This is certainly not the first time we have seen Patricia Piccinini at Haunch of Venison and I doubt it will be the last but this is her first solo UK exhibition. I popped into the opening one night last week but I have to say it lacked the normal buzz of Haunch’s exhibitions. I don’t know if it was the cold or that this has been done and seen before – it’s impossible not to mention Mueck when looking at her works.
Piccinini’s work blurs the boundaries between the artificial and the natural, encompassing many different media along the way. She explores our desire to homogenise the human body and considers if we do, or do not, accept those who don’t measure up to a manufactured ideal of perfection.
Looking at Piccinini’s The Carrier at Haunch. Own photograph.
Her fascination with medical science is obvious and she uses this to attempt to explain our contemporary world. Piccinini’s figures are far removed from the people we are used to seeing – they are mutated human/animal hybrids that are alarmingly lifelike. The panels on the walls have been presented in a square format – silicone, fibreglass and human hair resembling a slab of butchered meat. Her anthropomorphised machines reference both a universal instinct to apply human emotions to all animals and things as well as a consideration that people and technology are increasingly, and unavoidably, intertwined.
Patricia Piccinini, The Lovers, 2011. Own photograph.
Haunch haven’t overcrowded this exhibition or been over-ambitious. The space afforded to the works allows us to form a baffling relationship with the pieces as we look at these familiar, yet alien, forms. Piccinini is fetishising scarred and damaged flesh but the honesty of the material and her process removes some of the repulsion which we may otherwise feel here.
The hyper-realism draws us in closer. Although I was disgusted by the sculptures, I couldn’t stop looking at them, admiring her technique and ideas. Haunch state that the works both ‘attract and unsettle the viewer’ and this could not be more accurate. This contradiction of emotions is Piccinini’s aim and couples perfectly with the juxtaposition of ideas in the works.
Scarred Flesh. Own photograph.
On Sunday afternoon, I popped to Saatchi who have just opened Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia. Saatchi like to do things big and recent exhibitions have looked at art from India, America, Germany, Korea and China. This time they tackle Russia but this exhibition presents Russia in a grim and unforgiving light, with little optimism.
Before I make any comment, I have to say this is one exhibition that truly teaches the importance of being able to put aside personal taste. To be honest, I am not a fan of the works in this show but it cannot be ignored that this is a powerful and well put together exhibition that doesn’t cower from conveying its messages.
Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Print No.12, 2010. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The exhibition opens with works by Sergei Vasiliev, possibly the images that, for me, were the most enduring. Put simply, Vasiliev, a former prison warden, has photographed tattoos. But there is so much more here. Tattoos were, in fact, illegal and these images aren’t just about making a mark and an image but an act of defiance created with a scalpel using blood and urine. This isn’t a subtle veil but a coded message that we see recur again and again on worn flesh. These men are in prison and many don’t ever expect to be released.
All of the works in this exhibition are intertwined with the unavoidable political history of Russia. The works are immediate and exposing; Vikenti Nilin’s photographs show people sitting on the windowsills or roofs of towering buildings. They don’t seem as if they are about to jump or are on the verge of falling, instead they sit calmly on the edge – a fascinating comment about their day-to-day existence.
Vikenti Nilin, from the Neighbours Series. Image via www.culture24.org.uk.
Boris Mikhailov’s works repel and mesmerise us, in the same way that Piccinini does at Haunch, and two galleries here are dedicated to his work. These photographs are a small portion of 400 images he took in his homeland of Ukraine showing the distressed, desperate, dying, destitute and decaying. The drama and theatricality of the poses would be comic if the people weren’t baring all to reveal gashes, cuts, bruises, cancerous cysts and far worse.
Boris Mikhailov photographs. Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.
The photographs are at the epicentre; not all of the works deliver their messages in such a compelling way and I don’t think some of the pieces translate to a London audience. It would have been stronger if it wasn’t quite so big and determined to show a survey of Russian contemporary art. Of the 18 artists on show, many have never been seen outside Russia.
The title Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union comes from a speech by Joseph Stalin but there is no gaiety here and the work comments on the aftermath of the regimes that have gone before. The irony could not be more poignant.
Gosha Ostretsov, Criminal Government, 2008 Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The highlight of visiting the Saatchi has to be the opportunity to gaze into Richard Wilson’s 20:50, an incredible reservoir of metal, filled with engine oil, that takes the shape of the room. You’ve probably seen it before; the oil reflects its surroundings, it glows and glistens. It perfectly harmonises with the architecture around us, confounding our ideas of distance and space. Sadly, the walkway into the pool of black was closed on Sunday but I had experienced this at County Hall. It could not be simpler; it could not be more perfect and concrete despite the fluidity.
Richard Wilson, 20:50. Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.
As strange as this may sound, 20:50 provides the perfect counter-balance to the grim despair of the Russian exhibition. For me, this work is timeless and whatever Saatchi may be showing make sure you get lost in Wilson’s black depths.
Patricia Piccinini: Those who dream by night is at Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, until 12th January 2013, www.haunchofvenison.com. Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia is at the Saatchi Gallery until 5th May 2013, www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.