Chicago

Kasmalieva and Djumaliev

The Art Institute of Chicago

For thousands of years, the trade routes of the Silk Road have linked China and the West. It was almost exclusively the cultures at either end that benefited economically from these routes, and the vast but sparsely populated regions of Central Asia that they traversed came to develop a fascinating quasi-parasitical relationship to the exotic riches that moved through them. The former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan (independent since 1991), a landlocked nation directly west of China, was and is such a place. It is also home to artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, who use photography and video to document the young nation’s curious and ambiguous position, its perpetual in-betweeness.

While many of the valuables that used to travel along the Silk Road have gone airborne, the routes remain, now used by trucks of every size and kind. Sometimes traversing Kyrgyzstan’s rudimentary highways in convoys like the caravans of old, sometimes making their way singly, the vehicles have come to define the vast denuded plains and barren hillocks they cross. Kyrgyzstan is all trucked up, a condition that Kasmalieva and Djumaliev chronicle comprehensively. Their images—relayed here in a video and twenty-three digital prints, nine of the latter drawn from the “Metal Truck Caravans” and “Last Stop Before Border” series (both 2006)—feature depictions of families playing in trucks’ shadows, boys on horseback aimlessly chasing trucks down the dusty road, men singing folk songs beside trucks, the hulking carcasses of abandoned and junked trucks, and the loneliness of the long-distance trucker moving his rickety rig toward the setting sun.

Scrap metal and other junk seem to be the trucks’ preferred cargoes, jammed into every crevice, rust-zone flotsam seemingly endlessly transported from one place to another, often to be scavenged by other Kyrgyz. Kasmalieva and Djumaliev treat their subjects in a pretty straightforward documentary manner, and even A New Silk Road: Algorithm of Survival and Hope, 2006, a five-channel video projected across three walls, seems largely motivated by an impulse to collect evidence concerning the traffic in junk. Colonial exploitation for economic purposes is a very old story, but Kyrgyzstan’s situation is different, as its current occupation by outsiders is neither politically motivated nor likely to constitute a permanent condition. It is as if the nation were a temporary truck stop, partially defined by its catering to those who are only passing through. Idiosyncratic signs in English trumpet the availability of tour guides and hamburgers, and entrepreneurial shops and rudimentary factories dot Kyrgyz towns and villages.

Kasmalieva and Djumaliev record these uneasy intersections, where the local populations, which centuries ago could interact more regularly and casually with the traders on the Silk Road—the journey then required months—now have a more fleeting and cursory relationship with the truckers whizzing by. The exhibition illustrated the dogged determinism of place, though, the sense of geography as destiny, of populations adapting to their geoeconomic reality. The footage in A New Silk Road of a Kyrgyz boy on horseback galloping after a rapidly disappearing and seemingly impervious truck functions as a metaphor for the artists’ project as a whole, a tabulation of the frictions—and wistful encounters—that occur when worlds collide or narrowly miss engaging one another.

James Yood