This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.
For my response to the symposium Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia, which was organised by Asia Art Archive in October 2013 in Hong Kong, I want to give a critical overview of the Central Asian Pavilions in Venice Biennale—the largest representation of Central Asian art in the international art scene.
A short history of the Central Asia representation in Venice (there have been five editions of the pavilion between 2005 and 2013) is compatible with the conceptual statement of the symposium, which proposed that "In the context of Asia, in the absence of systematic public collections and substantial academic art history departments dedicated to 20th and 21st century art from the region, exhibitions are more than just sites of display and interaction. Exhibitions have become the primary sites of art historical construction for recent art from the region."
In my review of the Central Asia pavilions, I will focus not only on the art historical dimension, but I will also try to highlight the political dimension that exhibitions of such scale and significance may acquire in post-Soviet Central Asia. So, my point will be to review the Central Asia pavilions in Venice Biennale not only as milestones in recent Central Asian art history, but also as sites of political and civic dissent given the politico-economical context of their production. Central Asia in my text will be represented by four countries of the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
First of all, I want to briefly introduce the aesthetic and political agendas of contemporary art practice in Central Asia during the 1990s and early 2000. The history of twentieth-century art in Central Asia reflects the political and social history of the region. This history is one of ruptures and breaks rather than a history characterised by continuity and constant motion. Modern art originated in the region with the October Revolution; the 1991 break from the Soviet Union gave way to what is known as contemporary art.
In the early 1990s and even in 2000, contemporary art was conceptualised on an aesthetic, formal level through a conflict with official Soviet "academic" art—its major media were painting and sculpture, and institutions like artists' unions, museums, etc. Contemporaneity in art was then represented by such media as video, photography, installation, and performance art. Formal innovation and negation of traditional media were prevailing aspects of contemporary art identity during this time in Central Asia.
On the political level, however, contemporary artistic practice was rather ambivalent, and even contradictory. Its opposition to the traditional Soviet art system could have been broadly interpreted as a challenge to the old, or the Soviet ("sovok"). The older generation of Central Asian artists (S. Maslov, R. Khalfin, V. Akhunov) were in some way connected to the so-called Soviet unofficial art or Moscow conceptualism (which they followed or were opposed to), which can be very loosely defined as dissident with the Soviet regime. However, "dissident" should not be understood as anti-Soviet or anti-socialist. Their dissent was not necessarily of explicit political character, but existential—demanding renewal, de-ideologisation, and de-bureaucratisation of artistic practice and daily life in the Soviet Union.
The younger generation of contemporary artists was made of recent graduates of art schools and academia. Their practice was also defined by a certain political ambivalence. This generation of artists is best described through an allegory borrowed from the cult novel Generation P by the Russian writer Viktor Pelevin. The novel, which was published in 1999, draws a portrait of a typical representative of the first post-Soviet generation of cultural workers. The novel's protagonist, Vavilen Tatarsky, is a young man who studies to become a poet and literary translator. He imagines himself translating poetry from Uzbek or Kyrgyz during day, and writing his own poetry in the evenings. However, this plan never pans out.
In his book, Pelevin describes not only the typical circumstances of the early 1990s, but also the challenges that new reality evoked. These challenges are of existential character—people who lived with clear and unquestionable concepts about themselves and their lives were faced with conceptualising new identities and their positions within this new reality. There is a crucial moment in the novel when Tatarsky realises his "Sovietness" and its dissolution. He comes across typical yellow "made in USSR" shoes, stitched with light blue thread, and decorated with large gold buckles in the shape of harps collecting dust and unwanted. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only a dismantling of an ideological superstructure and destruction of social institutions and systems that supported people's lives and informed their plans, but it was also a loss of the material world—the world of things that determined people’s unreflective identity and emotional lives.
