Wishing to remain largely anonymous as a collective of unnamed artists, Slavs and Tatars was founded in 2006 by a Polish-Iranian duo. Over the years they have been joined by other artists from all over the world whose goal is to travel, conduct research, live on and off in Eurasia and plan to "dedicate the rest of our lives to this region, and we want to share our enthusiasm for it with others".
They refer to themselves "archaeologists of the everyday" as they draw upon deeper layers of meaning exemplified by tradition, custom, performance, language, anthropology and politics, their works are emotional, humorous and still very determined in their message. Their hybrid approach leads them to embrace everything from art objects, installations, performances, public interventions and publications which often reference authentic archival sources, such as ancient Zoroastrian calendars, Persian road maps, and Azerbaijani cartoons from the early twentieth century, as well as pop culture. The members of Slavs and Tatars may be scattered across the world, yet all of them are invested in addressing the evolution and hybridisation of tradition, language and politics across several media and disciplines, exploring the history, culture and politics of the Eurasian borderland and attempting to revive the culture of the region. By breathing life back into the vast, misunderstood and often forgotten region, the artist collective aims to "resuscitate" Eurasia.
The founders of Slavs and Tatars met over a decade ago, but have been working as a formal art collective for six years. They started out as a sort of "reading group" or "book club", sharing rare or out-of-print publications of an anthropological and linguistic bent with each other and a growing group of friends. Their evolution into the production of works of art and their own publications was a gradual, but a natural one, always grounded in the "act of reading together, not just the act of reading, but also redeeming the act of reading". These founding members had come from an editorial background and, thus, the idea of bringing together visuals and content was an organic one, yet as this idea expanded over the years, it provided their audience with a broader experience of their content and message as an intellectual, sensory and/or spiritual experience that aims to demystify concepts that are often alien, obscure or overly simplified by the western world. As is the case with their most recent solo show at the MoMA New York, visitors can "experience the space", to simply dwell in an environment and delve into it in a relatively superficial fashion or to engage with it on a deeper level through an interaction with the pieces and reading of their publications. Even children can find a place for themselves within the Slavs and Tatars omniverse, responding to the childish wit and humour, as well as the interactive nature of certain works.
As members of the collective put it, their works have comprised an
end of a Western Promise. We lived in major European cities, studied at the finer institutions of the west, but found something was missing. We found it important to look elsewhere, beyond the major capitals of the western world. One of the original founding objectives, the polemics of Slavs and Tatars, is that many countries in the East are so hell bent on modernising at any price. They look at westernisation as modernisation, they look towards the West. We don't esteem enough our own heritage. Since we started in 2006, the situation has changed a little bit, with the crisis in the West and the general crisis of confidence in the West, people are looking less to the West. But that isn't for the right reasons, it's not because the west is "broken". There should be a kind of home-grown approach to modernity. One needs to find one's own approach to modernity.
Slavs and Tatars have been described by Holland Cotter of The New York Times as "a publishing concern...with a worthy mission (to focus on multicultural Eurasia)". HG Masters of Asia Art Pacific writes that "humor, and its potential to offer a seductive form of critique, allows them to introduce their arcane subject matter to a broad international audience, and move beyond the weary rhetoric of identity politics and postcolonialism". In an article in Artforum, Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan writes that the group is "the most cosmopolitan of collectives, where a geopolitics of globe-trotting allows their shape-shifting projects and concerns to continuously cross-pollinate divergent, and sometimes diametrically opposed, cultural specificities".
As for the "anonymous" character of the collective, it is in line with the overarching sense of generosity that they aim to convey through their work as they shift the spotlight from themselves as artists to shine fully on their content. They explain that
It's not about our experiences or our biographies, it's not about how we were raised or our experience growing up, which is a perfectly valid premise for making art, but that's not what interests us, what interests us is the world outside and we are trying constantly to reflect the attention that is being put towards us and put it towards the subject matter.
Their work often takes place in the public space. They swiftly leaped into the throttle of the world art scene, making an impact with major exhibitions as early as 2009, presenting such incisive works as the 79.89.09 project which referenced keys dates decades apart - the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the fall of Communism in 1989, in order to gain a perspective of the current events of the present. For the 10th Sharjah Biennial, the collective presented Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi'ite Showbiz, an elaboration on 79.89.09, which looked at the folklore and crafts accompanying the ideological impulses of the end of Communism and the beginning of revolutionary Islam.
