The Saatchi Gallery reopened last month with its new exhibitions focusing on Russian art, Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s and Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: New Art from Russia.
Breaking the Ice focuses on the tradition of nonconformist art coming from Moscow following the death of Stalin. The results are a rejection of Social Realism (literally in the case of Ilya Kabakov‘s installation The Artist’s Despair, the aftermath of the artist taking an axe to his own Social Realist paintings), an exploration of new styles and a reinterpretation of foreign concepts. Oleg Tselkov‘s colourful and introspective Retromodernist paintings stand out, as do Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s Sots Art pieces, which fuse Social Realism and Pop Art to critique propaganda and accepted political ideology.
Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union (the title comes from a quotation by Stalin) looks at contemporary art emerging from Russia. The collection is exceptional, with fragility and instability as general themes that run through many of the works. Vikenti Nilin’s photo series Neighbours features individuals sitting precariously on the window ledges of Soviet high rise buildings, looking down at a deadly drop. The expert composition channels the viewers gaze down to ground level almost to the point of vertigo, yet the characters sit calmly at the edge of the abyss, apparently comfortable with their precarious position. It is as if they are patiently waiting to leave the emblematic tower block, but the alternative is an equally banal unknown. Gosha Ostretsov‘s alarming installation Criminal Government consists of a row of mock jail cells containing mutilated figures in business suits and menacing sci-fi style masks. The inmates are simultaneously sympathetic and terrifying, and the piece blends realism and cartoon imagery to imply an external world of political torture and violence. Boris Mikhailov’s photo series Case History provides the most alarming images of the exhibition, showing the harrowing physical and social conditions of Ukrainians left destitute or homeless after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The photos were composed by the artist using real people and evoke the extreme, hopeless and grotesque consequences of chaotic political change.
These two exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery are an excellent introduction to new Russian art and the contemporary show is especially worth a visit. Breaking the Ice runs until 24 February and Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union is open until 5 May.