Tag Archives: Boris Mikhailov

Flesh, Despair and Glistening Oil – Haunch and Saatchi

4 Dec

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.

the carrier

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

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.

A mono photo-like print of a bare chested man with tattoos

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.

A dummy of a man hangs in a hand-built row of cells

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.comGaiety 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.

Blurring the Boundaries: New Documentary Forms at Tate Modern

31 Aug

I don’t know what possessed me but, as I was close by, I decided to pop into Tate Modern for a quick visit over the Bank Holiday weekend – there were so many people!  Tate always has something new to see and, on this visit, I discovered a five-room photography display, examining the ways in which artists today use cameras to explore the power of the photograph as a documentary medium.  The exhibition also celebrates Tate’s new acquisitions.

The subject range is diverse with each room focusing on one artist and one project.

The exhibition opens with Mitch Epstein’s American Power series, the result of five years’ work, in which the artist documents the consequences of energy production.  His works capture the relationship between the American landscape and American society, often juxtaposing the two in striking, somewhat unsettling compositions showing homes in the shadow of power plants where people are deprived of clean air and water.  Epstein’s work is powerful, forcing the viewer to confront the issues at hand without sugar-coating the topic.  The vast scale of the images alludes to the enormity of the problem.  Engaging with the tradition of landscape photography, Epstein is working within an artistic heritage to illuminate this political context.

Mitch Epstein, American Power series. Own photograph.

This project began in 2003 when Epstein photographed the ‘erasure’ of Cheshire, Ohio, where American Electric Power bought the town and issued a gag order.  As the streets rapidly emptied, Epstein began to comprehend the true cost of energy growth and the consequences of fossil-fuel production on human life and the ecosystem.  These images show the flip-side of the American dream – the growth of this American dream shows the dangerous nature of corporate power and consumerist advertising.

Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004. Own photograph.

The exhibition then moves on to the work of the artist, Luc Delahaye, who made a name for himself through war photojournalism.  His work focuses on recent conflicts, looking at Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.  This series of work prompts us to question the role of documentary photography and whether it is designed to be exhibited. For me, these works sit more easily on the side of photojournalism rather than as an art form, but Delahaye uses a large-format, single-plate view camera, rather than the small portable type normally utilised in these situations, and takes only one image, rather than the hundreds usually captured by photojournalists.  His work certainly mixes art with reportage.

Luc Delahaye, Jenin Refugee Camp, 2002. Own photograph.

Delahaye has won numerous photography awards and accolades in the past for his reportage and ground-breaking work.  Are we meant to look at these images in an artistic context or are they meant to be seen in magazines and newspapers?  Focusing on human suffering, Delahaye once said ‘Photojournalism is neither photography or journalism…the press is for me just a means for photographing, for material – not for telling the truth.’  He considers himself an artist rather than a photojournalist.  The images here, though less horrific than some of his previously exhibited works, are still powerful.

Luc Delahaye, The Palestine Hotel, 2003. Own photograph.

All of the rooms present a striking contrast.  The exhibition goes on to look at the work of Akram Zaatari who curates photographs from the archive of Hashem el Madani.  These photographs illuminate ordinary people, individuals escaping from everyday life, posing, dressing up and so on.  Madani’s studio was a safe haven in a socially conservative society.  Zaatari has organised the photographs into categories that reflect the social and political context in which the sitters lived.

Works by Akram Zaatari. Own photograph.

Guy Tillim’s series Congo Demoratic depicts the 2006 presidential election in the Republic of Congo.  Although Tillim focuses on moments of tension and/or excitement, he manages to convey great detail showing the range of emotion expressed by all those in the scene.  These photographs capture moments of shocking violence, showing the often horrific position of a documentary photographer and the sensationalist nature of this kind of imagery.

Guy Tillim, Protesters calling for a boycott of the elections, central Kinshasa, July 2006. Own photograph.

Finally, we look at the work of acclaimed artist, Boris Mikhailov and his series Red and DuskRed shows works taken in his home town, Kharkov, from 1968-75.  Arranged in a large installation, Mikhailov has hand-painted red onto the images to show the continual presence of the Soviet Union in his home town.  As with all the documentary photographs on display here, his work is uncompromising in its presentation of the vulnerability of those in his town.  His Dusk series documents the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s.  Using a blue tonality throughout, this time the artist has used colour to symbolise Ukraine’s dusk at the end of the Soviet Union. Mikhailov uses his play with colour to introduce an artistic edge to a
documentary artform.

Boris Mikhailov, Red. Own photograph.

Tate is concentrating a lot on photography at the moment.  This exhibition is a like a meze plate – there really aren’t enough works by each photographer to get your teeth into.  It’s too brief but it whets your appetite.  These themes and these artists certainly deserve further exploration and this exhibition only just touches the surface.  These photographs are powerful visual documents that profoundly affect viewers.

Photographers are not only able to document social and political issues but also to influence the way in which they are portrayed. New Documentary Forms shows the importance of photography as artform and newsform.  Through this medium, we are able to see great art and a record of history.  What is photojournalism?  What is artistic photography?  Is there a difference?  In a time when boundaries are blurred, this exhibition shows the haziness and the difficulty surrounding this argument.

Photography: New Documentary Forms is at Tate Modern until 31st March 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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