Similarly, artists who started their careers in the early 1990s had very clear plans for their future within the established Soviet art system. According to Kazakhstani artist, Yerbossyn Meldibekov (1964), he entered the Sculpture Department of Art Academy in Almaty with one aspiration: to learn how to make Lenin busts because it was the most profitable field of work for artists at the time. His family even had "to sacrifice" a cow to make sure their son was accepted in to the school. By the time he finished his studies, the Soviet Union did not exist anymore, and his skills of sculpting Lenin busts were not in demand.
Kazakhstani artists, Elena and Viktor Vorobievs (1959), reflect on this issue of identity confusion in their installation Bazar. Bazar is a collection of many different items that the artists photographed at various spontaneous flea markets ("tolkuchki") in Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their installation presented a number of objects the artists bought at these flea markets, a photograph of an object with other items around it, and the sellers' comments about the objects he or she sold. In this installation, we encounter intertwined manifestations of the time. We see the collection of objects as very basic information about Soviet economical production or a reconstruction of the typical Soviet household. The sellers' comments reveal emotional attachments—feelings attached to these objects which, to a large extent, were collectively shared by the Soviet people.
The objects from Vorobievs' Bazar and the yellowish shoes seen by Tatarsky are the kinds of things that moved the first post-Soviet generation to become aware of their Soviet identity, but this understanding also confirmed that this identity was irrelevant to the new reality.
So, the dominating political and ethical motifs of contemporary art practice in Central Asia contained this contradictory constellation of demand for and desire of the new—new society, new relations, new art, which was expressed in the cult of new forms and media; sudden awareness of their Soviet identity which before was not a political identity, but an existential and unreflective one constituted by daily routines and surrounding material world; and a conflict of this identity with the surrounding reality of "wild capitalism" and "nationalistic renaissance." This contradictory constellation and break or stagnation of various social systems in the 1990s and early 2000s provided almost exclusive terrain for critical analysis and reflection of social and political phenomena in the form of contemporary art in Central Asia.
The first Central Asia Pavilion in Venice took place in 2005, and in many ways it can be considered a turning point in Central Asian recent art history similar to the year that 1993 was for Mainland China in terms of experimental art explored at the Symposium as extended case study. Institutionally, Central Asia Pavilion (CAP) was one of the few—or maybe the only—ways for Central Asian intellectuals and cultural actors to be part of an international forum independent from their governments. Participation in CAP empowered individual artists and curators to become public figures by giving them a voice in the international community. CAP was also instrumental in legitimating art as a socially significant discipline in Central Asia where there are no local or regional institutions for regular legitimisation and socialisation of contemporary art (museums, art academies, etc.). All these made CAP a very important and powerful project that formed alternative intellectual and cultural agendas when discussing and reflecting on social and political issues, and was the platform that integrated regional/local issues into international/global agendas and vice versa.
Even the set-up of CAP was not typical of the Venice Biennale. Instead of a national pavilion, it was a regional one that consisted of four post-Soviet nations, and it was privately funded instead of sponsored by a government. The 2005 representation of Central Asian contemporary artists in the biggest and most prestigious international art forum was a solely private initiative driven by the enthusiasm of a few individuals. The curator of the exhibition was Viktor Misiano—Russian art critic and curator, and chief editor of Moscow Art Magazine. Misiano was invited to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2004, to attend a large scale regional exhibition and conference. The exhibition and the conference were organised by the private art gallery, Kurama Art, which, at that time, was at the centre of contemporary art practice in the region. Viktor Misiano selected for his exhibition fifteen artists from three countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The show was titled Art from Central Asia: A Contemporary Archive. The ambition of the exhibition was to present a panoramic view of Central Asian contemporary art from the last fifteen years in all its media and thematic/conceptual diversity. Apart from selected artistic works, the exhibition included a media archive of video works and performance documentation of dozens of artists and a catalogue with contributions from art critics and art historians from the region.
