The Saatchi's vast exhibitions of Russian art, Gaiety and Breaking the Ice, aim to provide a comprehensive overview of modern and contemporary art from Soviet and post-Soviet states. It seems an almost impossible task, but both shows aim to cover as many disparate aspects of Russian art as is practically possible, with a huge range of media and themes.
The title Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union, taken from a 1935 speech by Joseph Stalin, sets the tone for the ironic, disturbing nature of the works that reflect the artists' experiences of perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years that followed. Breaking the Ice, displayed at the top floor gallery, presents a large variety of works from Soviet Russia, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Both shows, when viewed together, are a fair introduction to Soviet and post-Soviet art, but it is hard not to feel, at times, that the attempt to include such a wide spectrum of works has somehow detracted from the exhibition as a whole – it forces visitors to focus on only a few artists, as concentrating equally on all would give one the feeling of having visited about fifteen wildly different exhibitions in one short afternoon.
Amidst the gamut of artists included in this exhibition – eighteen in Gaiety alone – there are two that particularly stand out. Primarily, Sergei Vasiliev's photographic series Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Prints (2010) which, being not just my favourite piece from this exhibition but one of the best series I've seen in a while, is a saving grace for the show. Vasiliev has compiled portraits of men with Soviet prison tattoos, which have such complex meanings and interpretations that it would be impossible to describe them all in enough detail here. These tattoos continue to be shrouded in mystery, with the most obvious meaning often not being the right one: for example, there is a shocking recurrence of Nazi symbolism in the tattoos, in the form of swastikas and the phrase "GOTT MIT UNS", which was usually found on the accessories of Nazi soldiers during the Second World War. However these are not the sign of a Nazi-sympathiser but, going by the old adage of "my enemy's enemy is my friend", of one who strongly opposed the Soviet regime, and the labour camps of the Communist government in which they were imprisoned.
Similarly, the strong religious iconography is often divorced from religious feeling, and instead indicates how long a prisoner was incarcerated for, when they entered the life of crime and the nature of their crimes. The prisoners' bodies are presented like beautiful, ancient manuscripts, holding secrets of a bygone world that are waiting to be translated. If it's not possible to visit any other work in this exhibition, which unfortunately you may find, then this is the one to see. A close second are Gosha Ostretsov's apocalyptic works, Sex in the City and Criminal Government (both 2008), which are conversely a trippy, LSD-infused evocation of revolution and rebellion against governmental forces. Bunkers covered in the dregs of war house lifeless bodies in business suits, wearing gas masks and sprawled in the undignified positions of their deaths. Anarchistic phrases such as 'Беспредел' ('lawlessness') and 'Свобода' ('freedom') are scrawled on the walls behind their corpses in blood. Strangely, there is something incredibly mesmerising about the grotesqueness of the figures hanging in their state of public execution.
On the top floor of the gallery is the second exhibition, Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960s–80s, which aims to provides some context to the works in Gaiety. Indeed, when viewed in the wake of the explosive postmodernist pieces of the previous exhibition, these works from the Soviet nonconformist art movements – including Sots Art (short for Socialist art, a liberating movement that subverted propaganda images and appropriated them into pop art works) – seem comparatively tame and meek.
This is perhaps a fault in the exhibition layout, as these works were so revolutionary and powerful that you should avoid viewing them with the shadow of postmodernism looming over your head, tainting your reception. Regardless of this, Breaking the Ice includes some fantastic – and again, a vast panorama – of works from the post-Stalin years. Some of the great Russian dissident artists, such as Dmitri Prigov, Oleg Tselkov and Dmitri Plavinsky, are all included, as is a section on Sots art.
These exhibitions host a collection of works that are fascinating, but perhaps too disparate and wide-ranging to be seen together in one exhibition. Many of these pieces are so individually compelling that they deserve more singular attention, but the huge number of almost anachronistic pieces shown detracts from their impact. This is a great chance to see a comprehensive collection of art from the years after Stalin's death and leading up to perestroika (in Breaking the Ice) and the unique form of postmodernism that has emerged from ex-Soviet countries since the collapse of the USSR (in Gaiety) but the setup necessitates several visits in order to really view the artworks with a clear, unconfused mind.