A Letter from Tbilisi
The Western-gazing remark, “Georgia is like Italy gone Marxist,” does little to characterize this complex country of about 4 million, nestled in the Caucasus between Western Asia and Eastern Europe. True, one might find in its over 8,000 years of wine making, a magical castle and thermal baths, and people’s sunny dispositions some echo of its bel paese kindred. However, Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital where nearly half of its population resides, now has an international art fair and a steady flow of unfettered capital funneling into large development projects of former Soviet factories as well as the accompanying problems of gentrification and worsening economic inequality.
Nevertheless, the specter of Karl Marx, and more specifically Georgians’ deeply ambivalent and complicated feelings about the Soviet occupation, persists in Georgia’s political demonstrations and struggle against Russia’s meddling in Parliament this past June and counter a kind of “wild capitalism” which reveals the degree to which corruption and environmental degradation have become dialectically conjoined. In a conversation, the writer, producer, and curator Elene Pasuri explained to me her understanding of Georgians’ complex relationship with their recent past: “[T]he ones who live in dignity under a certain system are for the system; the ones who suffered from it are against and both of these are entirely rooted in different hegemonies. The working class was economically able and carefree during the Soviet era… On the other hand, the majority of the aristocratic, intellectual, and cultural class suffered in the same timeframe: unappreciated, censured, gulaged, imprisoned, stripped of goods and values, not taken seriously or chased for their work. The heirs of the intellectual class of Soviet times are today’s [pro-Western] liberals.”
Between two visits, I have spent nearly two months in Tbilisi in 2019 after a brief initial trip in 2009, which included Rustavi, a nearby city full of the ruins of metallurgical and concrete factories from Soviet times, that served as the basis of research for a painting and sculpture installation I exhibited back in New York. During my visits this year, I immediately noticed an abundance of signs in Roman script and many speakers of English. Gone are the days of counting Metro stops because of my inability to read Georgia’s uniquely beautiful alphabet of elegant curves—while metro signage is now bilingual, I also can read and speak some Georgian.
Various temporal contradictions and alternate realities have also emerged: While almost every taxi I stepped into was a Prius hybrid, Tbilisi without stringent regulation experiences some of the worst air pollution in the world. In May, I attended a Black Mirror-like party hosted by the musicians’ collective “tbili orgia” (“warm orgy,” a play on the word Tbilisi which itself means “warm”) in a decommissioned hospital in which half a dozen rooms had different genres of music performed or DJ’ed. Time I had spent in Berlin and Prague in airplane hangar raves and punk squats in the early aughts came to mind, especially in the raw energy and self-organizing spirit.
If I could have experienced the 1960s and 1970s art world of New York, I imagine it as Tbilisi in 2019: the community is intimate, and studio rents and living are inexpensive (for at least foreigners and those with resources), allowing for large amounts of time and high levels of energy, passion, and enthusiasm. Above all, challenging interventions that would never be imagined much less realized in present day New York seem to be commonplace, even encouraged and celebrated, in Tbilisi. (There is a long DIY tradition, including apartment shows and performances in the 1970s). One downside of this, though: Georgian historical memory is often in dispute or had simply evaporated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and two subsequent wars. In the process, entire archives and recorded systems of knowledge were destroyed. I was told Soviet scientific research books were at one time used as wrapping paper.
The following is an incomplete survey of a few shows I saw in the past month, in between an intense schedule of meetings, art making, and exploring. 4710, a gallery founded by independent curators Ana Gabelaia and Nini Darchia, opened its inaugural show by Keta Gavasheli and Andria Dolidze, Georgians who live and work in Dusseldorf. Their installation was united by the magenta haze of a multicolored dancing figure in neon across from which a mirror etched in Georgian reads, “Time and form do not coincide.”
At Window Project gallery, an exhibition curated by Irena Popiashvili and Marcus Fairs presented works including young Georgian artists Maxime Machaidze and Anka Bochorishvili, who adorn Soviet car hoods with elaborate line drawings; Shotiko Aptsiauri, whose sculptures of stone altars intermingle Georgian icons and the contemporary image culture of emojis; and Gigi Shukakidze’s video of a sinking post-Soviet era garage, which evokes at once impending, human-produced, climate change and Tbilisi’s recent flood that released animals from the city zoo. As a result, a man was killed by a white tiger.
Koka Ramishvilli’s Light Machines (2019) at Erti gallery displayed an array of landscapes and still lifes made by using a digital photo sensor dedicated to producing black and white imagery and an aperture three times more dilated than the human eye. Despite depictions of tabletop maquette still lifes with art historical nods to de Chirico and Brancusi, the true subjects of the exhibition are exquisitely fine gradations of shadow and nuances of light. Given Ramishvili’s commitment to the politics of representation and ecologies of information, it’s difficult not to view a sinking Italian piazza as a surrogate for the Georgian Parliament Building and the renewed protest in September against the ruling Georgian Dream Party, three months after the quelled anti-Kremlin demonstration.
Finally, LC Quessier presented an exhibition of new sculptures by Frankfurt-based Hanna-Maria Hammari. In this work, animals, machines, and human bodies intertwine, and material appearances mislead—what at first resembles metal is a metallic-glazed ceramic, a coral is revealed as a latex-coated stocking stretched over ceramic. Hammari also happens to be the first resident at the newly established organization Propaganda Network, founded by Tinatin Asatiani and Teona Tsintsadze (and whose core members include Elene Pasuri and Nikoloz Nadirashvili), where I have also been hosted as an artist-in-residence through the auspices of my long-time collaborator, Gio Sumbadze. Propaganda Network’s neon workshop is responsible for most of the neon works and signs that are ubiquitous throughout the city and signify the recent infusion of capital in a retrograde way.
In addition to creating a historical website-based archive of Georgian artists, Propaganda Network organized a survey of contemporary Georgian artists called “Oxygen” which was positioned as an anti-commercial alternative to the art fair this past May. This exhibition was ecologically focused, featured 33 solo and 2 group presentations, and was installed on more than three floors in a wing of an expansive complex of buildings known now as Stamba, a former Soviet printing house converted into a hotel and office spaces. The exhibition shared a similar spirit and ambition with Phong Bui’s Come Together: Surviving Sandy (2013) exhibition; likewise, Stamba’s design and architectural details evoke the Industry City complex in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Later, after discussing these parallels with Sumbadze, I overheard that one of the partners was inspired to develop the printing house after a NYC visit to Industry City.
However, I recognize that the parallels I draw between Tbilisi and New York may inevitably reflect my own Western viewpoint and my experience as an American subject. With a visual culture equally steeped in present-day Brooklyn as well as Orthodox-influenced frescos and icon painting, Persian-style ornament on façades, and Art Nouveau and Socialist Modernist buildings, the future of Tbilisi’s art scene feels—like its history—like it can go in any direction, depending on how its citizens’ understanding of their history develops and how politics may intervene.