PRINT April 2013

Joanna Warsza

Kamikaze loggias, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2007. Photo: Levan Asabashvili/Urban Reactor.

“GEORGIA IS LIKE ITALY GONE MARXIST.” Georgians have often used this bon mot to introduce their small post-Soviet state to foreigners, for whom the country is still largely a blind spot on the cultural and geopolitical map. Although Georgia is currently on a path to a market economy and the model of Western democracy, the analogy nevertheless makes sense, not only because of the climate, the viticulture, the patriarchal regime, and the dramatic landscape but also because of the community-oriented mind-set of the country’s vocal and self-determined inhabitants. And this paradoxical admixture has contributed to the independent, heterogeneous, and politicized art scene that has reemerged there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Born and raised in Poland, I was brought up believing that, figuratively speaking, my country was about as far east as you could get; Poland was forever dreaming of the West. So there was a desire to look the other way, to make Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, a major point of orientation in my curatorial work. My encounters with the city’s art scene—which have led to my curating the Georgian pavilion at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale this summer—have allowed me to reflect on the country’s appropriation of its Soviet past, the role of vernacular architecture and its emancipatory and progressive potential, and the kinds of agency arising from the region’s specific conceptions of art and urbanism.

One of the first people I met in Tbilisi was Gio Sumbadze, a founder of the artist-run group Urban Research Lab, which produces an ongoing archive documenting the repurposing of Soviet infrastructure and its relationship to the erosion of Marxist ideology. URL is also constructing a database of Tbilisi social housing—mostly comprising microrayons, large suburban modernist housing estates—as well as other ideologically driven buildings such as the hammer-and-sickle-shaped Georgian Technical University. From Sumbadze I learned about “kamikaze loggias,” the makeshift extensions (also called extended loggias) that were added to Soviet-era tower blocks to increase the space in each apartment; they are used as terraces, extra rooms, open-air refrigerators, or—as in Sumbadze’s case—artists’ studios. (For the pavilion in Venice, Sumbadze is designing a version of a kamikaze loggia, to be appended to a building in the Arsenale.) These idiosyncratic, jury-rigged structures represent strategies of improvisation that build on the infrastructural legacy of Soviet master plans. Georgia had been one of the Soviet Union’s wealthiest republics, but these loggias were built in the poor 1990s—known as the dark years, due to the extreme rationing of electricity. Constructed from plywood and scrap metal, they represent a post-Soviet substitute for luxury. Perhaps no form is a more archetypal response to the material remains of the twentieth century’s ideologies: not jettisoning but appropriating the ruined utopias of the past in order to reflect on the lived conditions of the contemporary environment.

Why kamikaze? It is said that a Russian journalist gave the loggias this name, referring to the romantic and reckless character of such endeavors, drawing a parallel between Japanese suicide missions and a common ending of Georgian family names, -adze. Levan Asabashvili, an architect and researcher from Tbilisi, helped me realize that kamikaze loggias were in fact nothing new, as palimpsestic structures have been in dialogue with the heritage of the region for centuries. Since the Middle Ages, houses on the steep Caucasian slopes have been built on top of existing ones, as if the previous layers were themselves construction permits. Here, the past isn’t monumentalized but added to.

Asabashvili is a key figure in a collective called Urban Reactor, which runs a think tank on spatial practice. Among other undertakings, the group has produced an ongoing time line of urban issues from the era of the historical avant-gardes through Stalinism, late modernism, and the turmoil of the past twenty years, and researches phenomena such as the recent government-run “beautification” initiatives and the accompanying “facadism.” These terms refer to the often superficial restoration and redevelopment of Georgia’s main historic towns, the surfaces of which have been cleaned and polished while building interiors and public infrastructure have largely been left untouched. The reconstruction work on Bagrati Cathedral (a UNESCO-listed building now on the organization’s endangered list) and the new building facades in Lazika, near the Abkhazian border, are exemplary of much recent government policy, which has shaped the country with an eye to the West. Unlike the individualistic kamikaze loggias with their range of potential uses, the government-sponsored renovations aim merely to create a homogeneous veneer.

