New York

Guram Tsibakh

Joyce Goldstein Gallery

After falling down the rabbit-hole at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the heroine’s initial, bemused comment is “Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual.” Georgian artist Guram Tsibakh (Tsibakhashvili) twice quoted these words in his series of black and white photographs titled after Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. The first time they accompanied a work that juxtaposes a close-up shot of a dilapidated wall, half in shadow with a patch of fresh paint in the middle and a portrait of a fellow Georgian artist Gia Edzgveradze posed against a wall, on which a red blot appears (it’s drawn on the print with a marker). Alice’s quote also complemented a pair of photographs: one of a woman sitting on a hospital bed with an open book on her lap, holding two eggs in her hand; the other of the smiling photographer himself, also with two eggs in his palm. In these enchanting photographs, Tsibakh applied Alice’s bewilderment about a suddenly metamorphosing world to his own contemporary surroundings in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Taken with a specially equipped Agat camera that produces two side-by-side images on a single negative (perhaps a reminder of Alice’s dual nature), the sequentially numbered works were arranged in a formal, friezelike fashion, with subtitles in Georgian borrowed from Carroll’s book. The camera focuses on the photographer’s friends and on various urban sites, from an old theater transformed into artists’ studios to the city’s parks. The staged images and their unexpected juxtapositions turn ordinary situations into surrealist visions that transcend the historical condition they document. However, as in Carroll’s Alice, some of the memorable effects in the photographs emerge from their referents. For example, a TV image in one exposes Brazilian soap operas as agents of a new cultural colonization in the wake of Georgia’s 1991 secession from Russia.

These works also offer up traces of the Russian presence in Georgia: Cyrillic door inscriptions, or a red graffiti star whose unfinished outline turns it into a Star of David, hinting, perhaps, at Soviet discrimination against Jews. But images of the political unrest and economic hardship that followed the recent civil war are missing here, unlike the work of Boris Mikhailov, which is formally similar yet more documentary. Tsibakh’s photographs reflect, instead, Georgia’s cultural transformations. Like artists from other former Soviet republics, those in Georgia have been engaged in redefining their legacy by embracing broader values and aesthetics than those that were permitted by the Soviet state. Thus Tsibakh draws influences from not only from Georgians who were often labeled “folk” artists, but also from Eugène Atget, Aleksandr Rodchenko, even Francesco Clemente. (It’s notable that one of the most radical artistic groups in Tbilisi borrowed the title of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novel Archivarius for its own name.) Appropriately, Tsibakh’s humorous ensemble of dreamy visions is not a record of his quest for a beautiful garden (which Alice herself never reached), but rather an attempt to embrace reality by expanding the matrix of the commonplace beyond local cultural boundaries.

Marek Bartelik