Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art
Third Text, Vol. 24, Issue 5, Routledge, London September, 2010
London's biggest football club was bought by a Russian oligarch in 2003. The same man paid the highest price ever for a work by a living artist (Lucian Freud) in 2008. The next year, a former KGB agent acquired one of the capital's most influential newspapers. 1 Shortly thereafter, a non-profit space and three commercial galleries specialising in contemporary Russian art opened in central London. 2 Haunch of Venison's ‘The Art of Glasnost’ is the most recent manifestation of this Russification process, and its catalogue pays tribute to the phenomenon. Indeed, Josef Backstein's essay in the catalogue associates the collapse of Soviet modernity with the author's inaugural visit to the UK. The end of Perestroika was, he recounts, announced by ‘the sight of the real Waterloo Bridge’. 3 He – the commissioner of the Moscow Biennale – currently resides in London.

The museum sector is being swept up in the Muscovite tide. Olga Sviblova – the exhibition's Curatorial Adviser – brought the work of Alexander Rodchenko to the Hayward Gallery in 2008. Tate Modern then staged Margarita Tupitsyn's ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ in 2009, and is currently planning a Malevich retrospective. However, living Russian artists are not being granted the same exposure as the former avant-gardes. It has been two decades since the ICA took a serious interest in promoting Moscow Conceptualism and Sots Art – showcasing Ilya Kabakov's seminal Ten Characters installation and, the same year, granting his friend and colleague Erik Bulatov a solo show. 4 Since then, their milieu has been the subject of large group exhibitions in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the US. Haunch of Venison's project is billed as the next in this series – ‘the first major survey of Soviet Non-Conformist art in the UK’. 5

As well as attempting to rectify the dearth of curatorial attention, the exhibition is also a timely venture – coming a year after the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and a year before the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet Union's disintegration. For the most part it surveys developments in unofficial art during the decade prior to these events. Various themes are presented in separate galleries dedicated to ‘Moscow Conceptualism’, ‘Sots Art and Satirical Strategies’, ‘Photography and Hyperrealism’, ‘The New Artists of Leningrad’, ‘Moscow Conceptualism and the Avant-Gardists' Club’, and, finally, ‘After Glasnost’. Each of these sections is introduced by a wall text highlighting key works, stylistic and aesthetic concerns, and relevant social conditions affecting artistic production. While such interpretive aids are standard for British museums and public galleries, they are somewhat unusual in a commercial setting.

The pedagogical ambition is admirable. Contemporary Russian art is little known in the West, despite the fact that the recent art-market boom embraced work from various elsewheres. In relation to this issue one has started to detect jealousy towards the competition on the part of Russian curators. Andrei Erofeev's ‘Sots Art’ exhibition at the New Tretyakov (part of the 2007 Moscow Biennale) attempted to show that market-beating Chinese Political Pop was riding on Russian coat-tails, by hanging Chinese paintings created the same year as the exhibition alongside 1980s work by Alexander Kosolapov and colleagues. Furthermore, according to Sviblova's catalogue essay, Chinese artists, along with those from Brazil and India, have recently ‘diverted [Western] attention’ from Russian art. 6

The term ‘Glasnost’ is a suitable curatorial rubric to the extent that – with hindsight – it is associated with the Soviet state's decline. The art on show is obviously not Soviet Socialist Realist, which is to say that the featured pre-1991 works amount to a rejection of mainstream cultural policy. In this respect they manifest ‘openness’ to unorthodox ideas and taste. Yet, this does not mean that Gorbachev's reforms were the first cause of their creators' irreverence. Komar and Melamid authored the Sots Art manifesto, inaugurating play with Soviet cultural signifiers, in 1972. Thus, one could have justifiably titled the exhibition ‘Brezhnev's Children’. He of the great eyebrows makes a one-off appearance in a painting by Dmitry Vrubel called God! Help Me To Survive Amongst This Deathly Love (1991–2000) – his lips locked in a frigid male–male kiss with his East German counterpart, Eric Honecker. The anti-eroticism of his likeness stands in stark contrast to the fetish that is made of Gorbachev by Vladimir Mamyshev-Monroe. In Gorby (1990), the leader wears theatrical eyeliner and red lipstick, while sporting a beaded necklace and a jewelled earring.

