New Russian art: Accusing misery, celebrating resilience
Mike Belbin reviews the art exhibition 'Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union: new art from Russia' at Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 ; admission free, ends May 5 2013
Sergi Vasillev (photographer) criminal tatoos
first glance, this new art from the Russian Federation could be taken
as presenting ‘Russia as ruin’ - a society of the homeless, the
depressed, the tortured; one either recovering painfully from the
Soviet period or very far gone in a post-Putin wasteland; a vision in
painting, photography and sculpture inviting either pity or despair.
obvious contrast is with socialist realism, the official art of the
USSR. This art was called ‘socialist’, but it was more Heroic and
Optimistic than Marxist: the portrayal (in image and print) of a
people - soldiers, builders, leaders - overcoming difficult
conditions or coming out the other side into a full utopian morning.
art of Stalinism
Boris Groys commented: “The slogan of the age was ‘Nothing is
impossible for a Bolshevik.’ Any reference to facts, technical
realities or objective limits was treated as ‘cowardice’ and
‘unbelief’ unworthy of a true Stalinist. It was thought that
will-power alone could overcome anything that the bureaucratic,
formalistic eye perceived as an insurmountable obstacle.”1
Paul Flewers recently observed, following the failure of an
international revolution, the Soviet republics retrenched into “a
profound process of indigenous modernisation”, the new elite
committing themselves to “a programme of intense national economic
and social development, in a country in which a state apparatus under
a forceful leadership takes the place of a non-existent or failed
No wonder their state-sponsored art was required to be optimistic.
art, of course, was not the preserve of the USSR. Models can be found
in the work of the renaissance, romantic and high Victorian periods.
In fact it was part of the socialist realist aesthetic to re-use
rather than reject the past, unlike their rivals in the avant-garde
and Proletkult. For example, compare Millais’s 1882 portrait of
Disraeli. It shows a British parliamentary politician standing, arms
folded, as if ready to reply to an opponent in the house. He may not
be about to lead a charge or fix a tractor, but neither is he
represented sitting down at home privately posing for the artist
(like Churchill in Graham Sutherland’s portrait).
this in mind (or even without it), the colour photos of Boris
Mikhailov’s Case history at the Saatchi could strike you as
far from optimistic. In a series of large blow-ups, they depict
citizens, bruised, half-naked and in the snow, ragged and tattooed.
Whether young or old, they are hardly tourist posters. These are in
fact a few prints from his project photographing the Moscow homeless,
500 pictures in all, representing his critique of the ‘mask of
beauty’ in the new capitalist republic. The temptation here, if not
to pass on quickly, would be to conclude that these are simply
pathetic wrecks of post-Sovietism. But take another look and there is
something about the subjects which is jaunty, not fallen or passive.
pose consciously and upright, show off their bodies defiantly, hug
each other affectionately. You certainly would not describe them as
merry or pretty - no airbrushed fashion layout here - but just
because someone is down it does not mean they are out. A friend of
mine suggested a parallel with the work of 60s New York photographer
Diane Arbus. Except that these subjects, more damaged though they be,
are not on the margin of the norm (like Arbus’s strippers, dwarves,
nudists): they are at the ‘bottom’ of it, resembling a version of
all citizens, of ourselves, gone out into the cold.
figures in the photos of Vikenti Nilin’s Neighbours series
would be closer to an implication of despair. The pictures show
different kinds of people - some could be artists, some porters - but
all in the same position: poised on window ledges and balconies in a
tenement, legs dangling over a high drop. They wait, on the edge, as
if to decide what to do next in the face of the void. They may
provoke anyone to ask whether these images could be the result of
Photoshop, so precariously balanced are some of the sitters, or in
what impossible space the photographer could have been standing.
Korina has another concern. Her Capital (2012) is a two-metre
sheet-metal column, topped by a small canopy of plastic bags - bags
which may have once been used for shopping, but are now sagging with
rubbish. ‘Capital’ here, of course, being a play on words - in
particular, the term from classical architecture meaning the style of
the top or joint of a column which defines the specific ‘order’
involved: Ionic, Doric, Corinthian. This then can be read as both a
reference to the classical style favoured everywhere by
empire-builders, whether Napoleon, Stalin or the White House, and as
a proposal as to the style of today, the new ‘order’ of shopping
reference to the state comes in Gosha Ostretsov’s
sculpture/construction, Criminal government, a
life-size box of separate cells, through the open doors of which we
glimpse man-like creatures with ‘Martian-alien’ or carnival
heads, blood streaking their shirts and ties and with limbs missing.
