Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union
Orthodox churches are scrawled into their body, as are swastikas, yet the monochrome portraits or Russian prisoners look serene. “Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the soviet union,” Stalin once said; and as the collection's title it is laced with as much irony.
There is little beauty in London's Saatchi Gallery now and any amusement here is confined to a few photos of a bloodied, drunken man being carried through the streets, re-emerging every so often as you make your way through along the row of photos, always just a little further down the road. It is a deeply dark and soul eating collection, bringing together work from across Russia and Eastern Europe, where the decay and degradation from 1989 is mixed in with what remains today.
Sergei Vasiliev's encyclopedia of Russian prisoner tattoos brings together a network of codes that the inmates use to chart their allegiances and crimes into their skin. Deeply ingrained in modern day prison culture, skulls signify high criminality, whilst the swastika, ironically, is a call to anti-fascism. Walking along the clean white walls of the Saatchi, one is drawn as much to the dull black gaze in the prisoners' eyes. Three years on from their photo shoot, the work effectively conveys a brief moment away from a lifetime of wild tribalism in Russia's jails.
These subjects are, like much of the collection's photos, decontexualised from the harsh world they are meant to portray; the cracks of which barely seep into the frame. Boris Mikhailov, born in 1938 in Kharkiv, “documents the social oppression, the devastating poverty, the harshness and helplessness of everyday life for the homeless”, the guide says, across a set of 413 photographs taken in Ukraine between 1997 to 1998. His “case history”, however, demonstrates more the artist's preoccupation with nudity, venereal diseases and hazes induced by cheap vodka. He alludes, without explanation, to the holocaust, “displaying naked people with their things in hands like people going to gas chambers”.
Instead of charting social disintegration in the post-Soviet period, the artist seems content to present overly choreographed representations of things which lie well-established in the public memory of post-Soviet Ukraine. The drunk on the floor, the framing of dirt as grave, the manic eyes of a subject plied with alcohol before the shoot. The “bomzh” – the homeless without any social support – are plucked from the streets and pose at command, and the work loses something. It remains until the 413th photo for a print of the backdrop, a snowy, chaotic degradation afflicting mid-90s Ukraine to emerge. Allusions to it are there throughout, but they shrink into the backdrop in the face of the posing nudes.
In Gosha Ostretsov's work, one gets a much deeper sense of the anger artists are levelling against the dark forces that control Russian society today. Packaged up in a futuristic homage to American comic books, the artist's “Criminal Government” portrays a harrowing set of imprisoned officials swinging by nooses or, dismembered, surrounded by the tools of torture. American pop art was never assimilated into Russian culture in the same way that it was rooted in the West and the artist's dystopian world is uniquely barbaric, without the gleam of any American dream. The reviled institutions of today are brutally caged, they neither illicit sympathy nor scorn, as they might have in a traditional comic book. Instead one is left with a lingering unease at the dualism drawn out between modern Russia and this fantasy world. The names and targets may change, but the weapons of oppression and where they lead to, remain the same.
That left one room with the beauty of region portrayed. Valery Koshlyakov’s large-scale cardboard paintings, collages and installations of renowned architectural works fall firmly into the category of a traditional form on innovative material. The pastel coloured paint seems to glimmer, as if wet, against the patchwork canvas of squashed down cardboard boxes displayed one per wall. His image of the high-rise on Raushskaya Embankment, painted with tempera on cardboard in 2006, stands out as a truly majestic piece, producing something as regal as the original building, yet through humble means. In contrast to the other works, the artist seems to reclaim a grandiosity more akin to pre-Soviet Russia than the present day. The layers of card give the building a tower of babel like shape, reaching further and further to the sky, away from the reality of life inside these high rise buildings. Hardly gaiety, but it stands out of the collection as a unique and stunning piece.
The Saatchi exhibition is remarkable for having sucked the gaiety out of art. Walking through the collection of 20 Russian artists was cathartic, making a rainy Sunday in London seem like a haven. The exhibitions grab you, drains the life out of you, and at its peak of “gaiety”, provides only a brief respite before thrusting you back into the chaotic world of Russian art and life.
The exhibition Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union runs until June 9th 2013. Click here for more information.
This text is published as part of an ongoing cross-publication partnership with Europe & Me magazine.
Mathew Shearman is a London-based politics editor of the transnational life magazine Europe & Me. For more, follow him at @shearmanm