Zone of Risk - Transition
The location for the 3rd Bishkek Exhibition of Contemporary Art embodies the essence of its title: "Zone of Risk - Transition". The underground spaces below Ala-Too Central Square in Bishkek had been the local headquarters of the KGB. Their dusty marble floors and deserted rooms stand as a reminder of just how much has changed since the Republics of Central Asia were once part of the Soviet Union. More than that, however, lying right beneath the center of where the Kyrgyz revolution had erupted in the Spring of 2005, the location contextualizes immediately the very real consequences of cultural and societal transformations.
Descending the gated staircase from Ala-Too Central Square into the exhibition, one first steps into an underground road that had permitted Soviet leaders to drive through a low-ceiling tunnel to just under the square, from where they could easily emerge for demonstrations. Effectively installed at the end of that long, curving tunnel was a video projection by Ulan Djaparov titled "Reaper." Dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and carrying a scythe, the only character is seen harvesting very tall weeds that had grown in a concrete trough of an abandoned, roofless building. Swinging his scythe rhythmically, he moves steadily through the somewhat ominous space, pushing ever forward despite being unable to see what awaited him at the end of his task.
Lining the walls of the tunnel were also two series of black and white photographs. The twelve photographs by Alexander Fedorov, titled "This is a life?" document flash point evidence of political turmoil (protests and shouting matches) and remnants of better times (battered baby carriages strewn through a landfill), but also offer quieter, if more disquieting, moments (three young boys being interrogated by a policeman and a disorienting image of a man carrying a donkey just so on his shoulder that his body seems to be topped by the animal’s head).
The photographs by Alimjan Jorobaev are part of his "Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home" series and deal not only with the wide range of ethnicities and races that comprise the post-Soviet Kyrgyz Republic, but also the cultural ideals competing for their loyalties. From images of a service in a mosque with soldiers among the faithful to one of a Russian-looking boy sitting the doorway of a yurta selling beer, cigarettes, and soda, the mixing of cultures and the metaphors of hardship suggest that all the Kyrgyz nationals are in this difficult transition period together.
Beyond the tunnel stood the remnants of a performance by Victoria Begalskaya, who had vigorously shoveled dark, wet mud from a large vat against a blank canvas onto which she projected a video of bleak scenes from a small Russian town that has fallen on economic hardship (they used to make tractors there, but orders dried up), serving as an action referencing burial (of an unpleasant reality).
Along the main wall as visitors entered was a large installation by Elena Vorobyeva and Victor Vorobyev titled "Day/Night." Framed by two wall drawings (one with a black ground, one with a white ground), were two video monitors sunk into the wall. The "Day" monitor reveals an interior setting including a window with bars that radiate out like sunrays, in the "Night" video a similar setting after dark, which includes bars on its window that radiate inward. These sunray bars, which are common on windows through countries of the former Soviet Union, continue into the wall drawings, underlining a text on each. One segment of the text on the black background references the bars directly: "only behind bars do we feel safe…our willing slavery equals our freedom" [translated from the Russian].
In the center of a large room were two monitors and a vitrine containing an assortment of what looked like paper currency, but which revealed itself to be a collection of notes of time (five minutes, one year, etc.). These multiples, by Gustavo Romano, included quotes such as, "He who keeps more than he needs is a thief." [M. Gandi]. On the monitors was a video ("Time Notes") of a performance in which a man walks down a crowded street in Singapore, tossing out these bills, letting them fall in a trail behind him to the delight and bemusement of the pedestrians collecting them.
Also in this central room were four large photographs by the artist Djoshua Titled "Another Brick in the Wall," the series focused on two young shirtless boys with different props in each photo, ranging from oil lamps to a large axe to baby dolls. In one image, one boy is peering dreamily over a book titled "Options." Another series of four photos, by Said Atabekov and Arystan Shalbaev (members of the collective "Red Tractor" which offered an exhilarating performance on opening night that induced near chaos in Ala-Too Square, when they began wrapping colored tape around a large crowd of onlookers) shows the same man wearing a t-shirt with the phrase "You are leaving the American Sector" in English, Russian, French, and German." In the first photo he’s touching his forehead, in the next his stomach, then his left shoulder, and then his right.
Outside a smaller side room was a page of newsprint with bold text reading: "Be the Change You Want to See in the World." Inside was an installation by members of "What Is to Be Done?" the Russian collective of artists, philosophers and poets, which included a documentary film about the G8 protestors who were corralled into a stadium in St. Petersburg (rather than be permitted to protest where any of the world's leaders [or anyone else for that matter] might see or hear them).
The issue of risk and turbulence during transition is treated most lightly perhaps in "Closed Door," a video by Rahraw Omarzad. In the work a young man seems to break through his innate fears of boundaries (first symbolized by a locked door outside a building where other young men are gathering, which someone then enters through a window), by purposely taking the most inconvenient path throughout the city. Jumping over walls when he could easily walk through a gate, climbing into a bus through its back window, when the door was easily accessed, he seems to move more assuredly the more difficult he makes his journey for himself.
In their statement the curators noted how "In an environment where there is a strengthening of criminal discourse, migratory moods, and militarization of consciousness, risks multiply and become a permanent feature of daily life". This idea is explored in the installation by the curators/artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev. Throughout their video "Something about Contemporary Nomadism," a steady stream of seemingly bored airline passengers passing through security blithely submit to what would be seen as incredibly invasive personal searches in other settings. Guards with rubber gloves pat them down, touching their inner legs and backs and chests, while the passengers seem to hardly notice.
Another work exploring the idea of "transition" as connoted by human travel, but on a much grander scale, was the video projection by Cristina Lucas titled "Pantone." A colorful map-based representation of the world showed the traces of world civilizations from 500 BC until 2006. With a chronometer ticking off each year (one per second), the development of the world’s geo-political situation was simply, but effectively, shown via concentrations of colored shapes that rapidly shifted and expanded in a mesmerizing rhythm as they worked toward an eventually recognizable world map.
Perhaps a more literal exploration of risk and transition as was the film and video program installation curated by Sara Reisman and Elena Sorokina. Collectively titled, "In the First Place," the program featured work by 8 artists. As a group, the work focuses on the way western governments, despite sophisticated risk management systems, have failed to prevent emergency situations, and indeed have seen natural hazards continue to grow in an unprecedented manner. More than one of the films dealt directly with the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, driving that last point home.