In 2014 I was lucky enough to go on a study trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (cf. art press 419). This trip gave rise to the first independent magazine of Kazakh art, , and shortly afterwards the Goethe-Institut got back and asked me to organize a touring show of art in nearly all the former Soviet states. After a year spent travelling and meeting people, and then six months of production, the exhibition Die Grenze (The Frontier), co-curated with Inke Arns, started touring in January 2017. It will continue into 2018. Visiting artists’ studios in Russia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, nearly thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, in countries that were celebrating twenty-five years of independence, was an enriching experience full of new friendships. It also called into question our own Western relation to art, to its production and dissemination.
Showroom by art group Agency Singular Investigations, Moscow, Russia
First of all, we need to understand that what for a large part of the twentieth century we thought of as a union has given way to countries with economies, political setups, landscapes and everyday living conditions that are radically diverse. What these countries do share, however, is the search for an identity, a personal history and even, sometimes, a native tongue. The Soviet Union redistributed natural resources and imposed Russian as a common language. Today, everyday life in these countries varies widely from one to another, depending on the presence of gas, oil or uranium in the soil, and on the respective levels of corruption, press freedom and electoral transparency. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan export their raw material to the West, Ukraine is at war with Russia, Armenia is like an island on a drip feed, Georgia is trying to fashion itself as a charming tourist destination, and Belarus is a buffer state between Western Europe and Russia. The only solid connection between these countries is Georgian gastronomy, which is recognized as a safe bet.
“I WANT MY IDENTITY BACK”
“Identity” isn’t just a theme for end-of-dinner conversations in these parts. It is often at the heart of the texts written by critics and is used overtly in artistic practices, so much so that Alex Ulko, the only art critic in Uzbekistan, told me one day that “Whenever I hear this word nowadays my hair stands up on my head.” If a French artist says he is looking for his identity, we immediately assume that he is talking about a personal or sexual quest. In contrast, the artists of the former USSR are probing the past and playing games with ancestral social codes. In affirming a nascent national identity, they have no qualms about drawing on the popular traditions that were often denigrated during the decades of Soviet rule. In Uzbekistan, for example, Dilyara Kaipova makes clothes from the traditional Ikat fabric whose patterns, when attentively observed, turn out to weave in icons of American popular culture (Batman, Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader). Her subtle, ironic play on imagery offers a sharp commentary on the state of her country, which is both rediscovering its traditions in order to assert itself in relation to its neighbours, and undergoing the influence of globalization, including cultural globalization. That is also why, in Azerbaijan, many artists are interested in carpets, and make bold use of them in their creations. Faig Ahmed, for example, gets artisans to make rugs in which ancestral motifs join up with the digital world of pixels.
Faig Ahmed, Gautama, 2017
Unfortunately, though, looking to time-honoured traditions in the search for identity can also result in a kind of ethno-kitsch, meaning the use of seductive patterns designed to please a public that knows next to nothing about contemporary art. Fortunately, again in Azerbaijan, there are also people like Fahrad Farzaliev and his very effective Azerbaijani Burger (2015). The principle is simple and the work has the feel of a readymade. It consists of a crocodile-skin pocketbook, a packet of cigarettes, a gold cigarette lighter, a luxury smartphone and the keys to a car piled up on a pedestal. These are the status symbols that any Azerbaijani nouveau riche needs to possess. Like a kind of travelling resume, the “burger” is usually placed on the table at the beginning of the meal to signal the owner’s standing. Farzaliev’s work humorously makes the point that all around the world art has become a luxury product, in the same way as cars or watches. Often torn between pre-Soviet traditions and the vulgarity of the globalized world, the search for an identity is obviously a major social and political issue for countries looking for a role on the world stage.
BACK TO RUSSIA AND UCHRONIA
Of course, I make no claim to have seen everything in this territory that extends over eleven time zones. But the point here is to suggest structural and conceptual links. Speaking of Central Asia, I have already used the metaphor of , a form of science fiction that transforms a major event by reconceiving it in a counter-factual, alternative context. To travel in these countries is to call into question our own idea of art history and our criteria of judgment. Malevich is obviously more important than Duchamp out here, but very few artists refer to him with any regularity. The fact is that if you want to understand what it going on in these countries, you need to dwell on this “other” history, to enter an uchronia made up of avant-gardes, socialist realism, collectives and politics.
Katya Isaeva. (Russia).
"Instadancer". 2016. Video. 15 seconds
Many of the artists here put no filters between themselves and the world, with the result that their works sometimes come out looking like a journalistic caricature. In countries where press freedoms are almost non-existent, it falls to art to take up the critical, polemical role, even if that is sometimes at the expense of its autonomy and singularity. Art can even become a political cause, with the artists taking physical risks, as did Piotr Pavlenski, a performance artist whose provocations are sometimes a little facile. He set fire to the door of the Federal Security Services (and more recently to that of the Banque de France). He also nailed his own scrotum to the ground on Red Square. Then, of course, there is Pussy Riot and their trial, an unwelcome throwback to old times. But the finest uchronia is in Krasnoyarsk, in the heart of Siberia, 4,000 kilometres from Moscow.That is where the Soviet Union built the last Lenin museum in 1987, shortly before its own demise. A whole floor of this brutalist structure is dedicated to the life of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Books, paintings, nobleg busts, facsimiles and reproductions of documents tell the official story, all the way up to the fall of the USSR. When the museum was transformed into a contemporary art centre in the 1990s, its head curator, Sergey Kovalekski, had a brainwave: instead of destroying the Lenin exhibition, he would open up doors in the plaster and cardboard picture walls and take visitors behind the official presentation, between the hanging and the building’s concrete walls. In this intermediate space are objects and documents showing a less sunny picture of the USSR, but also works by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (1969–2013), an insolent transvestite artist who was particularly critical of contemporary Russia. This architectural and is quite unlike anything elsewhere in the world: an encounter between two different ways of narrating history, and an invitation to always read between the lines.
