Alexey Ulko The border

The Krasnoyarsk Museum Center
© Alexey Kubasov

The key decision taken by the curators Inke Arns and Thibaut de Ruyter about the exhibition was refusal to dwell on the political fragmentation of the post-Soviet space, which also meant that the well-established and commonplace post-Soviet discourse became of secondary importance to the project. Addressing the participating artists’ concerns about the lack of the familiar focus, Thibaut de Ruyter said: ‘I understand that the Soviet Union is your common past, but it is not your common future’. These words have set the tone for the whole enterprise. By inviting the artists to move away from comfortable reflection on the transformation of the Soviet past towards hypothesising about obscure borders between Europe and Asia, the curators have pushed them into unchartered waters. This has had at least three important consequences.

The first has been the recognised need to work with definitions. Searching for the answer to the question: ‘Where does Europe end and where does Asia start?’ the artists had to define for themselves, at least provisionally, what Asia is and what Europe is. Interestingly, one could start with the definitions and then try to figure out the precise location of ‘the border’ or draw the border first and then see what kind of identities it separates (or unites). The latter approach is perhaps best exemplified by Katya Isaeva’s collection of ‘traditional Central Asian cups’ made at different porcelain factories scattered all over the Soviet Union. Her piece, titled 100 Pialas (2015) questions cultural stereotypes about the relations between metropolis and periphery in more than one way. Visually it can be seen as almost pure re-mapping of the geographical borders between the two drawn along cultural and industrial tectonic shifts.       
The second implication is the multitude and plurality of borders and spaces embedded in the project. This opens up endless opportunities to discuss the philosophies of the border, which can be seen not only as a frontier but also as a boundary and could be traced back at least to Wittgenstein’s famous claim that the boundaries of our language are the boundaries of our world. In this sense, the project also explores all kinds of juxtapositions between two objects or between a figure and its background in the context of a global Eurasian divide. It focuses on such issues as the border between perception and reality, style and parody, the essential and the secondary, the East and the West, the past and the present and, finally, between the ‘I’ and the ‘Other’.

This leads towards the third focus of reflection, a subjective but necessary attempt to answer the question: ‘Where am I in this milieu?’ Some artists consciously placed this issue in the very focus of their research, like Taus Makhacheva, who physically features in her own photographic project on different wedding ceremonies in the multicultural capital of Dagestan (Nineteen a Day, 2014).  In another photographic series Alexander Ugay has used the nickname of his native district in Southern Kazakhstan, ‘Texas’, not only to draw parallels between this Texas and the one in the USA, but also to reflect on his own multiple identities (We are from Texas, 2002-2010). Others have chosen the position of an interested observer, like Alexey and Alla Rumyantsev who document the reflections of several Tajik women on their life and invite the viewer to see them in the context of an old Soviet film on women’s emancipation. 
I see these three outcomes of the curatorial decisions as an expansion of discursive boundaries into the precarious field of subjective reflections and definitions, which open up opportunities for the exploration of various social and cross-cultural tensions. This enterprise invites an attempt to map out these new territories of personal experience and to do that one requires analytical tools appropriate for the purpose. By asking their question about Europe and Asia and pushing artists towards the search of definitions, the curators seem to have referred to a classical dilemma discussed in one form or another by Euclid, Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci: what is it that divides the atmosphere from the water? Is it air or is it water? In other words, who owns the border between the two and who defines the boundary? Or, to go back to Wittgenstein’s statement quoted above, who owns the language of description of the boundary and who therefore defines the worlds on both sides of the divide?

These are precisely the questions that the curators wanted the artists to address. It is also clear that they favoured subjectivist and open-ended approaches, which encouraged artists to take advantage of their personal reflections and resulted in a number of highly individualised responses. At the same time, given the historical and cultural context of the project, it is difficult to avoid one particular discourse in the discussion of the artworks dedicated to the issue of the border and that is cultural studies and post-colonialism, which focus on the power relations and the ownership of the voice.

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Until the early 2000s, post-coloniality was a difficult subject in the post-Soviet context. The reasons for this have been discussed in the seminal article Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique (2001) by David Chioni Moore and other works by such writers as Gayatry Spivak, Ronald Suny, Laura Adams. The broad consensus that has emerged from the discussion seems to be that the Soviet project combined the features of a colonial and a post-colonial society and retained a number of colonial elements but was not exhausted by them. Interestingly, the post-colonial discourse, now firmly entrenched in the field of Central Asian studies, remains as marginal as ever in the context of contemporary art studies in the post-Soviet region and there are hardly any researchers working in this field. The notable exceptions include Madina Tlostanova, Boris Chukhovich and Svetlana Gorshenina, who live outside the region.