Some have suggested these figures might be KGB men getting their
come-uppance, but they could equally be a fantasy about Putin
ministers or oligarchs. The figures are like outer-space emissaries
who have been discovered, arrested and tortured. Choose your analogy.
from recent works, visitors may take the lift to the galleries on the
top floor. Here is a retrospective exhibition of the in-between
period of modern Russian art. In Breaking the ice: Moscow
art 1960s-80s (ends February 24 2013), we first have the
post-Khrushchev thaw, the work of those relaxing into imitations of
cubism, surrealism and metaphysical art. Windows and doors to
nowhere, homely stairs up into a corner, shimmering op art - a
practising of modernist gestures by the formerly cut off.
these in the second gallery is the more impactful work of the 1980s
and Russia’s contribution to postmodernism: namely, sots art. ‘Sots
art’ being the Russian abbreviation for ‘socialist art’ -
termed ironically, and in the west dubbed ‘Soviet pop art’. Its
most famous practitioners, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, had
once been official painters who designed for such organisations as
the Soviet Young Pioneers. From 1972, they began to play around with
the style of this iconography, substituting their own friends and
relatives for party heroes and teasing the likenesses of well-known
leaders. Later they came up with darkly varnished productions of
their own, like the one of Stalin alongside Spielberg’s ET, shown
on the cover of Groys’ book. At the Saatchi we have their portraits
of politburo members, a solitary seated bear and the image of a
resplendently unfurling red flag, which nevertheless has lost any
evident hammer and sickle.
another part of the same gallery, there are pastiche constructions of
western advertising signs, such as for Marlboro and McDonald’s. In
the latter work though, Alexander Kosolapov places under the golden
arches a familiar iconic head from Bolshevik history, adding the
legend McLenin’s. This need not be read as just cynicism,
but simply a satire on the manager-bureaucracies’ favourite brand.
The party may in fact have believed sincerely that they were the
inheritors of that writer and activist and simply saw his cult as
necessary to inspire national pride and modernisation. They were not
the only ones to believe in socialism as statism and statism as the
remedy. Elsewhere it was called the new deal or the third Reich or
the welfare state - with the difference that in those the point, of
course, was to assist private property and the law of value rather
than starting from their abolition.
again, surplus value is back with a vengeance. In Dasha Shishkin’s
Not sad, just sighing (2012) we find something very like
members of the luxury classes: pastel, Matisse-like panoramas, skinny
female figures, naked or in Dior dresses, their noses like tentacles,
their heads bald as skulls. They crowd a hotel restaurant or shopping
mall. Outside the open doors is a landscape of bare earth, rock and a
stub of shrubbery - half desert, half unplanted garden. If these are
the Russian elite, they could belong to any country (or planet).
Valery Koshlyakov’s super-large paintings on cardboard of stadia
and opera houses (some in Paris, some in Moscow) - images not bright
and whole, but pieced together, like jigsaws of streaking paint on
sections of old boxes. The paintings seem to be made from a vagrant’s
point of view, the cardboard suggesting refuse and sleeping quarters
under flyovers. Their form is rough, but confident, intimidated by
neither the grand past of the personality cult nor the grandiose
present of superstar celebrity. It is said that if the artist has no
storage room for one of his works he simply destroys it.
usual the white walls of the Saatchi are hardly broken by any
explaining text. Profiles of the artists though have a separate wall
space. Of course, in other art galleries there is now a profusion of
explanatory material on the walls. This can be stifling. At Tate
Britain a panel next to Francis Bacon’s Triptych of three
figures at the base of a crucifixion declared that all the figures
are “screaming” - a debatable generalisation from one open mouth
and Bacon’s other picture of a screaming pope. But material
supplying context can complement works rather than overpower them, as
in recent London shows on Degas and photography or Gauguin and
traditional societies, offering not what to think, but some
things to think about.
text-supported or blank-walled, art galleries need not embalm art as
something separate from the world. Exhibitions too can be
contributions, like the art itself, whether critical or utopian,
connecting us to a world in process. There is no going back, but no
stopping either. Marx’s Capital makes the desires of the
proletariat (for sustenance and satisfaction) not just the fuel of
capitalism, but the spark for revolution. The demands created by
capitalist progress are the basis for greater progress beyond
capitalism. As Mikhailov’s photos accuse misery, they also
celebrate resilience. Other works here mock and satirise, but they
presume a confidence in opposition.
is no overcoming yet; no transcendence, no positive utopia. But there
is a pushing back.
B Groys The total art of Stalinism London 2011, p60.
‘Sticking with old dogmas that have failed time and again’ Weekly
Worker November 29.