“Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union” said Stalin in a speech in 1936. He had started his show trials, working up to the Great Purge in which the archives admit that the NKVD shot 681,692 people; Solzhenitsyn gives a death toll of sixty million ascribable to Joe. What was he thinking when he said that?
The first thing you hear is the title of the exhibition, which is that quote. I wanted to see new Russian art, though I learned quickly it is a Stalin quote, and so had that dislocate in me: the quote is related to reality in a twisted, evil way which makes a straight lie seem pure and good by comparison. I had not been before to the Saatchi Gallery, the former Duke of York’s Headquarters in Chelsea, south of Sloane Square: a Georgian building with huge, thick columns in front of open grassed space in a still mainly Georgian square. I am uncomfortable with such an assertion of personal wealth, even one so clearly philanthropic.
The first gallery is monochrome photos of “criminal” tattoos. What makes a Russian have “Gott mit uns” on his chest? Another has St Basil’s Cathedral there, one has tattooed eyelids. Men have their arms around each other: given the Russian official antipathy to “promoting homosexuality” I thoroughly approve of that, and I can imagine some interest and sympathy of the photographer for his subjects: that sympathy, that hominem scias, is necessary for the art to be Moral.
Now, an installation: booths or cells, with faceless manniquins in suits. One has his forearm removed, and nailed to the wall. On the website, the photo shows the overall shape, but not that detail. The next photos are playful in comparison: people sitting on window ledges. Will they jump? Where is the camera? There are concrete cityscapes, and one with trees, people looking desperate, thoughtful or playful. I liked them, until I saw the pool of black plastic on the floor vaguely in the shape of a broken human being, arms and legs strangely thin.
And then more photographs, in colour, with a notice saying parents may want to shield children from some of these images. A penis with a strange lump at the base of the glans. A fully dressed man, in a coat, in a room, with a woman half-stripped, breasts and labia exposed. Here the most playful image is a boy pissing upwards, the arc of piss lit against the dark. All human beings are Beautiful, and these photographs obfuscate that fact. As one of the Rich, I want to blind myself to the sufferings of the poor, in civil wars or famines- here I wonder if these creatures are Poor I could identify with, in art for the Richest, made to humiliate and dehumanise me.
I do not want to hurry H on, or look at this Vileness. I stare at a white wall, and- cross myself. If my practice of acclimatising to disgust has meaning I must use it now. What I seek to achieve is perfect consciousness of emotion, so that I may have my experience, accept it, and function in the world. This “art” seems designed instead to cause overload and suppression of feeling.
In the basement, there is a pool of black, black oil covering the floor of one room. Its perfectly smooth surface reflects the room, as if it were twice its height with ceiling lights on the floor. It is perfectly beautiful, though I do not like the smell.
Initially I illustrated with this photo of a penis, which seems entirely appropriate to the exhibition, but disgusted me so much. So I have replaced it. Art changes the way one sees things. I presume Kuznetsov had some love in his heart when he painted Ms Kuznetsova, but now I see her as a Specimen.