Magazine article Art Monthly

Between Heaven and Earth: Contemporary Art from the Centre of Asia

Magazine article Art Monthly

Between Heaven and Earth: Contemporary Art from the Centre of Asia

Article excerpt

Calvert 22 London 14 September to 13 November

'Between' is a position that Central Asians are historically and geographically familiar with. Artists are caught between the pressure to make art that wears an internationalist face, and that which honestly reveals both the subtle and overt identity of a vast region. The work of 26 artists from the post-Soviet areas centred on Kazakhstan is carefully juxtaposed over two galleries: the result, described by the curator David Elliott at the opening, is a show that is overridingly suggestive of passion.

Duba (cleaning the soul), 2007, by Shaarbek Amankul, is a video work with a large-scale image of the round face of an Asian woman with a shawl who violently rocks to and fro, making sounds of spitting, hissing, vomiting, chanting, belching, crying, wailing and talking in tongues, while her expressions contort akin to Antonin Artaud's cathartic screaming. The impact, unease and scale make this an experience of the other as gargantuan. Shaarbeck Amankul isn't an artist as shaman, rather the artist's role is diminished; he is documenting the methods of the shaman in the film as symptomatic of wider cultural needs in an era of change.

The public space of the corridor of a train is transformed into an ascetic interruption of crawling prayer, meditation and the Caravaggesque re-enactment of crucifixion in Ulan Djaparov's small, understated video Train Art, 2003-05. For those of us brought up to think that religion is the opiate of the masses, this work initially looks to be a counter-reformation-type resurgence of religion following the dissolution of Soviet power. However, the extreme use of contextual dissonance within the work enables it to raise questions rather than affirm religious practice.

Many of the artists in the show are keenly aware of how they are perceived by both the West and the East. They play to stereotypes about Central Asia. Northern Barbarians, 2000, a film by Rustam Khalfin, is adjacent to Duba in the exhibition and it has a similar scale and directness. Developed from 19th-century Chinese erotic drawings, a newly wed couple affectionately make love on horseback in a nostalgic, orange-tinted film conjuring a Hellenic, Scythian golden age of Barbarian life. The film is gently tongue in cheek while celebrating the sensual mystique of nomads. The catalogue fills in the reality behind the scenes: the leading lady is from the red-light district in Almaty and her 'lover' has been given leave from the Kazak army to make the film. The couple are certainly not pornographically wooden; they appear to be glad for a reprieve from their neo-liberal era 'jobs'. Whereas the bravado, authenticity and primitivism of Mongolia are satirised for an artistic, bourgeois audience, the celebration of erotic stereotype likely aggravates the perception of vulnerable people in oil-boom states.


The tin-pot materialism of industrial products is melded to heavenly heights in Erbossyn Meldibekov's Seasons in the Hindu Kush, 2009. Four enamelled kitchen pots have been crushed, embossed and hammered into a paradoxically sensitively sculpted topography of mountainous landscapes. These four upside-down pots from a distance have the appearance of humorously animated, battered helmets, hamfisted into shape. …

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