Over the last couple of years several photo albums came out on the unlikely subject of Russian criminal tattoo. These albums, narrating about the Self, body, and totalitarianism, document the marginal yet incredibly powerful visual subculture of the late-Soviet Gulag. Beyond relative visibility of underground Soviet dissident inteligencia of the 1960-1970s, beyond forged by Moscow-based foreign correspondents definition of Soviet dissident art, these amateur artists of the Gulag engraved bodies of their human canvases with striking by any standards images of grass-roots anti-totalitarian resistance. The owners of these tattoos of outmost anti-Soviet sentiment and grotesque (top Soviet politicians portrayed as pigs or Communist slogans mixed with foul language) for the remainder of their live span became carriers of best examples of truly direct, political, and uncompromising dissent Soviet culture ever produced, and in comparison to which forever pale the most radical works of Soviet non-conformist artists, including Sots Art, looking like toothless jokes for the middle-class at best.
Russian criminal tattoo artworks have never left the Soviet Union in suitcases of foreign diplomats, have never been sold at Sotby or other auction houses as examples of artistic resistance under totalitarianism, and have never become symbols of critique and perestroika. These tattoos remained in the late-Soviet and later post-Soviet landscape, aging as the bodies of their carriers aged, visible from time to time in prison yards and cells, privacy of apartments, doctor’s offices, public beaches, and finally morgues. The owner of these tattoos had been largely indifferent to the perestroika spectacle, sub-cultural, marginal, non-engaged, still incarcerated. After seeing Soviet criminal tattoos, can anyone still seriously consider Soviet non-conformist art, and in particular Sots Art, a political art of the late-Soviet Union and perestroika? Having seen, for instance, a tattoo featuring a skeleton bearing sign CPSU( Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on his forehead while pushing a coffin on which it reads forward to the victory of communism, are there any questions as to where truly oppositional and dissident late-Soviet visual culture resided?
In 1977, Moscow artist Erik Bulatov painted the widely known portrait of Leonid Brezhnev. One of the tattoos in the recent Russian criminal tattoo book is of Brezhnev with horns and pig-like features yet with the usual Hero of Socialist Labor orders, strikingly rendered, created around the same time as Bulatov’s piece. The discursive gap between Bulatov’s interpretation of Brezhnev and that by an anonymous tattoo artist of the late-Soviet Gulag violently strips down the pretense of political agency of Sots Art and the late-Soviet non-conformist art in general. The two Brezhnevs bring into question the very issue of opposition, dissent, and non-conformism in the late-Soviet visual culture.
In the mid 1980s, Sots Art (which started long before perestroika in 1972) became the main visual symbol of the perestroika and glasnost era, and understandably so. However, both Sots Art and perestroika itself (whose aesthetic arm Sots Art in fact was) turned out to be a disappointment and failure. Starting in the mid 1980s, Sots Art entered a deep crisis from which it has never been able to recover. As soon as late 1980s, Sots Artists have lost not only the very object of critique, in reference to which they for so long worked, but also any hope that their methodology and tools could address the rapidly changing reality and be effective in the new capitalist era.
Various Sots artists reacted differently to this new post-Soviet reality and the difference in reactions is both a testament to personal flexibility of individual members of the movement, willingness to react to the changing world, or resist the commodification of the pre-perestroika artistic production. In the case of Komar and Melamid, signs of frustration and disorientation were evident in the artists’ practice as early as late 1980s when the duo created a series of projects in which they clearly parted with the Sots Art in a desperate attempt to find a way out of the post-Soviet malice. Project Peoples Choice, notwithstanding its genius, marked the death of the project of Sots Art as far as the duo is concerned.
A different approach was taken yet by another representative of the Sots Art movement, Alexander Kosolapov. During the 1990s and 2000s Kosolapov continued to produce numerous variations on his earlier Sots Art works such as Malevich-Coca-Cola, Lenin-Mickey Mouse, etc. as if Berlin Wall had never fallen. In Kosolapov’s case, however, there was more of rational self-interest and embrace of the booming post-Soviet art market than denial of historical change. Kosolapov’s practice today is not only totally divorced from the object of critique but with striking clarity demonstrates the true nature of Sots Art as a deeply individualist, capitalist in spirit artistic project.
It seems to me that Sots Art has been a project of the political right and a tool of the Western imperialism from its very inception. This art was pro-Western, pro-neoliberal, performed for Western reporters in Moscow. In a situation of the Cold War confrontation between East and West, Sots Art was inconspicuously on the side of the West, Reaganist West to be exact. Intellectually, it seems that Sots Artists had made no attempt to look at the Soviet reality and its Socialist project beyond just the ugly facade of its state ideology and shortcomings. They proved to be unable to critique Soviet version of Socialism without throwing out a baby with tub water. Sots Artists were incapable to discursively separate the Soviet reality of the 1970-1980s from the promise of the Socialist project.
During perestroika and post-perestroika period, this right-wing political orientation of Sots Art, which originated in the Soviet era, prevented the movement from finding adequate (critical) forms of reaction to the historical transition to the crude post-Soviet capitalism. Rightfully critical during the Soviet period (although not as direct or political as Soviet criminal tattoo artists), the Sots Art movement became conformist and affirmative of the new Russian state and its ideology of the market.
Going back to the issue of perestroika art, I would argue that it’s Russian criminal tattoo and not Sots Art is what will forever remain examples of the truly critical, political visual culture of the late Soviet Union. In was the Soviet criminal underclass that created genuine and uncompromising images of resistance before, during, and after perestroika.
Produced by the devoid of political agency late-Soviet middle-class, Sots Art was a politicized rather than political art. And baring this in mind, it’s perhaps on today’s Gulag’s tattoo artist that we can rely to create truly political portraits of Putin, Medvedev and so on, as they had never failed to do for Eltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, and others in the past.