IT WAS ALREADY a heady atmosphere by the time the Georgian capital of Tbilisi opened its fifth annual Artisterium, a series of exhibitions and public art projects, and the first Tbilisi Triennial, “Offside Effect,” curated by Wato Tsereteli and Henk Slager. The small mountainous country had concluded hotly contested parliamentary elections the week before, selecting billionaire and art collector Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister. In Berlusconi style, the richest man in Georgia happens to own one of three national TV stations, which aired videos depicting rampant prison abuse shortly before Election Day, triggering disruptive protests.
Getting to Tbilisi from just about anywhere invariably requires arriving on a red-eye, in tandem with flights from such places as Tel Aviv and Tallinn, Estonia—a symptom of its off-center geopolitical position. (One bonus: The immigration officer handed me a bottle of red wine.) The theme of this year’s Artisterium was “The Protest That Never Ends,” and curator Magda Guruli made sure politics were central to both the show and the day-to-day discourse. “We had to choose between bad and worse, and we got worse,” she told me soon after I arrived. “The Russians are coming back.”
At the Karvasla (Tbilisi History Museum) we toured “Nine Dragon Heads,” a room full of video, photo, and performance installations by the artist collective Nomadic Party; much of the work took off from the group’s recent road trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Tbilisi, and focused largely on the rapidly shrinking Aral Sea. From there we moved on to the State Museum of Georgian Literature, only to find that the Polish Embassy had taken down the show “Banners & Diaries” two days early: The former cultural attaché had been replaced right after the opening. “It is so difficult to work here,” Guruli sighed. “I say every year that I will never do it again.”
Undismayed, I crossed town to visit New York dealer Irena Popiashvili, newly appointed rector at the Academy of Art. We took a walk down grand Rustaveli Avenue, passing the recently sold former Parliament building and gaudy Moorish-style opera house, to the National Gallery of Art to take in her wonderfully evocative survey of the first contemporary generation of Georgian artists, “Reframing the ’80s.” “Leaving New York to take this job was a hard decision,” Popiashvili confided. “But I am very proud of my country as the only former Soviet republic to transition peacefully to democracy.” She spent much of the week defending herself on TV against accusations that she was stealing artworks from the school. “Oh well,” she shrugged. “That’s what happens when the government is changing in a small country.” After a glass of wine, we headed to the studio of photographer Guram Tsibakhashvili for a party in honor of artist Vitaly Komar. The Russian artist got along famously with Georgia’s favorite poet, Kote Kubaneishvili, and much chacha (local moonshine) was consumed.
The next day American artists showcased their collaborations with vendors at the Eliava Market for Artisterium’s “Streetwise,” curated by Lydia Matthews, Chuka Kuprava, Tamta Shavgulidze, and Sophia Lapiashvili. Gabby Miller’s videos of bazaar denizens with jarring clips of rural Vietnam spliced in were projected on display screens among merchandise in various booths. Johanna Poethig, who made tire totems, said the best part was hanging out and drinking tea with the salesmen for a week. Aaron Krach continued the previous day’s session of the Ghana Think Tank, which solicits solutions to U.S. problems from people in less-developed countries. He reported: “Lady reads card and says, ‘You’re asking for MY help? You need to help me! You have too much time on your hands.’ ” The local Orthodox patriarch helpfully provided neatly numbered solutions. Meanwhile San Francisco’s Yarrow Slaps performed while the car-parts salesmen got into the groove and poet Kubaneishvili nodded his head enthusiastically to the beat.
A few days later, artist Rainer Ganahl called me to say he was going to the government offices to ask for an audience with Ivanishvili. Among his requests was that the state rename George W. Bush Avenue to Barack Obama Avenue, “since Bush only provoked unnecessary wars and collapsed the economy.” I stopped by the art academy and ran into scholar Angela Wheeler, who told me how to sneak into the backyard of the prime minister’s glass-and-steel complex, situated high above the city like a futuristic fortress. “I hear he meets with random people,” she said. If Ganahl were not random enough, perhaps I would be. A friend drove us to the sulfur baths district and up the hill to the botanical gardens, where we climbed through a wooden barrier and walked along the ridge, past the giant Mother of Georgia statue, to the politician’s back gate. As we walked into the garden, a voice said, “Stop!” My plea was not successful, but they gave us T-shirts for the politician’s rapper son, Bera Ivanishvili, which excited my Georgian companion a great deal.
That evening the Ministry of Culture feted its outgoing administration with the launch of a book on artist Sergo Kobuladze and live jazz led by saxophonist and conservatory director Reso Kiknadze. Ex-minister Nika Rurua, who studied law at Georgia State University and established the Museum of Soviet Occupation, said he did not know what he would do next. “Basically, I’m just a frustrated musician.” At least there may be hope for the practically nonexistent local art market: Ivanishvili, who caused a minor uproar several years ago by paying five times the estimate for Peter Doig’s White Canoe, has a collection said to be worth more than $1 billion and has voiced plans to build a world-class art museum. “Bidzina has bought only the logos of the contemporary art corporation, but maybe now he will do something,” Geneva-based artist Koka Ramishvili said. To which artist Tamuna Karumidze added, “I hope he opens the market to the Russians.”
On Friday, the Tbilisi Triennial began its two-day forum on education and research at the Goethe Institute. Organizer Katharina Stadler and moderator Mick Wilson both touched on the challenges of working with differing calendars and timetables across cultures, while Lucrezia Cippitelli, of Addis Ababa Contemporary, talked about the group’s attempt to set up an alternative master’s program to rewrite history from outside the Western European worldview. Working on the exhibition itself was a lesson in “context-responsive curating, where you get a view on the relativity of your own curatorial conditions,” Henk Slager noted. An object lesson was the case of Hito Steyerl, who had withdrawn her installation two days before the triennial opened, citing a lack of preparation and materials on the part of the organizers. “In my lecture I was going to speak about how stupid it is to think of students as people who need to be educated,” she wrote in an open letter. “Instead, in times of crisis, students by means of protests have taken the lead over and over again and educated not only themselves but whole societies.”
The inauguration of the Triennial migrated from the State Museum of Georgian Literature to the Georgian National Museum, where an installation of Brancusi-like columns made the audience seem like players in Tiong Ang’s screening of his reenactment of Pasolini’s Medea, and on to the Europe House, next to Freedom Square (where Stalin’s grandson still lives). Ganahl was displaying his Bicycle Manifesto, along with documentation of his reading that week of Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. “I love how this exhibition is occupying the form,” said art historian Tara McDowell, who would speak the following week, “and calling attention to the fact that this is an era of publicity rather than criticism.” Or as participating artist Sarah Cowles put it: “It’s like a science fair!” We rushed off to the stadium to see Bera Ivanishvili’s concert. “After all,” Angela Wheeler noted, “how often do you get to see a politically charged albino rapper?” It was more like rapaganda to the converted, with Georgian flags waving all over the place. “Victory to Georgia,” he sang. “Everybody’s happy now.”