The “Focus Kazakhstan” exhibition project concludes in Suwon, South Korea, with a multilayered look at diasporic communities.
In this final instalment of the “Focus Kazakhstan” article series, Art Radar speaks with Yuliya Sorokina and Eun Young Shin about their curatorial collaboration.
A saddle. A brand. A blade. A hand. Tools that work, tools that move, tools that tell a story. Each is familiar, but eerily distant, speaking of violence, displacement and an understated timeline of events. They are the instruments of a “Eurasian Utopia”, multifarious in their attempts to narrate or work through chaotic, nomadic histories.
“The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriptum”, on view at the Suwon Ipark Museum of Art until 3 March 2019, is the final exhibitionary segment of the “Focus Kazakhstan” project. Surveying the work of nearly 30 Kazakh artists from the 20th and 21st centuries, the collaborative group show aims to highlight a ‘local modernity’, a modernism fueled by international, oftentimes unwanted, ideologies and strong ties to traditional, historically repressed, Kazakhstani culture. In this vein, the exhibition closely follows the theories of Rustam Khalfin – considered to be one of the fathers of contemporary art in the region – and his artistic adaptation of the “glocal”.
To round out the article series on the “Focus Kazakhstan” project, Art Radar got in touch with curators Yuliya Sorokina and Eun Young Shin to talk about memory, heritage and the lingering Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan.
To begin, could you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you both ended up conceiving “The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriputm”?
Yuliya Sorokina (YS): I started as an artist at the end of the 1980s. I painted huge figurative watercolours. After one of the exhibitions, [the artist] Rustam Khalfin asked me to work on his team; this is the starting point when I began to act in contemporary art. I did just about everything with the team – listened to Master’s lectures, shot and cut video, translated articles from English, negotiated spaces and equipment… We made a few projects together and shortly thereafter, I realised that I want to be a curator (Khalfin was the first person who legitimised this profession [in Kazakhstan]. I love other artists (I’m never jealous), can communicate with people and manage the logistic things. And I’m always writing texts. So, I quit my work in Khalfin’s studio and I still remember how he cried when I left. Nevertheless, I realised that I needed art-management skills, which I found at the European summer academy for Art-management in Salzburg. The next year, I won a grant to take part in an exhibition management seminar in Vienna; then from 1998, I stopped my artistic career and acted as curator.
In 2009, I was feeling sad [thinking about how] we do not have a holistic picture of regional art-processes and no proper infrastructure [to support it]. I started thinking about the possibilities to make some fixation, some permanence, and apply to different archiving projects. In 2010, I served as a guest-researcher at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where I discovered the ways of digitising the archive. Being there I composed the idea of making the Digital Resource for Central Asian Contemporary Art, which I finally established off- and online (astralnomads.net) under the support of HIVOS Foundation. At the same time, I realised that the main statement of my curatorial method is research. I am always working “in the field”, wherever I go; I go to artists’ studios first, carefully monitoring what artists do, what they’re thinking about, and in what context. The Getty people also pushed me to get academic degree, so I completed my PhD in 2017. My PhD thesis is about Central Asian contemporary art as a future heritage, strongly connected with modernistic Soviet-era [themes] in Central Asian art.
Eun Young Shin (EYS): I majored in curatorial studies and now serve as a curator at Suwon Ipark Museum of Art. Before that, I worked at Gyeonggi Art Museum and Gyeonggi Creation Centre in Gyeonggi Province, Korea. I have mainly worked as a curator for public art museums and have been planning exhibitions that reflect local identity with interest in the possibility of communal communication in contemporary art.
What does it mean to bring this group of Kazakhstani artists to Suwon in 2018? What do you think Korean audiences will gain from this experience?
EYS: Kazakhstan is a country that is historically and still very deeply related to Korea. It is a place similar to Korea’s historical vestiges and myths, and it is in Kazakhstan where many diaspora live. And we have steadily developed cooperative relations since the independence of Kazakhstan. But in Korea, we do not know much about Kazakhstani culture and art. I know that Kazakhstani artists have exhibited in Korea, but this is the first time for such a large art exhibition like this. Korean audiences to the exhibition will be able to see modern and contemporary art from Kazakhstan, which will help them to appreciate Kazakhstan’s art, presenting a new cultural identity by combining its global impact and regional nomadic tradition.
