The centenary of the Russian Revolution is being celebrated in various exhibitions and cultural events this year, from the Royal Academy’s current ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917–32’ to Calvert 22’s program exploring the legacies of the revolution in collaboration with St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. ‘Seventeen’ at Centrala more obliquely explores what a centenary of such significance might mean through the work of three UK-based Russian artists, Olga Grotova, Yelena Popova and Nika Neelova.
Russians still refer to the revolution as ‘the revolution of the year seventeen’. As we have now entered a second ‘year seventeen,’ the exhibition explores the significance of this suggested doubling of history. The works address implications of echoes and resonances throughout history, the inescapability of the past and our understanding of the present moment.
In Grotova’s video One (2016), three female characters are trapped experiencing déjà vu in a grand yet dilapidated room. Dressed in white lace gowns they perform vignettes, from ballet exercises by the piano to lolling ennui complaining about the heat. The film’s initial historical references and narratives gradually break down as the protagonists’ actions dissolve into circular pacing, frustrated by the impossibility of getting anywhere. Their conversation loops and repeats. Nearing hysteria, they ricochet from manic laughter to despair with phrases such as: ‘All of this has happened already’, ‘I’m no longer living but only remembering my own life’ and ‘Everything changes but we don’t feel the change’. The women stand in a circle batting a shuttlecock back and forth, exclaiming ‘Now!’ with each flick of the racket. These exclamations are almost imperatives dragging us into the present. The characters are trapped, both in the eight-minute loop of the video and the present moment, stuck between memories of the past and unable to move forward into a disintegrating vision of the future.
Popova’s paintings have the potential to alter between viewings, offering unique encounters and also prompting consideration of our experience of the present moment. Chemical Landscapes (2016), three small canvases with abstract swirls and bands of colour, have been created with reactive chemicals that subtly change in response to fluctuations in humidity and temperature. The bright turquoise, black and rust brown surfaces engage with both the materiality and temporality of painting. Although not initially apparent, Popova’s paintings also have an autobiographical reference to the secret town in the USSR where she grew up, which was a centre of nuclear production and the site of a radioactive disaster. This preoccupation with the layering of histories and material traces in a specific location is echoed through the placement of the canvases on a distressed brick wall, where their textured surfaces play off remnants of chipped plaster, paint and the building’s past lives.
Painted with wood ash on linen, the subtle figures in Popova’s Human Studies (2016) are almost invisible. Body parts can be read in the loose lines: a head, a hunched shoulder, an arm, a thigh. Like Chemical Landscapes this work will also change with each installation as the forms appear differently under different lights or when reproduced in photographs. Both series consider what is hidden, what can be seen, what changes and what remains, posing questions of human endurance and presence.
The traces of human presence are also explored by Neelova, whose work is loosely based on the idea of a possible dissolution to our attachment to reality. Her sculptures propose modified ruins and techno-artifacts, appearing as remains of some fictional violence or disaster. The twisted organic forms of Lemniscate (2017) appear to resemble driftwood or a tree root. However on closer inspection the sculpture is revealed to be made from the reassembled banisters of two flights of stairs. Lithic (2017) is a similarly ambiguous curiosity, open to interpretation. Spread across the floor, it looks like a series of buckled canvases or perhaps fallen ceiling panels, marked with creases, water stains, cracks and crumbled edges. It can also be seen as a landscape or a model of tectonic plates, and the title Lithic, which means pertaining to stone, reveals Neelova’s interest in hypothetical future geology.
A slippage between initial appearances and reality or truth also occurs with Grotova’s works on canvas. To a certain degree they resemble the spontaneous gestures of action painting, yet they are actually screen prints. This mechanical reproduction of unique expressive gestures transforms them into replicated fictions. Rather than being records of distinct moments, they – like the looping actions and phrases of Grotova’s video – could be endlessly repeated, reproduced and echoed through time.