The exhibition does not only focus on political satire. Neither is it fixated upon social difficulties of the sort recorded by Semyon Faibisovich in photorealistic paintings of down-and-outs queuing for vodka. Indeed, there is a palpable sense of whimsy in Dialogue (1983), a photograph by Sergei Borisov which looks like album-cover art for the best rock band never to exist in Moscow; like the Beatles' Abbey Road (1969) in a world of zero gravity and Stalinist architecture. When Soviet iconography does appear in Borisov's work, it is wonderfully janus-faced in its implications. Catwalk (1987) depicts a rather striking young woman clad in the Soviet flag, her left hand raised above her brow in a quasi-salute, shielding her searching gaze from the bright sun. While the reference to Socialist Realism is obvious, the picture is closer to fashion photography – anticipating the New Russian's predilection for all things designer-label. In a similarly aspirational vein Gor Chahal's paintings resemble illustrations from contemporaneous American and European fashion magazines. The figures depicted in his For Cultural Recreation (1992) wear Converse trainers along with baggy trousers – betraying an encroaching Western influence.

Foreign power constitutes a more explicit subject in a painting by Andrei Roiter. “They are opening our eyes…” Lord Gowrie (1988) commemorates Sotheby's 1988 auction in Moscow – an event staged in cooperation with the Soviet Ministry of Culture. In the middle of a red background, an emblematic white easel is inscribed with the eponymous quote by the company's president. The auction was a turning point on the Moscow art scene, briefly making some little known artists into (international media) stars, while simultaneously upsetting both the official and unofficial artistic hierarchies within the Soviet Union. Ekaterina Degot describes the process:

… during the Gorbachev era, art became an object of Glasnost, and for the first time, it was looked at from the outside. This meant that art had to undergo an internal Perestroika, a break, a painful separation of the art product from its creator and the installation within it of an exhibitory ‘alienation’. 7

Such alienation was manifest in the money paid by wealthy Westerners for works by Ilya Kabakov (the veritable king of Moscow Conceptualism) and the party's favoured painter, Ilya Glazunov. To the surprise of Muscovites, their art achieved far less in comparison with what was offered for paintings by the young Grisha Bruskin and Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky. Though Bruskin would go on to be represented by the Marlborough Gallery (and effectively owes his career to the aforementioned opportunity created by Glasnost) he does not feature in the Haunch exhibition.

Rightly, Ilya Kabakov is included. He makes a poetic appearance with I Sleep in the Orchard (1991/2008): a lugubrious room containing a bed, a few pot plants, a whiteboard and a bare low-watt light bulb. A nearby text, written in the first person, recounts a halcyon youth spent outdoors in the countryside, an idyll brought to a close by a move to the big city. A life of urban pressure eventually proves too much to bear and the narrator, leaving her husband and children, checks into (or is committed to) an institution, where she subsequently whiles away her time in pathetic reverie. It is the artist's signature cocktail of failure and transcendence, and certainly the best work in the show. Significantly, it introduces the visitor to another side of Soviet unofficial art. Standing at a remove from the pizzazz and parody which dominates the exhibition, Kabakov's installation forces the viewer to slow down. The contrast may be effectively characterised as the difference between the one-liner and the story. The first, which constitutes the actual content of Rostislav Lebedev's Made in the USSR (1979), can be read in an instant. The second is like an intellectual lozenge – slow-release melancholy.