Kote Jincharadze, Where are you?, 2010, neon. Installation view, Ministry of Roads Building (now Bank of Georgia headquarters), Tbilisi, Georgia.

My first visit to Tbilisi was in 2008, when I was commissioned by the Other Space Foundation, a Polish NGO, to work on a project in Betlemi, a medieval part of the city. Here, reconstruction was carried out under the guidance of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, so Betlemi is perhaps the only part of Tbilisi where a beautification program transcended facadism—although even here eighteenth-century Armenian churches and some nineteenth-century houses have been endangered by new development. The research materialized in a public art project I curated in October 2009 under the title “Betlemi Mikro-Raioni,” for which a number of artists produced works responding both to the specific area and to Georgian reality at large. The Tbilisi-based collective Bouillon Group wrecked a well-maintained nineteenth-century bourgeois apartment (a work titled Apartment 4), literally acting out the tensions implicit in the politics of both conservation and participatory art. After much hard work, the site looked just like every other abandoned building in endangered Old Tbilisi. Nearby, Bouillon also held a birthday dinner, itself a performance titled Supra, in honor of the monumental statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) erected in 1958 on a site overlooking Tbilisi’s old town. Many Tbilisians felt alienated by this overtly propagandistic sculpture, even if they eventually got used to it; during the dinner, artists and intellectuals considered the figure from queer, gender-studies, and posthuman perspectives, allowing it to be seen through a contemporary lens and not only as a Soviet relic.

Artists’ responsiveness to architecture, their critical modes of reading the Soviet past, and their strategies of self-organization as a means of resistance, along with my interest in the efficiency and subversiveness of the performative, led to another project in one of the most stunning buildings in the country: the former headquarters of the Ministry of Roads, designed in 1975 by architects George Chakhava and Zurab Jalaghania. An example of a utopie réalisable, it blended an image of the future under Communism with an organic, layered architecture (the design alludes to a Caucasian forest, with the cores as tree trunks and the horizontal parts as crowns). In 2010, before its conversion into the headquarters of the Bank of Georgia, the building became the site of the exhibition “Frozen Moments: Architecture Speaks Back.” This show—organized with the help of local artist-run residency GeoAir—featured more than thirty local and international artists, activists, architects, researchers, and engineers, who presented artworks, lectures, field trips, readings, and other events. Among them were context-responsive performances initiated by Ei Arakawa and Gela Patashuri; light installations in the building’s windows depicting letters from the old Georgian alphabet, by Tbilisi-based artist Kote Jincharadze; and a performance by the young local artist Nikoloz Lutidze, for which he renovated a small room in the building in the style of euroremont—a neologism that has cropped up in post-Soviet countries describing the redecoration of apartments according to “European” norms. Aiming to meticulously erase the remnants of the previous era in order to become a part of the Western master narrative, euroremont is another example of the redefinition of the relationship between architecture and the individual: Like the repurposings of kamikaze loggias, it reflects personal desire and the ideology of the self-made.

While working and traveling in Georgia, I sometimes sensed that I was witnessing the future. The methods that Georgians have adopted in their architecture, as well as in their informal art scene, seem to anticipate any number of contemporary theories of bottom-up structures and participatory urban planning—even if the local approaches have generally not been articulated or legitimated as such within global critical discourse. From regional, sustainable, agricultural systems of food production to calls for innovative models of urban planning—involving, for example, low-cost buildings that might be partially constructed and then finished by their owners—the Caucasus might serve as a blueprint for experimental modes of living. The many kamikaze loggias in Tbilisi—like the one that will be built in Venice this summer—can be seen as emblematic not only of contemporary Georgian art and architecture but also of the construction of the future itself, its precarious and exhilarating possibilities.

Joanna Warsza is the curator of the Georgian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.