Love in a Caucasian Climate: Central Asian art at the Venice Biennale 2013 – picture feast

An exhibition of Central Asian art at the 2013 Venice Biennale aims to start conversations about the Caucasus, Asia’s culturally complex hinterland.

“Love Me, Love Me Not,” which runs from 1 June to 24 November 2013 at the 55th Venice Biennale, brings together works by 17 artists from Azerbaijan and neighbouring countries. With the curatorial intention of “opening up dialogue,” the exhibition offers new perspectives on a politically diverse, creatively rich region.

Rashad Babayev, 'The Tree of Wishes', 2013,                fig tree, textile, spray paint, acrylic     260 x 331 x 154 cm, installation photography by Tim Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Rashad Babayev, ‘The Tree of Wishes’, 2013, fig tree, textile, spray paint, acrylic, 260 x 331 x 154 cm, installation photography by Tim Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

The Venice Biennale, The Economist reminds readers, has never just been about art. The magazine points out that, as with any event at which nations convene, politics will come into play. If Ai Weiwei’s absence from his national pavilion reveals China’s political unwillingness to play ball regarding artistic freedom of expression, as Wenny Teo speculates in The Art Newspaper, and Russian artists are using myth and metaphor to critique Putin’s oligarchs, then what does collateral exhibition “Love Me, Love Me Not” reveal about the five politically unpredictable countries of the Caucasus?

Farhad Moshiri, 'Kiosk de Curiosité', 2011, installation of approximately 550 carpets. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris / Salzburg.

Farhad Moshiri, ‘Kiosk de Curiosité’, 2011, installation of approximately 550 carpets. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris / Salzburg.

What to talk about when you talk about Azerbaijan

Mounted at Arsenale Nord by Baku-based not-for-profit art space Yarat, “Love Me, Love Me Not” features the work of 17 artists from Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia, Turkey and Iran,  two thirds of whom are aged 35 or under. By bringing these young artists to a politically charged event such as the Biennale, exhibition organisers intend, according to the official “Love Me, Love Me Not” website, to “play some part in destabilising traditional ideas about a part of the world that is largely misunderstood and in the end‚ start new conversations.”

Orkhan Huseynov,            Life of Bruce Lye, 2008,                    length: 21 mins, installation photography Tim Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Orkhan Huseynov, Life of Bruce Lye, 2008, length: 21 mins, installation photography by Tim Roberts. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Artists in “Love Me, Love Me Not”

Mahmoud Bakhshi, Mother of Nation from 'The Industrial Revolution' series, 2008-2013Tin plate, pacifier, cast-iron meat grinder & oil 266 x 312 x 193 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Thaddeaus Ropac Paris/Salzburg.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, ‘Mother of Nation,’ from ‘The Industrial Revolution’ series, 2008-2013, tin plate, pacifier, cast-iron meat grinder & oil, 266 x 312 x 193 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Thaddeaus Ropac Paris/Salzburg.

The Biennale: the best arena for cultural exchange

Explaining why the Venice Biennale is an appropriate forum to examine established conceptions about the countries represented in the exhibition, curator Dina Nasser-Khadivi writes in her curatorial statement,

Each piece displayed has a role of giving the viewers at least one new perspective on the nations represented in this pavilion, with the mere intent to give a better understanding of the area that is being covered. Art enables dialogue, and the Venice Biennale has proven to be the best arena for cultural exchange.

Shoja Azari, 'The King of Black', 2013,                     HD colour video with sound, length: 24 mins. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery, new York.

Shoja Azari, ‘The King of Black’, 2013, HD colour video with sound, length: 24 mins. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery, New York.

Eurasia: East of the Berlin Wall, West of the Great Wall

The exhibition succeeds in opening up “new perspectives on Azerbaijan by putting it in conversation with its neighbours,” said the Baibakova Art Projects blog. One of the groups that opens up such dialogue is Slavs and Tatars, an art collective and, in the words of their website, “faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area East of the Berlin Wall and West of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia.” The exhibition borrows its title from a 2010 installation by the group, which mapped the stormy relationships between 150 cities of the former eastern bloc.

