New York

Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev

Plus Ultra

“Into the Future,” the title of Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s recent exhibition at Plus Ultra (their first solo show in New York) has a specific connotation in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where the artists live and work. As in all post-Soviet countries, the word future there retains an ideological undertone. Only ever paired with one adjective, glorious, it has traditionally signified an emergent Communist utopia. The first juxtaposition of images in Kasmalieva and Djumaliev’s two-channel video projection, also titled Into the Future (all works 2005), however, paints a less triumphant picture.

On one side, what appears at first to be a modernist grid soon comes into focus as a close-up of the car ramp of a ferry. This image is paired with that of a monumental concrete pillar that is slowly, through a succession of shots, revealed as part of a half-built industrial plant, situated on a vast steppe. The two images are dissonant metaphors for two possible futures: One marks a departure, albeit in a yet undetermined direction, while the other represents a stagnated social utopia. Into the Future’s composition is critical. Some images appear almost as still shots, while in others slow camera movements capture boarding passengers and evoke the tedium of waiting. When these images are juxtaposed with those of an industrial wasteland, an uncertain future is aligned with a problematic past.

Having gained independence virtually overnight in 1991, the populations of Central Asia have witnessed rapid transformation, echoed by repeated official proclamations that better times lie ahead. The Soviet project that gave the region an internationalist ideological identity was declared obsolete and the region was quickly propelled back toward a nationalism based on a mythologized past. Propaganda announcing the glories of Communism was hastily replaced by its capitalist equivalents, as “Party and People Are One” banners gave way to Chevron and Texaco advertisements. In contrast to European parts of the Soviet Empire that have since embarked on democratic experiments, the former Communist leaders of the Central Asian “stans” largely stayed in power, establishing autocratic regimes and reviving traditional ethnic narratives, keeping the authoritarian elements of the old doctrine intact while adding elements of Islam.

The photographic series “New Menhirs,” 2005, shows how these elements coexist in popular culture, in some ways countering the drive to consolidate another monolithic “national identity,” based on the glorification of current leaders. In these documentary-style shots, concrete factory pillars become analogous to the prehistoric menhirs that have marked burial grounds throughout Central Asia for thousands of years, and the colorful albeit run-down architecture of private burial monuments is at first glance reminiscent of Islamic domes. But on closer investigation, an unexpected punctum emerges in the form of an eclectic deployment of Soviet, pagan, and Islamic symbols. On these monuments, majestic mountain-goat horns—a Central Asian symbol of bravery and virility—are flanked by white and red stars similar to those that mark the Kremlin towers. Combining a detailed interest in regional tradition with a critique of official policy formed according to static notions of identity, Kasmalieva and Djumaliev’s work reflects the post-Communist condition, documenting the contradictions embodied by a region held in limbo between past and future.

Elena Sorokina