Aesthetics of Repair in Contemporary Georgia, Tartu Art Museum, Estonia, March 24 – May 29, 2016
What unites the small post-socialist countries of Estonia and Georgia in the year 2016? Why organize an exhibition of contemporary Georgian art in Estonia a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union? In the Baltics there are not that many exhibition spaces that would invest in East European contemporary art today, as the shared socialist past now seems somewhat distant, irrelevant and undesired in relation to the identity politics of these rapidly changing countries. However, when one looks at the acceptance of East European countries within the global art scene and art history, is this shared political history really so distant? Here, mutual support and solidarity would still mean a lot, even if in theory one now inhabits the postcolonial art world where the old geopolitical hierarchies supposedly no longer matter. In reality, many East European countries still struggle to build infrastructures for contemporary art, and to get their foot in the door of the global art world. These processes are now concurrently happening in Georgia and Estonia, but like many East European countries, they pursue these aims individually, without the shoulder of the other post-socialist countries to lean on.
The Tartu Art Museum is located in Tartu, a university town and the second largest in Estonia, and is one of the few exhibition spaces in Estonia that frequently exhibits artists from Eastern Europe. In 2015, it showed My Poland. Remembering and Forgetting, the much-debated exhibition of Polish contemporary art curated by Rael Artel that created a controversy with the video work 80064 by Artur Żmijewski, in which the artist convinces a Holocaust survivor to re-tattoo his concentration camp number. As happened only a few months later in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the Tartu Art Museum was forced to remove Żmijewski’s work from the exhibtion. The museum has also organized group exhibitions that have included works by Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevicius; Polish artists Wojtek Doroszuk, Franciszek Orlowski and Dominik Ritszel; the Russian Dmitry Gutov and the Radek Group; Ukrainian Alevtina Kakhidze; Romanian Dan Perjovschi; Hungarian Tamás Kaszás; and Croatian Sanja Iveković. Considering its size and location, the Tartu Art Museum is, strictly speaking, a small provincial museum, and within its program policy this limitation acts as a geopolitical commitment that is, as such, rather forward looking. It also presents an alternative view to the cultural policy of Estonia, which since the fall of the Iron Curtain has been Western orientated, and has funded the participation of Estonian artists in the biennials of Venice, São Paulo, Rostock and Manifesta, as well as their participation in art fairs in Vienna, Brussels, Miami and New York.
Within this context, Aesthetics of Repair in Contemporary Georgia, organized by the museum’s curator Marika Agu together with anthropologist Francisco Martínez, is a strong addition to the museum’s pro-regional program. Although in comparison to Artel’s My Poland, Agu’s and Martínez’s Aesthetics of Repair might seem less radical, since none of the exhibited artworks by the twelve participating artists is particularly shocking. However, the radicalism of Aesthetics of Repair lies not so much in the exhibited artworks as in the show’s theoretical discourse and in the accompanying catalog of the same title.
The phrase “Aesthetics of Repair” was coined by Agu and Martínez as a result of the fieldwork they carried out in Tbilisi in the fall of 2015, when they participated in the life of the city and visited various exhibitions and festivals, such as the Tbilisi Triennale and the Artisterium, in order to get acquainted with the Georgian contemporary art scene. As the curators explain in the exhibition catalog: “Practices of repair highlight the effects of social change and also develop a sense of cultural appreciation – thus bringing to light a particular system of values and standards. . . . The term repair conjures the practices of refurbishing and fixing in its multiple dimensions: material, symbolic, personal and social. Examples of this practice could include the words ‘remont’ and ‘khaltura,’ which express a state of permanent unfinishedness and approximation, unstable equilibriums and low-key engagements, while also recalling ill-considered forays of improvement.”(Aesthetics of Repair in Contemporary Georgia. Eds. Marika Agu and Francisco Martínez (Tartu: Tartu Kunstimuuseum, 2016), p. 152.)
