How times have changed! In the 1980s, during the closing decade of the Soviet Union, Russian dissident artists, emerging on to the world stage under the increasingly benevolent gaze of Mr Gorbachev, were all the rage in the art worlds of the liberal West.
Basically, Art Riot remains in love with the idea of dissident art
There are some major survivors from that epoch, among them Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern. Most of them now live outside Russia, following a tradition of prudent expatriation followed by many major Russian creators – writers as well as artists – which reaches back into the 19th century. Russia has often seemed better at producing artistically creative people than in keeping them at home.
At the moment, however, there is major confusion among professional commentators concerning what is happening in Russian art. There are pundits aplenty, but most of them seem to have lost the plot. Some of these pundits live in Russia but seem to be in a state of constant riv
alry with one another. Others, more influential, are Russians, usually fairly senior, who now live in the West, having got out when opportunity offered after the Soviet Union crumbled into the dust. Others still, also senior, are leading non-Russian but Russian-speaking academics from various Western European countries. They too, like their expatriated Russian colleagues, tend to have a cast of mind that was essentially formed in Soviet times.
A non-Russian-speaker like myself gets additional fragmentary but fascinating glimpses of what is taking place in the Russian art world, a quarter of a century after official Communism fell, from various sites on the web, with computer translation as a useful but not always wholly reliable aid. What emerges from this is a feeling of vast confusion. Russian culture is no longer as centralised as it once was, Moscow and St Petersburg no longer call all the shots. There is activity in other major cities, such a Kazan, now the home of a very vigorous graffiti art movement.
Fascinatingly, in Kazan activism splits in two. Some of the graffiti work is international, with artists from outside Russia coming in to participate. Some, by contrast, is produced by a locally vocal, and locally influential group of alt-right footfall fans. These alt-right fans are also very visible in other Russian provincial cities.
There is now a flourishing Russian religious art. Images of this kind never quite went away under communism, and flowers again now that Marxist materialism is defeated. Putin has begun to ally himself with the Orthodox Church.
There is art that looks back to the patriotism of the Second World War, which continues to excite Russian imaginations to a much greater degree than the same conflict does in the West. Art too that regards the now semi-derelict constructions made for the Russian space programme with a degree of nostalgia. And, in contrast to these tendencies, there is now a kind of Post-Soviet Pop. These categories don’t exhaust the list of current initiatives in the Russian visual arts.
Currently, the Saatchi Gallery here in London offers a show called Art Riot that offers some interesting sidelights about what may or may not be happening in Russian art, without in any sense offering a full survey. Curated by Marat Guelman, the former director of PERMM contemporary art museum in Perm, and co-founder of the Foundation for Effective Politics, Guelman has been one of the most prominent figures in the Russian post-Soviet art world. He now lives in Montenegro, where there is a growing Russian colony. He has been particularly associated with the search for new artists working in till-then unexplored regional situations in Russia. Among his discoveries was the Novosibirsk Blue Noses Group, represented in the show now at the Saatchi Gallery. Though Novosibirsk is the third most populous city in Russia, after Moscow at St Petersburg, it is situated in Siberia – in Western terms, about as far off the beaten track as you can get.
A set of images entitled The Mask Show made this year by the Blue Noses, and now on display at Saatchi, demonstrates that while we may, here in Britain, be unaware of the group, they are certainly not unaware of us. These images show international political figures in the guise of semi-nude children cavorting together. In one prophetic composition, you recognise Boris Johnson and Theresa May raucously at play with Angela Merkel.
Basically, Art Riot remains in love with the idea of dissident art, as this was promulgated in late Soviet times, but tries to carry things further. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the Pussy Riot performance group have a particularly prominent role in it, and one whole gallery at Saatchi is a Pussy Riot performance space, where you can participate yourself if you pluck up the courage. Hooded and stuffed into an ill-fitting boiler suit you are herded through a set of ritual humiliations by a shouting posse of female guards. This ordeal clearly proved too much for the dignity of one reviewer for a major British newspaper. He accorded it a one-star review.
Other sections of the exhibition feature Oleg Kulik, whose performances in the 1990s, in which he appeared almost naked, as a barely controllable man-dog.
Also present, at least in the form of a graphic catalogue photograph, is another notorious work by post-Soviet performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky. You are confronted by a close-up image of Pavlensky’s scrotum nailed to a slab of wood. The name of the piece? Fixation – what else? In another image, Pavlensky is wrapped in coils of barbed wire.
It comes as something of a relief to reach a more tranquil section of the show, the work of a group called AES+F, where various public monuments, among them a shrouded Statue of Liberty, are presented as centrepiece images in what look like Islamic wall hangings. Another vignette in the same series shows the Sydney Opera House. The series plays on Russian –and Western – fears about being swallowed up by Islam.
Art Riot certainly doesn’t represent everything that is happening in Russian art right now, and not all the artists included in the show are in fact Russian – Arsen Savadov, author of a striking set of pictures showing miners in the Donbass – some dressed up in ballet tutus – is, in fact, like the men he photographs, Ukrainian.
The show does, however, renew a certain spirit of extremism that has historically played a part in Russian culture. The ghost of Dostoevsky hovers somewhere just out of sight.
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