UK/RAINE at Saatchi Gallery is the result of a competition for young artists working or born in the Ukraine or the UK, divided into five categories: Installation, New Media, Painting, Sculpture and Street Art. While the guidelines for entry seem rigorously structured, the exhibition itself luckily isn’t. Over five rooms on the gallery’s ground floor, it’s a mix of projects in different media without a particular storyline to guide us. While this style of curating makes it nigh on impossible to sum up the show, its lack of guiding theme creating too a rather exhausting visiting experience, it refreshingly allows us to focus on each artist in their own right. Though pieces show a penchant for pop culture in bright colours, they vary greatly, and many speak so loudly it’s difficult to pick just a couple to focus on.
One work that jumps out right away is Roman Minin’s Donetsk Underground Subway Generator (2015). The work’s made from aluminium composite panels layered on top of one another, intersected with lines of flashing lights that recall a subway system. It’s a huge panel, using Minin’s habitual worker-imagery, resembling Soviet prototypes. The gold of the panels and the flashing lights add an air of kitsch, which seems subtly to mock the (historical) contrast between proletarian ideology and petit bourgeois style. There’s something captivatingly playful about the Subway Generator, its panels revealing a host of symbols that let us draw associations en masse. Considering Minin comes from a generation of miners in the Donetsk area – a centre of conflict in recent years – the work is inescapably political but has spiritual connotations too, a multi-armed headless figure in the centre resembling some kind of deity. As such, it’s as entertaining as it’s serious.
In the next room, we find Maria Kulikovska’s life-size soap statues, titled Homo Bulla (2012). The figures, female nudes made from natural soap, stand upright on small pedestals like ancient, decaying sculptures. Soap’s a powerful metaphor of course, especially in relation to Ukraine, with connotations of ‘whitewashing’ politics and corrupt regimes. At the same time, Homo Bulla refers to a phrase by the ancient Roman writer Terentius Varro: human life, he said, is a ‘thin iridescent soap bubble that … is quick to explode with the slightest puff of wind.’ Given the Ukrainian context, the reference underlines a sense of hopelessness – is civil action pointless?
Just like Minin’s work, Kulikovska’s is another of many examples in the show that highlight the multifaceted nature of works by Ukrainian artists, who have responded to contemporary events both engagingly and critically. The most playful example of all must be the artist group Dis/order’s Eternal/Muternal Beauty, a darkened room with neon light – a mock laboratory with plastic flowers in jars and catchy slogans sprayed on the wall: ‘Let’s mutate until it’s late! Let’s mutate it’s great!’ Eternal/Muternal Beauty perfectly exemplifies how crisis animates change, how conflict can lead to critically engaging works that are both fascinating and fun to look at. Because we can physically enter the laboratory, Eternal/Muternal Beauty is almost more than an artwork. Provoking our curiosity, it transports us into the darkness while our clothes and notepads shine in a neon glow. It’s far more than just ‘something to look at,’ collapsing the boundaries between childish play and the politics of change in bracing and novel ways.
Set beside these Ukrainian examples, the ‘UK’ pieces seem curiously pale. Save for Felicity Hammond’s intriguing installations like You will enter an Oasis (2015), they seemed overly conceptualised and apolitical. Not only were the Ukrainian works more accessible, but also more comprehensible too: unsurprisingly perhaps, given the familiarity most of us have – if only from the media – with the Ukrainian conflict and its political dilemmas. Yet if British politics too are arguably far from perfect, where, one wonders, were these politics on display?
UK/RAINE, then, is a thought-provoking exhibition, both artistically and in its connections to the wider world – even if a comparison between the works does more favours to some than to others…
UK/RAINE can be seen at the Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea until 3rd January 2016. Entrance is Free.