The post-Soviet artists ambivalence toward their Soviet legacy, which I briefly outlined above, was at the forefront of Misiano's exhibition. He conceptualised this ambivalence to the past, which, on the one hand, was something people wanted to leave behind, but, on the other, was something that constituted their own identity as progressive nostalgia—a quest for some unrealised potential of the past that might be restarted in the future.
Due to the absence of infrastructure and institutional development in Central Asia, CAP exhibitions in Venice became a valuable platform for inexplicit political and social dissent. Almaty Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, the oldest and most active regional art institution, stopped its activities in 2008. Visual Arts Biennale in Tashkent was always a project controlled by the authoritarian government, and could not be considered an independent site for free artistic expression and debate on political and social issues. So CAP, after its first successful edition, started to be perceived by the regional art community as not just another exhibition, but as a site for free expression and political articulation.
Since 2007, all four editions of CAP had been supported by the regional cultural initiative of Dutch HIVOS with no participation of national governments and corporations, while having the status of national pavilion. Such institutional set-up of CAP as a regional public initiative and its funding structure created a certain tension with the established representational policy in the Venice Biennale, which could have been productively turned into criticism of nationalism and politics of national representation—targeting governments and the international machinery of national representations such as Venice Biennale itself.
The second pavilion in 2007 was curated by Kazakhstani, Yulia Sorokina. For her curatorial concept, she attempted to critically reflect on national representations and nationalistic policies of the regional political regimes. In its aesthetic program, the second exhibition of the Central Asia pavilion highlighted media. The exhibition was titled Muzykstan: Media generation of contemporary artists from Central Asia. Drawing on a distinctive part of Central Asian contemporary culture that is strongly connected to sounds and music, it asked artists to connect popular music (folk, rock, native etc.) and contemporary art (performance, video art, installation) in the Central Asian region through new commissions.
Art critic Oksana Shatalova, who contributed to the exhibition's catalogue, suggested that despite growing differences between Central Asian countries and their failure to integrate on economic and political levels, "the art of Central Asia is the art of a cultural and virtual community. The basis for such a 'spiritual alliance' was formed due to . . . the mutual Soviet and post-Soviet experience. The limited experience in new creative forms in the region [and] their fragility in local cultures (where both official and ordinary people support traditional art—the soviet heritage—realistic and mimetic)" therefore caused "local contemporary artists [to] feel themselves as citizens of a different, separate state." This state in between, between the present reality and imagined one, is described by Shatalova as the state of "sliding identity."
Music, in this context, becomes a sign of this sliding identity. The hypothetical and "spiritual" unity of contemporary artists from Central Asia was thus expressed in the most relevant manner: "In the creative works of artists of the young generation (30–40 years) [in which] one can see a 'roaming away' from publicity, from documentary, from direct utterance towards non-direct, metaphorical communications which also fit well into the sliding identity paradigm." By sharing a new medium (music), Central Asian contemporary artists framed a tension between mimetic national narratives and unifying sliding identities. Ultimately, the free and independent CAP infrastructure allowed for an evolving Central Asian identity and political ideology.
The Soviet authorities considered culture as an ideological tool to represent the national republics. Every nation that was included in the big Soviet family of nations had "a phrase with an accent" in all existing cultural formats, from opera to cinematography. With the decision of the Central Committee of the CPSU (b) "About the restructuring of the literary and artistic organisations" (1932) in the Soviet republics, the formation of "national schools" in virtually all forms of art began in response to the following formula: "socialist in content, national in form."
Since gaining independence, Central Asian regimes have been struggling to save these "national schools"—with a few exceptions, such as the prohibition of opera by Turkmenbashi—but their representative capacity is now directed at the international community. National or even ethnic representation remains the main strategy of official art in Central Asian countries.
