After the time of hope
Forward Ц to the Past?
Abilsaid Atabekov. Kyzyl Traktor. Performance. 2006
Retrospectives of nineties post-Soviet art more often than not give themselves such titles as "The Energetic Years" or "The Time of Enthusiasm and Drive". One of the best examples was an article printed in the Central Asian catalogue at the 51st Venice Biennale, which was entitled "The Nineties. The Sweet Time of Hope".
What exactly made the nineties so full of hope and energy? If one were to talk about the countries of Central Asia and indeed the other countries of the Former Soviet Union, then to a certain extent of course it is true that there was an opportunity to create a certain type of free and introspected art, inspired by the artist's personal needs rather than directives passed down from above. In addition art could now be "placed in an international context" Ц in other words art found itself back in the tide of contemporary trends.
Everyone remembers how the Soviet art of Central Asia was obliged to be "Communist (i.e. internationalist) in terms of its content" and "National in terms of its form". In other words art's universal content was expected to be manifested in a multitude of different exotic settings that only served to stress its universality.
However, the new post-Soviet art of the nineties proved itself to be an inverse version of this. It became national in terms of its content and international in terms of its form Ц i.e. accessible in this very same international context: These diverse "Others" expressed their otherness in the universal language of contemporary art (the ancient Kazakh customs of purification by fire and grass from the steppes began to be referred to as performances).
It was perfectly natural that post-Soviet art in the first years of its independent "sovereignty" should want to become "Other" in relation to the general Soviet international line Ц but this "otherwiseness" repeated the formula of the "Other" in the international context and in particular occupied the convenient position of "national identity", being dependent on the old East-West problem of redefining the borders between Europe and Asia.
The first "new distinct" Central Asian art myths that were invoked had been created out of thin air about a "common Turkic" and "common Asiatic" nature. Two Kazakh artistic groups that embodied two iconic images of Asia became the most significant phenomena of the post-Soviet Asiatic art of the nineties. The first project was the traditional image of Eastern mysticism Ц most vividly represented by the "Kyzyl Tractor" Group lead by Moldakul Narimbetov, Vitaly Simakov and Said Atabekov with its "mystical" performances of shaman and Sufi ritual singing and dancing.
The second project was executed with great verve by the "Kokserok" ("Wolf Cub") group led by Kanat Ibragimov and Yerbol Meldibekov. This group personified the image of the fierce nomad that the famous turn of the century Russian historian Gumilyov had portrayed and that despite the best efforts of the Soviet "civilising" machine had remained untamed. One of the group's most vivid projects was the public sacrifice of a sheep at the "Art Moscow" art fair in 1997. This group's chief weapons were the strength of their convictions and their awareness of the justice of their cause Ц which gave them the right to spill blood and the license to violate the conventions of the civilised world.
However, in order for the message to resonate for longer in the perceptions of the viewer, it is vital that the concentration of "truth" is constantly increased. Such intensification unavoidably leads away from a position of involvement to one of estrangement Ц in as far as any truth taken to an extreme becomes grotesque. And Yerbola Meldibekov's subsequent projects took on just such a grotesque character. This involved the re-creation of specifically Asian nightmares. For example his photo and video series entitled "Pol Pot" (2000) featured human heads buried up to their necks in sand, which were represented in various different geometric compositions.
The image of a mystical East wrapped up in itself as encapsulated by the work of the artists from "Kyzyl Tractor" also developed and changed. For example in Said Atabekov's video a dervish prays to the automatically opening and closing doors of a supermarket ("Neon Paradise" 2003). Thus having pronounced all the magical formulas about "identity", the art of post-Soviet Central Asia recognised itself to be a slightly differently Other in relation to the canonical Western image of the Other.
The energetic period of hope seamlessly changed into something else, which could be called the period of "Deja vu".
Back to the Future?
Erbosyn Meldibekov. Victory Peak. Objects. 2007
It has to be said here that throughout the nineties the official ideology of all the post-Soviet governments moved in the same direction that contemporary art was moving in Ц the affirmation of their own national identity. All these new countries looked to their ancient and medieval sovereign institutions as the origins of their own statehood. Kazakhstan looked to the Turkic and Ablai Khanates, Uzbekistan turned to the state set up by Timur (Tamurlaine) and his successors and Tajikistan drew inspiration from the Samanids. And the official art of the time actively produced images relating to these periods as the direct descendents of these institutions proclaiming themselves to be shards of the shattered Soviet empire.
