Critics’ Picks


Slavs and Tatars

Sugar Contemporary
5 Lower Jarvis St
October 17, 2019–January 31, 2020

“Pickles are stupid media,” declared Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars on the opening night of “Pickle Politics.” The deceptively sparse arrangement of works—benches, a carafe of pickle juice, a short video comprising text in Farsi and phonetic Polish, and a horseradish-shaped rug—demonstrate the collective’s tendency to use simple, humorous imagery to access complex issues. Soaked in brine, where bacteria catalyze fermentation, the pickled cucumber, which humans have enjoyed for thousands of years, represents a challenge to the Enlightenment concerns with pasteurizing and purifying in the name of “progress.”

The most emphatic element on view might be Ogórek Trocki, 2016, an image of two cucumbers wrapped like a Torah scroll, which is reproduced in dozens of prints covering the benches and framing the video. The work references the variety of cucumber cultivated by Crimean Karaites, a sect of Turkic-speaking Jews whose practices bear surprising similarities to those of Muslims. Slavs and Tatars’ religiously inflected rendering points to one of their primary assertions: Religion can be progressive—it is not the enemy. 

The pickle has been a point of focus, and an idiosyncratic mascot, for the collective, whose research-driven oeuvre examines the syncretic makeup of the former Soviet Union and neighboring parts of Eurasia. In a series of lecture-performances at the gallery, Sharifi laid out the functional (albeit imperfect) ways in which Islam has historically existed alongside Christianity, Judaism, and atheism in the region, where ethnic diversity is high. For Red Black Thread, Sharifi occasionally referenced quotes printed in minuscule font on a tiny scroll. For another, Sharifi introduced the collective’s other mascot, Molla Nasreddin, who often figures in Muslim folklore as both a Sufi wise man and a fool, known for facing backward while riding his horse. Nasreddin’s ridiculous reorientation alludes to Slavs and Tatars’ proposition: Look carefully at both history and pickles, and you will find that seemingly opposing elements—food and bacteria, Islam and Christianity, atheism and religion—often coexist and even nourish each other.