Last updated: November 24, 2012 12:28 am

Post-Soviet survivors

Images that get to the heart of life in the former USSR
One of Boris Mikhailov’s ‘Case History’ photography series©Saatchi Gallery

One of Boris Mikhailov’s ‘Case History’ series (1997-98)

In a bumper London winter season of photography shows, the Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union stands out as the most arresting, surprising, disturbing and original.

That it sets out to be something else – a multimedia survey of the current art of a nation – is a minor inconvenience. A few paintings here are worth a glance, but most of the installations, sculptures and canvases represent Charles Saatchi’s usual trawl through global tat.

Not so the photography: three series by leading artists explored in depth and beautifully hung in the spare, bright, elegant Duke of York’s building, make an uneven show amply worth a visit.

Boris Mikhailov, born 1938 in the industrial city of Kharkov, Ukraine, evaded KGB censure – although he was twice arrested and interrogated – during a four-decade career as a Soviet factory photographer. In the 1990s he returned to his home town to discover an underclass of young and old, alcoholic or ill, feckless or just unlucky citizens made homeless by the post-Soviet regime.

His 413 close-up portraits, over a hundred of them exhibited across the first-floor galleries here at various sizes, from monumental to intimate, comprise his colour series Case History (1997-98), in which the newly marginalised play their parts to camera with a defiant, extrovert vitality. Flabby elderly women pull off underwear to reveal scarred buttocks or nipples, bruised nudes strangle/embrace one another, shoppers trudge through mud-tracks where dogs scavenge rubbish heaps, a one-toothed geriatric grins, an exuberant boy pisses at the camera. The effect is grotesque, mesmerising and repulsive.

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Case History, shown at MoMA last year, is also controversial because this theatre of cruelty is exactly that – Mikhailov paid and fed his street-cast to act out scenarios that appear spontaneous, but are so staged that many resemble scenes from Christian iconography. A pale, collapsed youth – drunk? Dead? – in a Pietà-pose is lifted from the ground. An elderly man in a snow-sprinkled coat stands alone, hands splayed out as if on the cross, on a patch of snow before the dark city, with a golden-domed cathedral piercing a pale grey-white scene.

Mikhailov has the painterly sensibility for tableaux of Jeff Wall, the insistent familiarity with lust and vulnerability of Nan Goldin, the documentary flair of Walker Evans, and a sensibility caught between comedy and outrage that gives his images both ferocity and ambivalence.

For anyone who has travelled through provincial towns in the former Soviet Union, Mikhailov’s bleak but carnivalesque chronicle of every­day survival rings true. But its power comes from more than truth: it is infused – as the work of no western photographer today is – with an unquestioning assumption that the personal is political.

‘Grand Opera, Paris’ (1995) by Valery Koshlyakov©Saatchi Gallery

‘Grand Opera, Paris’ (1995) by Valery Koshlyakov

“Devastation had stopped,” he wrote on returning to Kharkov. “The city had acquired an almost modern European centre. Much had been restored. Life became more beautiful and active outwardly (with a lot of foreign advertisements) – simply a shiny wrapper. But I was shocked by the large number of homeless (before they had not been there). The rich and the homeless – the new classes of a new society – this was, as we had been taught, one of the features of capitalism.”

Sergei Vasiliev, born in 1937 in Chelyabinsk, worked as a staff photographer for a local newspaper for 30 years and was also a prison warden. When a fellow worker began drawing the extensive range of designs that prisoners scraped and inked into their skin with blood or urine, the KGB realised that although this homemade tattooing was illegal, here was a resource for their criminal files. Vasiliev was co-opted to photograph the designs, and later produced a black-and-white series Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, resonant for the humanity, individuality, dignity and pathos with which he approached the face and body of each prisoner.

At one point in Soviet history, a fifth of the population was jailed, so the result is an important piece of social history documentation. We see recurring tattoos: coded messages against the regime, subversive portraits of rulers and those revealing prisoners’ crimes (a skull means “top criminality”, a cat is a thief). There are also personal choices, from nudes and dollar bills to Raphael’s Sistine madonna: a superb series celebrating a sort of body art of resistance in the gulag, tough, inevitable, with none of the self-pity of most western body art.

Moscow-born Vikenti Nilin was 20 at the break-up of the USSR, and his balance of sensation, lyricism and an indebtedness to the Russian avant-garde typifies the most thoughtful work of his generation, caught between past and uncertain future. Each image in his Neighbours Series, begun in 1993, depicts a solitary individual precariously balanced on a window ledge or balcony railing, staring down several storeys, sometimes into the abyss of an urban wasteland.

‘Icicle’ (2012) by Liudmila Konstantinova©Saatchi Gallery

‘Icicle’ (2012) by Liudmila Konstantinova

Displayed at dramatic scale, these black-and-white photographs formally recall Rodchenko’s vertiginous high-to-low 1920s compositions featuring cropped modernist buildings. But Nilin’s, by contrast, deliberately lack either tension or optimism: his figures are phlegmatic, unimpressed, almost bored, impervious to fear of falling – suggesting a state of passivity, suspension and unbridgeable transitions in Russian society.

Architecture is also the motif of the best painter here, Valery Koshlyakov. His tempera on cardboard representations of monumental projects such as the high-rise “Raushskaya Embankment” and “Grand Opera, Paris” are built up from a myriad of unfinished details, washes and packed brushstrokes layered on fragments of cardboard flimsily joined together, so that the solid structures look about to shatter. It is a poetic, end-of-empire, failed-utopia conceit, evocative at once of ancient ruins and Stalin-era murals and myth-making.

The specious words of Saatchi’s exhibition title are Stalin’s: chilling during his reign, they echo differently here. Saatchi’s installations – Irina Korina’s two-metre plinth topped with coloured refuse bags “Capital”; Dasha Fursey’s starvation-tower of pickled mushrooms and berries “Boundary Post of a Cat Bajun”; Liudmila Konstantinova’s acrylic/gold leaf plywood faux-icon “Icicle” – do have a dim, post-political gaiety, while obviously mocking the language of Soviet idealism. So do the weak, derivative paintings of Yelena Popova (“Overblown Hero”) and Anna Parkina.

These forgettable efforts flesh out the chief story in any Russian survey – that, from 19th-century realist Repin to abstract painter Malevich to Moscow conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, the unchanging subject of Russian art is Russia. That is magnificently demonstrated in the photographs that are the heart and soul of this show.

‘Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union, Art from Russia’, Saatchi Gallery, London, until May 5

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