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The lesson for today, kids, is that France is pretty clothes.

Friday at the museum, everyone was wearing their sparkliest polyesters. The occasion was the opening of the new exhibition “Pearls of France,” which is a show of French art through the ages sponsored by the Elysée Palace and corporations with interests in Kazakhstan. Somebody called it “grandiose and epoch-making.” It is an opportunity to see how the French project their cultural heritage unlike any we might have in the Europe or the USA, where we know a bit more about France. We can’t so easily be served Two-Buck Chuck and told it’s Grand cru (we probably could be, but no one dare try anymore).

The show is organized chronologically, beginning in the Medieval period and blowing breezily through periods like “The Age of Enlightenment,” “Romanticism” (Imperial France, roughly 1800-1850), and “Modernity.” Wall text is minimal, and the curators have substituted period music played through headphones in each room as a substitute for explaining context. While this is clever “multimedia solution” – very museum-of-the-21st-century feeling – one gets the sense it was dreamed-up primarily to save on translation costs. Music, though expressive, can also only tell you so much about the founding of the Third Republic.

Jean Daret, “Portrait of the Artist as a Guitarist,” 1636

At the outset of the exhibition, it is announced that the theme of the show is something like “the good life,” which already reveals a lot about how France is choosing to market itself to Kazakhs. The exponents (paintings, prints, photographs, tapestries and sculpture) are chosen to reflect the heights of material cultures and fashions in each period. The early climax of the show is therefore the Baroque period, in which lots of mildly cross-eyed women in improbably hats prance in Watteau-esque fantasies. But of course they don’t have any actual Watteaus. The French have provided only second-and third tier works, posters and photographs, even if some have famous names (Renoir, Matisse, Cartier-Bresson in the later rooms) attached to them. I know selection in this case was probably a function of insurance, but it comes across more like condescension. We can just imagine a museum director in Paris on a phone with the organizers: “You want to send what where?!

The exhibition’s theme is sitting uneasily with me. The decision was either made by the French side, in which case they are marketing themselves to wealthy Kazakhs as the home of the highlife, land of silky butter and women, or by the Kazakh side, which is perhaps worse. The coordinator on the Kazakh side was none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the President, head of some cultural committees, and amateur opera star. Evidently her cosy relationship with the French goes back a few years. What irks me about the possibility that the luxury focus  of the exhibit was her idea is that it appeals so baldly to the material envy of the aspirational-and-rising upper-middle class of Almaty and no one else in the country. They’ve certainly priced the exhibition as such: whereas normal price of admission is KZT 100 (USD 0.66), the cost of a ticket to “Pearls of France” is KZT 1500 (USD 10). More than any I’ve seen in a long time, this exhibit is bereft of social and educational purpose.

Lucien Guy, “Woman in Profile,” 1910

However, the museum staff are over the moon about the show. I keep hearing: “We’ve never had an exhibition from Europe!” And with a show from Europe came all these European standards and requirements. The French installation team (again, not trusting the locals) hung new track lighting, reinforced several of the walls on which tapestries or heavier paintings would hang, and issued a strict injunction against touching and photography. To comply with this last, the museum has tripled or quadrupled its staff of Old Crones, who seem just delighted to snapp at the young women and children who stroke paintings and sculptures (which does in fact happen a lot). All the pictures included here I took on my iPhone at great risk to life and limb lest an OC come at me with fingers hardened into knives by arthritis. When I asked a young staff member what she thought of the show, she said to me wide-eyed, “They repainted all the walls.” The museum doesn’t have the resources to do that for each new show – and yet we need to know about the good life in Louis XIV’s court?

