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Svetlana Kuznetsova: Reflections on Life in the USSR

Wandering around the Other Art Fair in early October, I am drawn to the macabre sculptures of Svetlana Kuznetsova. Delicate gems and jewellery adorn the orifices of sheep’s skulls surrounded by the dead bodies of insects. This mysterious juxtaposition of riches and harrowing images of death seems fitting in light of the artist’s experience growing up in the USSR.

Svelana Kuznetsova, Solid Reminder of the Void, 2017 (Photo: Courtesy of Svetlana Kuznetsova)

Warm and welcoming, Kuznetsova presents each detail under the sarcophagus-shaped glass in the Savage World of Powers. Three skulls wear crowns representative of their wearer’s high profession: one head is crowned by the golden Monomakh Cap of the tsars, representative of the supreme powers that govern Russia, another wears the Patriarch’s klopuk portraying the influence of Christianity, and the last has a Papakha, the karakul hat of Islam. The choice of using the skulls of sheep, common farmyard animals, for all three leaders mocks their claims to divinity among other men by reducing them to mortal primitive creatures – ‘while this is us’, she says as she points to the scatterings of dead insects. Humans often have little respect for insects, denouncing them as ‘pests’ and killing them without reservation. The Russian authorities treat the anonymous crowd likewise. With a comprehensive set of visual symbols, Kuznetsova captures the cold heart of the USSR’s monumental mechanism of power that she ultimately seeks to condemn.

By contrast, the other work on display, Solid Reminder of the Void, focuses on the tangible effects of Russia’s regime and the consumer deficit caused by the USSR’s planned economy. People were not able to purchase items they desperately needed, a few of which were outlined on the artwork’s glass case, from cheese to panty liners. The population’s struggle is paired with the wealth of the shopkeeper, the skull with gilt horns. This gnarled form represents the figure that carries out the state’s abominable means of manipulation – the control of the bare necessities. The shopkeepers thrived on the profits of bribery, and thus the artist vilifies these entrepreneurs who are the product of the USSR’s corruption. Under Soviet control, Kuznetsova’s Russia became a country of beggars.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, Savage World of Powers, 2017 (Photo: Courtesy of Svetlana Kuznetsova)

Behind the skulls and finery, a subtler message lies in the iconography of the wooden coffin in the Savage World of Powers. Built to commemorate the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution, the sarcophagus draws parallels with Lenin’s open mausoleum. Just as many westerners look to Lenin and socialist policies with boundless awe, Kuznetsova probes her capitalist audience to reconsider their socialist fantasies by confronting us with their grim results. She expresses concerns about the ‘disease’ of socialism, which she claims worms its way into people’s minds with false promises of utopia. Kuznetsova’s work asks us to rethink this idealism, viewing socialism in terms of the struggles and corruption in Soviet Russia, laid bare in her sculptures.

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