Slavs and Tatars, 'MollaNasreddin The Antimodernist,' 2012, Fiberglass, steel, rubber, paint 157 x 165 x 88 cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Slavs and Tatars, ‘Molla Nasreddin The Antimodernist,’ 2012, Fiberglass, steel, rubber, paint 157 x 165 x 88 cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Slavs and Tatars                                  'Love Me Love Me Not' (installation view), 2010,                                       wall application,       “The Past is a Foreign Country,” Centre of Contemporary Art 'Znaki Czasu', Torun. Courtesy of artist and the Center of Contemporary Art "Znaki Czasu", Torun.

Slavs and Tatars, ‘Love Me, Love Me Not’ (installation view), 2010, wall application, “The Past is a Foreign Country,” Centre of Contemporary Art ‘Znaki Czasu’, Torun. Image courtesy the artist and the Center of Contemporary Art “Znaki Czasu”, Torun.

The choice of title, writes Nasser-Khadivi, is intended to capture the volatility of political relationships in Central Asia.

At first glance, the sentence “Love Me, Love Me Not” reminds us of a concept based on romance or the famous game that entails plucking the petals of a flower to determine in a rather naïve and playful fashion whether the object of our affection loves us or not…Yet upon dissection, several levels of interpretation emerge from this expression involving ideas of layers, duality, dynamics of recurrence and more importantly: aspects of complexity based on vacillating relationships.

Ali Hasanov 'Masters', 2012, installation with sweeping broom and ropes. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Ali Hasanov, ‘Masters’, 2012, installation with sweeping broom and ropes. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Emerging artists of Central Asia

The exhibition is successful in drawing out the region’s complexities, blogs Aaron Cezar for The Art Newspaper, contriving both to draw attention to commonalities between artistic and cultural practice, but also to highlight the emerging talents of the Caucasus.

Aida Mahmudova                            'Recycled', 2012-2013,                          metal window grates, stainless steel, 310 x 270 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Aida Mahmudova, ‘Recycled’, 2012-2013, metal window grates, stainless steel, 310 x 270 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Cezar points to Iranian Aida Mahmudova’s large-scale assemblage as a fitting sculptural metaphor for expressing complexity. Recycled fits together a puzzle of metal window grates and stainless steel fittings over an area of 18 metres squared, almost filling the entrance to the exhibition space.

Faig Ahmed, 'Untitled', 2012, thread installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Faig Ahmed, ‘Untitled’, 2012, thread installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Faig Ahmed also plays with heritage and craft. Taking the traditional motifs found on Azerbaijan’s carpets, he deconstructs and reworks them into a three-dimensional thread installation, examining the rapidity of modernisation in the region.

Kutlug Ataman, 'Column', from 'Mesopotamian Dramaturgies', 2009, video installation made with forty-two used TV monitors. Image courtesy the artist and Galeri Manâ, Istanbul.

Kutlug Ataman, ‘Column’, from ‘Mesopotamian Dramaturgies’, 2009, video installation made with forty-two used TV monitors. Image courtesy the artist and Galeri Manâ, Istanbul.

Kutlug Ataman’s video installation also uses history as a reference point. Inspired by Trajan’s Column in Rome, Mesopotamian Dramaturgies/Column (2009) is a tower of 42 silent television screens telling the story of the Anatolian people, who Ataman feels have been marginalised throughout history.

Ali Banisadr                                        'Fravash'i, 2013,                                   oil on linen, triptych,                            243 x 152 cm. Image courtesy Galerie Thaddeaus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. © Ali Banisadr. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

Ali Banisadr ‘Fravashi’, 2013, oil on linen, triptych, 243 x 152 cm. Image courtesy Galerie Thaddeaus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. © Ali Banisadr. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

Iranian Ali Banisadr, whose work has recently been acquired for the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, contributes a work which refers to the shared socio-cultural histories of Iran and Azerbaijan.

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Related Topics: Central Asian artists, Iranian artists, Azerbaijani artists, Turkish artists, Russian artists, Georgian artists, biennales, connecting Asia to itself, contemporary art as soft power     

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