Soviet gaiety in London

On Friday, I was invited to Sounds Outstanding, an evening of classical music inspired by the Saatchi Gallery’s current exhibition in the heart of Kings Road — also known as a home to the growing population of Russian oligarchs. At the door, they checked my name against the guest-list (a real guest-list!) and shoved a raspberry Absolut into my hand. If only all my cultural escapades started this way!

Making my way through a very tall crowd (what is it with art galleries that attracts these alpha types?), I found myself within the blindingly bright walls of the first gallery, with a sculptural installation in the middle and large paintings towering at me from every corner. As I twirled around with my cocktail, I came face to, ahem, face with a two-foot-high cancerous penis. Of a homeless man.

The contrast between the exhibition and its surroundings set the tone for my evening.

Below, you get a picture of my cocktail, not of the said genitals.


The bleak and all-too-real show is full of juxtapositional elements: compliant despair in the eyes of convicts and numerous body tattoos set in defiance against authorities, hopeless misery on the margins of society and a raunchy urge for exhibitionism. The show is entitled Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union – the name derives from the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin. I wouldn’t be worth my geeky salt as a linguist, however, if I didn’t take a dig at the translation: originally, Stalin said ‘веселый нрав’ which also translates as ‘gay disposition’, and it is to my chagrin to see the connotation lost in translation. Featured in the exhibition are portraits of assumingly coupled prisoners seen through the lens of their warden, and lost is the opportunity to view the show as a reflection of the political developments in modern-day Russia with peaceful Pride marches being violently suppressed by police and completely absurd laws against ‘homosexual propaganda’ being passed in St Petersburg, the cradle of Russian intelligentsia.

Bleak iconography


Certain tattoos are the sign of an untouchable


For those interested in all-things russkiy, it is refreshing to see how instead of depreciating art, realism acts as a tool for understanding life within the self-imposed informational vacuum of the post-Soviet space. For other Londoners, this is a chance to gain an insight into the culture which is much more than matryoshkas, balalaikas, and brown bears dancing on the Red Square.

The exhibition runs at the Saatchi Gallery through June 9, 2013.

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