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November 2022

Field Notes: Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Kazakh Pavilions, 59th Venice Biennale

Taisia Kuchinskaia

ORTA, “LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA: Centre for the New Genius.” Installation view, Kazakhstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. © ORTA Collective. Courtesy of the artist.

“Gates of Turan.” Installation view, Kyrgyzstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy We R The Nomads.

“Gates of Turan.” Kyrgyzstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy We R The Nomads.

ORTA, “LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA: Centre for the New Genius.” Installation view, Kazakhstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. © ORTA Collective. Courtesy of the artist.

ORTA, “LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA: Centre for the New Genius.” Installation view, Kazakhstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. © ORTA Collective. Courtesy of the artist.

“Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge.” Installation view, Uzbekistan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy of ACDF. Photo © gerdastudio.

“Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge.” Installation view, Uzbekistan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy of ACDF. Photo © gerdastudio.

“Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge.” Installation view, Uzbekistan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy of ACDF. Photo © gerdastudio.

For the 59th Venice Biennale, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan have mounted exhibitions in their own national pavilions for the first time. Since their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these nations have been searching for their own identities in global geopolitics and exploring their own cultural heritages in the contemporary art scene. During the twentieth century, national cultural codes of the Soviet republics were reconstructed by authorities into artificial images of Soviet identity that promoted Communist ideals, and in a demonstration of the legacy of these nations’ shared colonial history, between 1991 and 2005, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan exhibited collectively in the Central Asian Pavilion. But now, in three different exhibitions in Venice, works by artists and collectives dwell on distinct Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Kazakh national identities, which were suppressed during Soviet colonization, in displays of cultural self-determination that also call into question the very idea of national representation, with varying degrees of success and through different artistic strategies.

“Gates of Turan,” Firouz FarmanFarmaian’s exhibition at the Kyrgyz Pavilion, curated by Janet Rady, reflects on the ancient nomadic culture of the region and aims at creating “a portal for communication with the future within the ancestral.” [1]1
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The Persian word “turan” refers to “the land of the Tur,” a historic region that includes the territories of modern Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, instead of considering the current relations between these countries, FarmanFarmaian’s project takes a historical perspective to examine the roots of local Kyrgyz culture in the nation’s Turanian past. Viewers first encounter the exhibition in a corridor lined with local handcrafted shirdak and ala-kiiz textiles that symbolize the allied tribes of Central Asia, and these tapestries also connect with the Kyrgyz national epic of Manas, a legend tells of the hero’s fight for his tribe’s independence. The exhibition ends in a tünduk, a traditional Kyrgyz yurt with a central copula that, to quote the exhibition statement, “figures as Kyrgyzstan’s national emblem.” [2]2
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In deploying these materials and narratives, the Kyrgyz Pavilion promotes a kind of exoticized image of the Kyrgyz Republic, arguably resembling an exhibition in a history museum. In an oversight, “Gates of Turan” does not quite activate these objects and narratives nor speculate on how these symbols from the past might relate to Kyrgyzstan’s present and future, such as, for instance, by considering the role of ancient crafts in the development of modern Kyrgyz culture. A more compelling and complex exhibition might have instead focused on the female-led Kyrgyz craft collective Altyn Kol Handicraft Cooperative, which collaborated with FarmanFarmaian on the textiles. The selective representation of an artificially-constructed cultural heritage in the Kyrgyz Pavilion produces and maintains a new monolithic image of Kyrgyz national identity and ironically corresponds with the Soviet practice of essentializing local cultures.

“Gates of Turan.” Installation view, Kyrgyzstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy We R The Nomads.

“LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA: Centre for the New Genius,” the exhibition by the art collective ORTA at the Kazakh Pavilion, is based on the philosophy of art and science of the Kazakhstani painter and writer Sergey Kalmykov and seeks to channel destructive energies toward creativity and inner genius through visual arts and performance. Quoting Kalmykov, the exhibition opens a portal to the “Fourth Dimension,” a place of universal principle and nonentities. The concept of four-dimensional space inspired many artists of the first half of twentieth century in search of another experience of reality through different visual, aural, and tactical practices, and in the Kazakh Pavilion, the “Fourth Dimension” provides a metaphor for an alternative universe where social and historical hierarchies are no longer extant. Following Kalmykov’s avant-garde ideas of the future, such as the theory of artistic genius in everyone that “can be stimulated, nurtured and cultivated within oneself,” the Kazakh project refuses a specific national identity and presents itself to the public as a “universal project.” [3]3
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The design of the pavilion, which reimagines the exhibition space as a DIY space station, evokes this futurism with its sci-fi aesthetics. Although some features of traditional Kazakh accommodation, such as the yurt, appear in the pavilion, these nationalist elements are transformed by their context and the works they contain. Inside the yurt are banners emblazoned with phrases like “‘A genius of the First Rank of the Absolute Interplanetary Category,” a quotation of Kalmykov, who referred to himself in this way, highlight the self-determined and imaginative dimension of artistic genius. The “LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA” project conjures a utopia that has yet to be achieved. One part of the Kazakh project is a performance that resembles a religious ceremony and leads to the creative energy, and a public project that ORTA invites viewers to witness as its develops. But where is the line between the demonstration of esoteric acts and entertainment in the Venice Biennale? “Center for the New Genius” lacks a sense of urgency and, in its sci-fi aesthetic, could be understood as updating the terms of Kazakh myth. Envisioning a future without critical assessment of the past and present can cover up current controversies. Still, although the mission of the “new genius” has not been realized, ORTA’s project opens up the possibility of questioning the idea of nationhood and other political myths through its engagement with Kalmykov’s concepts of universality.

ORTA, “LAI-PI-CHU-PLEE-LAPA: Centre for the New Genius.” Installation view, Kazakhstan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. © ORTA Collective. Courtesy of the artist.

The Uzbek project “Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge,” curated by the studio Space Caviar, explores Uzbek identity through the ninth-century treatise The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing by the Uzbek scientist Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, which introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europeans. Mūsā al-Khwārizmī’s contribution to the development of science and culture became widely recognized as his treatise circulated in Asia and Europe, and his surname is the etymological root of the mathematical term “algorithm.” “Dixit Algorizmi” reframes this history to inscribe Uzbek national culture into global history, and as a result, the exhibition challenges both the idea that technology is a Western invention and the Euro-American hegemony of world historical narratives. Furthering this, the design of the pavilion is based on the Arabic gardens of Uzbekistan, which were special places for gathering and intellectual debates analogous to (and predating) medieval universities. Unlike their Western counterparts, however, which were only for professionals, these gardens were open to the public. In Venice in 2022, the Uzbek Pavilion recreates the atmosphere of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where Al-Khwārizmī refined his mathematical principles and participated in multidisciplinary intellectual dialogues. The pavilion’s public programming realizes this intellectual environment in the present and includes workshops, public talks, and performances in which Uzbek culture is considered from many angles and in many different epochs. While also taking into account the topics of decolonization and digital art in Uzbekistan, the pavilion’s projects consider an updated Uzbek identity that necessarily establishes dialogues between past and present, nation and world.

“Dixit Algorizmi: Garden of Knowledge.” Installation view, Uzbekistan Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Image courtesy of ACDF. Photo © gerdastudio.

Independence from colonial powers can inspire a reimagination of national cultural identity. However, the concept of the nation is closely related to colonial discourses and can lead to new forms of discrimination and prejudice; rightfully so, ideas of nationhood are being re-examined in our time. Although all three pavilions question their colonial pasts and reflect their respective national identities, each of these interrogations produces a different outcome. Imitating the practices and symbols of the past, the Kyrgyz Pavilion creates a new artificial national image and follows the colonial method of representing culture. The two other pavilions more successfully reevaluate national constructs and practices of self-exoticization. The Kazakh Pavilion complicates national identity by mirroring the utopian vision of a common future without any political or social preconditions. But in seeking to addressing a universal audience, the Kazakh Pavilion does not take into consideration different contexts of the present and ignores Kazakhstan’s current sociopolitical situation, which somewhat inhibits the scope of ORTA’s project. The Uzbek Pavilion provides an open platform for discussions and so invites and exhibits multiple points of view on nationhood that reflect the complexity of the past and present. Still, however, this critical reflection occurs within an exhibition context that takes the concept of a unified nation with a legible centralized history as a starting point, and thus the independent pavilions of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan arguably reinstitute the concepts some of their projects seek to question.

Taisia Kuchinskaia is a writer, independent curator, educator and researcher. She graduated from the HSE University in Moscow, where she majored in art history. Interested in Soviet art, she draws parallels between the Soviet past and contemporary artistic practices in the post-Soviet space. She has attended courses in Independent University of Moscow and participated in IMMA International Summer School, Dublin. Curating educational projects and grassroots initiatives in Moscow, she wants to influence the current Russian situation and oppose the actions of the Russian government.

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