Aesthetics of Repair, then, is a multilayered concept that, on the one hand, conceptualizes the societal condition of transition where old values are no longer valid or desired even though new ones don’t yet exist or seem to exist somewhere else. On the other hand, it conceptualizes the newly found appreciation of old values and local histories, and the beauty that lies in repairing rather than replacing them: giving up one’s feelings of shame over the local and the old, and combining them with the worldly and the new.(Here, aesthetics of repair concides with the American waste historian Susan Strasser's concepts of inventive repair or aesthetics of material hacks. See: Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Macmillan, 2000.) The fact that the exhibition title consists of two somewhat contradictory terms, aesthetics and repair—referring, respectively, to the study of beauty and taste versus something that needs fixing to be appreciated—is by no means arbitrary in this context. Here, the postcolonial is at work, but less as an adopted theory than as a developed mindset: becoming historically self-aware and culturally generative after a traumatic historical experience or continuing economic hardship. Considering how little resistance there has been in Eastern Europe to Western theory, such an attempt to create original terms and concepts from local contexts, and to reflect on the unique historical conditions of these countries, is both needed and welcome.
Recent contemporary art exhibitions that have tried to conceptualize Eastern Europe as a unique historical phase in European history have often relied on humor as a revelatory and liberating medium. One recent show that attempted to establish this kind of regional context was BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places, curated by David Elliot in 2015 and shown in different venues in Berlin. (Elliot, a British curator, was also behind the seminal show After the Wall. Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe, curated together with Bojana Pejić at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm in 1999.) Here, the identity of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc were summoned with the word balagan, which “reveals a world in which chaos and misrule, along with the social comedy that results from it, are celebrated and scathingly exposed.”(BALAGAN!!! Contemporary Art from the Former Soviet Union and Other Mythical Places. Press release, e-flux (17.05.2016 http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/balagan-contemporary-art-from-the-former-soviet-union-and-other-mythical-places/) Elliott’s concept of balagan seems to be about black humor with a strong touch of orientalism used not only to investigate East European mythologies, but also to attract Western audiences seeking the mad and adventurous spirit met in, for example, the movies of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica.
Aesthetics of Repair chooses a slightly different path to represent Eastern Europe; while it also contains black humor and self-irony—Agu was born in the Soviet Union and grew up during post-socialism; Martínez, who is from Spain, has been living in both Russia and Estonia— it is more empathetic and existentialist in its approach. Martínez describes the project as dealing with the distress caused by the gap between three factors: the human desire to improve one’s situation; the suffering resulting from not being able to do so; and one’s oscillation between anxiety and possibility in trying to bridge that gap.(Francisco Martínez, “Georgia - A Much Repaired Society.” Article draft for the Baltic Worlds, file in the author's possession.)
Such oscillation between creativity and constraint as described by Martínez is addressed in most of the art works presented in the exhibition. Nino Sekhniashvili's photo and document series Approximate (2014–2016), for example, documents her father’s honest efforts at DIY house building, a humorous symbol of post-socialist Eastern Europe (including Estonia) where poverty and the lack of consumer goods prevented the development of a consumer society, making people remarkably resourceful. Sekhniashvili is a good example of a younger generation of Georgian artists who are based in Tbilisi but live a fairly international life with frequent residencies and exhibitions abroad.
The central piece of the exhibition is Sophia Tabatadze's Pirimze (2015), a real-life replica of a demolished handworker’s booth in Tbilisi. Tabatadze is one of the internationally renowned artists in the show, having represented Georgia at the Venice biennale in 2007 with the project Humancon Undercon that investigated ties between collective amnesia and layered cityscapes in post-socialist Georgia. Pirimze functions as an altar to Eastern European DIY culture or “macgyversim,” after the protagonist of a popular American TV series, MacGyver, who solves complex problems by inventing things out of everyday objects.(Running from 1985 to 1992, MacGyver was a very popular and widely watched television show in Estonia during the 1990s.) However, if one is to believe the theories of Svetlana Boym, these kinds of replicas of demolished places of the Soviet era are not only about longing or nostalgia, but also about an investigation into the “sideshows of modernity,” into different paths that history could have taken.(Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. XVI-XVII.) Eastern Europe experienced its own collapse capitalism, involving businesses that quickly emerged in the newly opened markets after the fall of the Iron Curtain and were willing to sell anything that promised the desired Western lifestyle. Layers and breaks in Georgia’s urban environment are also highlighted by architect David Bostanashvili's documentary photo series of the Palace of Poetry, an eccentric architectural legacy built in Tbilisi by his father Shota Bostanashvili and demolished by the invisible hand of the market a few years ago. Giorgi Okropiridze’s installations juxtaposing crafty traditional Georgian carpets with rough modern iron sheets embody cultural collisions in an environment undergoing rapid transformation under the country’s pro-Western government. Okropiridze is a Georgian sculptor who works with found objects and stresses a material sensibility; he studied in Moscow and has lived in Vienna since 1991.
