Magazine article Artforum International

Debt Collectors

Magazine article Artforum International

Debt Collectors

Article excerpt

"Modernism has its casualties. There are people who are paying its debts," said Central Asia pavilion curator Viktor Misiano to a colleague of mine, surveying the exhibition of fifteen artists from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan--countries represented in the Venice Biennale for the first time ever. The grounds for Misiano's assessment are clear enough in sociopolitical terms: Forcibly disconnected from their cultural traditions at the dawn of the Soviet era, people in these territories found themselves, at the collapse of the USSR more than a decade ago, victims of a kind of double jeopardy, caught between an indigenous past they could only dimly remember and a putative future that had ceased to exist. But Misiano's words also carry a neat art-historical twist. The show opens with a salon-style installation of drawings by Kazakh artist and curator Rustam Khalfin--former student of Vladimir Sterligov, who was, as it turns out, the principal student of Kazimir Malevich. Given such a direct lineage, it becomes clear that anyone thinking he was visiting the "periphery" at this pavilion would in fact discover something much closer to home. Indeed, something that could also be found throughout the dreary and conservative exhibitions in the Giardini and Arsenale, but here made legible on account of the art's inextricable ties with its cultural context; the aftermath of the modernist avant-garde in all its utopian optimism.

Khalfin's ensemble of works, collectively titled Towards Comprehension of Limits (and appearing here amid videos made with fellow Kazakh artist Yulia Tikhonova), eloquently testifies to the inexorable deliquescence of those ideals. Eschewing illusionistic spatial expansiveness, Khalfin instead offers intensely rationalist depictions of sensuous, semiabstract figures; as if not trusting grandiosity in any form (whether ideological or optical), he sticks to accurate, literal portrayals of areas that the eye can actually see. But among other artists there is clearly an urgency to come to terms with post-Soviet realities. On occasion this tenor verges on the traumatic--as in Erbossyn Meldibekov's video of himself being slapped and pelted with ethnic slurs by a single man sitting in front of him (this in an effort by the artist to "expunge" his country's past). Elsewhere, such intensity manifests itself in attempts to construct a new model of cultural identity, however provisional. A deeply Gutai-like video installation by Almagul Menlibayeva, for example, retrieves the remnants of legends, customs, and folkways and refigures them alongside the artifacts of Western pop and technology. …

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