Cultural History | Visual Arts

EXHIBITION REVIEW: ‘Another Russia: Post-Soviet Printmaking’ at the V&A

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February 25, 2017

Angels of St Petersburg, Stanislav Makarov, 2000, Russia. Museum no. E.205-2014. © Stanislav Makarov

Angels of St Petersburg, Stanislav Makarov, 2000, Russia. Museum no. E.205-2014. © Stanislav Makarov

Another Russia: Post-Soviet Printmaking is one of V&A’s newest temporary displays, comprising around 40-50 graphic works and  offering both a fascinating insight into the post-Soviet printmaking practice and a glimpse into V&A’s contemporary art collecting activity. All works on view are the museum’s recent acquisitions, some made possible through the help of grant funds, and others via direct artists’ donations.

Print acquisitions are a way for the museum to acquire more affordable works by already established artists. Often they also help an understanding of a particular artist’s working process or themes explored by them in larger works. Such acquisitions are part of the museum’s aim to stay relevant in the present climate, allowing for new conversations, including those with existing collection items, to be stirred up.

A colourful, thought-provoking selection, Another Russia reflects the growing popularity of print media amongst contemporary Russian artists, demonstrating the variety of approaches and techniques employed by them. On view are etchings, gum prints, mono-prints, lithographs, open bite etchings and artists’ books, created by well-established names, such as Timur Novikov, Alexander Brodsky, Ilya Utkin, the Mit’ki group, Mikhail Karasik and Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya (Gluklya) from the Chto delat’ group, as well as by emerging artists.

As the wall text explains, print media have been used by exhibited artists for a number of reasons, including economic constraints, the desire to reach out to different audiences, or to add layers of meaning to their work. The curators also highlight the importance of the post-Soviet context, in which the level of resistance to authority has largely decreased, but where works like this often serve as subtle and witty commentaries on the new reality. In some cases, this reality’s specific to Russia; in others, it’s universal, addressing issues of politics, migration, identity and urban development.

This applies to two beautiful, highly intricate etchings by artists Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, Combularium Habitabile and Combularium Architecturae, which present an idea for a museum project immortalising  buildings. The detailed nature of the prints, taking artists years to complete, demands closer investigation. It reveals references to specific areas of the old Moscow’s city-centre, which in post-Soviet Russia have been subjected to ruthless transformation, driven by lucrative development projects. In most cases, it’s done at the expense of preserving any pre-Soviet urban legacy in the city which already during the Soviet time had been changed beyond recognition – irreversibly erasing much of its precious earlier history.

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Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya: ‘Destroying factories, orange migrants’ (2012)

Two striking mono-prints by Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya (Gluklya) from the 2012 Wings of Migrants series, both titled Destroying factories, orange migrants, explore the plight of millions of migrant workers, predominantly from Central Asia, carrying out manual labour in Russia. Often experiencing appalling work and living conditions, many are forced to work illegally. Yet despite filling in jobs that many Russians refuse to do, they are, in many cases, treated by ethnic Russians as second-class citizens.

The first print’s particularly poignant, directing the viewer’s eye through few striking colour accents. A green Arabic script on the left interacts with an image of a half-derelict Soviet factory building, occupying middle part of the composition. The factory represents the broader Soviet project, which united various nationalities in one Socialist nation, with all citizens equal contributors to its future. Now, however, they’re seen destroying the seemingly redundant construction from to the country’s past. A blue mosque dome is visible on the right, a reference to the predominantly Muslim identity of these migrant workers – which in contemporary Russia, increasingly defined by conservative values partly fostered by the Russian Orthodox church, often leads to social tensions.

Red Tower, Yuri Avvakumov, 1986 – 98, Russia. Museum no. E.2090-2004. © Yuri Avvakumov

Red Tower, Yuri Avvakumov, 1986 – 98, Russia. Museum no. E.2090-2004. © Yuri Avvakumov

Workers’ little figures, dressed in high visibility orange jackets, are depicted as if dancing, which connects to the video work at the centre of Gluklya’s series. In the video, factory employees were brought together with professional dancers, creating a collision of the orderly, elite ballet world, dominated by ethnic Russians, and a chaotic, messy world of often unregulated migrant labour. It’s also, according to the artist,  a reference to early Soviet Constructivist art projects of the 1920s, in which theatre workers performed in factories. Other works on view are also in conversation with early XX century Russian avant-garde art – including Yuri Avvakumov’s screen print Red Tower, an homage to artist Vladimir Tatlin, whose design for a never-to-be-realised Petrograd tower made such a splash after the Russian Revolution.

Though not directly part of the current conversation between London’s museums – which marks the centenary of the October Revolution – Another Russia nonetheless shows interesting parallels with Russian avant-garde artists, many of whom saw printed media as the most effective way of reaching new audiences and voicing their artistic or political concerns – a gambit almost immediately picked up and exploited by the Soviet state itself.

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Another Russia: Post-Soviet Printmaking is on view at the V&A until 15 August 2017.

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