Georgia on My Mind

Kate Sutton on the inaugural Tbilisi Art Fair and the Kunsthalle Tbilisi launch

Moscow Museum of Modern Art director Vasili Tsereteli at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

TUCKED BETWEEN the assorted empires of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, Georgia has somehow managed to avoid the melting-pot mentality of other crossroad cultures. As mounting travel bans slowly shutter other ports in the region, the country’s distinctive capital, Tbilisi, has shot to the top of tourism lists as “the new Istanbul,” among a cavalcade of other shiny “new” epithets. But Tbilisi isn’t new. It was once an obligatory stop on the Grand Tours of the Russian and later Soviet empires, earning admiration for the depths of its cultural wells, from its unparalleled gastronomic and viticultural traditions to the breathtakingly modern frescos adorning its early churches. Even today, Georgia is surprisingly well represented on the global contemporary art market for a population of less than 4 million, with artists such as Koka Ramishvili, Thea Djordjadze, Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili, Andro Wekua, and Vajiko Chachkhiani—familiar faces at art fairs and biennials. What is new about Tbilisi, however, is the spate of institutions that have recently opened their doors (at least figuratively, as quite a few are itinerant), providing these artists with a platform to show in their home country.

From May 16 until May 20, these fledgling institutions were on parade with the dual-launch of the Kunsthalle Tbilisi and the inaugural Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF), backed by a Saturday evening gallery crawl and a bustling program of events. To navigate the new scene, I turned to Irena Popiashvili, who left her New York gallery in 2012 to become the first female dean of Georgia’s Academy of the Arts. That position didn’t last long—“I didn’t realize how much power I had until I started to see how quickly the boy’s-club board members moved to curb it,” she told me—but she promptly found a spot at the Free University, where she’s been shepherding a group of promising young artists while simultaneously developing the kunsthalle. Why a kunsthalle, specifically? “Yes, we could have chosen a Georgian name for it, but I wanted something that would be immediately legible in both the local and international contexts,” Popiashvili reasoned, adding: “A lot of times in so-called peripheral scenes, it’s difficult for an outside artist to understand the level at which these various ‘museums of modern art’ or ‘centers of contemporary art’ actually operate. I wanted to be clear and upfront about our mission from the beginning.”

Curator Ekaterina Perventseva with advisor Mark Čuček.

On Wednesday, Popiashvili helped connect a group of us Georgia-virgins with resident art-world power couple Nana Kipiani, an art historian, and Levan Chogoshvili, an artist and the son of the groundbreaking linguist Mzia Andronikashvili. Chogoshvili kicked things off with an etymology-enriched walking tour of the city, starting with the Mtatsminda Pantheon (where Stalin saw fit to bury his own mother, alongside various luminaries of Georgian culture) and Tbilisi’s famous funicular, which whisks visitors up to the palatial villa where Stalin’s notorious chief of secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, entertained state guests. “Once this was all red-tiled roofs,” Chogoshvili lamented, sweeping his arm over the panoramic view, with its decidedly eclectic, era-hopping architecture. “But after the war, there were no regulations on what got built, so . . .” He trailed off as our eyes reached the neighboring hillside, crowned by the outlandish mansion belonging to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister of Georgia and a biznesmen who made his money in the murkier corners of Moscow before returning to build what looks like a cross between Dr. No’s lair and a fertility clinic from the late 1980s.

For her part, Kipiani talked us through her upcoming exhibition for Kunsthalle Zurich, “Georgian Modernism (The Fantastic Tavern),” curated together with Daniel Baumann, a frequent visitor to Tbilisi, and highlighting figures such as the “proto-Dadaist” Ilia Zdanevich, an influential artist who worked in Paris under the pseudonym “Iliazd.” Kipiani recounted visiting the stacks at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where she uncovered works of the Georgian avant-garde casually folded into the Russian. Amid so many cosmopolitan cross-contaminations, from Paris to Moscow to Zurich to Tbilisi, does it really matter whose avant-garde it is? In response, Kipiani cited the argument that Joyce was Irish but wrote in English. “Does that matter?”

Thoroughly steeped in history, I Ubered off for a studio visit with Giorgi Qochiashvili, a rugby player, architect, furniture designer, and painter, whose diverse practices converge in confectionary canvases of tantalizingly patterned interiors. When I arrived, the artist had but a single painting on view. “I wish I could show you more, but they all sold,” he confessed, sheepishly adding that he hadn’t been able to keep paintings around long enough to have a proper exhibition. Quite the dilemma to have these days. In any case, the canvas in process depicted a quartet of black men in identical cotton-candy-colored suits. When I pointed out that, in the States, painting black bodies is something of a hot topic right now, Qochiashvili just shrugged: “I don’t know why, but I find it more interesting. Besides, there has always been this correspondence between Georgians and Africans.” (It may be worth noting here that the slang Russians use for Caucasians—as in, people from the Caucasus, not the polite survey-speak for “white”—is chernyi, or “black.”)