In response to the above, in 2011, curators of the fourth edition of the Central Asia pavilion—Boris Chukhovich, Oksana Shatalova, and author of this text—turned to the issue of national representation in an explicit manner. The project initiated by curators of the exhibition ABC Representations challenged representational policy of national states to the exhibitions in Venice. The project consisted of a set of twenty-five images, which, in one way or another, represented Central Asia. This set of images was created as a result of a survey of about eighty respondents, who were asked in oral conversations, by e-mails, or through social networks to name three images they associate with Central Asia. Among the respondents were people living in or with some connection to the region, as well as those who had never been to Central Asia. After summarising the poll results and translating them into visual signs, we presented the results in the form of a table used to test visual acuity. ABC Representations was an attempt to deconstruct a typical optical apparatus through the prism of how Central Asia is generally perceived culturally and geopolitically.
Our table for an eye examination consisted of six levels. At the very bottom were the least common representations of the region—children, a hemp leaf, and golden teeth. Recognition of these images denotes "excellent eyesight," which implied that unique cultural aspects and significant contextual details did not elude the attention of the observer. At the very top level were signs that are the two most common representations of Central Asia: the most obvious Orientalist metaphor, "the East as a mystery," which we expressed visually with a question mark, and the main metonymy of the region, the rider-nomad.
The fifth edition of CAP Winter, which was presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, is likely the last Central Asia Pavilion of such set-up. In 2013, HIVOS, the key supporter of CAP, announced closure of its cultural program in Central Asia. Without this public and transparent funding, a project of this scale and significance cannot exist. However, the funding is not the main point. It seems that the critical potential of art that was a defining feature in the 1990s and 2000s, and artists' drive away from rigid identities imposed on them by nationalistic states and neoliberal capitalism have been exhausted. Critiques of nationalism and instrumentalisation of art for representational purposes by authoritarian regimes are overshadowed by calls for government and corporate support for contemporary arts and its presentation in Venice. The short period of unconventional and critically-oriented conversation has diminished; regional national pavilions will be replaced by truly national pavilions—commissioned and controlled by the states and businesses loyal to them. It is also likely that only two out of four countries of Central Asia will commission their national pavilions due to economic and other reasons. These two countries are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will be left behind.
Political regimes in Central Asia constantly seek new ways of legitimisation in the international arena (especially active are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), and contemporary visual art is still not fully outsourced for these purposes. A good example of such "outsourcing" of the arts is the exhibition Artists-Champions, which was part of the cultural program of the 7th Asian Winter Games in Astana in 2011. The exhibition presented internationally recognised Kazakhstani artists and their artworks as achievements similar to the ones in world sports. Sport champions are a source of national pride. International sports events like the Olympic games are crucially important for the international reputation of political regimes, especially of authoritarian political regimes seeking legitimacy from the international community.
In her paper at the Sites of Construction symposium, Irit Rogoff took a critical stance towards the logic of development and infrastructure. This was a controversial statement, especially by a presenter from the First World at a conference held in Asia. Perceiving infrastructure and development as only positive and productive is a typical feature of neoliberal regimes in East Asia and the Middle East. Development is an ultimate answer to all the questions in regards to democracy, social security, and political and social freedoms. To quote the president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev: "first comes economy, then politics." For Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, countries like Singapore and Malaysia best illustrate Zizek's concept of "capitalism with Asian values," which is the generation of profits without political freedom and social security, and as such, are models for economic and political development. The elites of these two very different, yet very similar, Central Asian countries dream of joining the club of "Asian Tigers."
In this drive for development, contemporary visual arts and its national representation in Venice are quite marginal and insignificant. However, the case of Central Asia Pavilions sheds light on how lacks, ruptures, and absence of developed infrastructure can become productive forces for alternative and critical reflection and community self-organisation. Former critics of nationalism and national representations in CAP are now expected to produce art that can also be considered a source of national pride and legitimacy for the regimes. And the best formula for this art production reads so dramatically familiar: "national in content, contemporary in form."
Georgy Mamedov is the artistic director of The School of Theory and Activism (STAB), Bishkek. He co-curated the Central Asia Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011) and curated the Central Asian interdisciplinary project "Artist and/in Society" (2010–2012). He lives in Birshkek, Kyrgyzstan.