New York

View of “Slavs and Tatars,” 2016. Photo: Jean Vong.

View of “Slavs and Tatars,” 2016. Photo: Jean Vong.

Slavs and Tatars

View of “Slavs and Tatars,” 2016. Photo: Jean Vong.

In 1865, Édouard Manet exhibited Olympia at the Paris Salon, and Louis Pasteur patented a process for preventing spoilage in wine. It’s no stretch to claim a connection between these two events. Both modernist painting and pasteurization are techniques of purification, the one an expulsion of extraneous elements through progressive refinement, the other an elimination of pathogens through calibrated heating. Pasteurization, however, isn’t sterilization. Purge all the bacteria from wine or beer and you ruin the taste. Perhaps this explains why Clement Greenberg revised his theory of medium specificity when he confronted the possibility of a perfectly blank canvas. Modernism, like milk, requires contaminants.

In “Afteur Pasteur,” the collective Slavs and Tatars hailed the microbes as “original Other or foreigner.” The exhibition’s centerpiece was a fully operational street-vendor machine serving ayran, a yogurt-like dairy drink of Mongolian and Turkish origin that, like kefir and koumiss, is making inroads into Western markets as a health food. Purportedly founded as a book club, Slavs and Tatars is dedicated to tracing curious cross-border transits—of peoples, goods, concepts, even phonemes—throughout Eurasia, which they define as the region lying between the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. The collective’s practice is succinctly illustrated by their ongoing series “Kitab Kebabs,” 2012–, in which books, in Polish or Farsi, on popular science or ancient history, are stacked and skewered together. An antic spirit of polyglot pastiche cropped up in carpet designs, inspired by Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, that document Turkey’s government-mandated conversion to Latin script, as well as in vacuum-formed placards, modeled on Marcel Broodthaers’s “poèmes industriels,” advertising fermented beverages with slogans such as “COO COO 4 KUMIS.”

Slavs and Tatars’s nod to Broodthaers presses the question: What does it mean to be “Afteur Pasteur”? To be after modernism? Recall that Rosalind Krauss singled out Broodthaers in her 1999 lecture on the “post-medium condition,” which contended that Conceptualism and institutional critique had lapsed into biennial-friendly installation art and a retroactive adulation for Situationism, Fluxus, and other “practices of rampant impurity” (my italics). The central room of “Afteur Pasteur” could easily be viewed as evidence in Krauss’s case: Around the ayran machine were cots with woolen blankets, echoing Broodthaers’s displays of nineteenth-century bric-a-brac; incongruously beside them were sculptures of metal hairbrushes and contorted blown-glass tongues atop iridescent minimalist plinths. Overhead, an array of pink and green fluorescent lights attempted to bring the disparate ensemble together—seemingly, if pointlessly, by recalling Dan Flavin. The collective’s previous installation in New York, Beyonsense at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, doubled as a reading room. Without this added social and discursive function, the works in “Afteur Pasteur” could neither stand alone nor stick together.

Yet if “Afteur Pasteur” underscored what repelled Krauss about installation art, it also unearthed what she repressed. Her account of Broodthaers interprets his deployment of eagle imagery as an emblem of Conceptualism’s victory over medium specificity—rather than, say, an admonishment of his native Belgium’s brutal brand of imperialism. As Bruno Latour has meticulously shown, pasteurization refers not just to a laboratory discovery, but to an extensive coordination of France’s agricultural, industrial, and colonial interests. So too might modernism depend on national mobilization—an enforced coherence that Eurasia, with its histories of invasion and displacement, never maintains for long. The cots in “Afteur Pasteur” were all sourced from the US Army, and the illustrations on their woolen blankets punned off both fermentation and militarization: GIVE PEACE A CHANCE, one read, BOMB AYRAN. As if we needed more reminders that we live in an era of reactionary nationalisms, a wall map traced routes across Eurasia in milky white streaks and read HAGAMOS MONGOLIA GRANDE DE NUEVO (Make Mongolia Great Again). The exhibition was best experienced while drinking a cup of ayran, a frothy semisolid that’s both salty and sour. It left an aftertaste.

Colby Chamberlain