNE 2013
„Gaiety“ is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia is the first exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery. This large survey show features 18 artists working in diverse ways across the mediums of painting, photography, sculpture and installation.
Most of the artists in the exhibition, which takes its title from a speech delivered by Joseph Stalin in 1935, are young and emerging, and have rarely shown their work internationally; the exhibition will also present Boris Mikhailov’s highly acclaimed photographic project, Case History, which documents his hometown of Kharkov following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Witnesses to the break-up of the Soviet Union and the perestroika years, the artists in this exhibition have absorbed the complexities of life in Russia and created a wide variety of works in response. Some of them play on Russia’s long and rich tradition of jokes and a distinctive sense of humour which also find its way into political satire. Others draw on the influential wave of modernist art in Russia, particularly Malevich and Rodchenko, as well as important contemporary Russian artists such as Ilya Kabakov.
As Dimitri Ozerkov, director of the Contemporary Art Department of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, says about the artists in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue: “Their art is multifocal and transcendent, poetic and hypocritical, politicized and romantic. It is probably the most global art in the world but still very much related to its origins.”
The works in this exhibition will play a key role in shaping our understanding of recent Russian history as well as contemporary Russian art.
Artist: Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo
Sergei Vasiliev worked as staff photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk for thirty years, during which time he was also a prison warden. From 1948, a fellow worker, Danzig Baldaev, had begun cataloguing the extensive range of designs made by prisoners onto their skin. These homemade tattoos, scraped and inked into skin with melted book heels, urine or blood, contained a range of coded messages against the Soviet regime and about the prisoner’s crimes.
Although this kind of tattooing was illegal, the KGB realised what a resource Baldaev’s project could be for their criminal files and eventually brought in Vasiliev to supply a hard evidence of the designs’ authenticity. Thanks to their combined efforts, the secret police, and now the public, know more about the iconography of this underground artistic phenomenon. Far from being isolated illustrations from a catalogue in a tattoo parlour, Vasiliev’s photographs, taken between 1989 and 1993, are a humanizing record that places the faces and bodies of the owners (at one point one in five of the Soviet population) right at the centre of the project.
Artist: Vikenti Nilin, From the Neighbours Series, 1993 – present
The stars of Vikent Nilin’s “Neighbours’ series may come from all walks of life but they have one thing in common: they are staring into the abyss, in the form of the commonplace Soviet tower block. Yet they don’t seem in the least bit worried. The expressions on his subjects’s faces, as they perch on the edge of windowsills and balconies, are phlegmatic, unimpressed, relaxed and almost bored. Nilin’s images suggest a state of passivity and suspension, perhaps alluding to the state of politics in his home country.
Artist: Boris Mikhailov, Case History 1997 – 1998
Boris Mikhailov, probably the most influential photographer working in Russia today, has spent decades documenting the social condition off individuals living in the Soviet Union and the aftermath of its collapse. Case History comprises 413 photographs of people in his hometown of Kharkov, in the Ukraine, taken between 1997 – 98, ten years after the dismantlement of the Soviet system. 15 years on, it is still a startling chronicle of the extremes of life on the streets for suddenly destitute members of society – the abandoned working class, young and old, chronically poor and newly homeless individuals who fell through the cracks of a system now without a net, failed by the promises of Perestroika and capitalism.
A carnival of desperate characters, whether under the influence, lost or larking about, his Goya-like players put a face to the anonymous despair of a public ideology gone bankrupt. It is one of the most frank documents of the human condition in times of desperation.
More installations at Saatchi’s
Valery Koshlyakov, Grand Opera, Paris, 1995
Dasha Shishkin, What Does It Matter To Her Ever Creating Womb If Today Matter Is Flesh And Tomorrow Worms, 2012
Large Images (5): Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
Other Images: sl4artglobal