Admittedly, the show includes some entertaining bits and pieces. I enjoyed the collection of photographs and prints in the 20th-century room, and I’m a sucker for Edith Piaf recordings, even if they are painfully predictable. I am also thrilled that the Kasteyev museum staff have pulled off such a publicity coup and, as they say, received an exhibition from Europe. With any luck, this will be the first of many, and the next will be better. “Pearls of France,” however, is a flop in my eyes. As I look around the halls, this pervading but evasive snobbishness haunts my peripheral vision. Even the Frenchman who wrote the lone critical essay in the very pretty catalog can’t muster the energy to be enthusiastic or interesting – his essay is just a recitation of the basics of French history possibly cribbed from Wikipedia. Had Americans done this, at the very least the show would be more successfully fun.

Photo of the May 1968 riots, inclusion of which seems like the bravest (or most clueless) decision of the show.

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Below is the English-language version of my article appearing in a recent art publication in Almaty:

Despite Kazakhstan’s increasing inclusion in world affairs since the collapse of the USSR, the country’s art scene has remained on the fringes of the international market. “The art market’s limited understanding of post-Soviet art is almost entirely reducible to Russian art,” observed British art historian Sarah James in 2008.[1] But efforts by James, among others, to encourage interest in Soviet and post-Soviet art outside of Russia have not yet brought Kazakhstan’s art into the mainstream. This is because of a misdiagnosis of the disease; the root problem is that, with few exceptions, Kazakhstan’s local art narratives do not resonate beyond its national boundaries.

According to James, the dominance of Russian post-Soviet art results from a concentration of financial capital in Moscow and the hegemony of Postmodernist critical discourse. However, the global economic crisis has diluted capital and weakened Western theoretical authority. If James’s arguments were correct, this should have created opportunities for artists on the margins to access the mainstream. But even as the Soviet empire is being conclusively dismantled in many spheres, the metropole-periphery relationship between Moscow and the former republics has persisted in the post-Soviet art world. We therefore need an alternative explanation.

Art derives meaning by participating in narratives, the invention of which is the purpose of art history, criticism and theory. The narratives can be grand or modest, general or personal, global or local: the impact of Matisse’s arthritis on his late work or patronage relationships in 15th century Italian city-states. In isolation from any story, however, a study is not a portrait, and a maquette is not a sculpture. Art history weaves artworks into a narrative, and it provides stories guiding the production of new art. Once contextualized, the appreciation of art is not merely a matter of taste. Stories save art from being a trivial commodity.

While art historical narratives take many forms, they are not all of equal value. Although there are no objective criteria against which we can measure the quality of narratives, it is undeniable that some better capture the imagination or reflect the prevailing zeitgeist. We know about Van Gogh’s suicide because it explains something profound about his work; we know about Andy Warhol because he so perfectly represented his era. It follows from this that an artwork’s value—intellectual or monetary—is determined by both the degree to which it interacts with a narrative and the quality of that narrative.

Consider the rise of China’s contemporary artists to international prominence about fifteen years ago. While conventional wisdom is that these artists flourished because of Chinese wealth, the original buyers were in fact Western. What caught their interest? Not a change in styles, which had emerged decades before, but rather a change in the dominant narratives surrounding Chinese contemporary art. The stories of China’s rise and the shift of global power from West to East emerged in the late 1990s and were perceived to threaten Western values. The romanticized vision of the Chinese artist as unable to express herself under a repressive authoritarian regime neatly encapsulated Western anxieties. As a result, Chinese art became a sought-after intellectual and political commodity.

Moscow became the center of the post-Soviet art world in the 1990s and subsequently because, in the Western mind, the narrative of the collapse of Communism was a Russian story. Western intellectual audiences wanted evidence of the contrition and realignment of values “appropriate” of a defeated enemy. Successful Moscow artists like Dmitri Gutov or Valery Koshlyakov were happy to oblige and thereafter attracted international interest and demand.

