Georgia on My Mind

Tbilisi, Georgia

Left: New Jerseyy directors Tobias Madison and Dan Solbach. Right: Art historian Nana Kipiani and curator Daniel Baumann at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire.

“TBILISI IS FAMOUS for its huge watermelons in summer; the currency is called lari, and you get Chanel-stamped plastic bags for your grocery shopping.” Or so Basel-based artist Tobias Madison summed it up. I wanted to see for myself (Google Maps just proffers a beige mass), and so last Tuesday, as friends were calling up Continental tickets to Miami on their BlackBerrys, I boarded a plane from JFK to Kiev with a midnight connection to Tbilisi for the sixth annual “Tbilisi” exhibition—this one organized by Arts Interdisciplinary Research Lab (AIRL) and Kunstmuseum Bern curator Daniel Baumann, with Ei Arakawa, Ani Chorgolashvili, Nana Kipiani, Gela Patashuri, Gio Sumbadze, Ana and Tea Tabatdze, Sergei Tcherepnin, and others. This edition, “Never on Sunday,” would start while I was in the air, but catching even four of the six days seemed worth the jet lag.

Although every iteration of the show takes a different form, this year billed paintings, films, musical scores, and recordings by artists from Tbilisi—not to mention Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Oslo, Riga, Zurich (the list goes on)—to be performed, presented, distributed, enacted, and sold in this fifteen-hundred-year-old city of four million in the Caucasus. Almost all flights into and out of Tbilisi take place in the middle of the night. The airlines tell you the schedule is a matter of economics—cheaper airport fees for off-hours operations—but in hindsight, perceptual reversals seemed the country’s signature logic.

Left: Artists Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin. Right: Artists Nikolas Gambaroff and Kerstin Brätsch.

Dropping my bags at the apartment (shared with eight others), I caught a brief nap before splitting a taxi to Varketili-3 IV Microrayon Building 425, the formidable Khrushchev-era housing block just outside downtown. In Tbilisi, “taxi_ means anyone with a car looking to make a few bucks, and “just outside of town” usually entails semicleared land, for grazing cows and goats, pockmarked with concrete and rebar structures in varying stages of construction . . . or in some instances dilapidation. Varketili, however, is hardly a small pock. Easily identified from the air, in recent years its residents have received attention (see Paul Devlin’s 2003 documentary Power Trip) for their response to the post-Soviet privatization of utilities, often bypassing commercial meters to hot-wire the mainframe grid, if not just generate power themselves.

By 10:45 AM, a group of about thirty had gathered for the first event of day 2. (Regrettably, not making day 1 meant missing a hands-on encounter with the Futurist holdings of Tbilisi’s Grishashvili Museum-Library, as well as a lesson in the bizarro Sino-Futurist stage designs of Petre Otskheli.) Within fifteen minutes, a light rain began to fall. Someone bought vodka. Cigarettes were shared like it was pre-Bloomberg New York. And though we spent the morning in the building’s unheated stairwell, I don’t think anybody really cared that another hour passed before Georgian artist Gio Sumbadze found a power source for his piece—a recording made from the building’s doorbell tones—at last audible from the speakers of his half-charged laptop.

Left: Artist Kaspar Müller and New Jerseyy directors Emanuel Rossetti, Dan Solbach, and Tobias Madison at the home of Gela Pashaturi in Bakhani. Right: Bathhouse, Tbilisi.

That afternoon, the crowd regrouped in Tbilisi proper. White sheets stood in for swimwear in the subterranean hot-sulfur baths, where arms, legs, and noses thawed from the frigid morning. Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin (whose great-grandfather directed the National Conservatory in Tbilisi from 1918 to 1921) taught and led the performance of two scores in the steam-filled sauna, their sounds protracted by the acoustic forces of the tile and marble room.

