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Art from Central Asia
Text from Catalogue for the Central Asia Pavilion, 51st Venice Biennale, 2005
art, aesthetics, nationalism, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Communism, Soviet republics, USSR, artists, modernism
Monday, January 01, 2007 02:12 GMT

I enjoyed these two essays from the catalogue to the wonderful Central Asia Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale, curated by Viktor Misiano. The work in this pavilion was more alive and more sophisticated than almost anything else in the Biennale. The essays give an insight into the fascinating political and aesthetic situation faced by artists in the Central Asian republics immediately after 1991.

Valeria Ibraeva's consideration of equestrian statues, and the imitation of western European classicism, as essential in the development of a new aesthetic of nationhood, was particularly productive for me.

Modern art as the end of the secret: A viewpoint from Central Asia
by Auezkhan Kadar

In our time all old connections have been destroyed, and the new ones are just beginning to appear like punctual impulses, This is not the time of a holistic picture of the world, but rather of bright fragments. However, it does not make sense to try to assemble the pieces into something whole.

Nowadays there is not even a division between the artist and his or her creation, The artist is his or her creation, This is the time of endlessly existing nouns. Verbs and adjectives do not mean anything.

Our time is the time of desperation and no way out. For so long we been frightened with the end of the world. But it turned out to be not that terrible, but rather dull - it turned out to be not the end of the world, not the Apocalypse, but a "light-show". Presently there is not even any division of between days and nights. Day and night we are lit, and it is not important whether the light is natural or artificial. This division has ceased to exist. Our time is not the end of the world,
but the end of the secret, a grandiose discovery, made sometime by Jean

It is hard to overestimate this discovery. The secret is the foundation of everything, the foundation of tradition, religion, and cul¬ture. Our ancestors made knowledge a secret, and thus it became sacral. The phenomenon of the sacral emerged from the cult of exclusiveness. It is not surprising that with this secret also appeared the consecrated and the non-consecrated, the right and the wrong, the fully valued and the not fully valued, those familiar and strangers, the chosen and the

Someone senses it, another one is indifferent to it. But it "exists no matter what". It is because the secret is also the cult of identity. When in the middle of the ocean of darkness, you are shown an island of light, you immediately believe in it and will associate yourself only with it. But now it can happen that there is an island of darkness in an ocean of light. And that's how it is. We so much longed for our identity, that we are now doomed for it. We are doomed for our physical and national constitution, for our weaknesses and strengths.

But now all of this has lost its qualitative or "valuing" dimension. What dimension can a tin sheet possess? Only flatness. So the same applies to our art, it is flat on flatness. Even humor has disappeared from it. It is rarely ironic. It neither contains the chal¬lenging nor the outrageous. It is all a sign of modernity, and we already lived through or endured post-modernity. Like measles or hives. And we did not feel anything except itching.

So, this itching moves us. It is, of course, of a material origin, and at the same time "immaterial". It is impulsive like a cardiogram. Some have more consciousness of it, and some are overcome by it unconsciously. But the sparks of recognition flow, blood pulsates and everything around vibrates. However, the magnitude of the vibration is not great. It is not higher than the human body. It is that event, when
the message and the meaning cross into one point - the point of modern art: our dialogues about the modern art of Central Asia. In that event one usually speaks about prehistory or at least history. But how can we talk about these subjects, if they never existed? One can only speak of a vertical invasion of modern art into Kazakhstan and Central Asia. In "The Revolt of the Masses", Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote about the vertical invasion of barbarianism, meaning that it was a completely
unexpected event that suddenly happened in civilized Europe. But with our situation, on the opposite, it was in the midst of post-perestroika destruction and collapse that modern art suddenly arose.

The falling apart of the Soviet Union was a phenomenon of the same order. It seemed that there had never been a government more powerful and yet all of a sudden it collapsed. As if from somewhere above democracy had been parachuted. You should notice that in this that there is no dialectic, but specifically an invasion, "the birth of tragedy from the spirit of music".

Unfortunately with the next step came the birth of farce. The former republics of the Soviet Union, having received sovereignty, ran away into their "national apartments" and anew began to construct their own "Berlin wall".

At this point everything was of use: myths and insinuations as well as the adaptation to prestigious models of identity. Again the defining paradigm became historical self-consciousness, or, more specifically, the voluntary construction of epochal landmarks of one's own identity. That is the Central Asian republics anew returned to the epoch of the "secret", whereas the invasion of modern art was marked by the end of the "secret".