In the second half of the 1990s, curators, journalists and gallerists travelled out to these parts and revealed a whole new generation of artists, from Oleg Kulik to Boris Mikhailov, the Blue Noses, Almagul Menlibayeva and Chto Delat. In contrast, the new generation is starved of attention. One reason for this is that its members are trying to get away from the purely Soviet and post-Soviet vocabulary and issues that still go down such a treat in Western Europe. Another is that there is no local support. Many of those who enjoy success are people who have left the territory (like the Slavs and Tatars in Berlin, or Saodat Ismaïlova in Paris), or whose studies abroad have enabled them to build up an international network (people like Taus Makhacheva, who had a video in the central exhibition at the last Venice Biennale).The problem that keeps coming up here is that of education: the reform of art schools since 1989 has been partial or nonexistent. Only the Rodchenko Art School in Moscow attracts Russian-speaking students and works in close relation with the capital’s very serious Multimedia Art Museum. Consequently, it is more isolated figures like Yana Gaponenko at the Zarya art centre in Vladivostok and Stas Sharifullin in Krasnoyarsk who have taken on the job of filling in the gaps by organizing summer academies or informal structures.
Dilyara Kaipova, Batman, 2016
Photo by author
As for the institutions, the list is fairly short. In Armenia, the very young Armenian Art Foundation has set up a residency program for Armenian artists and has begun to organize exhibitions. The NCCAs, contemporary art centres located in several Russian towns, are doing ambitious work but remain fragile and thin on the ground. Finally, the venues backed by real economic power, such as the Pinchuk in Kiev, Garage in Moscow, and Yarat in Baku, are trying to combine the somewhat blingy taste of the oligarchs with residencies and grants to support young artists and researchers.
INTERNET, AN EXHIBITION SPACE
Being an artist in these countries, therefore, means being marginal, and knowing in advance that you won’t get many exhibitions. That said, the social networks are flooded with images and, whether on Facebook or its Russian equivalent Vkontakte, many of these artists are active and are “exhibiting” on Vimeo. For those with a punkish, DIY approach, the internet is a perfect place for getting images, videos and projects out to a wide audience, and at a low cost. It has even begun to replace the exhibition space. The Muscovite artist Katya Isaeva, for example, has opened her own internet museums and posts a new video almost every day. Her Owl Museum, the , is a personal homage to Marcel Broodthaers’s Musée d’art moderne - département des aigles. On Instagram, she uses the hashtag #instadancerkatya to post sequences lasting a few seconds in which we see her dancing in her apartment, in a kind of nod to Pina Bausch and Paula Abdul. Not that the artist is in thrall to social media, it is simply that she has a thorough and critical understanding of what they have to offer as an exhibition space open to visitors from around the world at any time of day or night.
Finally, it is important to note that out of the seventy participants at the Triennial of Russian Art organized in Moscow by Garage in Moscow, some ten are collectives. In the West, this form of artistic adventure may have had its glory years back in the 1960s and 70s, but it remains an effective way of proceeding and creating. Where many West European artists are going it alone, hoping to secure their own little slice of cake, the artists of the former USSR have understood, strangely enough, that unity makes strength. Among these collectives, the Agency of Singular Investigations studies various strange phenomena including the meteorite that fell on Moscow in 1954, the existence of a French company called Readymade, and the construction of optical instruments to facilitate the observation of artworks. Where Dogs Run, based in Yekaterinburg, is a group of four who fashion scientific objects for studying the climate or making soup. In Vladivostok, 33+1 comprises thirty-three artists of all ages and from every kind of background united around an enigmatic +1, who is both their agent, their curator and their producer. This role of a conductor (or even “odd job man”) is no doubt one last common feature in this territory for, once again, given the weakness of the institutions, artists must be capable of organizing their careers themselves.
Dilyara Kaipova, Cptain Ikat, 2016
Photo by author
Many actors on the art scene are therefore at once artists, curators, critics, teachers, mentors, members of a collective, barmen, graphic designers and who knows what else. They are also inventing new formats. In order to develop networks and make up for the weak social environment, Yulia Belousova organizes dinners in Berlin, Moscow, Milan and Barcelona, inviting targeted individuals to gather around the work of a given artist and thus helping to create a bit of the social fabric still lacking in the art world. It remains to be seen when this zone will give rise to a trans-border and trans-historical project, an exhibition that would, at last, give an idea of the genius and quality of these artists, not in relation to their own territory, but to contemporary art globally. All too often, they tend to be put together based not on a concept but on a territory or a nationality. Such shows put the emphasis on the lowest common denominator of a shared home country rather than on affinities in the ways the artists practice art. Obviously, if they could be compared to their counterparts in the West, we would not fail to observe the conspicuous differences in the resources that go into producing their works, but we would also see that the flashiness in the making of certain works here is nothing other than ostentation. We would realize that our little contemporary art world is a neo-liberal, individualist, close to the luxury industry, and quite simply fascinated by success on the art market. Whereas in other countries, such as these, being an artist means exposing yourself to danger, trying to change the world, inventing and providing mutual assistance.
The article was first published in - "East Wind - art in the former Soviet Union", Art Press, No. 450, December 2017, pp. 61-68.
Translation by C. PENWARDEN