Meanwhile, in Almaty, Tallinn, and Yerevan, new nations began reclaiming identities, rediscovering histories and reviving mythologies. The art demanded by the process of rebuilding countries was often intellectually monolithic and, by necessity, isolated from broader trends in art. International markets were unfamiliar with the narratives that gave rise to a resurgence of primitivism in form and traditional themes in content across the former Soviet space. In Kazakhstan, the dominant narratives were the ancient origins of Kazakh culture and the historic nomadic life as represented by yurts and horseback batyrs [warriors]. These motifs served important cultural-political purposes, but did not resonate with international audiences. Thus, much Kazakh art in could not “become one more commodity to be packaged for sale,” as Susan Reid has written of Russian post-Soviet art.[2]

On the other hand, Kazakhstan is rich in narratives potentially attractive to international markets because of the country’s long, often difficult history and uncertain future. Alexander Yerashov is an example of a young local artist investigating less popular local themes. In a series of humorous hand-drawn posters, Yerashov exploits Soviet, Russian folk and pop-culture visual vocabularies to present ironic and counter-factual versions of Soviet history that reflect on post-Soviet cultural trends and aspirations. More broadly, his drawings examine propaganda’s functionality, the significance of uniqueness in an age of digital reproduction, and the stigmatization of social utopianism, which are all questions that remain urgent after the collapse of Communism. His works connect historical and geographical particularities to universal topics.

Yerashov situates Kazakhstan’s specific experiences over the last two decades within more general narratives of post-Soviet development and the spread of a postmodern, international cultural order. Thus, instead of marginalizing contemporary art from Kazakhstan, as James suggests is the case, the postmodern critical discourse provides Yerashov a shared vocabulary by means of which international, or at least regional, audiences can relate to the artist’s specific narrative. The challenge confronting Kazakhstan’s artists, art historians and critics is therefore to compose narratives that make local, unique stories relevant to a wider audience.

Paull Randt, U.S. Fulbright Researcher, originally published Ugay, Alexander, ed. Art Listovka (Art Leaflet), issue 5, May 2012.

[1] James, S. “Behind a Theoretical Iron Curtain,” Art Monthly, no. 317, 2008; pp. 7-10.

[2] Reid, S. “The Art Market and the History of Socialist Realism,” Art History, vol. 22, no. 2; pp. 310-316.

The Russian text of the poem

After my last post, which was lengthy and verging on polemic, I wanted to share a Soviet poem with you. I use this poem to improve my Russian phonetics, but I also find it comical for all that it is not.

You must know to cherish love, and
With time, you’ll cherish it twice over.
Love is not sighing on benches,
Nor it is strolls beneath the moon.
Everything will come: sleet and fresh snow.
Only together must you live out your lives.
Love is like a good song,
And songs are hard to write.

 Stepan Petrovich Shipachëv, 1899-1980

The author of these unsentimental lines is now primarily notorious (insofar as he enjoys any lasting fame at all) for opposing and denouncing the famous Soviet dissidents Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov in the 1970s. Definitely on the wrong side of history, but he did not live to understand his mistake.

The cover of A. Nakov's "Avant-garde," 1991, through which I'm currently making my way.

I spend at least one day a week at the State Museum of the Arts named after A. Kasteyev (a direct translation of the name from the Russian); in exchange for some translation work, the museum staff allow me to poke around their vaults and library. This is how I’ve been doing my art historical research.

What I love second-most about working in Almaty’s libraries and archives are the old Soviet books. First, there is the feel and look of the books. Like everything else, paper was scarce throughout the USSR, and no one had much spare money with which to buy books anyway. Therefore, books had to be made as cheap as possible by printing in small fonts, reducing the margins to all but nothing and using thin, poor-quality paper. Today, these books feel so light and so dry in my hands; if I turn a page too quickly, I’m libel to rip it; and in many books there is an overwhelming volume of teeny-tiny language squeezed onto each page.

Second, there is the language. Unfortunately, a majority of the books I’ve read – and this is true even of all but the best of post-Soviet publications – recycle ideas, arguments and vocabulary in a very formulaic and uninteresting way. However, every so often I stumble across incredible Soviet ideological tracts. Contemporary local art historians don’t even bother with these books anymore, disregarding them as Marxist-Leninist garbage. But to me, these are fascinating windows into how the Soviet system worked (or was at least meant to work, according to Moscow).