If you remember that in the middle of the 1990s all of us were stilll representations of conservative Soviet culture and its "rough greycoat", then contemporary art contradicted all our imaginations about decent art. First, it was not figurative, second, it did not contain and ideology, and third it was not humanistic. And in our case, the case of Kazakhstan, it was also not national either. Furthermore, any decent artist hides the story of the creation of his or her work and the viewer
only sees the finished painting. For this reason it seemed bewildering at the beginning, that contemporary art, more than anything else, was about the open display of techniques, the destruction of all barriers and reservations, strict conceptualization, allowing for any desired degree of freedom. And, at the same time, contemporary art was a kind of conditional space, created specifically for that concrete act, specifically for that situation. All remaining in modern art was natural (taken from life), but having rejected this moment of conditionality, it would, as a matter of fact, have lost its status as art. It is significant that the most scandalous actionist artist of the 90s, Oleg Kulik, in his interviews always underlined this moment, his respect for conditionality as a method for the anesthetization of the presented phenomena.

Now some words about the specifics of contemporary art in Central Asia. It is developing rapidly among us, but officially it does not seem to exist. If the phenomenon of the "living dead" occurs, then it is happening with our artists. For Western artists, defended by all the power of their institutions, it is difficult to understand Asian actionist artists, who try to be modern in a place, where only the
archaic prevails. They explode into the big world, where they are received with open arms, and then return again to their desert, where they have no status and no chance for growth. Creating art in Central Asia means creating in emptiness, only trusting in Providence. You cannot accept the patriarchal thinking of your fellow tribesmen, just as they cannot accept your non-ritual way of thinking. You are only saved by virtual communication and what we call "the spirit of music". And it is evident that in connection with this situation, the understanding of identity itself changes. Now the only exit from the limits of identity is created by identity itself, i.e. it acquires the character of transgression.

Asian actionist artists are not only carriers of modern art, but also its immediate expression. They are like the Vatican in Rome, a state within a state, however being a desacralized and de-ide¬ologized space, the space of comprehensive communication and the end of the secret. This space, where roots grow from the air and the territory, according to Deleuze and Guattari, has long ago ceased to possess the status of a territory. The artist is the only ambassador of the big world, which only he knows. And he doesn't make a secret of his estrangement from his fellow tribesmen. It is possible, that only such estrangement is capable of modernizing the cultural situation in Central Asia.

"Waiting for Godot: Central Asia searches for its identity"
by Valeria Ibraeva

Central Asia, one of the Soviet Union’s most closed and mysterious regions, is today - thirteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain - the crossroads for the geopolitical and economic interests of the United States, China, and Russia. Like Ali Baba’s cave, Central Asia’s deposits of oil, gas, and metals have attracted the attention of diplomats, businessmen, adventurers, and artists. Political turmoil in Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, coupled with these countries’ search for an identity to determine their place in the world, have fueled a desire to develop individual cultural models for each country.

Where the frame of reference for cultural discourse was once set by Soviet cultural standards that deprived the peoples of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact of their national identities, the newly independent Central Asian states are now searching for a compensatory sense of ethnicity. These discussions take place at home, the media, and national parliaments.

The greatest success in eliminating national cultures was achieved in Central Asia, where the ethnic and cultural identities of communities still founded on family and clan relationships, were not well differentiated; this process is reminiscent of what the United States encountered in building a ‘democratic state’ in today’s Afghanistan. In 1924 the Soviet government carved up Central Asia, creating borders where none existed before. Regional maps clearly show the artificial nature of these borders similar to those imposed by the European imperial powers on Africa.

Since 1991 the once unified historical and cultural traditions of Iran and Turan, differentiated in Central Asia only by the geographic means of production - the herding economy of the steppes and the trading economy of the towns – have been turned into strange theories with almost no modern reality. The destruction of the steppe-nomadic way of life and the creation of an abstraction called ‘the working peoples of the Soviet East’ almost entirely obliterated local cultural traditions and historical memory. And so a virtual leap into the ‘shining future’ was accomplished, a process depicted on Soviet propaganda posters over the title “From Feudalism to Socialism”, showing a rider on horseback leaping over a barrier.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and declarations of national sovereignty returned Central Asia to its point of departure, but common structural elements of Soviet civilization remained behind - an agricultural economy based on cotton and grain, an industrial economy based on the extractive industries, and a cultural system called ‘socialist realism’. The newly sovereign states had the challenge of entering the twenty-first century with this difficult heritage as equal participants in world politics, economics, and culture.