However, the new image projected by these young states unavoidably inherited certain Soviet traits. The thing here wasn't so much that these images of legendary Khans and Emirs were given socialist realist forms (once again as is generally the case the nationalistic content displayed itself in neutral mimetic art forms). The main thing is that the occasional direct borrowings from the Soviet pantheon of ideas have now become systematic and pronounced in the last few years.
For example, the Soviet idea of the Future Ц the ideological model that the most important thing is constantly moving away into the future Ц has become extremely popular in the countries of the Former Soviet Union. For example, in 1998 the Uzbek President Islam Karimov published his book "Uzbekistan Ц on the road to a great future", and the streets of Kazakhstan's cities are littered with posters and slogans saying: "We are not using our time in vain Ц we are building the Future!" At present the ideological situation in Kazakhstan is very much reminiscent of the Khrushchev years when socialism was being built and communism was glimmering on the horizon Ц or more accurately was this horizon. According to the rhetoric pumped out by the official mass media Ц Kazakhstan has now achieved a position of "stability" (based on the export of oil, gas and other raw materials) and is drawing close to a final and definitive state of well-being. In October 1998 President Nazarbaev in his annual address to the people presented his programme "Kazakhstan Ц 2030: prosperity, safety and an improvement in the welfare of all Kazakhs", and in his last address in March 2006 he announced his strategic plan to make Kazakhstan one of the 50 most competitive countries in the world.
And of course the Soviet legacy in the New Central Asia is also manifested in the "total" propaganda methods employed. The means of propaganda have simply been adapted slightly to suit the new conditions. An example of this are the decorative bas-relief banners on the administrative building in E. and V. Vorobyovy's photo project "Kazakhstan "The Blue Period" (2002-2005). In the Soviet era these banners were all red but now they mimic these old banners having merely been turned blue to match the new sovereign flag of Kazakhstan.
However, despite the obvious fact of ideological continuity there is a very real difference in terms of the scale of these new states' pretensions. If the USSR had global ambitions, to strive to create a "wonderful new world", to fundamentally re-draw reality Ц then the new Central Asian countries crave Ц as does their contemporary art Ц only "to be included in the international context", Ц dreaming of this as if it were some sort of success of utopian proportions to make it into the top fifty of the capitalist "hit parade".
Therefore this sense of "déjà vu" has a devalued, cut off and "stunted" character about it.
In the unofficial art world this sense has been articulately recorded Ц and the timeless mythical images of "the enigmatic East" are now frequently substituted by allusions to the recent Soviet past. E. Meldibyekov's latest projects are a fine example of these sorts of "Stunted" versions of Soviet grandeur Ц parodies on the epic tales associated with the civilising development of Central Asia. His "Karakum" cycle Ц made up of a series of drawings on toilet paper Ц tell the story of the construction of the Karakum Canal, which became fixed in Soviet consciousness as the name of a famous brand of chocolate sweet. Another of his projects Ц a series of objects entitled "Mount Pobeda" ("Mount Victory") Ц consisted of a number of reliefs of mountainscapes on the bottom of Soviet enamel sauce pans. In the Soviet period even the names given to the mountains in Central Asia such as Mount Communism and Mount Pobeda (Mount Victory) were given the same status as great economic projects such as the Turksib railway and the Dneproges hydro-electric dam as the embodiment of Soviet economic achievements. In general, history in the Soviet era was perceived as an ascent from one "Mount Pobeda" (Mount Victory) to the next Ц as a "journey of great enterprises and victories".
Today's Central Asian "mountains" are likewise seen as symbols of forthcoming national triumphs. In Kyrgyzia, which lies next door to Kazakhstan the mountainous landscapes have been treated as an idiosyncratic identification code for the country. It is with this very landscape that the hopes of Kirgyzia's citizens for a happy future are linked. They are fond of saying Ц their mountains have the same tourist potential as Canada's Klondike region. However, this "potential capital" is not being fully realised because in order to attract tourists it is vital to have the necessary infrastructure in place and this has yet to materialise. Nevertheless Kyrgyzians love to take their foreign guests "out into nature" and the latter are almost always left with the impression that: "Kyrgyzia is not a rich country but it does have the most beautiful countryside". Nature and the countryside have the potential of being able to bring money in and what it doesn't bring in serves as a peculiar psychological compensation for the absence of money. It was this theme that particularly interested two Kyrgyz artists Aleksandr Ugay and Roman Maskalev from Bishkek in their computer collage project "Heavenly Landscape" (2004). This huge piece of contemporary "monumental propaganda" comprises a five metre vinyl banner on which appears an idyllic mountain landscape with various Kyrgyz homeless and poor people in the background posing next to elephants and rhinoceroses Ц representing the generalised exotic view of the foreign guest.
