New York

“The Fantastic Tavern”

This summer’s “Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde” made the case for Tbilisi to be known as one of the principal enclaves of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde. It focused on the cultural energy of Georgia’s capital city in its independent, postrevolutionary, pre-Bolshevik period (1918–21), though it spanned from documentary photographs of the city at the beginning of the twentieth century to set designs and films made there in the 1920s and ’30s.

You’d imagine finding this kind of exhibition at an artist-run space like its curator Daniel Baumann’s own New Jerseyy in Basel, if not at a government-funded institution (e.g., the Austrian Cultural Forum), but it was instead staged in the forthrightly commercial Casey Kaplan gallery. With its poured concrete floor, whitewashed drywall, and fluorescent tube lighting, the setting couldn’t have been farther from the bars and back rooms that—as suggested by the show’s books, photo- graphs, and sound recordings—had housed the readings and performances that brought Symbolism into Acmeism, Futurism, and Dada, as well as numerous other offshoots and factions.

The spirit of the exhibition nonetheless felt aligned with its subject matter. Take, for example, the curator's installation ethos: In collaboration with one artist and three art historians at the Tbilisi-based Arts Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory (AIRL), Baumann presented a lucid outline of the period by casually substituting digital reproductions of any journal, photograph, or painting for which the original was unavailable. Given such disregard for auratic value, the embrace of technological mediation, and the break with commercial imperatives, one could image the likes of “Zaum” poet Ilia Zdanevich approving.

The exhibition opened with a recording of Zdanevich reciting his 1918 “Donkey for Hire,” and a turn-of-the-century handwoven carpet, which led to a room of photographs of cityscapes and interiors (from circa 1900) and artist Levan Chogoshvili’s A Bit and It Is Already Art, 2009, a montage of two maps of Georgia shortly after its takeover by the Soviet Union in 1921. Chogoshvili’s title comes from his translation of the Georgian map’s key: IN 1921 THE BORDERS OF GEORGIA CHANGED A BIT. The inclusion of this single contemporary work suggested a political subtext to the show, engendering reflections on Georgia’s continuing uneasy relationship with its large and powerful neighbor.

Beside a recording of Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin’s Rhapsodie georgienne (ca. 1922), scans and photographs of journals, posters, and manifestos extended horizontally along the wall into Casey Kaplan’s largest gallery, which contained films, lithographs, drawings, photographs of Tbilisians, and, on an extended roll of printer paper, reproductions of paintings, collages, costume sketches, and stage designs representing many of the city’s artistic groups. Bisecting the space were lengths of heavy theatrical drapery, which suggested an empty theater but had, on the show’s opening night, framed an experimental electronic music performance given by Tcherepnin’s grandson Sergei.

In the rear gallery, a wall-size Xeroxed reproduction of Irakli Gamrekeli’s stage set for a 1933 production of Schiller’s Robbers extended the exhibition into the pictorial space of the theater, with the surface of the page serving as proscenium. The image is evidence for the longevity of Tbilisi’s generative period, which continued until the late ’30s, when a number of the figures making up the Georgian avant-garde had left the country and many of those remaining were shot.

Narrative guidelines for the show were provided in the form of handouts written by AIRL, whose tone at times veered into a nostalgic nationalism, again bringing to mind Georgia’s current status as a strategically important country for both NATO and Russia. In a text accompanying the show, AIRL’s Nana Kipiani contrasts the “Western avant-garde,” for which “the present is the starting point of the future and the future is the determiner,” with “the Georgian/Tiflis avant-garde,” which is built upon “the idea of non-linear time, of spatial unification and integration of the past, present, and future.” Although this show was hard-pressed to make such arguments self-evident, it left no doubt that Tbilisi, in its heyday, must have been nothing short of fantastic.

Caroline Busta