In early 2012 they presented the show Not Moscow Not Mecca at Vienna's Secession. At the entrance, two large watermelons in pots by Robert Oerley evoke the various connotations the fruit brings up in different regions: "In the USA, they are often used as a racist substitute for African-Americans, in Russia they recall the contested Caucasus, and in Europe the countries of origin of the migrant populations, be it Turkey, North Africa, etc". The emotional, sensuously enticing display is a vehicle telling the story of the linguistic, spiritual, emotional and political pluralism in the "region known as Eurasia to the east of the Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China". It has been described as a veritable bazaar of Central Asian flora, pomegranates, sour cherries, cucumbers, persimmons, quinces, figs, apricots, and melons are served in bowls and form enormous sculptures to be contemplated from the comfortable Uzbeki mattresses. The presentation is simultaneously a shrine to the common roots of the diverse countries of the region. Coloured ribbons tied to the branches of a mulberry tree stand for the region's progressive religious syncretism including influences of Buddhism and Hinduism in Central Asian Islam.
In July 2012 they presented Reverse Joy in Jerusalem's Safra Square as part of the Under the Mountain 2012 cultural season. The fountain spouting bright red liquid is a metaphysical reference to the role of mysticism as an agent for change in the world and how the bloody results of that change are effectively the opposite of joy when it leads to casualty. The playful colour of the fountain represents the somber symbol of the blood spilled in armed conflict. It is both a commemoration of the fallen martyrs of the past, while addressing the revolutionary role of criticism amongst all three Abrahamic faiths and calling for "one world or none". It is an attempt to take on the ideals and beliefs of another along one's own path for self-discovery.
In the autumn of 2012 the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a major solo show by the collective titled Beyonsense, which takes its name from a translation of zaum - Russian Futurist experiments with "transrational" language and poetry by artists and authors at the turn of the 20th century - along with a play on the name of one of pop culture's most recognisable names - Beyoncé. Such reversals and replacements in text-based works of art are meant to challenge the established history and geography of the region, using witty and unexpected mash-ups to illustrate the complex portrait of the East and the intricacy of its ties to the west, which have in recent years been overly simplified by the politics of ideology and war games. Slavs and Tatars use art to bring the East and West closer together in an authentic, thoughtful way. The project also calls attention to the broader picture of intellectual thought, remarking on the dramatic turn of events that can take place within a decade or two, instantly shattering much of the progress of mankind's approach to society, philosophy, politics, culture and community.
As the collective explains in its own words,
The best names are those which foster a certain tension within them, pushing at extremes. One of the best we’ve come across thus far is the title for Werner Herzog’s 1970 cult classic Even Dwarfs Started Small. Humor is important, especially when delivered with the side-splitting Slavic sense. The ability to bring together - in one space, one page, one voice, or in this case one name - two ends of the spectrum previously considered antithetical or incommensurate is crucial to our understanding of the world around us.
The role of language in the works of Slavs and Tatars is essential, which makes their foray into publishing quite an intuitive one. In 2009, Slavs and Tatars published Kidnapping Mountains with London-based Book Works to accompany the exhibition of the same title at the Netwerk Centre for Contemporary Art in Aalst, Belgium. It was meant to be "a playful and informative exploration of the muscular stories, wills, and defeat inhabiting the Caucasus region". The collective has gone on to publish several more books which incorporate archival and experimental research, texts, original pieces, and innovative design, such as Love Me, Love Me Not: Changed Names (2010), an inventory and mapping of the names of 150 cities across Eurasia and Slavs and Tatars Presents Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would've, could've, should've (2011), which references the early 20th century Azeri politcal satire magazine, with all its folkloric imagery and political-social references to feudalism, civil rights, political progress, ethnic rivalries and religious conflict. Their artist-book A Thirteenth Month Against Time is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, along with their series Slavs, the Nations. In September 2012 they premiered their book Khhhhhhh, which explores the character and role of the guttural "r" sound in Arabic, Hebraic and Slavic languages, at the Raster Gallery as part of the Warsaw Gallery weekend.
