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PRINT April 2013

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili

Sergei Paradjanov and actress Leila Alibegashvili at Paradjanov’s home, Tbilisi, Georgia, ca. 1980. Photo: Alexander Tombulidi.

KETUTA ALEXI-MESKHISHVILI

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov made me a doll. An assemblage of mismatched parts, it wore a hand-sewn brown velvet dress and crocheted white tights and had an open mouth that was missing a few porcelain teeth. It hung next to my bed and never failed to repulse me, but it fascinated me, too, because my parents called it art, and so it stayed there.

And Paradjanov, or Sergo, as we called him, was just as intriguing himself. An Armenian born and raised in Tbilisi, he studied in Moscow, crossing paths with Tarkovsky before moving to the Ukraine to begin his career. Rising to fame too quickly for Soviet watchdogs, he was arrested on allegations of homosexuality in 1973 and exiled to a Siberian work camp. Many came to his defense, and in early 1978, Sergo returned to Tbilisi, where he began working again. Though there was hardly any funding for his films and the artistic conditions were incredibly restrictive, these limitations only pushed him to challenge the terms of his medium—and to great effect, as his distinctive style won him fans who included Fellini, Godard, Kenneth Anger, and Yves Saint Laurent.

But Sergo’s performances are what I remember best. Improvised and almost never documented, they were rarely referred to as anything besides just “being with Sergo.” His house, which would serve as stage, was crammed with all sorts of costumes, fabrics, dolls, carpets, dishes, and other things that could be used last minute to act out a farce. Surrounded by wall-towall collages, Sergo was a collector of beautiful things, often surviving on what he received from the sale and trade of antiques. He was no less a lover of interesting people, his home always full of contrasting guests. Celebrities mixed with ex-convicts, as black-market spekulanti (tradesmen) charmed neighboring babushkas to dance. There were writers, artists, actors, children, regulars, and foreigners constantly passing through. The table was always set. Throughout the evening, carpets would be taken out into the Italian courtyard and fabrics strung from above. As a guest made his or her entrance, someone would start singing. No matter who you were, Sergo might make you the subject of his next act, inventing stories about you that called for impersonating wild subarchetypes—like the time he dressed up his elderly neighbor in drag or transformed Allen Ginsberg into a hybrid Orthodox priest–Christmas tree. Marcello Mastroianni visited once, too, and proceeded to get so intoxicated that he climbed through a window into the next-door apartment. Making no excuse for his guest, Sergo simply announced to his starstruck neighbors, “This is Marcello!” Sergo’s humor was transformative, to say the least, and these, let’s call them impromptu happenings, were the lifeblood of artistic life in late-1970s and ’80s Tbilisi.

Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili is an artist who lives and works in Berlin and New York.