Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union

A review of the new show at the Saatchi gallery.

New Statesman
Gosha Ostretsov's 'Sex in the City', 2008, (detail), currently on show at the Saatchi gallery

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union, is essentially a survey of new art from Russia. This is a tried-and-tested Saatchi gallery formula; pick a country, choose its sexiest up-and-coming artists, and bingo – you have a guaranteed blockbuster. In recent years, they've hosted new art from China, from Germany, from Britain, now Russia.

The suspicious question, then, is – why do all these shows look almost exactly the same?

Although each new exhibition focuses on a different part of the world, the Saatchi brand can’t escape its eponymous owner’s aesthetic taste. Saatchi knows what he likes in art – the bold, the brash, and preferably the super-sized. His background in advertising is often cited as an explanation for his liking for instant-impact, in-your-face art work. As a result, whatever disparate corner of the globe he travels to, his trained eye picks out much the same styles.

This show, then, isn't really representative of Russia. Its representative of Charles Saatchi.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth seeing, however. Saatchi has demonstrably landed on a winning formula, and many will be pleased he hasn’t detracted from it here. Once again, his gallery is filled with attention-seeking abstract paintings and over-sized sculptures. As ever, its colourful to the point of being cartoonish; art with the volume turned up.

The show examines Russian life following the national crisis of identity and economics that was Perestroika. It’s a huge topic, albeit one which has been extensively covered in art over the past few decades, and it doesn't seem this exhibition has any searing new insights to add.

The highlight, undoubtedly, are the numerous excellent photographers, such as Sergei Vasiliev, who spent thirty years working simultaneously for a Russian newspaper and as a prison guard, during which time he catalogued the body art of the inmates. The results are fascinating; these homemade tattoos are grisly in nature (they were made by scraping and inking the skin with melted book heels, urine or blood) and mesmerising in their imagery (they contain extensive coded messages against the Soviet regime).

Similarly, Vikenti Nilin uses his camera lens to cast a fresh light on that long-standing Soviet cliché: the tower block. The identikit concrete housing estates have long been held as the iconic example of USSR mundacity. Nilin, however, invests new emotional resonance into this architectural trope with his photographs of strange figures perched nonchalantly on the window ledges of high-rise buildings, contemplating the ground below them like peculiarly passive would-be suicide acts. His subject’s terrifyingly blank faces are an unsettling image of suspension, both literally and metaphorically.

Boris Mikhailov’s renowned photo series Case Histories is also on show, documenting the life of down-and-out inhabitants in his home town. The figures are visibly affected by their economic circumstances; cold, injured, in various states of dress and undress. But no pathos is recorded here, Mikhailov merely uses his lens to record a frank, unadorned look at life which still manages to find an absurdist strand of humour in the most desperate of situations.

Even better than Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union, however, is the (unfortunately much smaller) companion exhibition upstairs, Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s.

Taking over the entire second floor of the Saatchi gallery is this overview of twenty years of Russian art during the pivotal period when government censorship was beginning to loosen, and a barrage of long-repressed artistic sensibility emerged.

These underground art movements emerged in a city which was growing in size and significance, whilst still trapped, artistically, behind the iron curtain – largely unable to influence or be influenced. What was the result?

Fascinating work, as it turns out. Particularly the art of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid – this artistic duo created a satirical movement called ‘Sots Art’, essentially an Eastern European version of Pop Art. Rather than having mass consumerism as its target, however, Sots Art takes mass propaganda. Komar and Melamid created a series of faux-adverts promoting ‘essential tools’ for modern Soviet living, which include face-cages to ‘protect the purity of your thoughts’, and dental jewellery to transform your speech into ‘a tongue of gold’. It’s satire at its most devastatingly effective: witty, sharp and full of black humour.

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union is on at the Saatchi Gallery from 21 November 2012 - 5 May 2013.