Net Effect

Left: Yarat’s curatorial director Suad Garayeva and curator Michael Connor. Right: Dealer Daniel Wichelhaus, artist Bunny Rogers, and artist Jasper Spicero.

AFTER A COUPLE HOURS’ LAYOVER and lie-down in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport—site of Edward Snowden’s own private odyssey—I arrived last Wednesday in the former Soviet colony Azerbaijan’s capital: Baku. A city of ancient architecture hemmed in by a flowering of modern construction; producer of a supposed one million barrels of oil a day; metropolis of a country that imprisons elderly journalists with heart conditions: People live here. As for me, I was merely on the hunt for—what else—some contemporary art.

Cruising down the freeway in a cab from Heydar Aliyev airport, named for the current president’s father, it was a short trip to the Yarat Contemporary Art Center, to which I had been dispatched to see “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a group show named after the devastating 1940 Carson McCullers novel. Situated close to the Caspian Sea, Yarat is also conveniently located near the National Phallic Symbol, or Flag Square as the locals call it—an enormous flagpole supporting a slowly waving Azerbaijan flag that resembles nothing so much as an animated GIF caught in a broadband lag.

At the opening, remarks were delivered by Michael Connor, New York–based curator and artistic director of Rhizome, and Yarat’s curatorial director Suad Garayeva. The elephant in the IRL room was of course the Internet. Connor told us that the exhibition focuses on artists who address “how human experience plays out on the Internet,” noting the “radical decontexualization” that the digital impinges on artistic approaches to real-world material. The artistic director of Yarat, Bjorn Geldhof—only recently appointed from his previous tenure at the Pinchuk Art Center in Kiev—spoke proudly of the curatorial team and welcomed everyone to what was only their third opening. Established as a nonprofit in 2011, the institution launched in its current, government-leased space last March with a commission from Shirin Neshat. It’s something of an umbrella under which operate the Yarat Space, the art educational initiative Artim, and the commercial Yay Gallery.

Left: Yarat’s curatorial director Suad Garayeva with artistic and strategic director Bjorn Geldhof. Right: Lu Yang’s Uterus Man installation.

Dodging the elbows and shoulder camera rigs of a small crowd in which local media predominated, I cruised the show for clues to my questions: Why this show, here? Would any of these works reflect Mick Kelly’s desperation or John Singer’s quiet empathy? Why was there only one lonely Camille Henrot ikebana vase sculpture plunked down on the far right not-quite-corner, not-quite-center, of a low white platform? Why is Parker Ito in this show at all? And how can such a small group of artists be elected to represent a condition that affects all cultural activity? The provincialism of a “post-Internet” canon itself belies the multiplicity that the Internet affords art and culture.

We were in the realm of the literal: Pierre Huyghe’s seminal project “No Ghost Just a Shell” was cited as a precedent for the current generation of post-Internet rumblings, so it was represented by two videos right smack in the center of the show in its own white cube. A Neïl Beloufa sculpture, lost in customs prior to the opening and heroically re-created from scratch by a local metal worker, sported large globs of glue at its joints. Bunny Rogers had to directly intervene with visitors grabbing her Elliott Smith dolls off the shelves of her Clone State Bookcase.

Left: Curator Michael Connor, David Zwirner associate director Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, artist Oscar Murillo, and Yarat’s curatorial director Suad Garayeva. Right: Artist Bunny Rogers singing at dinner.

Later at a dinner in the old city quarter of Baku, Geldhof passionately elaborated on Yarat’s mission to focus on the Caucasus region, starting with Kazakhstan, and claimed that right now is “an important moment here…to map an unmapped place.” Turning to artist Oscar Murillo, who will have his own show at Yarat next February, they began discussing the work of another Colombian-born artist, Carlos Motta, and the relative insult tucked into the term “Eurasia” often tagged to this region. In between traditional songs from local musicians, Rogers also sang for the assembled guests a tune in which someone named “Joey” played a principal role, and my heart started to feel as full as my stomach.

The next morning, it was off to the studio building of Yarat’s artists-in-residence. The taxi carrying myself and Dis magazine’s Ada O’Higgins passed the Zaha Hadid–designed Heydar Aliyev Center toward one side of town…and then reversed course to an entirely opposite quarter, choreographing many a U-turn into our crosstown shuffle. God was fortunately willing that morning, and we arrived to a quiet, multifloor studio building nestled between crumbling apartment blocks. Most of the artists were absent and hence the studios closed, but Orkhan Huseynov greeted us and showed us his videos and plaster casts molded over toys. Vusal Rahim mostly had paintings but also some tortured dolls, and Ramal Kazimov pulled out enormous renderings of contusive bodies across canvases.

Left: Artist Orkhan Huseynov. Right: Artist Ramal Kazimov.

Back at Yarat for a series of talks in their compact auditorium, Michael Connor gave a brief history of Net art. A group of teenage girls bounced after Connor was joined by Garayeva, Rogers, and artist Jasper Spicero, the crowd eventually winnowing down to friends, family, and employees, with the exception of an enthusiastic Azeri boy who sat in the front row and raptly listened to the simulcast translation. Garayeva and Connor split hairs about the significance of the show’s title to the actual works; Spicero dilated on the process of making his haunting “Centers in Pain” project; and Rogers spoke candidly about her poetry project, the source of her characters, and using the Internet to carve out one’s own space in an art world that places high barriers to admission. “Honesty isn’t possible,” she said, “so accuracy is the next best thing.”

Postpanel, the auditorium was swiftly taken over by a museum crew who began hammering and drilling away. Everything seemed to be in transition: Renovations could start as soon as you left a room, building, or street. Tear it down and start again. But this is no metaphor; there’s no need for such in a city where empty, manicured public spaces are juxtaposed against neighborhoods with apartment windows that look onto backyards of rubble. In Baku, I had enough time to see the city’s face being made up and the roughage exfoliated, but of its real body, I couldn’t say. Humming on this frequency was Hannah Black’s video featuring local bodybuilders, commissioned by Yarat for the show. Fragments of text blinked on the screen: “I don’t know what to believe I have no appetite”; “I just seem to be lost.” Close-up shots of new Baku condo windows were overlaid across a muscle man’s eyes; the carefully developed bodies of men, the pumped-up body of a new city. Black’s voice intoned: “Big fragile dream muscles, big fragile dream city…the effort of being safe in knowing nothing…I am huge and big and glossy and empty a colossal wind blows through my emptiness.” Here the show and the searing loneliness crying out of McCullers’s novel collided at last, and I was myself, finally, lost.

Left: Artist Farkhad Farzaliyev’s studio. Right: Suad Garayeva, artists Jasper Spicero and Bunny Rogers, and curator Michael Connor.

Left: Yarat founder and creative director Aida Mahmudova and her husband (left). Right: Neïl Beloufa installation.

Left: National Flag Square in Baku. Right: Yarat Contemporary Art Space.