Some serial shows (the Emergency Biennial and Manifesta come to mind) don’t just take their sites as muse but actually try to intervene in local social dynamics. Others, such as the Venice Biennale (the pavilions of smaller nations in particular), tend to instrumentalize art as politics. Later that evening, as I ran around wheat-pasting posters featuring the lineup of “Tbilisi 6” events with Madison and fellow New Jerseyy cohort Dan Solbach, we began to discuss the specific site specificity of this exhibition. On the one hand, its mutable structure was a product of Tbilisi—as much articulated by the show’s digressions as by the events themselves. But on the other, its politics were completely implicit. Certainly, conversation elicited war stories—tales of the city’s sole luxury high-rise, the Hotel Iveria, located on the official public plaza, which was converted to refugee housing in the 1990s as several hundred thousand ethnic Georgians fled the newly hostile conditions of the semiautonomous Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions that border Russia—but not one work I saw in this show sought to “ameliorate” local problems. Rather, existing conditions (which have drastically improved in the past ten years) were allowed to shape the events.

Left: Artist Nick Mauss. Right: Artist and PROVENCE coeditor Tobias Kaspar and artist Mikaël D. Brkić, Varketili-3 Microdistrict.

“Evenings are capped off with drinks at the top-floor bar of the newly opened Radisson (former site of the Iveria),” Solbach noted. Or, just as likely, “at the Turkish disco in the Brutalist, underground shopping mall beneath the hotel’s courtyard.” But on that particular night, we were instead persuaded by Giorgi Shanidze and some other students at the Tbilisi Art Academy to hit up the Russian bar nearby, where a kid who couldn’t have been more than eight sold roses for johns to give to hookers, and couples slow-danced to Bob Marley.

The following days and nights brought performances and temporary installations at the conservatory, on a street corner, in a car-parts market, at Shanidze’s apartment, under the pulsing TV tower (like the on-the-hour shimmer of Paris’s Eiffel, but nonstop and more psychedelic). While the exhibition would continue through Monday, including a special launch of PROVENCE issue “R” (“P” having come out during Art Basel last June) and a release party for Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda’s related mix tape, my last full day was Saturday.

That morning, a hale group of thirty boarded buses for the Caucasus Mountains, halting about twenty miles outside the Russian border near the crest of a snow-packed pass. The brightly muraled interior of a large, semicircular stone “monument for Georgian-Russian friendship” (built by the Soviets in 1983) would serve as backdrop for some works performed by Tcherepnin and several more by Norwegian artist Mikaël D. Brkić.

Arriving at the monument for Georgian-Russian friendship.

It was beginning to feel a bit like summer camp. Soon we were in vehicles to the valley for dinner at Gela Patashuri’s home in the village of Bakhani. Loading bags with spirits, bread from Gela’s mother’s bakery, and chunks of a pig, we traveled the last half mile on foot. Shanidze and a couple of his friends took over preparing dinner. A fire was built, paintings by Nick Mauss and Nik Gambaroff were installed on the roof, photographs by Rezo Glonti and Ani Chorgolashvili on the windowsills, and Kerstin Brätsch and Madison strung lengths of fashion-district polyester (last installed as part of Baumann’s “Tbilisi Avant Garde” exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery this summer) across the rafters.

If the structure of “Tbilisi 6” ran counter to politically driven international biennials, it also resisted the seemingly ad hoc, though in fact tightly administrated, Performa model. This project didn’t set out to be “revelatory” in any conventional way. The press release only listed who, where, and when—no explanation of what. There were no clipboards, no TicketWeb. At times, the group dynamics felt uncomfortably insular. I’m sure security guards were pissed that we postered a parked truck. But it was the precariousness of this show, an assumption that the next event on the schedule probably won’t happen so let’s just enjoy this one, that’s noticeably absent at other performance-centered exhibitions. In “Never on Sunday,” art was an occasion for more interesting conversations. A reason to share your vodka, argue, make mistakes, make up, go have some fun.

Left: Gela Patashuri's house. Right: Tbilisi Art Academy student Vepkhvia Mani, Ia Tavadze, Dan Solbach, and composer Sergei Tcherepnin perform at the Tbilisi Grishashvili Museum-Library.