As for the future of Slavs and Tatars, they see their work as a life-long research project in which they still have a great deal to explore. They plan to continue for as long as possible, at least another four or five decades on. Who knows that the East-West connection will look like then and what the role of Slavs and Tatars will be in shaping the imagery and perspective on this world?
In the autumn of 2012 Slavs and Tatars presented works at the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art and the Gwangju Biennial in Korea.
Author: Agnes Monod-Gayraud
Selected solo shows:
Beyonsense, "Projects 98," Museum of Modern Art, New York
Khhhhhh, Moravia Gallery, Brno
Not Moscow Not Mecca, Secession, Vienna
Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, Kiosk, Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, Gent
Przyjaźń Narodów: Lahestan Nesfeh-Jahan, Gdańska Galeria Miejska, Gdansk
A Monobrow Manifesto, Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen
Kidnapping Mountains, Netwerk Center for Contemporary Art, Aalst, Belgium
Selected group shows:
Roundtable, 9th Gwangju Biennial, Gwangju
2nd Ural Biennial, Ekaterinburg
Etat de Veille, Galerie Jousse Entreprise, Paris
Under the Mountain, Festival of Culture, Jerusalem
On Apology, CCA Wattis, San Francisco
Migrosophia, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah
The Ungovernables, New Museum Triennial, NY
Print/Out, Museum of Modern Art, NY
Scenarios about Europe III, GfZK, Leipzig
I decided not to save the world, Tate Modern/Salt Beyoğlu
Station C, Konsthall C, Stockholm
Geopoetics, 8th Mercosul Biennial, Porto Alegre, Brazil
A Rock and a Hard Place, 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale
Melanchotopia, Witte de With, Rotterdam
Group Affinity, Kunstverein München
Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, 10th Sharjah Biennale, UAE
Galicia. Topologies of Myth, Małopolskie Centrum Kulturz SOKOŁ, Nowy Sącz, Poland
East:Excitable Speech:West, Kerstin Engholm Galerie, Vienna
Distant Montage, École Régionale des Beaux Arts de Valence, France
Le Mont Analogue, BE Part Platform voor actuele kunst, Waregem, Belgium
ECHT? based on a true story, Kuenstlerhaus Stuttgart
Between the silhouette and the background, unosunove gallery, Rome
Monobrow Manifesto, Frieze Sculpture Park, London
Salon5, ARGOS centre for art and media, Brussels
25th Nadežda Petrović Memorial, Čačak, Serbia
Correct Me if I am Critical, Felleshuset, Nordische Botschaft, Berlin
Frozen Moments, Ministry of Transport, Tbilisi, Georgia
032c Workshop # 1, BAIBAKOV art projects, Moscow
Habitat (Some Pleasures and Discomforts of Domestic Life), Twenty First/Twenty First Gallery, New York
Miseducation, Brucennial, New York
The Past is a Foreign Country, Centre of Contemporary Art ‘Znaki Czasu’ in Torun
Freischuss, Kleine Humboldt Galerie, Berlin
Industrial Light Magic, Goethe Institut, New York
Wola Art Festival, Warsaw
Hymns of No Resistance, Kaai Theatre, Brussels
Betlemi Mikro-Raioni, Laura Palmer Foundation, Tbilisi
Nomadic Focus, Interzone, Studio BWA, Wroclaw
Live Archive of ‘The Generational: Younger Than Jesus’, New Museum, New York
Grotto, Museum 52, London
Place it, Parallel Events Manifesta 7, Lungomare Gallery, Bolzano
Shifting Identities, Kunsthall Zürich
Pro eto, NCCA, Moscow Biennale of Young Artists
Forms of Inquiry, traveling show: Casco, Utrecht; lux, Valence; IASPIS, Stockholm; BolteLang, Zürich; Archizoom EPFL, Lausanne
Ostersund, Färgfabriken, Stockholm
Left Pop, Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art
New Multiples, Art Metropole, Toronto
NY Art Book Fair, Printed Matter, New York
Books by Artists, E:vent Gallery, London
10 Years, Colette, Paris
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