Rejecting communist ideology and moving towards a market economy, the new Central Asian states - now enlightened, democratic, and multi-ethnic - began to create and strengthen the basis for their national existence. However, Soviet cultural policy with its view of culture as an instrument serving the state remained unchanged, though in new circumstances. Socialist realism was a closed, repressive ideological strategy imposed on culture for seventy years. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that when Soviet cultural standards were implanted in Central Asia, a European form of culture was also introduced.

Once they declared independence, the new Central Asian states needed political and cultural identities, and so they launched their new ideology at the same point of departure as Soviet ideology - public monuments used for propaganda purposes.

The basic purpose of Central Asian ‘monument propaganda’ is to affirm the deep historical roots of the new nation-states. History was plumbed for the most appropriate facts and historical figures, archaeological and historical findings were revised, and myths and folklore were reinterpreted. In developing a new model of cultural identity, the concepts of ‘sovereign’ and ‘national’ were ethnically linked to the search for a ‘founding father’ to fill the vacuum left by Lenin. After removing monuments to the founder of Soviet ideology, the sacred spaces left empty - usually the central squares in each town - were filled with new fetish objects.

In Kazakhstan this historical figure was Ablay Khan, who fought against Dzhungar influence, in Uzbekistan it was Timur (Tamerlane) the medieval warrior who waged war against the emirs, in Turkmenistan it was the contemporary ‘hero’, Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov), and in Tadjikistan it was Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid dynasty.

The creation of a Central Asian nationalist aesthetic is basically an imitation of the sixteenth-seventeenth century European aesthetic. In Central Asia this system serves to create an historical antiquity and mythology affirming the grandeur of the region’s peoples today. This goal is perfectly served by baroque stylistics and classicism which emerged along with European nation-states based on a strong national concept and an authoritarian form of government.

Thus Tamerlane, who now belongs to Uzbekistan, is seated on a horse in the Bernini manner characterized by a powerful dynamic, the strong use of light and shadow, expressive sculpting, and so forth (see textbooks on the history of art). The European classical tradition of depicting heroes in historical garb is also adopted: in Tashkent Tamerlane wears ancient Sogdian clothing, even though the real Tamerlane was a Mongol. Eclectic historical and ethnographic elements create a new geopolitical semantic confirming the historical past of today’s Uzbekistan.

A monument in Dushanbe, the capital of Tadzhikistan, shows the gilded figure of Ismail Samani, the city’s founder who supported agriculture and the development of trades, under a grandiose arch modeled on the portals of the Islamic schools and mausoleums of Samarkand and Bukhara, cities now in Uzbekistan. In this way these historical figures are drawn into today’s territorial disputes and, now shown as the fathers of their nations, become the symbols of new countries.

Assigning exclusive rights as founding fathers to these historical figures also serves to affirm the hereditary nature of power. Today’s presidents see themselves as founding fathers who bestowed independence upon the new countries of Central Asia even though these new sovereigns were created ‘from the top’ as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having created authoritarian regimes and held onto power for more than fifteen years, Central Asia’s current leaders claim that the renaissance of national traditions and spiritual values is the result of a nationalistic classical aesthetic defining national identity.

The monument to Ablay Khan on horseback located on Almaty’s railway square, gesturing to point the way to arriving travelers, stands on a highly textured narrow stone pedestal with complex relief décor surmounted by columns topped with highly ornamented capitols. A second monument to Ablay Khan in Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital, was erected in the bare steppe; its style is more modest and severely classical. Both monuments demonstrate their national heritage with economical ‘national’ décor; national ornamentation, ethnic Mongol faces and of course horses, an important attribute of nomad identity.

In Kazakhstan this successful fusion of nomadic and feudal-absolutist traditions gave rise to an overwhelming repetition of these symbols: every city, every regional center has its own hero astride a horse. Derived from folklore, legend, and traditions often created by the predecessors of today’s leaders, there are dozens of these monuments. Most of these figures call to mind heroes in fairy-tales and legends where the mighty warrior saves his homeland from evil enemies.