For Calvert 22, an institution devoted to enhancing the understanding of Russian and Eastern European art, it might seem that to put on an exhibition of emerging artists from Russia, as this show does, might be a natural thing to do. The idea is that a focus on new and interesting work from a country with a fast-developing young art scene will generate excitement and interest abroad, and perhaps focus discussions and understandings in Russia. In practice, however, to create an exhibition from such a general premise, and to make it communicate anything about Russia, or about the artists included, is, in fact a very difficult ask, and it's one which this exhibition doesn't really answer.
The eight young artists in this exhibition – Tanya Akhmetgalieva, Olga Bozhko, Alexander Ditmarov, Yulia Ivashkina, Sergey Ogurtsov, Taus Makhacheva, Anya Titova, Arseniy Zhilyaev – have been drawn from two developmental programmes in Russia run by the ICA, Moscow, and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Winzavod. Each artist's practice is wildly different, and as such, there's a feeling of disconnect in the exhibition. Though Ivashkina creates paintings of fragmented interior spaces, where dusty clouds and bright blue metropolitan scenes drift in and out of architectural spaces, these works appear to be operating in a completely different sphere to two other artists here who use domestic interiors in their work. Zhilyaev's installation Words (2010-11), featuring a tatty rug and chair in front of a television playing an amateur porn film, is an extended treatise on sex, existentialism and the reception of Jean-Paul Sartre in Russia, a fact made clear from the texts pinned around the space. Titova's House of Culture (2010) features a shelf structure affixed with several different panels of colour and framed images including fragments of graffiti, and refers to minimalism and conceptual art at the same time as social or ethnographic concerns. These last two works do manage to create an atmosphere and one does get some sense of the two artists' work; but it's hard to understand them within the context of the exhibition. Ditmarov's films, of a lonely billiards game and of people ascending on a ski lift in summer really did nothing much for me, whilst Ogurtsov's architectural sculptures made from folding philosophy books seemed rather over-simple as conceptual gestures.
Part of the problem here is that I don't believe that such a small selection of artists can tell us enough about contemporary art in Russia – it can only speak about a thread of work – and the curators haven't really managed to find that thread. Although the Moscow Conceptualists (Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, for example, or the Collective Actions group) are mentioned in the catalogue as reference points for the artists, ultimately, it's extremely difficult to see how this is the case. It feels more like the generalised conceptualism that characterises the international contemporary art world today. Russia's art, this exhibition seems to say, can rush seamlessly into this world. I'd rather we understood more about it first.
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