The irony is a bit heavy by Western standards. To call this show ‘Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union’ is redundant. On the other hand what name can you put on human suffering which is a unique kind of decay? If it weren’t for the awkward echo of ‘Evil Empire’ propaganda, Baudelaire’s title ‘Flowers of Evil’ would sum up this harrowing display. Photographs and installations show exactly how denatured the lives of the poor and the sick and the homeless have become actually in post-Soviet times. The tramp-like, half-naked, diseased figures that star in photographer Boris Mikhailov’s shabby urban carnival are cast-offs of a big, mad theory of History. Now the show is over some of them have each other.
I admired the dandified older man who took refuge in a kind of style, only that open-armed gesture…well see for yourself.
The street kids were just like the artful, ferile besprezornye who roamed Russia in gangs after losing their parents in the Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. But that was almost a century ago. (Listen to my BBC Radio 3 talk 31st July 2010 on the besprezornyewhen it becomes available.)
Of the installations Nika Neelova’s torture apparatuses by another name were medieval. Painter Sergei Pakhomov parodied with mostly nonsense words at once the world of the Soviet poster, all about building the Red future, and the denatured state of nature itself after 75 years of wreckage. Two words that did make sense were HERE and SIN.
What just isn’t on offer in this show is the chance to think about Art. It’s not only that there’s no resolution. There’s no hope. Just remember the titles of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two volumes of memoirs from the 1930s and after, Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Again, that was three-quarters of a century ago. All Russian artists can do, it seems, and what they do best, is document what they see, including here and there a garish veneer of stuff from the West, like the blood-splashed, scarred, mutely and cruelly revised comic strips of Goshka Ostretov.
Most of my life I’ve been writing about Russia and, though, having lived there in 1978-79 and seen the life there I was never a Communist, nor even anti-anti-Soviet (which many in the West were, because they somehow wanted to defend that good-hearted experiment gone wrong), I used to think the very act of writing/reporting/imagining the struggle and the pride and the unique spirit of the place was a kind of hope that Russia would sort itself out in its own rather brutal but natively acceptable terms. Also I liked to think of Russia as a country that had, at the very least, great art. Perhaps all it had was art, certainly in Soviet times and perhaps in Tsarist times too. And now? What you can see in this show is beyond dignity and beyond grief. A number of the subjects in Mikhailov’s photographs, you can see above, are showing off; vaunting their distorted bodies and their complete lack of moral shelter. This is the polar opposite of all those tokens of Russian high life that come our way in the newspapers, in terms of fashion, gallery-going, fine dining, big spending and they are hardly admirable either. As for the gangsters who think they’re doing the British economy a favour by bringing their astronomically expensive law suits here, forget it. This isn’t just post-Communism. It’s a blight on the twenty-first century.