Boris Mikhailov, from the series Case History (1997-1998) and Koshlyakov, Grand Opera, Paris. ©Saatchi Gallery.
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. Taking its title from a speech delivered by Joseph Stalin in 1935, the exhibition showcases young and emerging Russian artists who, having witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union and the perestroika years, attempt to convey through their art the complexities of life in Russia.
Throughout this exhibition a variety of different media are used, from photography and painting to sculpture and installations, all offering a powerful portrayal of Russian society.
The first gallery sets the tone for the exhibition, with a series of portraits by Sergei Vasiliev of Soviet prisoners covered in illegal tattoos. He was at first forbidden from continuing his project before the KGB realised that the series could be a good resource for their criminal files.
Janis Avotins’ haunting paintings are evocative of Soviet-era photography, with faceless figures barely discernable on dark gloomy backgrounds, giving a feeling of overwhelming nothingness.
Vikenti Nilin’s series Neighbours is just as austere, with photographs of individuals staring into the abyss, vertiginously looking like they are about to apathetically jump from the windows of their grim Soviet building blocks.
The exhibition perhaps reaches its desolation peak with Boris Mikhailov’s series of portraits Case History (1997-1998), featuring disturbing photographs of desperate characters, drunk, drugged, newly homeless, handicapped, and too often naked, who have fallen through the cracks of this new society, giving a sense of overall unpleasantness and misery.
Gosh Ostretsov’s Criminal Government installation features realistic figures locked in gloomy prison cells, in bloodied business suits, tortured and dehumanized, with spooky abstract faces staring straight at the viewer.
Although much of the art on show is quite dark, some of it is seemingly very bright and colourful, but stays nonetheless entrenched in a strong political frame. For instance, Sergey Pakhomov’s paintings are vibrant but reminiscent of political posters and picket signs, with scenes suggesting violence, burning, and chaos. Dasha Shishkin’s coulourful and somewhat psychedelic drawings border on the grotesque, depicting life’s superficiality through blank-faced characters in vertiginously patterned interiors.
The exhibition as an all gives the viewer a bleak portrait of Russia and its political history, through a carefully curated selection of disturbing photographs and satirical paintings and installations. In these portraits of people on the fringe of society, the outcasts, criminals, drug addicts and despised bureaucrats, there is no gaiety to be found. It is a very enlightening and interesting exhibition, an eye-opener to the enduring issues of the former Soviet Union and to the genius of its contemporary artists.