Beyond Fragmentation: Contemporary Collage from Central Asia
at Sapar Contemporary New York
By CHARLENE STEVENS March, 2018
Since antiquity, Central Asia has been a nexus of trade and cultural exchange, known for its location along the Silk Road. The region is comprised of a diverse ethnic mixture of diasporic communities and indigenous nomadic tribes, the names of which– Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajik, and Uzbek–combined with the Persian suffix “stan” or “land of” form the names of the five countries. The region lays at a spatial and temporal crossroads between Russia, East Asia, South Asia and Europe. This collision of cultures and a sense of the in-between create the perfect storm for the collage medium.
Vyacheslav Akhunov’s series, Mantras of the USSR (1977–1983) juxtaposes iconic statues of Vladimir Lenin with Greco-Roman statuary, charting the collision of the cult of Lenin, the impact of Soviet modernist photomontage, and the legacy of Alexander the Great, who conquered Maracanda (present-day Samarkand in Uzbekistan) in 329 BCE. Written across the background are the Soviet era slogans, or mantras such as “the highest goal of the Soviet State is the building of a classless society.”
Bakhyt Bubikanova’s digital collages grapple with the process of post-Soviet decolonization in Central Asia. In Bubikanova’s three-part collage Peri, she combines disembodied images of her head, an enlarged head of the steppe eagle surrounded by talons, a reference to the revered tradition of falconry practiced among Central Asian pastoral tribes, and a clustered wreath of babies superimposed on the naked body of the artist. The title of the triptych Peri evokes winged deities that according to Persian mythology were mischievous entities who had not yet atoned for their iniquities, and therefore were denied entry into paradise. Peri underscores the complex connections and contradictions that continue to inform Kazakhstan’s nomadic past and its current drive towards globalization and economic growth.
Saule Dyussenbina’s single-channel video compilation of humorous gif (graphic interchange format) animations, Self-Portrait, the probes the contemporary transformation of her native Kazakhstan. Pastoral updates the scene in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter. Dyussenbina reads the screen on her smartphone against the soundtrack of deafening construction noises. In Milkmaid, the artist, pours Nestle canned milk into a bowl. As the liquid level rises in the bowl, the milk level also rises to consume the entire scene. The critique of globalism begins with the selection of 17th century northern European painting, a genre which was made possible by globalism. The Nestle brand with regional labeling connects the past with the present. Nestle’s brand has penetrated every continent and though the company shows little regard for the communities affected. The milkmaid is both the consumer and the consumed.
Alexander Ugay’s More than Dreams, Less than Things. Kinetic Object (2014) reveals the complex workings of memory and the multi-ethnic history of Central Asia by repurposing a filling cabinet, an object typically associated with order and organization, to create discordant shapes that are actually clothing patterns for Korean traditional formal attire known as hanbok. Ugay’s work investigates the diverse ethnic mixture of Central Asia, which is not limited to ethnic groups of peripatetic herders, but also encompassed diasporic communities from Russia and Asia. More than Dreams is a sculptural amalgamation that highlights the ethnic diversity of Central Asia and the heritage of the Koryo-saram or “the people of Koryo (an ancient name for Korea).” The roughly 500,000 people of Korean descent known as Koryo-saram first began to immigrate to Central Asia in the late 19th century. By forming patterns for male and female hanbok from the exterior casing of a file cabinet, Ugay underscores the in betweenness of the Korea diaspora, a community that was caught amidst the political turmoil of the twentieth century and developed strategies for survival in the peripheral territories of the Russian and Soviet Empires. Through his use of a filing cabinet to create patterns of Korean national costume, Ugay’s work operates as an archive that collates and preserves memory.
Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev’s photographic triptych One of the Ways of Leveling the Horizon attempts to measure and contain infinity. The work echoes with an observation of the desert in the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944): “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...” The work does not deploy typical techniques associated with collage and is not a digitally manipulated image, rather the work is a conceptual and performative work staged in real life. The ethnically Russian, Kazakhstani-based husband-and-wife duo disrupts the quotidian scenery of the incalculable expanse of the sky, transmuting it into something that is contained and quantifiable. One of the Ways of Leveling the Horizon is a witty critique on paradigms of power, and our desire for order and organization. By holding a taut rope along the horizon, the artists merge their physical bodies into the vastness of the steppe skyline. As with all the art in Beyond Fragmentation, they transform dreamscapes into vestiges of reality that are poignant commentaries on system of power and control endemic throughout the world today. WM
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