One has come to expect extravagant shows from Haunch of Venison – the gallery that represents Bill Viola and other masters of spectacle. However, while one cannot fail to be impressed by the number of pieces in ‘Glasnost’, displayed in grand surroundings (the same neo-classical building as the Royal Academy), the exhibition does not feature consistently important material. While many senior artists are included, their major works are omitted. Above all, Komar and Melamid are poorly represented by an oil sketch and a well-painted but rather glib depiction of a Jesus–Lenin hybrid, called Antichrist (1990–1991). Their capacity for greater intellectual subtlety could have been conveyed by including The People's Choice (1994–1997), or any work that the pair have attributed to fictional artists – such as Nikolai Buchumov (1973). Likewise, while Sergei ‘Afrika’ Bugaev's embroidered flags are visually appealing, they do not match the power of his contribution to the 1999 Venice Biennale – MIR: Made in the XXth Century: a large installation incorporating benign Soviet propaganda photographs and a video of a man undergoing electroshock therapy. Of course, it is not fair to expect wall-to-wall museum-quality pieces from a private gallery as many key artworks are not available for sale. However, this does not change the fact that in Glasnost some important figures get lost in the crowd.

Moreover, some are not included. Dmitri Prigov is a serious omission from the ‘Moscow Conceptualism’ section, especially as he is quoted in a wall text elsewhere. Viktor Pivovarov is another no show, as is Elena Elagina – despite the fact that her long-time collaborator, Igor Makarevich, is featured. Furthermore, the Collective Actions group make no appearance – symptomatic of the show's overall neglect of performance documentation, as well as the general preponderance of painting. As before, commercial conditions explain such matters. The curator has this issue in mind when, in the catalogue, she states that the exhibition is ‘by no means an exhaustive account of the period’. Hers is an honest admission, but it is contradicted by the first line of the exhibition's press release, which describes the display as a ‘comprehensive survey’.

The omissions are not a major transgression. However, they are not mitigated by the presence of a consistent curatorial thesis. In the introduction to the catalogue, we read that the featured works are characterised by ‘the spirit of individuality’. 8 Yet, for many artists in the show, collective and group identity was a major theme. The display seems to concede this very point – organised into ‘isms’ and, more importantly, social constellations. Other exhibitions of similar material have acknowledged the group context. In the catalogue for his 2008 exhibition, ‘Total Enlightenment’, Boris Groys wrote that Moscow Conceptualism was a systematically organised ‘micro-public’ (a specific ‘movement’ or ‘scene’) with its own ‘quasi-institutional internal organization’ and binding ideology. 9 Elsewhere, in a recent book, Victor Tupitsyn has outlined the phenomenon of a ‘communal optic’, manifest in works by artists who also feature in the Haunch of Venison show. 10

Glasnost is a museum-scale survey that provides a welcome introduction to various currents in Soviet nonconformist art. However, this introduction is partial and inconsistent. It is now time for a British public institution to take on this material.

1. The Evening Standard was bought by Alexander Lebedev on 21 January 2009.
2. Calvert 22. Also, Orel Art, Atkis and Regina Gallery.
3. Popova Diehl, Watkins and Miall, eds, Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s, Haunch of Venison and Galerie Volker Diehl, London and Berlin, 2010, p 47
4. Bulatov, 1989, before producing a Moscow Conceptualist poetry and art event, Lisa Appignanesi, ed, Novostroika = New Structures, ICA, London, 1989.
5. Popova, Diehl, Watkins and Miall, op cit, p 17
6. Ibid, p 35 7. Ibid, p 37
8. Ibid, p 16
9. Boris Groys, Max Hollein and Mannuel Fontán del Junco, eds, Total Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in Moscow 1960–1990, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2008, p 29
10. Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009
Sergey Borisov. Dialogue, 1983, black and white photograph, 40 x 30 cm, copyright Sergey Borisov, courtesy Haunch of Venison 2010
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, I Sleep in the Orchard, 1991/2008, mixed media, 251 x 280 x 400 cm, copyright Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, courtesy Haunch of Venison 2010 00