Levan Mindiashvili exhibited two paintings and a set of plaster reliefs with impressions from neglected architectures into a certain universal outskirts poetics. What makes Mindiashvili’s background interesting is the fact that he studied and worked in Argentina, the birthplace of decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo, the founder of the first viable alternative to primarily South-Asian grounded postcolonial theory. However, his current work seems to be more poetical than political, as with the depoliticization of the public sphere the poetics of neglect has lost its political edge in post-socialist Eastern Europe.
Bouillon is the only artist collective in the exhibition and works primarily in performance, often staged in private apartments and public spaces rather than galleries. Established in 2008 in Tbilisi, the group comprises of six young artists whose collective name comes from the will to blur the boundaries between art, politics and daily life. In an untitled performance that took place at the opening of the exhibition, the artists shaved each other’s hair and left the remains, along with the shaving appliances, on the gallery floor, like a freeze-frame of a busy beauty salon. Perhaps in this piece more than in others, the “aesthetics of repair” was played out in the spirit of Michel Foucault's tekhné tou biou, the continuous molding and endless aesthetic work that social scientist Marcus Farias Ferreira sees happening in post-socialist Georgia as well.(Marcos Farias Ferreira, “The Bestseller: Three Posthumous Lives of Stalin,” in Aesthetics of Repair in Contemporary Georgia, pp. 206-207.)
Thea Gvetadze’s Esophageal Foreign Bodies (2014)—a readymade of the artist’s father’s collection of items removed from people’s throats and assembled during his career as a doctor—also belongs to the section of the exhibition devoted to the body. Perhaps these thorny foreign elements, which once caused problems in the functioning of a healthy body but that are presented here as aesthetic objects for the construction of identity, should be taken as metaphors of the postcolonial processes slowly taking place in Eastern Europe today.
Aesthetics of Repair is an intellectually rigorous exhibition about contemporary art in Georgia, a country in transition. Based on original ideas and research, its main message could be: post-socialist Eastern Europe should stop culturally relying on its historically more powerful neighbors and make its own aesthetic decisions. The fact that the Georgian embassy in Estonia preferred to distance itself from supporting this exhibition is telling in many ways and proves the controversy between the image that the current government wants to project and the more diverse visions of its contemporary creative intelligentsia. Although hardly surprising, given that the spheres of the state and contemporary art rarely overlap in post-socialist Georgia, this might also signal a wider tendency in Eastern Europe where the alienation between the political and the cultural elite is again growing and becoming ever harder to bridge.(Lali Pertenava, “In transitions: Contemporary Artists from Georgia,” Aesthetics of Repair in Contemporary Georgia, p. 185.) However, at a time when catching up with the West and nationalist isolationism seem to be the only viable alternatives for East European countries, it is important to acknowledge that there is always a third path, and it might as well be a hybrid one: shared between the local and the global, the past and the present, East and West. Bouillon’s haircutting ceremony refers to the generative power that comes from making a break with the past without erasing or denying it, offering instead extra time to process and to heal, and using the past as a vehicle of empowerment rather than marginalization. Moreover, contemporary artists working all over Eastern Europe today should still see the transition as a rich and unique historical phase that never returns, and delve further into researching it with the means of art.