I have never been to Norilsk, and never want to, but to gain some better understanding of what Andrey Bartenev is seeking to communicate with his noisy and lurid disco art – and to recognise some profundity in it when, on the face of it, there does not appear to be any – you need, perhaps, to know something about Norilsk. It is Bartenev’s birthplace. And I am not sure I can imagine a less comely home town.
Norilsk, in Siberia, is the northernmost city on the planet, and one of only two cities, the other being Yakutsk, in the permafrost zone inside the Arctic Circle. The average temperature here is -10C, but sometimes it drops to -58C. For 250 days of the year the city is under snow. When the polar night sets in at the beginning of December, the citizens of Norilsk do not get to see the sun again until the end of January. Alas, it gets worse. As the location of the largest nickel-copper-palladium deposit in the world, Norilsk has recently been named one of the 10 most polluted places on earth. The nearest surviving tree is 30 miles away. So severe is the heavy-metal pollution pumped out by the city’s smelting plants, the earth around Norilsk now contains enough platinum and palladium to make it economically feasible to mine the soil.
So, nature and economics have done Norilsk no favours. But the biggest betrayal was a human one. It was the site of Stalin’s cruellest gulag, where the hardened nay-sayers were sent to work as slaves in a nickel smelting plant named, without a trace of Stalinist irony, Nedezhda – “Hope”. Among the slave-prisoners was Bartenev’s grandfather, who never returned from the frozen north. Andrey’s father could not get out either. But Andrey has.
His story is therefore a serious and even a tragic one. How, then, to square it with the noisy disco shenanigans, lurid electro-pop colour schemes and naughty gay-soft-porn boy worship from which he makes his art? Bartenev’s garish display at the quirky Riflemaker gallery, in Soho, begins showing off in the street, with a throbbing window installation that can be properly appreciated only at night. It consists of myriads of revolving coloured lights that spell out the word Disco-Nexion as they spin madly between countless little red love hearts bobbing up and down like digital ducks in a spa bath. Mirrored walls and ceilings surrounding this throbbing display create the illusion that it stretches in every direction. The whole kitsch ensemble will apparently be recognisable to clubgoers as a disco floor effect. Not being a clubgoer myself, I have to take this on trust.
What I got out of it instead was that grim sense of relentless artificial electro-fun you get in places where all the joy has to be imported, like the nocturnal gaming caverns of Las Vegas or the funfairs that used to arrive in Boscombe Park in my youth. Flash, flash, flash, they went, pound, pound, pound, in wave after wave of desperate electronic masturbation that dares not pause for a second in case it loses you.
Inside the gallery, a selection of scruffy collages make clearer the gay-nightclub underpinning of Bartenev’s aesthetics. Pretty boys with their tops off flounce about busy kaleidoscopic patterns made not from flashing disco lights this time, but from cut-up fragments of porn mags and shopping catalogues. As with the music pounding through the show, there’s a relentless choppiness to the collages that makes it difficult to focus on any particular bit of them. So, I enjoyed a single reclining figure paused in the pose of Manet’s Olympia chiefly because it seemed to stay still long enough for me to examine it. The face looked familiar. It took a couple of returns, but eventually I recognised him: it was Nick Kamen, from that famous Levi’s ad in which he drops his jeans in a laundrette and chucks them into a washing machine.
Bartenev represented Russia at the Venice Biennale last year with a similar light installation to the one that opens this show (instead of repeating the words Disco-Nexion, the Venice version kept flashing up the message Connection Lost), and I remember coming across a startling interview with him in which he described the “new reality” in which he was now living, where all his communication with the outside was done on the telephone or the internet. That was his world. And, amazingly, he never wanted to leave it: “This is a new generation who want to be alone. We never touch real people. We don’t want real people. We enjoy life alone. We feel comfortable, we feel beauty, and we enjoy to be like that. Many millions of people don’t want families, don’t want friends and don’t want relationships with anyone else because they enjoy a comfortable life. And we don’t want change.” Thus, the boundless tragedy of human disconnection has somehow mutated into the 24-hour fun of Disco-Nexion.
Bartenev’s seemingly silly search for digital disco effects turns out to have some hefty international creepiness to it. After all, it isn’t only the pale unfortunates of Norilsk who get to live life alone these days. We’ve all read the statistics about the surprising number of single people choosing to stay that way. From Tokyo to London, singledom has become a perversely popular social preference. Bartenev might only have met Kamen in hyperspace, but at least the two of them ended up living happily ever after. And, because it turns out to be about the problems of the electronic age in general, the show addresses some poignant universal issues.
I also caught a performance, in the gallery’s basement, of a piece called Mouth Off, in which Bartenev covered up the bottom half of his face with a pretend layer of skin so it looked as if he no longer had a mouth, while a troop of sexy Russian divas dressed in skintight superhero costumes mimed their way energetically through a series of pounding disco hits. When the girls stopped singing, another Russian woman began listing all the other activities for which you need a mouth. Kissing. Eating. Whistling. Threading a needle. So, what about the advantages of not having a mouth, she continued? You can’t get toothache. You can’t have bad breath. You don’t get fat. In the end, the pro-mouth list and the no-mouth list just about evened out. The point seemed to be that, although having no mouth sounds awful at first, it isn’t that bad. The same goes for living alone.
As an artist, Bartenev does not, in the end, add up to much. His camp textures only just survive their migration from the disco to the art gallery. But, although this garish show smites you with its superficiality when you first encounter it, it does eventually become something deeper, lonelier, weirder.