PRINT April 2013

Daniel Baumann

George Kevle, Sleeping, 2006. Performance views, National Art Center, Tbilisi, Georgia, November 2, 2005. From “Wednesday Calls the Future.” Photos: Laurence Bonvin.

“ARE YOU MOTHER THERESA?” an artist asked me in 2005. “Is that why you’re doing a show in Tbilisi? A Swiss helping a former Soviet colony?” Well, no—it was to escape the narrowness of the contemporary art world. And it was a reaction against an art history obsessively focused on Western Europe and the United States, an art history in which the culture east of the Iron Curtain was still a virtual footnote.

When, at the end of the 1990s, Georgian art historian Nana Kipiani invited me to travel to Tbilisi and present a selection of artists’ films, I saw it as an opportunity to expand my knowledge. That trip ultimately didn’t happen, but in 2003, I met Mzia Chikhradze, another Georgian art historian, and we decided to organize a show in Tbilisi. I contacted the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, which not only agreed to fund our project but continued to do so from 2004 until 2009. Each year, I organized an exhibition in Tbilisi with the help of Kipiani, Chikhradze, Levan Chogoshvili, and Tea Tabatadze from the Arts Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory and with the support of Georgian artist Gela Patashuri. All the shows adhered to the same principles: no theme, no art shipping. Works had to be realized in the city or brought over in a suitcase.

The first year, when I traveled to Tbilisi with Swiss artists Remo Hobi, Mai-Thu Perret, and Andreas Zybach, we didn’t know what to expect, for none of us had ever been there. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding, enlightening, and adventure-filled experiences I’ve had as a curator. With the help of Georgian art students, Hobi, Perret, and Zybach realized their works on-site, and we managed to produce a big black X sculpture by Wade Guyton, to show films despite power outages, to install Kelley Walker’s posters and Andro Wekua’s enigmatic diary entry, and so on. Trisha Donnelly uploaded a sound file to be played in the exhibition space and suggested “Tuesday Is Gone” as the title for the show. Instead of a catalogue, the often unexpected results of our efforts were documented online. This first outing was a pilot for a possible series of shows that in further discussions we decided to limit to seven editions, one for each day of the week. Each year we had to find a new venue, because in the quickly developing capital of Georgia, spaces constantly disappeared. For the 2009 edition, “Never on Sunday,” we finally renounced any fixed venue and transformed the exhibition into an ongoing performance throughout the city, an intense week driven by Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin and involving artists from the US, Europe, and Georgia.

There were many highlights. After the first, fairly minimal show in 2004, Kipiani said to me: “With you, it’s all about presentation; with us, it is all about representation.” Her remark led me to rethink our attachment to Minimalism in the West and our too-blithe refusal of theatricality, which is so baroquely deployed, for instance, by Georgian-born Armenian film director and artist Sergei Paradjanov (1924–1990). I became aware of how Minimalism had become a style and a powerful cultural and commercial product of the West, and I realized that our skepticism toward theatricality was far more political than we dared to admit. Tbilisi was ready to teach me and my fellow visitors more than we ever expected, and for many it became a lesson in humility, or in Western hubris, if you prefer.

In 2005, for “Wednesday Calls the Future,” three very different events took place that opened our eyes to what performance can do if it goes beyond the celebration of the self: It creates a communal, often anarchic moment, unleashing potential that may point the way toward future activities. The first event was John Armleder’s restaging of his 1975 work Quelques Objets volants (Some Flying Objects), which consisted of the artist pouring small items—glitter, buttons, toys, etc.—out of a box onto the floor. Within a few seconds, all the objects had disappeared into the audience’s pockets. We had received the scenario for the second event—Grand Openings, a performance written by Arakawa, Jutta Koether, Jay Sanders, and Emily Sundblad—via e-mail. It became a collaboration involving Georgian and Swiss artists pretending to be New York artists. It was so successful that we restaged it, with variations, in 2006 and 2007. The third performance was by Georgian artist George Kevle, who had arranged to have a friend publicly administer a dose of anesthesia. Kevle slept for twelve hours in the exhibition space. It was not only illegal but also dangerous. Kevle’s extreme gesture reflected the growing political tensions in Georgia, as well as the artist’s own relationship to authority and the institution. A few years earlier, he and Patashuri had publicly refused their diplomas from the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts because of its reactionary program.

View of “Tuesday Is Gone,” 2004, Karvasla, Tbilisi, Georgia. Foreground: Justin Beal, Untitled (Cardboard Table), 2004. Background: Andreas Zybach, A3/A4, 2004.

In 2006, Kipiani brought two old films to the improvised movie nights we were running: Konstantine Mikaberidze’s My Grandmother and Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s Salt for Svanetia (both 1929). Through these works, and through my discovery of the Georgian Futurist books at Tbilisi Grishashvili Museum-Library and other artworks from the period, I became aware of Georgian modernism’s rich past, another forgotten chapter of art history, which we brought to Casey Kaplan gallery in the summer of 2009 with the exhibition “The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde.”

Two years later, the center of Tbilisi was engulfed by a weeklong protest against Georgian’s authoritarian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The day of the opening that year, the city was invaded by the army. Crowds were dispersed with tear gas, which invaded our exhibition space as well. It was another fragile moment for the young democracy, and it seemed absurd to open the exhibition at such a time. But as Georgian artist Marika Asatiani stated, not opening would have meant giving in to both sides—to authoritarianism on the one hand and, on the other, to the diffuse politics of an opposition that reportedly was being manipulated by hidden agendas as well. So we proceeded with the show, but closed the opening before midnight as rumors of a curfew started to circulate.

Early on, I had gotten frustrated by the difficulty of finding appropriate spaces for our exhibitions, so I decided to buy a piece of land on a hill above Tbilisi, a location that looked like the site of a future suburb. There, in 2007, we inaugurated the Tbilisi Center for Contemporary Art, a building without walls. It became an open studio complementing the exhibitions, which I also started to think of as a kind of open studio. I run it with Patashuri, and it is currently used by him and his students. He is building an alternative-education program for young art students and has dubbed it WithOut Wall. TCCA is both real and imaginary—it is a pretext for activities, self-organization, and art production. It has hosted events and projects ranging from exhibitions to a series of workshops involving young Georgian artists Mari Tipukhian, Tamar Mdivani, Giorgi Kobiashvili, Eduard Oganov, and Sergo Zhornitski. The goal of these workshops is not so much to produce objects as to investigate a place—an abandoned building or a piece of land—and find out what can be done there. It happens in the middle of nowhere, outside of almost any structure, simply because there isn’t much of a structure—no market, no developed gallery system, and not much money, either. For many of the international artists under career pressure, this situation is liberating; for many of the Georgian artists, it is a reason to leave the country. But those who stay may be instrumental in creating new structures (or antistructures). This was one of the great lessons of Tbilisi: that the things you do actually have an effect, even if, or because, that thing called the contemporary art world is hard to find there.

Daniel Baumann currently lives in Pittsburgh, where he is organizing, with Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski, the 2013 Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art.