The idea of home or homeland, in the last 25 years, has figured heavily in interpretations of Cold War-era and ‘post-Socialist’ art. The reasons for this lie in several things: the steering of that conversation by emigrés, the developed world’s pornographic fascination with the ruin left by a failed utopia, and US pop culture’s love affair with kitsch produced in tandem with ‘Socialism in one country’.
The Saatchi Gallery’s star-studded and voluminous Post Pop: East Meets West brings together over 250 works by artists from the former Soviet Union, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the UK and US, and locates the answer to why the principles of pop-art found such resonance global resonance in, well, globalization. Deliberately avoiding Ostalgia, its curators have chosen instead to organize it around more universal categories: with titles like ‘Advertising and Consumerism’, ‘Religion and Ideology’, ‘Sex and the Body’ and ‘Habitat’. Ultimately, however, these bleed into one another, and don’t give enough information on the historical or cultural contexts of the works on display. Sometimes this is confusing, at other moments the refusal to place the work in context seems itself like an ideological stance.
A striking example is Sergei Shutov’s creepy Abacus, with its mechanized sculptures reminiscent of black-robed figures which, arranged on the floor and facing a wall, kowtow in unison at regular intervals. Nearby is a trio of granite and marble sculptures from the Predestination series by Russian-Azeri artist Aidan Salakhova, making use of the burqa-clad female body to address subjectivity, sexuality and desire. Yet to make sense of these pieces in the ‘Religion and Ideology’ section, one needs to see them as rooted specifically in the context of Islam – a problem in both cases. Abacus, with its representation of mindless, automatic submission, can be interpreted literally and xenophobically, though the politically-loaded image Shutov uses is surely meant to make a more complicated point about dogmatism in general. Meanwhile Salakhova’s piece, within the context of the exhibition, is asked to speak for Islam, which takes away from more complex readings of her work
Another weakness of Post Pop is its uncritical attention to Sots Art, a late-1980’s satirical take on both Western consumerism and the late-Soviet condition which feels a bit hackneyed in 2015. Post-Pop presents ‘Sots artists’ such as Komar and Melamid in ways that divorce the works from their historical context, and without the humour needed to see these works on their own terms. If Sots artworks are worth examining at all, it’s because of the critical force of their rudeness, hyperbole, and wilful lack of polish. At Saatchi, they’re presented instead as elder statesmen in the field of ‘Ideology and Religion,’ given a weight that makes the work seem facile and uninspired rather than a bitingly cynical response apt to a particular historical moment. It’s also used to validate a generation of young artists who could try a lot harder, one of their offspring being the Russian duo Recycle Group, here represented by The Letter F, a four-metre replica of the Facebook logo whose unusually long shaft allows it to be read as a Christian cross. Get it? Social media is, like, religion these days.
Post Pop unfolds across 70,000 sq. ft of exhibition space. By the time one reaches the end it seems as though anything— welcome but inexplicable visits from American Conceptualists such as Andres Serrano, or Jeff Koons arriving deus ex machina‒ can happen. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, one starts to think there’s no place like home and, on the way out, one wanders again through the ‘Habitat’ section. Interacting with the legacy of pop-art, ‘Habitat’ raises questions that are of interest whatever one’s exposure to modern or contemporary art: what does it mean for artists to incorporate ‘found’ objects and images into their work? What if these ‘found’ objects and images become the whole work?
It also contains some of the most interesting, not to mention beautiful and unexpected, moments in the entire show. Here one finds Moscow-based Irina Korina’s Chapel (2013), a structure of what looks like stained glass emerging from behind a thicket and a corrugated metal fence, and which deals with the idea of Socialist utopia as dol’gostroi, a construction project abandoned for lack of funds. Chapel is luminous and puzzling, with a touch of the seductive sadness that draws people to ruin-porn in the first place. It also shows a persistent optimism about the revolutionary potential of beauty, something that makes ‘Habitat’ probably the most conceptually cohesive part of the whole exhibition – and nary a hammer or sickle in sight.
Post Pop: East Meets West is at the Saatchi Gallery until 23rd February 2015. Entrance is free.