YS: South Korea is very interesting and important for me. I find it to be very important for the Kazakhstani economy and culture as well. We have a big Korean diaspora [community] and quite big amount of economic relations with South Korea. For me personally, it is the most important link, as my husband is Korean and my kids are part of this culture. I hope Korean audiences might be interested in Kazakhstani culture [because], on the one hand, they understand the existing relations in-between our cultures, but on the other, they know very little about Kazakhstani culture and history. So, such an exhibition is a wonderful chance to show a holistic picture. With the help of the modern collection from the National museum and the work of contemporary artists, it is possible to show the history of the country and highlight important issues of social life.
You’ve studied and curated art in several international locations. What do you think of the breadth of art from Central Asia and the Caucuses and, specifically, Kazakhstan?
EYS: Kazakhstan is a country with strong cultural potential. Many artists are thinking about the past, present and future, and are delivering suppressed creative desires and messages. The Kazakhstani government is also working aggressively to promote its culture. I think this synergy will strengthen Kazakhstan’s position in international art scenes.
YS: Post-Soviet Asia is a special story. These countries had such a different historical basis, but have been unified through soviet regimes; they all have one united totalitarian trauma. On the other side, they all have different history of independence and contemporary art due to varied histories [of representation]. Kazakhstan has always been passionate and rapid, first of all, because of its native nomadic character, but secondly because of Stalin’s experiments with moving nations by force. Because of his deportation [scheme] we have more than 130 nationalities here and it makes sense. It is still (after permanent migrations) a multicultural melting-pot and it is visible in our exhibition – we have Kazakh, Tatar, Ukranian, Korean, Uygur, Polish and more artists on display. Such a spectre of different mentalities and backgrounds mixing in the frame of one nationality – Kazakhstanians – makes a rich palimpsest of thoughts, stories and methodologies. It gives also a special synergistic power to Kazakhstani art. Powerful is the right epithet. And it is one of the focal points of Khalfin’s “Eurasian Utopia”.
Could you tell us a little bit about the artists selected for the Korean segment of “Focus Kazakhstan”? What was your selection process like and why were each chosen to show their work in Korea over the other exhibition locations in London, Berlin and Jersey City?
YS: We have around 60 artists on display. For me, the main focus was on artistic language – let’s call it “glocal” – and using the phenomenon of “local modernity”. The phenomenon of local modernities was discussed in the interview given by a leading contemporary curator, the Director of Van Abbemuseum, Charles Esche:
What is possible and optimistic is that different local modernities start to effect each other at the present moment – [through] which our different heritages intermix on a level field of planetary discourse. This effect has to be on an intimate, almost individual level for it not to revert to old hierarchies – at least for now. What is important for me here is [Giorgio] Agamben’s idea of singularities. Local modernities can be used by humans placed in specific geographic situations to their own ends, and these singularities can then speak and exchange with each other about their own understandings of modernity. Those exchanges are probably agonistic and approach something we could start to imagine as a planetary public sphere that does not seek consensus but non-destructive recognition. So, I would suggest that we need to see ourselves as all fundamentally provincial, that could be interesting as a resistant mode to [the] current form of globalisation.
I tried to choose artists and the works which underline the ability to use international modern/contemporary language in their own, local, way, highlighting local narratives and making them understandable. I would like also to display a holistic story showing tracks of artistic investigation; that’s why we [chose to] display a few works by each artist, not just one. There are the open mind reflections by modern artists Yevgeny Sidorkin, Salihitdin Aitbayev, Pavel Zaltsman, Abdrashit Sydykhanov; the science-fiction objects by Saken Narynov; critical investigations of sliding identity by Yerbossyn Meldibekov; neo-nomadism by Said Atabekov; ironic stories by Yelena And Viktor Vorobyev and Saule Dussenbina; traumatic painting by Rashid Nurekeyev; pro-modernistic obscurations by Alexander Ugay, Neo-Avant Garde gestures by Bakhyt Bubikanova and, of course, the voices of Kazakhstan’s youngest generation’s video and performance programmes.
