Disturbing view of Russia emerges from UK art show

Wed Nov 21, 2012 6:42am EST
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - The real stars of a new show of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery in central London are society's outcasts - criminals, drug addicts, despised government bureaucrats and ordinary people perched on window ledges ready to jump.

Several of the 18 artists who make up the major survey of work from the former Soviet Union have focused their lenses and brushes on those for whom the collapse of the Communist system meant destitution rather than freedom or wealth.

Central to the exhibition, which runs at British art collector Charles Saatchi's gallery near swanky Sloane Square from November 21-May 5, is "Case History", a series of photographs by Ukraine's Boris Mikhailov.

The pictures, many large-scale, were taken in 1997 and 1998 in the last years of Boris Yeltsin's tenure as Russia's first president and document the lives of people on the fringes of society in Mikhailov's home town of Kharkov.

Faces staring into the camera are deeply lined and aged well beyond their years. There are clear signs of alcoholism, drug abuse and violence, bodies have been disfigured by years of neglect and the surroundings point to grinding poverty.

The subjects, described by the artist as a "carnival of desperate characters", posed for the camera and Mikhailov paid and fed them in return.

According to Rebecca Wilson, the gallery's director, it was Mikhailov's disturbing pictures that sparked Saatchi's interest in art from the region and ended in him acquiring the works on display at a free exhibition.

The showcase of former Soviet art, ironically named "Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union" - after a quotation by Josef Stalin - follows similar regional surveys including of the Middle East, China and the United States.   Continued...