For example, I was reading Methodological Questions regarding the Planning of Exhibitions in Regional Art Museums (M. Gorelov, 1967) and found the following passage regarding how to “deal” with art from the Soviet 1920s (by way of brief background: Soviet art in the early 1920s was very radical and progressive. It became less so throughout the decade and, in the 1930s, was rejected as “formalist.” Art of the 1920s was subsequently almost never shown or researched, which is why Nakov’s 1991 book about the avant-garde was a breakthrough study, despite being 70 years late):

The question of whether it is necessary, in exhibitions of the 1920s, to show the works of the formalist school alongside the fundamental creations of [Soviet] realism should be addressed. Such a question belongs in front of art historians. Before curators of this department [Soviet art] lies a different task: to realize mass aesthetic education about the world’s most pioneering and progressive art – that is, Soviet Socialist Realism.

This is entirely in keeping with the Soviet conception of the role of museums. They were buildings solely devoted to propagandistic education, and as such, had to answer all questions instead of asking them. To this end, museums couldn’t leave gaps. Another author relates that in the early 1930s, when many Soviet museums lacked sufficient holdings to cover all relevant events, the museums were instructed simply to resort to text to get the message across. That’d be like walking through a book.

For his part, Gorelov goes on to suggest that the space devoted to the 1920s in any chronological exhibition of Soviet art should be filled either with non-controversial forms of art, such as wartime propaganda posters, or with art from other decades by artists who “captured the sense” of the 1920s or “began to realize their potential” in that decade. He sums it up:

In this view, the date of a work’s creation may accent time in an exhibition, but should not pretend to be the only criteria by which one is permitted to divide artists by period.

Really? That is some contorted logic, although I guess it should come as no surprise that Soviet museums were big on re-writing history in their own vision.

The cover of "Methods," 1967.

You might be wondering what I love most about working in the museum. I offer you a description by way of explanation: last Friday I arrived, as usual, around 10am. I went straight the library and began to read. Around twelve-thirty, as usual, the library closed for lunch for an hour and a half. But don’t worry, I wasn’t left with nothing to do: upon going back to the room in which I have a desk, I discovered it was a co-worker’s birthday, and she was setting up a birthday lunch. Of course, I was invited to join, and within fifteen minutes we had a lot of food and drink on the table: savory pies, Korean salads, biscuits, tea – and wine and cognac.

As far as I know, it is obligatory at birthdays for everyone to toast the birthday boy or girl (man or woman) and then drink. Regardless of my protests that wine and cognac would put me to sleep, I was plied with both and scolded when I didn’t clean my cup after each toast. As the only man at the table, the women wouldn’t drink unless I was, and I didn’t want to spoil the birthday celebrations.

We finished the meal around three and washed up. I should say they cleaned up, though, because (again), as a man, I am not really permitted to clear or clean any of the dishes. Instead I went back to my desk and, unsurprisingly, fell asleep. I woke up about half an hour later, no one else appeared to be doing much work, so I decided it was time to leave. It was, after all, a Friday afternoon.

"The Reading Girl," by S. Kalmikov, 1940, in the Kasteyev's collection.

But this repeated itself on Monday…

I should note, however, that I have the utmost respect for many of the staff at the Kasteyev. They are grossly under-paid and manage an impressive collection with minimal resources (the museum doesn’t even have an electronic catalog). Despite holding PhDs in art history or theory, many of the staff also works at least one job outside of their full-time employment. On birthdays they drink not because they are lazy, but because, I suspect, at times the museum simply can’t fund more activity.

