A series of photographs of the kitschy and elaborate gravestones of Russian mafia bosses goes on show today at London’s Saatchi Gallery. The photographs, taken by Denis Tarasov, 42, from Yekaterinburg, feature as part of the Body Language show, which examines the different ways in which contemporary art handles the body and physicality in painting, installations and photography. Tarasov’s photographs, which are being seen for the first time outside of Russia, examine the notion of the body as the object of memory.

In the portraits of Tarasov the dead seem to live again. When you look at his collection of gravestones from Russia and Ukraine, the last thing you think about are cemeteries and death. The men looking out at you from marble and granite graves seem to have vivid characters and firm, even cruel, convictions. The photographer achieves this effect by immersing the portrait into the landscape. The marble slabs in the pictures are surrounded by nature and other elements of the cemetery, which provokes a range of new meanings and connotations. “Photography allows you too see in an object something that wasn’t there to begin with. And that is why it is more interesting,” Tarasov told The Calvert Journal. 

The artist told The Calvert Journal that the gravestones feature “people with stories behind them”. They are mafiosi from Yekaterinburg and Dnepropetrovsk, or so-called “thieves-in-law” or just well-to-do citizens whose relatives could afford to buy a three-metre gravestone in honour of the departed. At Saatchi you can see generations whole generations of racketeers and mob families — Tarasov's exhibition, in addition to everything else, gives the viewer a good sense of the social strata of Russian and Ukrainian society in the Nineties.

This social element and verisimilitude is very important to Tarasov. In Russia, however, his candour hasn't always been received favourably. The Cossack Watch, his exhibition on the life of Russian Cossacks, was banned by government officials in Pervouralsk, near Yekaterinburg, on grounds of amorality. Viewers at Saatchi, however, were intrigued by his work. “The photographs of the gravestones help you get a sense of the Russian mentality — something you don't see when you travel there,” a visitor to the gallery said. "When you go to another country, you don't normally go visiting graveyards.”

Body Language runs at the Saatchi Gallery until 16 March.

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