Isn’t it ironic? Gaiety is, of course, not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Soviet Union. More like grey concrete, grim women in headscarves and cabbage soup. This exhibition, despite its flamboyant title, does nothing to disprove the stereotype. Decades of creative repression are not easy to bounce back from.
A special shout out to Gosha Ostrestov, the most contemporary sensibility on show; his work -inevitably?- references troubled urbanisation and the nightmare bureaucracy that is truly the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union. He creates disturbing, life-sized tableaux of masked, and therefore interchangeable, officials punished at last (see photo).
Also of note are Janis Avotins’ massive canvases in dark or washed out hues, framing tiny phantom figures who are dwarfed by the weight of Soviet history, suggested by the textured paint around them. These ghosts evoke a collective past; a woman in a shawl, the disembodied heads of politicians, the hand of an official hanging from the sleeve of a black suit.
Striking, if not pretty, are Dasha Shishkin’s portraits of a society corrupted, sketched like oversized comics onto sheets of paper. Elegantly-clad women grow long noses and suck food from a dismembered torso in Survival Takes a Good Memory (2012). What Does It Matter To Her Ever Creating Womb If Today Matter Is Flesh And Tomorrow Worms (2012) – try saying that three times fast – offers a Bosch-like vision of orgiastic players, with the same Pinocchio noses plus piggish tails, running wild.
There are two photographers exhibited, the famous Boris Mikhailov and the lesser-known Sergei Vasiliev, who wasn’t an artist but a prison guard who took pictures of prison tattoos. The intricately tattooed torso’s of the prisoners are intriguing, but the photos themselves are not art.
Like Michailov’s, they are a social document, and photography as social document is the most common and dated (circa 1950) form of Eastern Bloc expression. I recently saw about 300 like this at a DDR retrospective in Berlin.
However, Michailov’s work is outstanding; his hyper-real, grotesque yet defiant portraits of people left destitute by the collapse of the Soviet system between 1997 and 1998, are still shocking fifteen years on.
From what is, as usual at The Saatchi, a huge collection of works, there is little else of note. Humour is all but nonexistent (although I did like Lenin as Coco-Cola fan – see below) The tone is of aged disappointment; very much the legacy of the Soviet experiment.
Gaiety Is The Most Outstanding Feature Of The Soviet Union is at The Saatchi Gallery until 5 May 2012
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