There is a staggering photograph at the Saatchi gallery of a Russian criminal proudly baring his body. He is etched top to toe with the wildest tattoos. Stalin and Lenin are portrayed on his navel but each is menaced by a giant dung beetle while Genghis Khan roars up his thigh, unaccountably accompanied by a cherub. On his chest he wears an onion-dome cathedral.
These tattoos appear mystifying and even contradictory – until you see many more of them in the photography of Sergei Vasiliev, an artist forced to work as a prison warder under communism. Vasiliev was continuing a project begun in pencil by a colleague, to portray the secret prison language of tattoos.
Tattooing was illegal, so these images were made using scalpels and melted boot heels, often diluted with blood. They were a form of defiance from the very first cut. But the iconography was so subtle that portraits of Stalin could be as ironic as swastikas (anti-fascist) or hammers and sickles (anti-statist). They formed a code and were the opposite of western tattoos because they could never be taken at face value.
To see these life-size images of gaunt and defiant convicts – one missing his fingertips, another tenderly guarding a comrade – is to see into another world altogether. Most men never expected to be freed. And it is only a telling rug, or a patch of damp wallpaper behind the subject, that tells you that some must be back in the tower blocks where they began, that communism must be over, for so little else in these portraits ever changes.
It is impossible to go round this powerful and compelling exhibition without thinking about political history. Almost every work brings it to mind. Paintings of protesters, photographs of post-perestroika outcasts, pastiches of revolutionary posters, ornamental variations on peasant motifs, the mocking use of Cyrillic lettering, the guying of government bureaucrats as (literally) stuffed shirts: the state bursts out everywhere you look.
And what’s remarkable is that this is brand new art, some of it made in the last six months and all of it at least a decade and more after the end of communism. Yet there is a sustained air of urgency, a sense of work made to reveal or expose, that has society in its sights, that cannot help but speak of the way it is to live now in modern Russia.
So Irina Korina’s Capital is a tinny column made out of scrap metal, festooned with carrier bags full of old clothes that give it that Ionic look: a classical monument recycled out of junk. The play on Marx’s most famous work is inescapable, along with the allusion to Moscow, where the city’s fabric (and perhaps its civilisation, Korina implies) is falling apart.
And Valery Koshlyakov’s gigantic panorama, High-rise on Raushskaya Embankment, may be beautifully worked in tempera but the old-world paint is dripping and the support is visibly flimsy. Moscow wears thin. This is a cardboard city, in fact.
Vikenti Nilin’s citizens are photographed sitting on the windowsills of those high-rises with a composure so striking as to stop you in your tracks. Reflecting on the world below, their expressions are pensive, unillusioned, philosophical. They haven’t fallen yet, nor do they seem about to jump, these men and women who have something in common with the unhappy angels in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. How do they manage to stay like this, balanced above the abyss – living life, as Russians do, on the edge?
Saatchi has his tastes, for the rude, pithy, forceful and direct. Every time he mounts one of these international shows – China, America, Germany and India have all had their turn in the Chelsea gallery in recent years – it seems that he finds what he likes each time overseas.
So here is Daniel Bragin‘s alarming PVC corpse lying black and shiny on the floor like a squashed woman (or one of Sarah Lucas’s knobbly stuffed-stocking ladies: the analogy is all too obvious). And here is his paradoxical sculpture – a pretty pastel rug edged in bright blanket stitch, which turns out to be made of shattered windscreen.
And here is Dasha Fursey‘s totem pole of pickled objects, drifting like embryos in jars of formaldehyde. But the dead things, in this case, are traditional Russian foods such as mushrooms and cherries. Pale and flaccid, they are pure bottled nostalgia, emblems of some idyllic rural past.
It is hard to read the tone of the many paintings in this show that take constructivism apart, deconstructing its abstract elements in terms of Bauhaus furniture and design. Art cannot always carry the same meanings from one country to the next, and it’s not clear (to me at least) what interest or significance there may be for a contemporary Russian painter in remaking Malevich’s revolutionary Black Square in orange or mustard.
But the stars of this show are making something deeply personal and inventive. Gosha Ostretsov is a performance artist and all-round provocateur whose New Government project has been evolving ever since perestroika, generally through the use of bewildering masks somewhere between sci-fi and carnivalesque.
The people behind these masks may change without anybody noticing, an aspect of Russian politics that has its most arresting expression here in a series of cells containing masked figures who have long since starved or hanged themselves. Faceless, grotesque, identifiable only by their differently coloured ties, they are unable to escape the fate they once designed for their fellow Russians.
And perhaps there is a genetic link with the sombre figures that haunt Janis Avotins‘s pictures, ghostly figments trapped between subtle layers of monochrome paint. Out of time and out of place, they hover in a curious no-man’s-land of smoky landscapes and misty rooms, apparently erased but still lingering on in some nameless present – eerie, mysterious and elliptical.
It is good to be introduced to the work of Avotins at the Saatchi gallery. Indeed this is a fascinating group of artists altogether, combining long-established names such as the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov with unknowns in their 20s, and offering a small portrait of the Russian art scene – those who escaped to France or America, those who stayed behind and worked as set designers or, indeed, prison warders.
Russian contemporary art still feels remote, relatively unknown here except through headlines about its growing popularity among the oligarchs. It is rarely seen except at international biennials (the Russian pavilion was the hit of the Venice Biennale in 2009). So all credit to Saatchi for bringing this work before a British public, and for raising its profile – inevitably – on the market. Perhaps it will eventually bring some comfort to these artists who lack funding back home and so clearly need and deserve it.
Anyone who wants to see what art was like under communism, incidentally, should take a look at Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art 1960-80s on the top floor of the building, organised by the Tsukanov Family Foundation. This has some bravely sardonic art – Komar and Melamid’s kitsch portraits of Stalin, the anti-heroic monuments of Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov‘s satirical east-west art hybrids – but for the most part it is belated modernism, frozen in time. Cubist samovars, Muscovite Morandis: one could hardly fail to be moved.