There is an element of Olga Chernysheva’s work that posits the artist very much into a specific category of ‘Post-Soviet’ artists. One of the last generation of Russian artists to study in the USSR, Chernysheva’s oeuvre includes painting, drawing and video, and frequently takes her native Moscow as the setting for her quiet, contemplative investigations into contemporary Russian society. Previously, Chernysheva had exhibited at Calvert 22 in London, with a body of work that included moving image, photography and also painting.
For her new exhibition at Pace London, the artist again revisits these mediums, continuing to explore the everyday, mundane reality for many of Moscow’s streets, while at the same time shining a light on the way post-Soviet Russian society has developed after the promises of the end of communism revealed themselves to be somewhat less than delivered upon. The subtle and charmingly understated elements of Chernysheva’s work is what makes the exhibition feel like so much more than another grim portrait of a long, post-communist hangover. The rejection of heavy handed, overly political gestures, something attributable to her rejection of the state sanctioned Socialist Realism which was so central to her early arts education in the 1980s is what helps shape these works into intimate insights, rather than soap box worthy accusations.
A series of photographs which greets the viewer as they enter the exhibition is the clearest indication of this subtle approach. The seven analogue prints, all entitled ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ feature portraits of the backs of people’s heads. Focusing on their hats, the images speak to the distance between the collectivised homogeneity which is often viewed as ubiquitous to life in the USSR and the tense individuality which has become more and more pronounced since the political upheavals of 1991.
While these images are a beautifully unassuming example of Chernysheva’s approach, the video installation series in the next space along is the clear highlight of the exhibition. Comprised of 8 small monitors, the works are all part of the artist’s ongoing project ‘Screens,’ which capture small moments accompanied by short texts, almost like diary observations. The works are not all based on Russian visuals, which feels important in taking Chernysheva’s work outside of the political context of her homeland and into a more universally identifiable territory.
One particularly beautiful video was shot in Giza, as a cloud of discarded plastic bags swirled through the air and up against one of the pyramids before the sand laden air caused the artist’s camera is suddenly stop working. The works reinforce Chernysheva’s interest in small moments, away from the megaphone voices of mass culture and politics, to the people and places almost on the margins. Where others have sought to portray the drama and crisis of many of the places or events which are tangentially referenced in these works, here the central characters are those who must slowly come to terms with the trickle down effects. The texts also reinforce a personal element to the works, away from grandstanding generalities.
The final room of the gallery plays host to a projection and a sound installation, and both in equal measure reinforce the specific intricacies of Chernysheva’s other works here while returning to Moscow as the setting. The bronze snout of a dog, shown in super close up on the roof of the gallery, sits inside the Revolution Square Station on Moscow’s massive metro system, and is believed to bring good luck when rubbed. The soundtrack, entitled ‘Twelve Positions in a Dream’ and created in collaboration with composer Jonny Dav, features over 30 minutes of sounds taken from the metro and formed into a sort of abstracted montage, discreet sounds for the close observer.
With its three distinct sections, further augmented by two charcoal pieces near the door, the exhibition does feel slightly disjointed in terms of its display here, covering works from 2000 up until this year. While the pieces themselves show a consistent and evolving focus and understanding, within the space itself there is something slightly jarring about encountering them one after the other, providing what feels like an almost abrupt cross-section of the artist’s work rather than a more cohesively curated selection might have.
With that being said, Chernysheva’s works here are something of a relief, a rewarding collection of observations that buck the sensationalist trend of so much work that claims to be focussed on the Post-Soviet landscape of Russia. The works which go beyond the artist’s native land further this idea of Chernysheva as an empathetic and understated witness to the small moments which pass so many by, and offer a reminder that these settings and experiences have much more to offer a viewer than they may have initially believed.
By Will Gresson