Love me love me not. Central Asia at the 55th Venice Biennale.

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The exhibition “Love Me Love Me Not” presents the works of 17 artists from the Central Asian region, including Azerbaijan and its neighbours Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey. Curated by Dina Nasser-Khadivi and produced and supported by YARAT, a non-profit contemporary art organisation based in Baku, ultimately aims to question how we each perceive history and geography.

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The exhibition offers a diverse range of media and subject matter, spanning video, installation, painting and sculpture. Pieces range from those steeped in historical reference, to those with more site-specific responses through to those which are inspired by personal history.

As the curator states,

Each piece in this exhibition has a role of giving the viewers at least one new perspective on the nations represented in this pavilion, with the mere intent to give a better understanding of the geographical area that is being covered. Art enables dialogue and the Venice Biennale has proven to be the best arena for cultural exchange.

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Rashad Babayev (Azerbaijan) brings a real fig tree (image above, far left), The Tree of Wishes, 2013, to recreate the symbolic attachment many have to the “Tree of Wishes” – such trees are found in the Absheron Peninsula, Azerbaijan, to which many hundreds of scarves representing individual wishes, are secured to each year. In this exhibition, Babayev’s installation critiques this ritual through attaching designer- branded scarves, to imply the materialist wishes increasingly prevalent in the country.

Instead of incorporating the simple, colourful fabric that commonly garnishes wishing trees, Babayev’s tree is adorned with designer labels, expensive fabrics, silks, and sprays. The formally engaging and colourful installation is not simply a tree of wishes, but a tree of expensive tastes. The installation elicits notions regarding the fetishisation of goods and increasing commercialism. The installation represents the rapidly changing nature of desire in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani Orkhan Huseynov‘s work Life of Bruce Lye, 2008 (image above, right corner installation) consists of a series of conversations between, and interviews with, Azerbaijani artists. The dialogues are composed of spliced memories regarding the complicated and questionable identity of the actor, Bruce Lye. According to the artist, some of the first feature length films to enter into the newly established political state of Azerbaijan, following the fall of Communism, were Bruce Lee films. However, the authentic Hong Kong cinematic experience was in fact, a lie. The films were actually knock- offs starring the infamous Bruce Lee imitator, Bruce Li.

By embracing the absurd, the digital short addresses the complex and complicated notions of the authentic and the counterfeit, reality and myth, and the constructed nature of heroes and villains. Without judgment or pretence, the film documents a unique and humourous instance of an innocent deception.

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Ali Banisadr (Iran) presents a tryptich (image above, far right) titled Fravashi, 2013, is a re-presentation of history painting, visualising dramatic events of recent history though a variety of unique, yet intertwining sources. The principal inspiration for the work is the esoteric notion of “Fravashi” – a Zoroastrian concept for the heroic and guiding force of an individual. The painting alludes to both the personal experiences of the artist, who moved to the United States from Tehran at the age of twelve during the Iran-Iraq War, and the hardships faced by those who experience conflict at home. The composition reflects on the triumph of human character in the face of difficulty. Formally, the work also expresses the diasporic experience of an artist balancing the diverse influences of Willem de Kooning, Hieronymus Bosch, and Persian miniature painting.

Farhad Moshiri (Iran) is known for his satirical depictions of consumerist culture in Iran and abroad. He uses unusual materials and plays with iconic images of popular culture and traditional figures. In his work Kiosk of Curiosité, 2011, the artist reproducing the ever present kiosk, which can be found on just about every street corner in his native city of twelve million people, Tehran. In the installation, the artist reproduces five hundred and fifty covers of diverse publications, such as kung fu, cinema, gossip, lifestyle, fashion and so on. Moshiri transplants the texture of those everyday glossy publications onto the traditional, vernacular Persian form of art: the silk carpet. Half of those publications are characterised by the touch of the censors, while the other half are untouched. The ‘publications’ are hanging salon-style, as if in a traditional carpet shop. The installation is a representation of the meeting between two incongruous worlds, of the past and the present, of the local and the global.

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Afruz Amighi (Iran) presents Untitled, 2013, an installation that combines a variety of media as a means of addressing aspects of historicism and hybridity. The work incorporate intricately hand-cut stencil patterns, industrial metal wiring, and a complex interplay of reflection and transparency that bears a deep historical relevance.

Venetian and Islamic geometric and vegetal motifs are scored into a woven polyethylene sheet, the material used for refugee tents. The cloth is flanked by two chain sculptures recalling the forms of both Murano glass chandeliers and Islamic brass lanterns. The material presence is echoed by the transparency and a reflective pool of water that extends from the front of the arrangement, and which turn presents a carefully designed lighting system that transforms the whole installation in an immersive environment. The artist’s ultimate aim is to represent difference and multiplicity as co-dependent and cohesive entities, that can co-exist and are complementary.

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Aida Mahmudova (Azerbaijan) works with notions of memory and nostalgia. Recycled, 2012-2013 (image above, foreground installation) alludes to the complicated play between memory and modernisation that has come to characterise Baku and the surrounding regions. The sculpture re-uses discarded metal window grates that once adorned some of the city’s old buildings prior to their renovation. Stainless steel silhouettes rise on thin metal rods from the latticework of the grates. These highly polished and reflective forms mirror the surrounding environment while simultaneously casting abstracted, decorative shadows within the immediate area.  Much like nostalgia itself, the assemblage is derived from actual, historic elements of Baku, yet it is infused with a sense of uncertainty and visual disorientation. The actual nature of the historic, decorative screen is only perceptible when seen through the precariously placed contemporary reflections.

Slavs and Tartars is a collective that is devoted to the exploration of issues that concern the region of Eurasia (east of the Berlin wall, west of the Great Wall of China). MOLLA NASREDDIN THE ANTIMODERNIST, 2012, (image above, in the background) a fiberglass sculpture just outside the entrance to the exhibition, is a representation of a children’s toy. Children’s toys inevitably reveal vast amounts about a culture. Their patriarchs, superheroes and heroines, mascots, and historical giants are psychic and spiritual totems for all times. Molla Nasredin is an unlikely hero, he served as the referent for a pioneering satirical paper that was published in three languages and across three cities, over a span of nearly three decades. He sits backwards on his donkey, looking at the past and yet inevitably moving into the future. As children sit atop him, he becomes a parable for hope, generosity, and a radically alternative, even inspired, way of being and seeing.

The press release gives a good overview of the exhibition and highlights of some of the works on show. A catalogue of the exhibition is also downloadable HERE.

The artsists featured are: Faig Ahmed (Azerbaijan), Rashad Alakbarov (Azerbaijan), Afruz Amighi (Iran), Kutluǧ Ataman (Turkey), Shoja Azari (Iran), Rashad Babayev (Azerbaijan), Mahmoud Bakhshi (Iran), Ali Banisadr (Iran), Ali Hasanov (Azerbaijan), Orkhan Huseynov (Azerbaijan), Sitara Ibrahimova (Azerbaijan), Aida Mahmudova (Azerbaijan), Taus Makhacheva (Russia), Farhad Moshiri (Iran), Farid Rasulov (Azerbaijan), Slavs and Tatars (‘Eurasia’), Iliko Zautashvili (Georgia).

All Photographs: “Love Me Love Me Not”, collateral event of the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photos: Prof Danilo Ardia.

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