Clearly, I offer this as the “aspect I love most” about working at the museum ironically. The Kasteyev is probably my favorite place in Almaty both because of the people and it’s intellectual and artistic heritage. The history of the collection and those of almost each and every one of the paintings in it are fascinating. (I’m working on a longer piece about this for publication.) It is therefore sad to discover how besieged the museum is with financial and political problems, leading the staff to turn to drink…

"Defragmentation of History" by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbai (2010)

I have found some other people who believe, like me, that the New Great Game narrative in Central Asia is overplayed. Several months ago I went to very good and very temporary exhibit at the A. Kasteev State Museum of Fine Arts, where I work one day a week. The show, entitled “Between Past and Future: Urgent Archeology,” collected recent works by local artists reflecting on the years since the collapse of the USSR. The show was curated by a local art critic of Russian descent who has worked extensively and has many connections in Germany. Of the art I’ve seen, the works presented in this exhibit were the most creative, fun, provocative and diverse (in terms of media, message, mood).

I want to start with a piece that was not my favorite: “Defragmentation of History” (2010) by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbai, partially pictured above. This was far from the best piece in the show, but it spoke directly to the problem I (vaguely) identified in an earlier post about the New Great Game narrative – i.e. that the narrative functionally treats the Central Asian states much like the body of a goat is treated in the regional game of kokpar (or buzkashi in Persian). It reduces the countries here to littler more than giant mines and oil wells.

Madaov and Terekbai’s piece consists of 40 canvases painted a dirty gold and arranged in a grid. Appearing on each of the canvases in raised letters is the name of a publication about the Great Game – either historical or “new” – and the name of the author, as if each canvas is a book. (I think the artists found the titles by searching “Great Game” and / or “New Great Game” in Google Books, since I received a very similar list when I ran these searches after returning home.) Accompanying the canvases were two texts, one that described the color used as a mix between oil and gold (a reference to the spoils to be won) and the second  is this poem:

A close up of one title in "Defragmentation of History"

Летящие потоке времени осколки нашей культуры
мы стараемся собрать воедино для того,
чтобы наши потомки
смогли увидеть в них свое отражение.

We try to gather together the splinters of our culture,
Flowing through time,
So that our descendants
Can see their reflections in them.

It is my opinion that this poem offers the “splinters of our culture,” as represented by the Great Game and New Great Game titles, in an ironic mode; this piece latches onto the unspoken belief that Central Asian cultures and histories (Kazakh, Uighur, Tartar, Cossak, Uzbek, Tajik, etc.) are so much more than other nation’s competitions for oil, gold and access across the Eurasian steppe. Future generations of Central Asians must understand this, but, as the collection of titles suggests, they won’t do so from the majority of the English-language literature about the region.

Though heavy-handed in its indictment, I enjoyed the piece for the feeling of vindication it gave my point of view. Of course, this is probably ranks among the basest reasons to enjoy art, and you may be relieved to know that my appreciation for the show’s other works was for more sophisticated reasons.

"Project" by Narynov (late 1980s)

In my opinion, one of the consistent trends connecting the best post-Soviet art is a sense of humor and irony. Usually, although not in Madaov and Terekbai’s piece, this mitigates the heavy-handedness of the message. It also, paradoxically, simultaneously lightens the treatment of frequently depressing subjects and communicates the great tragedy of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Take, for example, Narynov’s “Project” from the late-80s (unfortunately damaged). Narynov is a professional architect, but also drew mock-architectural plans for fanciful homes and apartment blocks. The project pictured shows an tower supporting detachable and transportable living-modules. To me this evokes the utopian urban planning repeatedly popular among modernist and leftist architects throughout the 20th century. The legacies of such idealism are, in America, “the projects;” in the former-Soviet Union, the five-story “Khrushchëvki;” in France, the occasionally-successful mixed housing of le banlieues; in China, the hugely broad roads and the endlessly repeating grey apartments that have become a signature of communist and leftist urban planning.

Finally, I’d like to share Erbossyn Meldybekov’s 2007 series “Mt. Communism” (“Пик Коммунизма”), made out of discarded and beat-up basins and saucepans. “Mt. Communism” was really the name given to the highest peak in the Pamirs, located in Northeastern Tajikistan. It now called by its old name Ismoil Somoni. I don’t think Meldybekov’s piece needs much more explanation.

"Mt. Communism" (2007) by Erbossyn Meldibekov