PRINT September 2005

Debt Collectors

"MODERNISM HAS ITS CASUALTIES. THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO are paying its debts,” said Central Asia pavilion curator Viktor Misiano to a colleague of mine, surveying the exhibition of fifteen artists from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan—countries represented in the Venice Biennale for the first time ever. The grounds for Misiano’s assessment are clear enough in sociopolitical terms: Forcibly disconnected from their cultural traditions at the dawn of the Soviet era, people in these territories found themselves, at the collapse of the USSR more than a decade ago, victims of a kind of double jeopardy, caught between an indigenous past they could only dimly remember and a putative future that had ceased to exist. But Misiano’s words also carry a neat art-historical twist. The show opens with a salon-style installation of drawings by Kazakh artist and curator Rustam Khalfin—former student of Vladimir Sterligov, who was, as it turns out, the principal student of Kazimir Malevich. Given such a direct lineage, it becomes clear that anyone thinking he was visiting the “periphery” at this pavilion would in fact discover something much closer to home. Indeed, something that could also be found throughout the dreary and conservative exhibitions in the Giardini and Arsenale, but here made legible on account of the art’s inextricable ties with its cultural context: the aftermath of the modernist avant-garde in all its utopian optimism.

Khalfin’s ensemble of works, collectively titled Towards Comprehension of Limits (and appearing here amid videos made with fellow Kazakh artist Yulia Tikhonova), eloquently testifies to the inexorable deliquescence of those ideals. Eschewing illusionistic spatial expansiveness, Khalfin instead offers intensely rationalist depictions of sensuous, semiabstract figures; as if not trusting grandiosity in any form (whether ideological or optical), he sticks to accurate, literal portrayals of areas that the eye can actually see. But among other artists there is clearly an urgency to come to terms with post-Soviet realities. On occasion this tenor verges on the traumatic—as in Erbossyn Meldibekov’s video of himself being slapped and pelted with ethnic slurs by a single man sitting in front of him (this in an effort by the artist to “expunge” his country’s past). Elsewhere, such intensity manifests itself in attempts to construct a new model of cultural identity, however provisional. A deeply Gutaï-like video installation by Almagul Menlibayeva, for example, retrieves the remnants of legends, customs, and folkways and refigures them alongside the artifacts of Western pop and technology. (The artist, whose videos appear on monitors placed on a dirt floor among “roads” made of paper, calls the work “punk shamanism.”) Such recontextualizations, however, are also marked by radical ambivalence, irony, and a questioning of the notion of authenticity. In a video by Said Atabekov, a woman in traditional southern Kazakh garb tends to her child in the middle of a deserted steppe. The upper part of the baby’s crib is carved into the shape of a Kalashnikov—a weapon that ironically symbolizes Soviet aggression even as it alludes to Kazakhstan’s history of resistance, armed and otherwise, to Russian control. Sounds of gunfire are heard in the distance, suggesting that the battle is still in progress.

For the most part, the direction and production techniques of these moving-image works are polished yet without excessive flourish or lyricism, a style perhaps exemplified best in a video trilogy by Roman Maskalev and Maxim Boronilov. Shot at night in a cabaret and its surrounding neighborhood, on the border between north and south Kyrgyzstan, one of these works presents murky, greenish images of the empty club set to a sound track of popular music—an evocation, perhaps, of a distant bal-musette. It’s a ghostly vision with a particularly dreamlike, fictional quality, and at the same time it conveys a melancholic sense of freedom born of utter disillusionment. Indeed, a comfortable familiarity with the overlapping idioms of tragedy and farce is underscored by the fact that the club and neighborhood—and the video in turn—are improbably called “Paris.” As such, this video perfectly crystallizes the sensibility and strength of the pavilion as a whole. For the artists who grew up in these republics, which were artificially constituted after the fall of the Soviet empire, answers are found neither in modernity (whose failures they are well acquainted with) nor in national or tribal identities, and the resulting tensions are all the more palpable when the artists' search for radical emancipation is set against the backdrop of the West. In a catalogue essay, Misiano also calls Central Asia “the last region not clearly defined on the artistic map of the world.” Not for long: Rumor has it that numerous international curators have already booked flights to Bishkek and Astana.

Anne Pontégnie is chief curator of WIELS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels and a frequent contributor to Artforum.