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Pavel Otdelnov shows a portrait of today’s Russia in London

In his new series of paintings Russian artist Pavel Otdelnov reflects on the current state of Russian society from psychological, historical and philosophical points of view. The exhibition, called ‘Acting Out’, is on view at London’s Pushkin House until January 28, 2023.

Stretching the length of official corridors in every Russian state building from the national Duma to local councils there is a standard red carpet which has survived from the Soviet times to this day. For many people, this kind of carpet conjures up memories of wasted hours spent waiting for indifferent bureaucrats to produce, or decline to produce, documents of various kinds.

Pavel Otdelnov’s (b. 1979) Path depicts just such a carpet, leading through a landscape of snow under grey skies, towards a blurred horizon. This image of futility and hope disappearing is the first painting in his new exhibition ‘Acting Out,’ and it sets the scene for Otdelnov’s wider investigation into how Russia turned its own traumas into conflict with Ukraine.

The ubiquitous Soviet-era red carpet becomes a symbol for misguided notions of Russia’s ‘special way’ and in its next iteration leads deep into a nuclear bunker, as visitors leave the elegant foyer of London’s Pushkin House and go down to the basement. Here the first room of the exhibition is titled ‘Ressentiment,’ a play on French and English meanings which combine the idea of resentment at the loss of the Soviet Empire, with that of an overwhelming emotion which is never far from the surface of Russian society. The weapons arsenal which underpinned the Soviet Union’s superpower status is portrayed as obsolete, repurposed in ways which are absurd, chilling and most critically, lacking in self-reflection which could have helped Russia move beyond its imperial complex to develop afresh.

Tsar-Bomba shows a giant globe made from the casing of the Soviet Union’s most powerful thermonuclear bomb. Today this ‘nuclear globe’ is set in the grounds of Orlenok holiday camp near Snezhinsk, an innocent-looking attraction for family photographs. Money evokes a toxic mix of humiliated pride and impotence, depicting a mound of rouble banknotes, dumped in a nuclear rocket shaft after hyper-inflation and subsequent currency devaluation in the 1990s erased the life-savings of many ordinary Russians.

Otdelnov chose a psychological term for the title of this show because he contends that the roots of Russia’s current crisis lie in the nation’s collective psychological state. In the second room the artist digs into recent post-Soviet history and discovers the ‘Acting Out’ reflex has already started to transform ‘passive victimhood to active initiative.’ Here ‘Acting Out’ takes the form of aggressive and repressive actions against the generation of Russians who sought to build a better life in their country. The 1991 Coup shows a row of empty suits arranged as if at the notorious press conference where right-wingers tried to wrest power from reformers, while Swan Lake depicts a ‘corps de ballet’ of riot police deployed to crackdown on opposition protests. These visual references depict not the last gasp of a dying political system, but stages in its revival, mutation and return to life under Vladimir Putin. Close by, two pictures create poignant counterpoints; Cargo 200 depicts a sealed train carrying the dead soldiers of a nameless war, while in Seats a row of empty plastic chairs suspended in the darkness of an auditorium speaks to the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have left in three decades up to and including the draft refuseniks of today.

In the final room, Otdelnov reflects on how the future could play out in Russia – he offers a vision of an alternative reality based on nostalgia for a mythical past, set to the looped soundtrack of Soviet science fiction films. In The Parade elderly women hold up banners proclaiming the slogans of their communist youth, still rooting for the failed utopia that seeded their own trauma and marks Russian generations of the future.

Pavel Otdelnov. Acting Out

Pushkin House

London, UK

October 13, 2022 – January 28, 2023

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