The latest ambitious, immersive exhibition by art collective Slavs and Tatars inaugurates NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi.
The international artist collective has created their most immersive installation to date, exploring the historical literature of ‘Mirrors for Princes’ throughout the Islamic and Christian state tradition. NYUAD Art Gallery is the second chapter of Slavs and Tatars’ newest cycle of works.
Slavs and Tatars is a collective of artists, writers and designers, defining itself as “a faction of polemics and intimacies”. They are somewhat akin to academically-minded explorers of political and cultural history across Eurasia, a region that they refer to as “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China”.
The collective’s exhibitions and projects worldwide, such as the recent “Concentration 57” at the Dallas Museum of Art (2014), “Beyonsense” at MoMA New York (2012) and “Not Moscow Not Mecca” at Vienna Secession (2012) among others, are all characterised by an immersive element. This provides an environment that exhibits the results of their research-based practice, focusing on literature, texts and language or linguistics. They also address the mutual influences between Central Asia and Eastern Europe within these contexts.
Advice for princes
The visual and the textual in their work are inextricable; without one, there would not be a complete understanding of the collective’s findings. Their newest cycle – as they call their projects – entitled “Mirrors for Princes” is, to date, the most ambitious immersive presentation.
The exhibition, launched at Kunsthalle Zürich (PDF download) in 2014, opened its second leg of the tour by inaugurating the new NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi on 28 February 2015, where it will run until 30 May 2015.
“Mirrors for Princes” engages with an ancient tradition of political writing of the same name that could be placed within the category of advice literature (or fürstenspiegel), shared by both Muslim and Christian lands particularly during the Middle Ages, but also between the 16th century in the Renaissance period and the 19th century. These texts – guides gifted to future rulers – attempted to “elevate statecraft (dawla) to the same level as faith/religion (din).”
Payam Sharifi – one of the collective’s founders – told The National:
Our work tries to push back against the consensus, especially among westerners and among intellectuals in general, that we are now some kind of new human being that doesn’t need faith. But we are not different people from the people we were 2,000 years ago or 500 or even 300 years ago. Faith has to play a role and a progressive one, not a regressive one.
Probably the most widely known example of such texts is Niccolò Macchiavelli’s The Prince (1532), which addressed the delicate balance between seclusion and society, spirit and state – aspects that are still echoed several centuries later in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
At the centre of Slavs and Tatars’ research stands a similar text written in the eleventh century for the prince of Kashgar. Kashgar is the westernmost city of China, in the Xinjiang region, near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and an important centre on the ancient Silk Road between Europe, the Middle East and China.
The Kutadgu Bilig, or Wisdom of Royal Glory, by Yusūf Khāss Hājib promoted a different, more egalitarian form of instruction, as Anthony Downey, Editor-in-Chief of Ibraaz, points out in his essay in the exhibition’s accompanying publication examining the topic at hand. Publications of this nature are another necessary feature of Slavs and Tatars’ projects.
Self-help: the ‘mirror for princes’ in modern society
The art collective plays on references to the ubiquitous contemporary self-help literature that governs every aspect of our life and claims to elevate the individual to a higher state of existence, be it financial, spiritual or cultural. Slavs and Tatars also explore the ways in which the advice and counsels of yore have been twisted out of proportion and importance, such as in their series of works about grooming or the stylisation of appearance.
The exhibition comprises three spaces, starting with a room installation that welcomes visitors with a coat rack on which a series of traditional head accessories such as turbans are hung. The space contains a five-channel audio installation, Lektor (2014-present), with a series of mirrored speakers arranged on traditional book stands that play excerpts about the use and performance of language as a means of exercising power.
The snippets are read aloud simultaneously from the Kutadgu in four languages – Turkish, Polish, German and Arabic – over the still audible original Uighur audio. The monotone and monotonous translated voice-overs are recorded in a style typical of Polish and Russian traditions of broadcasting and film.
The second space, a dark and psychedelic gallery, presents a series of glowing, fetishised sculptures that explore the ancient text’s concern with personal grooming – of one’s hair, as in Zulf (brunette) (2014) as well as the heart and tongue such as in Dil be Del (2014) or Stonguei (2014).
The last room features a serene teahouse and reading room, where a selection of books from the NYU Abu Dhabi library collection is curated by Slavs and Tatars, and merges with their art practice and their present work.
In his essay, Downey explains about the cycle:
On both a performative and reciprocal level, “Mirrors for Princes” is concerned with reviving concepts shared by Christians and Muslims alike, and thereafter imbricating them within a present-day social and linguistic order so that we can re-engage with their critical import and ongoing importance as texts and ideas.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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- Central Asia in focus at Art Dubai: Marker 2014 – in pictures – March 2014 – Slavs and Tatars curated the Marker section of Art Dubai 2014
- Contemporary visual culture from Turkey and beyond – in pictures – March 2014 – for its 10th anniversary, Istanbul Modern presents an exhibition highlighting contemporary art from Turkey and its neighbours
- 5 books that inspired our art practice – Slavs and Tatars, Central Asia – November 2013 – Slavs and Tatars provide a list of books that have inspired their artistic practice
- Love in a Caucasian Climate: Central Asian art at the Venice Biennale 2013 – picture feast – June 2013 – the satellite exhibition “Love in a Caucasian Climate” featured Central Asian artists at the Venice Biennale
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