It was initially rather disconcerting to come across an elderly woman in an armchair, silently knitting, at the entrance to the exhibition. What was perhaps most unnerving about this sight was the nostalgia I felt – the detail of this work, from the design of the armchair to the warm countenance of the babushka – was a poignant reminder of my travels to Ukraine a couple of years ago, and my personal experiences of staying in a Ukrainian household. I ended up feeling an unusually strong sense of nostalgia when she smiled at me. This work, Knitting and Crocheting the Mandelbrot Set (2011, 2012) from the artist collective Where Dogs Run, is the first to mark the exhibition’s departure from the more overtly political works that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. ‘Innovatsia,’ or ‘Innovation,’ is described by the gallery as “a sort of Russian Turner Prize,” and ‘The Russian Art Show’ at Calvert 22 is the first showing of the ‘Innovatsia’ entries outside of Russia. What we are offered in this show, then, is a rare and lucky insight into the most recent developments in contemporary Russian art, and a chance to see where it stands now.
Hanging on the wall next to the knitting woman is Rena Effendi’s photographic series House of Happiness (2009), a documentation of life in the Fergana Valley – an area that spans over the three Central Asian CIS countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. I was completely enamoured by these eighteen colour images; they diverge quite strongly from the style of celebrated post-Soviet photographer Boris Mikhailov, who’s well known for his dichotomous portrayal of public and private spaces as distinct, but are also strangely reminiscent of him in their synthetic colouring and composition. The Fergana Valley, since the collapse of the USSR, has been undergoing a revival of religiously conservative Islamic beliefs – an aspect of post-Soviet regeneration that is perhaps at odds with the traditional image of post-structuralism. The main protagonists of Effendi’s photographs are Muslim Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek women, predominantly dressed conservatively or wearing hijab. Yet there are two exceptions to this – a nude women in a maternity ward, holding a baby that she has just given birth to, and the image of two naked blondes on a beach, printed on playing cards with the caption “Сладкая Парочка,” translating to “A Sweet Couple.” These are supposedly the quintessential figures of femininity – the mother and the sex object. Further, the scenes are set against grim backdrops of poverty, drug addiction and forced marriage –she shows a sickly sweet pink poster of fluffy white kittens, captioned ironically with just the word “HAPPY,” stuck to the wall of a desolate room, with nothing but a desperately sad-looking unmade single bed. Otherwise, a would-be bride poses against a painted scenic backdrop, or with highly embellished wedding dresses that are at odds with the conservative culture otherwise depicted. The distinction between reality and performance, private and public, are blurred.
Filtering throughout the entire exhibition is the sound of Zveri’s ‘Для Тебя’, meaning ‘for you’, which in my case caused me to bypass other works – promising to return to them shortly – in order to find the source. The song is played on a loop as part of Sergey Bratkov’s mixed media installation Balaklavsky Drive (2009). The piece literally recreates a perilous situation into which a group of young boys appear to be leaping daringly. A video projection plays on a loop with footage of the boys jumping into a river, in front of which is arranged a real collection of large, treacherous looking concrete debris and scrap metal, around which notices posted by the gallery ominously warn you to keep a distance. The work seems to draw a link between youth and fear, with the seemingly fearless young boys ready to dive head first into the dangers that await them in the water.
Lastly, I was surprised by Haim Sokol’s sculptural series Foundation Pit (2008). From a distance, they appear rather inoffensive – an assumption that is perhaps somewhat supported by their titles, City, Dump, Wall, Backyard, and Tower. However, these titles are deceptively light for what is a series of ominous, dark urban microcosms, in which corpses lay strewn across the floor, or a hanged figure is suspended in the air.
This exhibition provides many amazing surprises. This selection from ‘Innovatsia’ shows a new subtlety in contemporary art from post-Soviet states, art that has maintained its depth and cultural substance despite moving ever so slightly away from the political agendas of the nineties and early noughties. A brilliant show, in turns moving and inspiring.