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:
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.
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.