Curator Olesya Turkina with TAF board member Nic Iljine.

Next up, Vajiko Chachkhiani’s studio was strung up with what looked like blood-stained curtains, Ziploc bags of animal talons and rattlesnake fangs, and a film signed “for your mother,” from Pedro Almodóvar. The artist was busy at work on “Heavy Metal Honey,” a solo show opening later this month at Bonn’s Bundeskunsthall. The exhibition takes as its starting point a tragedy from a few years back, when a flood freed animals from the Tbilisi zoo, and a white tiger ended up fatally mauling a warehouse worker and had to be shot. “I want to explore how violence can be beautiful,” Chachkhiani explained, triggering the internalized American in me for the second time that day. Sensing my discomfort with this hypothesis, he showed me some unedited footage from the exhibition’s titular new film; it was as beautiful as it was brutal, taking my breath away in multiple senses.

That evening marked the opening of the first of the Kunsthalle Tbilisi’s two inaugural projects, Nika Kutateladze’s Watermill on Former Pavlov Street. The installation was sited in a typical Khrushchyovka apartment on what is now Kazbegi Avenue. Popiashvili leveled with me on the institution’s decision to operate as itinerant: “Look, most of our funding is coming from private donors, with only a small fraction of municipal funds. I want as much of this as possible to go into the production of new works and the support of the artists, and not brick-and-mortar maintenance. We’ll see in time if we want to get our own building. But why sink money into a small space now, when we can reassess the institution’s needs in another few years?”

Kutateladze made the most of the unconventional venue. His project belongs to a trilogy that sees the artist retracing the architectural spaces of his memory with interventions that manage to play off of nostalgia while avoiding sentimentality. For instance, in an earlier piece, Kutateladze tracked down the current owner of his childhood home and arranged to rent it back. Barely recognizing the new interior, he filled it with abstracted remnants of his childhood, such as stacks of sod squares from the neighboring playground. For the Kunsthalle opening, he took an “old” mill from his family’s village and reassembled it within the Soviet-style flat, so that the structure protruded from the building’s facade. “Old” is in scare quotes here, as the mill wasn’t exactly antique, but rather an artifact from the 1990s, when many villages had to revert to MacGyver-esque means of providing the services the government struggled to deliver (which explains why the lining of a truck bed ended up as part of one wall).

Hive artist Alina Bliumis.

Thursday brought its own wave of nostalgia with the opening of the Tbilisi Art Fair at Expo Georgia, a comely campus of Soviet-era pavilions nestled amid gardens and ponds. TAF’s programming stretched across multiple buildings, flanking the main fair with a dedicated photography section; a showcase of artists without gallery representation, called the Hive; and a sublime biodome-like greenhouse, where artist Delphine Wibaux had surreptitiously planted her ceramic interventions.

The main section offered up more than thirty international galleries, with a pronounced regional (though skewing slightly Polish) accent. At the Antwerp-based NK Gallery, I marveled at how Taisia Korotkova has continued to fine-tune her small-scale surrealist paintings, before Slavs and Tatars’s lavish new banners lured me over to the combined presentation of Warsaw staples Raster and Dawid Radziszewski. At Project ArtBeat, I was introduced to a few new faces in the Georgian scene, while Tbilisi’s Window Project went with a solo presentation of paintings by Levan Chelidze, hung salon-style across an entire wall. “Is it all one piece?” I asked dealer Tamuna Gvaberidze. “Funny you say that, as it wasn’t supposed to be, but I just had a collector ask if he could buy the whole wall, so, maybe it is now,” she replied.

Dealer Dawid Radziszewski at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

A true standout was local nexus Nectar Gallery, run by Nino Sekhniashvili, aka, the artist others kept assuring me I “really need to know in Tbilisi.” The booth was impressively decked out with two stunning tapestries by the late Tamaz Nutsubidze and a pair of ceramic wall pieces by Thea Gvetadze—fresh from her IN SITU commission at Antwerp’s M HKA—based on a character she calls “Cabbagehead.” “There was this woman I would see out on the street selling flowers, who always had a cabbage leaf on her head,” Gvetadze told me. “When I finally asked her about it, she told me it was the only thing that would take away her migraines.”

Speaking of headaches, the fair had intended to feature a separate section of emerging artists called “War on Hold/Under Construction” but found itself battling a boycott instead. The trouble started when the Moscow Museum of Modern Art teamed up with TAF at the last minute to offer one emerging artist in either this showcase or the Hive both a cash prize and a solo show at the museum. The intended goodwill of the gesture was lost in the Soviet-tinged implication that “success” might equate to “a show in Moscow.” (Grumblings from several people in the scene suggested that Andro Wekua has yet to be forgiven for his recent exhibition at Moscow’s Garage.) In fact, rather than motivate the young artists, many pulled their pieces entirely out of indignation. “That’s probably a good sign for their art,” writer H. G. Masters mused.

