“Time of the Storytellers”

With four works from Russia and ten from former Soviet republics, “Time of the Storytellers: Narrative and Distant Gaze in Post-Soviet Art” took viewers on a tour east of Helsinki. Although the region is not, in fact, all that far from Finland geographically, its numerous cultures can seem far removed. Some works, such as two video pieces by Kazakh artists emphasized difference: A game of polo played with a sheep’s head for a ball is shown in Said Atabekov’s four-channel video Battle for the Square, 2007; a shamanistic dance on snowy mountaintops appears in Almagul Menlibaeva’s Apa, 2003, an installation featuring videos projected onto furniture, mirrors, and scrims. The show might have seemed to be hurtling along the same path as those Stalin-era folk exhibitions in which Kazakhs, Kalmyks, and Chukchi danced with mad gusto under the hammer and sickle. But the work that Russian curator Victor Misiano has gathered from these outer regions turns out to offer much more than synthetic exotica.

The first floor of the exhibition, consisting almost entirely of large projections, opens with Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s A New Silk Road: Algorithm for Survival and Hope, 2006. The five-channel piece balletically traces the transport of goods backward along the old silk road, as scrap metal is brought through the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan to be exchanged in Western China for cheap clothing and other goods. Evoking the global back and forth of power played out along the region through the last five centuries, the projections entrance with a rhythmic choreography. But the sleek installation only partly succeeds in transforming the sensorial onslaught of the Kyrgyz market into a high-tech stereoscopic thrill—leaving the viewer uncomfortably aware of Helsinki’s conspicuous and long-held position as a cushy viewing platform to the exotic East.

A more unexpected, though no less cinematic, approach to anthropological tourism is Pavel Braila’s work Barons’ Hill, 2006, a detailed study of the palatial show-houses that the Roma elite of Soroca, Moldova, keep for special events; most of the time, they live in simple huts nearby. As no fewer than six large synchronized video projections trace steady if somewhat disorienting paths, zooming and panning over intricate tile work, wrought-iron fencing, window-sash treatments, oil portraits of family members, figurines, and ornate crockery, a Bach concerto plays hypnotically on the sound track, furthering the domestic fantasy of these famously nomadic people.

Upstairs, among wall works, sculptures, and monitors arranged more tightly (and haphazardly) than in the impressive screening areas below, was Kazakhstan. Blue Period, 2002–2005, by Elena and Victor Vorobyev, residents of the Kazakh city of Almaty. The work documents the recent ubiquity of an electric shade of turquoise known as kok. The color figures in the Kazakh flag, and now it appears everywhere: Photographs show it on grave markers, garbage cans, political banners, chocolate wrappers, and houses throughout the country. The piece interrogates the use of color as a political symbol—and yet, in contrast to the fiery accents of Soviet red, these turquoise surfaces are too mundane and scuffed to hold any ideological charge; rather, they seem to inoculate the landscape against ideological vigor.

Although the Vorobyevs’ work takes the form of an enormous wall of photographs, the show overall seems to elevate the multichannel video installation to the level of epic poem. The phrase “distant gaze” in the exhibition’s subtitle perhaps suggests that a strategic removal can enhance the immersive potential of a narrative—demonstrated here in sound and light. It was not all that long ago that the primary function of art in Russia and Central Asia was to use regional nationalism to dress up an ideology pumped in raw from Moscow, so perhaps it follows that the artists of “Time of the Storytellers” are more inclined to draw from within and head out from there.

Emily Newman