In connection with my last question, how does “The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriptum” fit together with the other exhibitions under the “Focus Kazakhstan” umbrella? How does it deviate from them?
EYS: I know that the “Focus Kazakhstan” exhibition is held in four cities and they have different themes. “The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriptum” is a story about Kazakhstan’s past, present and future. It’s a story of Kazakhstan that modern and contemporary artists see. They’re doing different things, but they’re telling the same story at the same time. Through links between the past and the present, you’ll find that Kazakhstan’s art creates a stronger future. The reinterpretation of history is also the aim of the Suwon Ipark Museum of Art, so we found this very interesting.
YS: We are all acting in the frame of the modern collection of The National Museum of RK and we have more or less same list of famous and emerging contemporary artists. However, each exhibition has its own message and shape regarding the curator’s statement and modus operandi. “Eurasian Utopia” is, in a way, more museum-like. We also wanted to make it a bit more conceptual, and less aesthetic. We have a lot of books and informative objects on display, lots of pieces with textual aspects (which is a challenge itself, as it has been translated to Korean!). This decision also led us to present the exhibition as a tool to tell stories. And at the end of the day, we also have the largest amount of young artists here, as I strongly believe into the future of Kazakhstani Art.
The artist Rustam Khalfin will be the focal point of “The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriptum”. Can you explain the reasoning behind this? How do you expect audiences will interact with his work and what might they gain from seeing his work re-represented amongst a group of contemporary practitioners?
YS: This is simply because [Khalfin’s] idea of the “Eurasian Utopia” has been very telling for the situation in which the Kazakhstani artistic community lives and acts. We are talking about some wonderful society coexisting with different cultures and personalities centred around nomads; but it is a tricky project, full of traumas and misunderstandings…We we all are in a dialogue with the international art community, using the “glocal” language of modern/contemporary art, as Khalfin expected. Each artist follows this way of local modernity, but it doesn’t mean that he/she is following Khalfin. Some of them try to act in the opposite way, making the overall exhibition more critical.
Were there any challenges or ethical conundrums you faced whilst putting the show together?
YS: Well, it is a first time in my life when I am acting as invited curator with a governmental structure. And of course, it is a challenge. The Museum aims to show as many things from its collection as possible and contemporary objects are not always comfortable, or further, legitimised, in Kazakhstan.
Another big scale challenge stems from the quantity of materials and works. And of course, this is also about co-operation and it wouldn’t be possible without the funding of the Ministry of Culture and SIMA (we will occupy the museum for 3 months!). The same goes for the kind support and co-operation of all my colleagues and my wonderful co-curator, Eun Young Shin. It’s about trust and friendship and sharing common values. One of the main challenges was to find the partner for exhibiting the show in such short time. I am very thankful also to my colleague – independent curator Seungbo Jun, who helped us with negotiations within the space from the very beginning.
The entire “Focus Kazakhstan” series comes with a few continuous objectives. Amongst them is the desire to aestheticise a culture in crisis. Having seen communism, revolution, independence and capitalism, it is no wonder that Kazakhstani artists are exploring vastly different methods of representation. Can you speak a little bit about this phenomenon and the diverse artwork that stems from it?
EYS: It’s true; in less than 100 years they have gone through communism, revolution, independence and capitalism. Hopefully the efforts of the government, museums, curators and artists in Kazakhstan will not be distorted, but rather power of the culture of Kazakhstan.
YS: Oh, it’s actually another challenge! It is a difficult task to create a holistic picture from such varied materials. I guess it shows that crisis is an inspirational component for artistic flourishing. Artists must work in resistance to the mainstream policy, regime, restrictions, violence, dominance, etc.… That’s why artists create their own marginal ‘dialects’ using international artistic linguae franca. But we have yet another task now: not to get lost in unification, to follow our own “Eurasian Utopia”.
“Focus Kazakhstan: The Eurasian Utopia: Post Scriptum” will be on view from 27 November 2018 to 3 March 2019 at the Suwon Ipark Museum of Art, 354-1 Sinpung-dong, Paldal-gu, Suwon, Gyeongii-do, South Korea.