Not everybody will be taken into the Future
Abilsaid Atabekov. Kyzyl Traktor. Performance. 2006
If E. Meldibekov and Ugay and Maskalev's legends about gods and heroes have been relegated to the level of parody Ц then the work of another pair of Kyrgyz artists Ц Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev does quite the opposite. It describes the everyday in the most elevated style Ц the hard everyday grind of the small person's life is delivered in an epic tone.
Take for example their series of photographs and video projections on five screens entitled "the New Silk Road: a mechanism for survival and hope" (2006). This is an illustration of the myth of "the Long Road", a documentary record of a caravan of trucks carrying scrap metal from Kyrgyzia to China through the mountain passes. In the Soviet period young Communist pioneers used to collect scrap metal "for the good of society" (i.e. for no money) as a way of voluntarily helping the national economy. Now for these former pioneers who have turned into fully grown adults collecting scrap metal has turned into a means of survival. And Central Asia as a whole is surviving as a result of exporting its raw materials or recyclable raw materials. Today it is not silk that is being carried along the Silk Road Ц but rusty metal, not goods but the remains of goods, the product of decay.
Traditionally the Eastern theme of "the Caravan" has always resonated with the idea of communication arteries uniting disparate cultures. However, the Silk Road has long ago withered away to be replaced by more convenient trade routes. It no longer links anything and exists only in the memories of those indigenous people living along its length who are trying to resurrect it. Here there are no longer any attempts to work out "a mechanism for hope" Ц but this tired old hope is free of any trace of the bravura and drive of the nineties.
This is no road to the summit, to perfection and "victory" Ц this is more like a flight with all its corresponding obstacles.
And this road is a long one in as far as the point of destination is still very much unknown.
Time is slowed down and drawn out Ц the Future has slipped further and further into the distance. World revolution and the second coming have been postponed for an indefinite period. The period of hope and anticipation is over Ц either because these hopes have been fulfilled or because they have run dry. The region's "contemporary art" created for "insertion into an international context" has now been made. Central Asia has arrived and continues to check into and register for every possible biennale. However, aren't the participation ratios for "the Others" in large international exhibitions reminiscent of the obligatory quotas for "Non-Russian" individuals in the old Soviet state institutions and educational establishments?
Abilsaid Atabekov. Walkman. Video. 2005
The art of these new Central Asian countries is fated to be locally determined and hounded into the ghetto of "national identity". Even if this art tries to be international in terms of its content and form, all the same the ethnicity or nationality of its creator will remain its main constituent form.
This sense of déjà vu that is linked with the partial (and definitely not the best part) returning Soviet atmosphere is not only true of Central Asia. This feeling is also present at a global level: the periphery of the Soviet empire now finds itself at the periphery of the global empire.
Kasmalieva and Djumaliev have produced a video called "Into the Future" Ц in which the viewer observes the slow and gradual departure of a ship from the docks into the distance, Ц a paraphrase of Ilya Kabakov's project "Not everyone will be taken into the future". This has to be the final debunking of the "period of sweet hopes". Of course in the Future some small hopes might be and are being fulfilled Ц but the main Hope will constantly be moving away just beyond the horizon. Not everyone will be taken into the future Ц is the philosophy of the capitalist jungle: "If they don't take everyone then at least let them take me".
But we want everybody to be included and we don't want anyone to leave offended.
This is our (post) Soviet mentality, and it is on this mentality that the whole of Central Asian art is based. When the situation in the arts in the region is reliant predominantly on the Soviet enthusiasm of its artists Ц not on financial considerations but sincerely humanitarian considerations and once again on the periodically nascent hope of "building something".
Then contemporary art in Central Asia will be able to serve as the nostalgic and the best inheritance of the Soviet era.
Born in 1972 in Rudny.
Artist and critic.
Lives in Rudny (Kazakhstan).