Hive artist Daria Krotova.

Those in search of fresh talent could still find it at the Oxygen artist showcase at the Stamba Hotel, a newly converted five-story former publishing house whose art-friendly owner, Temur Ugulava, also runs the ultra-chic Rooms Hotel next door. For Oxygen, artists took over the still unfinished top floor and parts of the garden. Popiashvili beamed as she led a group of curators, including Vanessa Muller, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Bettina Steinbrügge, Rainald Schumacher, and Margot Norton around to meet some of her students from the Free University, who, in addition to participating in Oxygen, had also organized their own offsite show. “In critique, I always try to emphasize how the work is displayed, as too often you encounter these really cluttered studios,” Popiashvili told us. Her wisdom paid off, as the presiding ethos of careful self-curation and restraint resulted in powerful installations, such as Liza Tsindeliani’s inlaid enamel wall panels or Salome Chigiliashvili’s “embroidered” stone floor.

Friday kicked off with an obligatory pilgrimage to the Pirosmanis at the National Gallery, before a visit to the Karlo Kacharava House Museum, a book launch for TAF Board Member Nic Iljine’s Memoirs of Tbilisi, and the Silk Museum, where the parallel project “Twelve Women Gone Missing” gathered émigré artists such as Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili, Keti Kapanadze, Anna K.E., Tamara K.E., and Tamuna Sirbiladze. That evening also marked the second of the Kunsthalle Tbilisi openings, this time at an old wine factory, where Angelica Mesiti had installed Relay League, 2017, a project commissioned by Artspace Sydney and brought to Tbilisi in collaboration with Mari Spirito’s nomadic exhibition platform, Protocinema.

Zuza Koszuta of Czułość at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

Tapped to represent Australia in the next Venice Biennale, Mesiti based the trio of films on the French navy’s poetic last Morse code transmission: “Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.” Mesiti had a percussionist translate the dots and dashes—a precursor to today’s binary code-driven universe—into a musical composition, which a choreographer used to develop a dance. This routine was then communicated between a pair of ballet dancers, with one using her own mesmerizing method to convey the choreographer’s movements to her vision-impaired partner.

As the week had shown us, messages have a way a making themselves heard, and right now Tbilisi is coming in loud and clear.

Kunsthalle Tbilisi’s Ketevan Barbakadze and Gvantsa Gelovani at Fabrika.

Kunsthalle Tbilisi’s Lika Chkuaseli with artist Susan Boulton and Moss.

Kunstverein Hamburg’s Bettina Steinbruge and Office for Art’s Rainald Schumacher at Ezo.

Culture and Management Lab’s Tamar Janashia at Ezo.

New Museum curator Margot Norton with artist Anna K.E. at the Silk Museum.

NK Gallery’s Mathias Swings, Nadya Kotova and Nikolaj Kotov at Tbilisi Art Fair.

Project Art Beat’s Natia Bukia and Salome Vakhania at Tbilisi Art Fair.

Rooster Gallery’s Jurgita Juospaitytė-Bitinienė at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

Stephane Ackermann selects some fresh greens in Thea Gvetadze’s Naveen at Oxygen.

Tbilisi Art Fair board members Rita Jansen and Marc Franco.

Tbilisi Art Fair artistic director Eric Schlosser.

Anthropologist Francisco Martinez and collector Anders Schroeder at Shemomechama.

Artist Levan Chogoshvili at the Mtatsminda Pantheon.

Artist Vajiko Chachkiani in his studio.

Artists Khatia Esarti and Tamara K.E.

Window Project’s Tamuna Gvaberidze with artist Levan Chelidze at Tbilisi Art Fair.

Artist Nika Kutateladze with his Kunsthalle Tbilisi commission, Watermill on Former Pavlov Street.

Curator Elene Abashidze with Uta Bekaia at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

Artist Levan Mindiashvili at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

Gallery Nectar’s Nino Sekhniashvili with Tamaz Nutsubidze's work at the Tbilisi Art Fair.

Kunsthalle Tbilisi’s Irena Popiashvili with Tbilisi Art Fair founder Kaha Gvelesiani. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

Artist Angelica Mesiti with Protocinema’s Mari Spirito at the Petriashvil Winery for Kunsthalle Tbilisi.

Artist Delphine Wibaux with her installation in the Pavilion 4 biodome at Tbilisi Art Fair.

Artist Giorgi Qochiashvili in his studio.

Artist Liza Tsendiliani at Oxygen.

Artist Thea Gvetadze at Tbilisi Art Fair.

Artists Niko Lomashvili and Koka Ramishvili at the Petriashvil Winery for Kunsthalle Tbilisi.

Artspace’s Alexie Glass-Kantor and Michelle Newton on Tbilisi’s funicular.

CCA Tbilisi’s Wato Tsereteli at Oxygen.