17th February 2007 — 14th April 2007
Vyachelsac Akhunov, Natalya Dyu, Shona Illingworth, Dinu Li, Ruth Maclennan, Almagul Menlibayeva, Alexander Ugay
Curated by Anna Harding, Kathy Rae Huffman and Yuliya Sorokina
Central Asia. Who lives there? What do they do? Do they make art? The answer to the last question, it seems, is 'Yes'. Central Asian Project showcases some of this work, together with the responses of British artists who visited the region (which for the purposes of this show is defined as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) in 2006.
All but one of the pieces are video-based, shown on TV sets or one of three large screens. Vyachelsac Akhunov's Corner (2006) is a 6 minute sequence of short clips showing a man praying in different locations. Each time, he stands with his back to the camera in some forgotten corner of a building, his words inaudible. His prayer-tour takes him to places within a stone's throw of the best known religious sites in Uzbekistan, but also to roadsides and what looks like a private house. Corner could be interpreted in many ways, but what jumps out is its commentary on religion and the individual. Muslims traditionally pray in the direction of Mecca and, when they're in mosques, towards a niche in the wall called the Mihrab. Akhunov's protagonist transforms neglected spaces into private Mihrabs, disregarding the need to orient himself towards the Holy City and gently mocking the officially designated places of worship which loom up splendidly in the background.
In Almagul Menlibayeva's Apa (Ancestors), from 2004, Central Asia's shamanistic, pre-Islamic traditions are evoked. Six naked goddesses emerge from the snow somewhere in the highlands of Kazakhstan. They writhe and wriggle and say "Apa" a lot. A less ancient goddess - supermodel Naomi Campbell - is worshipped by a girl on a toilet in Natalya Dyu's I Like Naomi, Naomi Likes Fruits (2001), which informs us at the outset that 'In accordance with statistics, 35% of respondents can relax and dream entirely just sitting on WC'. A deeply tongue-in-cheek interview with a star-struck teenager follows.
An abrupt change of mood is needed to take in Shona Illingworth's chilling, claustrophobic Karlag (2007), a video that combines footage of the windswept Kazakh steppe and the testimonies of gulag victims. It is narrated by a young woman who lives in a former prison town, which is also close to the Russian-leased cosmodrome at Baikonur. She begins by wandering if changes in the atmosphere caused by rocket launches are making her sick. It's as likely, however, to be the pervading sickness of a landscape which for many decades provided the setting for the brutal treatment of political prisoners. 'When we dig up potatoes, we often find human bones' she says mournfully.
There's no shortage of good material here, and some sketchier stuff: Ruth Maclennan's Valley of Castles (Hunting Eagles) 2006-2007, for example, could be some gap-year student's video diary. The key question is whether a show whose frames of reference are purely geographical can hold together artistically. I can't imagine that these particular pieces would be shown alongside one another were it not for the fact that their creators happen to come from more or less the same part of the world. I get the sense that the curators, one of whom is Kazakhstani, are appealing to our sense of the exotic rather than asking us to judge the works on their own merits. It doesn't help that the font used for the show's logo is a kind of faux-Devanagari - a script from India not Central Asia, but one which looks vaguely, you know, foreign. My other gripe is to do with the gallery format - if you've got 20-minute-long videos, you've got to have seats. It's that simple. There is no sense in which being uncomfortable from standing up too long adds anything valuable to the experience.
Central Asian Project isn't a bad show, but it's not a great one either. I'd definitely like to see these people exhibited more in the UK, but not as representatives of their countries - as artists.
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