whitehot | June 2010, Glasnost @ Haunch of Venison
Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s
When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, it was virtually impossible to imagine that the reforms he was soon to implement would rapidly snowball, producing the momentous transformation that lead to ’89 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) and then ’91 (the fall of the USSR). As General Secretary, Gorbachev called for Perestroika, a fundamental economic restructuring whose remedies included decentralisation and self-management in the hope of reviving the stagnant USSR economy. In order to gain popular support for the implementation of such policies, he urged for ‘openness’ or Glasnost - the right to voice the need for change and the freedom to criticise the existing system, including its past mistakes. And so the press, publications, theatre, political discourse and, of course, art opened up as at no time before, and led to a totally unprecedented liberalisation of Soviet political, cultural and intellectual life. The line between official and unofficial art was finally blurred and artists emerged, timidly at first, above ground. It is now a well-know story that despite Gorbachev’s best intentions, Glasnost took a dynamic of its own and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Socialist Bloc.
It is under the banner of Glasnost that Haunch of Venison has amassed over 125 non-conformist artworks produced in the 1980s and early 1990s by a whopping sixty artists. Jumping onto the Russian art bandwagon, which has seen the recent opening of two London galleries specialising in Russian art – non-profit Calvert 22 in East London and the commercial West End gallery Orel Art – as well as the recent Phillips de Pury & Co. BRIC auction, Haunch of Venison brings the most comprehensive survey of Russian art from this period ever shown in the UK.
Paintings are the overwhelming presence in this exhibition and many, although seeking to defy the canons of Soviet academic painting, are nonetheless drab and unappealingly executed in clashing colours of dull greens, browns, blues and reds. While Boris Matrosov’s A Room of a Hanged Man (1989) draws the viewer in with its combination of naïve, childlike technique and the very real and unspoken tragedy of suicides - a thick red border frames an unfurnished room, whose centrepiece is a rope, strung around the pipes of a radiator and tied into a noose - his Landscape (1992) is a decidedly unattractive exploration of a washed-out brown forest against a faded green background. Amidst a sea of loud artworks, Oleg Vasiliev’s After the Rain (1993) offers much-needed understated beauty and calm, portraying a peaceful winter pastoral scene, with a glistening path disappearing into a Suprematist whiteness on the horizon. Other paintings on show belong to the overly-familiar communism-weds-capitalism variety. Alexander Kosolapov’s iconic Marlboro Malevich (1987) is present, as is his mystifying blue portrait of Gorbachev Gorby (1991) which mimics Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Mao(1973). Several works by Sots-art founders Komar and Melamid are on display, such as God Bless America (1992), but do not do justice to their witty and ironic repertoire.
Not to go unnoticed, though, works in other media include some of the best examples of art in Glasnost. Sergey Borisov’s Dialogue (1983) and Flying (1988) are two such cases. Shot in black and white, these carefully staged photos play humorously and imaginatively with gravity, movement and motionlessness. Dialogue looks like a quirkier Russian version of the Beatles’ album cover of ‘Abbey Road’: five men bearing 80s hairstyles complete with mullets mimic purposeful walking in Indian file, while actually lying on their sides on a sidewalk. Flying is evocative of Yve Klein’s photomontage Into the Void (1960) but is distinctly less dramatic. It shows a young man dressed in white, frozen in a standing position, his jacket (also white) neatly placed over his arm, as he jumps off a bridge onto the sidewalk.
A number of installations pepper the show, such as Andrey Filippov’s huge Last Supper (1989), a long table draped in a red tablecloth where rusty hammers and sickles replace cutlery, but it is Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s I Sleep in the Orchard (1991/2008) that proves to be the real gem. They've re-created the sterile bedroom of a psychiatric ward, but here the stark reality of a military-style bed and glaring light-bulb is interrupted by an imagined world effected by an abundance of green plants. A text next to the installation tells in first person the story of Elizarova, a girl who grew up in the countryside and frequently slept in her family’s orchard. When the family moved to city, where they lived in a communal residence, she was slowly driven to madness through her yearning of a bucolic past. She is finally advised to go to a psychiatric institution where she now wiles away her days dreaming of sleep in the orchard.
Elsewhere, there are explorations in textile and embroidery. Several works by the founder of the New Artists of Leningrad, Timur Novikov, are present, such as his Reaper (1991). For this piece, Novikov has chosen a specifically female craft for depicting miniature Soviet symbols soon to be obsolete: a large, plush red sheet shows in its centre a laughably small figure embroidered in black thread in the act of running (away?) with a sickle in its arm. Above it, a yellow sun is blazing high in the sky.
With Glasnost, Haunch of Venison has brought to the UK a number of previously unseen and important works from Russia's 80s and early 90s - an unquestionable accomplishment. Its weakness, however, lies in the exhibition’s set-up in a commercial gallery rather than a public institution. Some of the best examples of non-conformist art, such as the famous collectivist actions, are missing, and although a number of established artists are present, their best works aren’t. Moreover, in attempting to convey the artistic revolution enabled by the unprecedented social and political change of the Glasnost/Perestroika era, Haunch of Venison runs a serious risk of being overeager and far too simplistic in its selection of artists and artworks. Walking through the overwhelming exhibition, it feels like the curatorial motto was ‘anything goes’, as long as it was produced underground (and later openly) during the prescribed timeframe.
An unwillingness to critically engage with the artworks is further evident by the virtually complete lack of translations in instances where Russian text holds a dominant position. Save for the Kabakovs’ installation, all other Russian text, which one would assume plays a crucial part in a piece, remains untranslated. Surely these works are intended to be admired not merely aesthetically - ogled at as exotic soviet artistic mementos - but also valued as contributions to an underground socio-political critique or, at any rate, valued for (quite literally) having something to say. This curatorial decision begs the question: why this unwillingness to translate? Is it due to sheer laziness or oversight? Or is it because the show is principally targeted at those ‘in the know’, in other words, at the Russian collectors the gallery is presumably hoping to attract?
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief