Washing away the past, transforming the present

Julie Solovyena on “Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia”, the Saatchi Gallery, London, until 9 June


Valery Koshlyakov, Grand Opera, Paris (1995). Tempera on cardboard. © Valery Koshlyakov. Image courtesy Saatchi Gallery

“Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia” brings together works by artists who are Russian, or of Soviet origin, more often than not now working outside of the country, notably Yelena Popova, Daniel Bragin and Dasha Fursey. There are also those, such as Jānis Avotiņš, who belong to the so-called “networked” Russia from former Soviet satellites.

Contemporary Russian art is paradoxical, as it is made by artists whose national identity is often shaped and reflected by their physical distance from the homeland that often seems all too eager to reject them. The creative field is an arena for self-reflexive reconciliation of the Soviet past and the current socio-political system, which retains much of the old patina of bureaucracy and distrust.

Valery Koshlyakov's canvases present a resolute comment on the ideological and visual inconsistencies that crop up in everyday life. His work consists of several pensive paintings of monumental architectural structures and landmarks, both popular and historical. Painted on found cardboard, images of Opéra Bastille, the cathedral of Nôtre-Dame or the Pentagon appear to rise from the rubble of civilisations. The dripping paint and the subtle and subdued tones almost suggesting a washing away, an act of memory-cleansing. Koshlyakov points to a quiet awareness of the fragility of manmade dreams, edifices of power and the fading of grand narratives.

Dasha Fursey preserves tradition in an uncanny and satirical way by stacking bottles of pickled vegetables, fruits and mushrooms into a totemic structure with Boundary Post of a Cat Bajun, 2012. It is unmonumental, being positioned in the walkway between two larger galleries on the ground level, but it occupies the gallery with its unobtrusive aura, guarding it, and transforming itself from within (as pickling and staid ideologies often do).

Yelena Popova’s work is reflects a constructivist past soaked in the Marxist histories, but with a blend of Buddhism. Speaking about the idea of centering Russian art in a global context, Popova notes: “I believe in local. It’s important for me to be rooted in the place and time we live in, to talk through work with the people I know and to maintain that dialogue. My video work usually has a precise geographic location too.” She is currently based in Nottingham, but has produced work in which she examines her native landscape of the Ural mountains and the state of painting in the culture of production and consumption.

In the end, the most outstanding feature of this exhibition is that it draws attention to the constant desire to re-invent, to innovate and transform the present, whether locally or worldwide.

Julie Solovyeva is a graduate student at the Courtauld Institute of Art studying conceptual art, especially performance and movement-based practices, new media and collaborative productions.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 04:20:00 GMT

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