REVERSE OPTIMISM: A COLLECTIVE IRONY
The founding narrative of the artist collective Slavs and Tatars is a well-branded dictum that precedes each of its projects, setting up a scenography of production and presentation replete with multiple entrances and exits. Begun in 2005, Slavs and Tatars describes its members as “a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin wall and west of the great Wall of China.” initially a reading group, the collective now orbits around two central members who wish to remain anonymous, while the retinue can expand and contract to include others in response to a given project.
Divvying up primary responsibilities, however, are a polyglot U.S. citizen fluent in Russian, educated in comparative literature, with research and strategy experience in the private sector in Russia; and a Polish émigré artist trained in graphic design, publishing, and installation. Together they assert an agile editorial and curatorial stance that is equal parts comic, earnest, and cataclysmic, featuring publications, performance lectures, and installations brewed and steeped in the aftermath of cold war rhetoric and the ongoing renewal of East-West geopolitical conflicts. Smuggling incisive satire, erudite yet entertaining esoterica, and often overlooked scholarship into the hands of mostly unsuspecting viewers, Slavs and Tatars uses the still familiar bombastic styling of past eras to serve up something more prismatic and dispersive than the usual left-leaning politically motivated art fare.
The collective’s recent installation, Beyonsense, at the Museum of Modern art in New York is exemplary of its playful yet earnest syncretist delivery and takes its title from a literal translation of zaum (a term and strategy deployed by a faction of Russian Futurist poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov). The tutelary charge of transrational expression and deconstruction implied by the borrowed title is extended to an initial encounter with farcical sculptures displayed in vitrines. Kitab Kebab, 2012, for example, prods and skewers a mélange of vetted books. instead of serving up köfte meats, a past reading list is literally pierced through and the dutiful and analytical references to philosophy, religion, and linguistics are riven, forced into uneasy proximity, resulting in a creolization typical of the group’s affective approach to the discursive.
Often a satirical perversion of the scale of a given cultural referent and context, Slavs and Tatars’ proplike sculptures act as decorum-busting foils for the rest of its operation. Rather than verse or scripture, The Dear for the Dear, 2012, a diminutive rahle (or sacral islamic bookstand) holds a shriveled brown pickle carved from hardwood, just as Wheat Mollah, 2011, mimics the form of a folded headdress associated with Islamic clerics, only it’s woven in wheat sprigs and perched atop a brick. Punning yet contradictory, such loaded gags are reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’s early sculptures that targeted Belgian nationalism and bourgeois complicity in colonialism via comic deployment of mussels, coal, and eggs alongside news from the Congo. Slavs and Tatars’ sculptural mashups of cliché and gravity likewise reside in the tension between literalness, critique, and dismissive laughter.
While the patriarchal position of religious authority is simulated by the warp and woof of an overtly Soviet symbolism in Wheat Mollah, the comically hybrid result is undermined by the uneasy, latent presence of a dislodged brick that seems ready to be picked up and used. Indeed, if there is an overarching backdrop to the collective’s work, it is the dual narrative of the rise of political Islam and the dissolution of Communism as overriding influences on the current geopolitical climate. Told through indirection, Slavs and Tatars engages in a strange admixture of the advertorial and branding strategies of late capitalism, a restless itinerary of constant research-based travel, and a proclivity for folk culture and ecstatic, mystical religious traditions.
Playing off the politically motivated desire to stake any grand récit explaining the unrest besetting the beginning of the 21st century, Slavs and Tatars adopts a heterochronic playfulness afforded by the eurasian remit of its self-description. Such is the case with the collective’s outdoor balloon installation, A Monobrow Manifesto, 2010, in which 10th-century Persian epic hero Rostam is floated as kindred to and in contrast with the character Bert from Sesame Street. Nowhere is this penchant for conflation more clearly enacted than in the welcoming, lounge-friendly installations that set the tone and provide the interactive pulse for the group’s projects. At MoMa this took the form of a reading room with a series of hanging Persian carpets at its entrance, providing a sound barrier for viewers to sit quietly in a black-lighted den filled with Slavs and Tatars’ publications. Ringed with benches, a neon sculpture overhead, and a tiny central fountain spouting red liquid, the installation readily quoted a Dan Flavin piece made for a lower Manhattan mosque, while also paying homage to the symbolic act that took place in 1980s Tehran, where a cemetery fountain’s water was dyed red to memorialize martyrs of the Iranian Revolution.
A similar play of cultural and historical references exists in each of Slavs and Tatars’ recent installations. In 2012 at the Secession, in Vienna, the installation Not Moscow Not Mecca invoked the cultural stereotypes and competing associations tied to different fruit, inverting exotic, prejudiced, and banal interpretations as readily interchangeable depending on cultural context. A reprise of the exhibition “Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz,” from 2011, on view through March 24 at REDCAT, in Los Angeles, collapses slogans from the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s into banners compressing the urgency of different times and places through a shared multivocal ethos of protest as the agent of revolutionary potential.
The pivotal role of Slavs and Tatars’ publications becomes clear in their additive tracing of composite political histories and genealogies of philosophical thought and cultural lore. In the newsprint publication 79.89.09 (that led to the installation Friendship of Nations), Pop-style comparisons of political foment in Iran and Poland allow for a side critique of the United States’ Middle East policy in the 1970s and a tethered connection to the disputed 2009 presidential elections in Iran that spurred the still resonating Green Movement. Laid out under headings that stylistically echo the Huffington Post, OK!, or Paris Match as much as the agitprop heritage of Bolshevism, Slavs and Tatars alternates headlines like “Beviled, Brutal Bling” and “Resist Resisting God” with “Drive By Confessionals” or “Mix-Tapes of Modernist Islam,” and “Sarmatism.” The latter details a lesser known 17th-century movement within Poland’s szlachta (or gentry) that claimed Polish nobility descended from an ancient Iranian tribe of the Black Sea area.
Buoyant and even punchy in tone, Slavs and Tatars’ publications are alternately savvy and scholarly, as in the catalogue for Not Moscow Not Mecca, which outlines the collective’s concept for an ongoing cycle of exhibitions under the rubric of “The faculty of Substitution,” using as its basis the investigation of both sacred practices seeking self-knowledge and the more profane nature of consumer patterns and algorithmic campaigns targeting individual taste. Yet within what at times resembles a wide-ranging research document or political brief, Not Moscow Not Mecca departs into a compelling profile of French philosopher of Islamic angelology Henry Corbin before reprinting in its entirety a remarkable text by the American classicist Norman O. Brown from a 1981 series of lectures, “The Challenge of Islam.”
In it, Brown lays out a view of Muslims and Christians as offering alternative interpretations beholden to the same Hebraism and Hellenism, kindred and synthetically bound and not simply divided. Not Moscow Not Mecca also provides a close reading of the Koran in dialogue with James Joyce’s impossibly ecstatic modernist relic Finnegan’s Wake. In short, the collective brings a sometimes clamorous but always invested and surprising bounty of influences into what is too often the arid and relativist confines of predictably decorous contemporary art production.
Perhaps nothing captures the collective’s intertextual approach better than the 2011 publication Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, which translates and recirculates excerpts from a satirical political journal published from 1906 through 1930, first in Tbilisi, Georgia, then briefly in Iran, and later in Baku, Azerbaijan. As exigent and conflicted as Honoré Daumier’s illustrations were to the political upheaval of mid 19th-century Paris, the pages of Molla Nasreddin sit uneasily in an unfamiliar warp of pro-Armenian, Russian ridiculing, censorship-defying, anti-Islamist secular satire that corrupts and corrodes obvious and assumed narratives of modernity in the region. Named after the Sufi wise man-cum-fool of the Middle Ages, Molla Nasreddin animates Slavs and Tatars almost like a reverse mascot that, despite marked ideological differences, opens itself to a stubborn streak of optimism. refusing to turn away from the laden topicality of its time, it instead chooses to disarm through laughter rather than redress and correction. Taking its name in part from the term Tatar (referring to an alignment of nomadic groups formed around Siberia’s Lake Baikal, eventually subsumed into the western parts of Genghis Khan’s empire, and later signifying a mounted courier), Slavs and Tatars embodies a polyphonic mode of direct translation and narrated difference, exploring how the message is secondary to the role of the messenger.