The situation in the Eurasian region has been made more complicated by at least three conflicting forces. The collapse of the USSR was caused as much by the pressure from what can be ultimately seen as a neo-liberal globalising agenda as by staunch anti-Soviet nationalistic sentiments in some of the ex-Soviet republics which went on to become newly independent states. In recent years, these two rather incompatible discourses have been counterbalanced by the recent political as well as cultural developments in the region, which I tend to interpret as a revival of the Russian colonial project. This ideological clash has made an enormous impact on the post-Soviet art world in general. Nevertheless, the debate, especially in the former Russian colonies, seems to revolve around the axis ‘contemporaneity vs. national traditions’ and rarely include any explicit reference to cultural or more specifically, post-colonial studies.     
This is unfortunate, as the discourse provides a powerful analytical framework in a complex context. One particularly interesting feature of this context is that Central and Eastern European national societies see their post-Soviet and post-colonial experience as fundamentally different from that of Central Asia and do not want to see their process of colonisation as equivalent of the Third World, according to Vera Sidlova. These subtle connotations carry profound meanings embedded in the artworks from the region and Die Grenze is an exceptional example of this diversity. Let me look closer at an art work which the curators chose as an opening piece to their exhibition in some of the venues it has travelled to. It is the 20-something-minute long video The Hostages of Eternity (2007) made by the Uzbek film-makers Umida Akhmedova and Oleg Karpov, literally speaking, within the boundaries of their home. The minimalist video contains only two long static shots taken from the window facing the road where a street cleaner was sweeping the roadside with a long broom.

A stocky figure of an older woman clad in the orange sleeveless jacket of a communal worker is a familiar sight in the post-Soviet space. In Central Asia this kind of communal work is also seen as a continuation of a woman’s ‘natural’ duties at home, where the day starts with the youngest girl in the family sweeping the floor. As the film progresses, the viewer becomes increasingly puzzled by the woman’s action. She is continuously sweeping the roadside walking back and forth along a relatively short, maybe 100-metres long part of the road. Whatever dirt or dust there was would have been surely gone by the end of her second turn and yet her work goes on and on. Then, as the camera zooms in, things become even more weird. It is raining, and the only matter the street cleaner has to deal with is the water which she is continuously sweeping into the roadside ditch. The process is obviously endless and fruitless and the only glimpse of meaning appears when we see a cortege of big black cars speeding along the road which was used by the first President of Uzbekistan twice a day to get to and from his office.

While there is nothing openly political or provocative about the video, its message is deep and at the same time clear: in a society where the authority is never questioned or held responsible, a person is reduced to a function and then further to a mere signifier of a function, a symbol of some kind of order utterly devoid of any practical or positive meaning, a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus. Now, how can post-colonial discourse help us interpret the art piece as a research of a border?

One of the most obvious observations of a Central Asian society reveals the underlying integrity of its dominant culture which manifests itself as a traditionalist patriarchal force on the one hand and as a bureaucratic top-down post-Soviet power on the other. Here women’s traditional household duty is appropriated by the state which acts as a guardian of the same conservative values. The woman in the video is moving to and fro along a narrow line about a hundred metres long; her function is reduced to absurdity and her movement is restricted, too, so she acts within strict boundaries which are not only physical but also cultural and political. A subaltern, she is also a guardian of the President’s Road against the alien element of water and the roadside thus turns into another kind of physical border; yet she is powerless to protect the border from the inquisitive eye of the camerawoman hiding behind her window. Umida Akhmedova’s camera therefore acts as a bridge between the two worlds separated by trees and the roadside, between the power and the people, reaching across the border owned and established by the authorities. In an act of defiance, the artist reverses the table and reclaims the border for herself, documenting the process of post-colonial domination.  
The video is a good starting point for further, more general questions: Who is the subject and who is the object of the discourse? Who draws and owns the border between the two? Who owns the language of description? Are these relations permanent or flexible and movable? What meanings are produced by these shifts? These questions could be asked about the narratives in the film but also relate to more global issues and focus upon such collective entities as ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘people’, ‘mentality’, ‘identity’ and other categories, particularly pertinent to the post-Soviet context.

These specific classifications and terms developed under the auspices of the Soviet nation building programmes implemented from the 1920s to 1950s have been largely inherited by all the newly independents states. Once again, post-colonial studies can provide useful tools for the deconstruction of these, mostly primordialist narratives of ethnicity, culture and nationhood. One of the most interesting art works to challenge these established categories is a series of wallpaper designs by the Kazakh artist Saule Dyussenbina, titled Kazakh Funny Games (2016). The artist plays on the interest displayed by the new national elites of Kazakhstan to the grand European styles of the past. She subverts this aesthetic trend by replacing elements of the grand Victorian interior design with her own imagery loosely based on iconic local symbols usually associated with ‘Kazakh national traditions’. Her wallpaper patterns combine images borrowed from different sources with the ones specifically designed for the purpose. One series is based on popular images of Astana, the new hi-tech capital of Kazakhstan, hand-painted in blue on the white background in a manner resembling the traditional Delft pottery or the Russian Gzhel ceramics. This, on the one hand, gives the design a distinct European flavour but the obvious artisan feel of the images and petit bourgeois vignettes undermine the seriousness of the hi-tech pathos of the official imagery. Another pattern tackles the recent prolific production of the statues featuring legendary Kazakh rulers, known only by their names. The statues, looking more like toy soldiers, are churned out by old meat grinders only to fall into the funnel of the grinders below in an endless Escheresque succession. Other series involve the images of severed sheep’s heads, CCTV cameras, semi-naked Kazakh girls, flies, dead antelopes, antique sculptures and the figure of a rich hunter from a painting by the Russian colonial artist Vassily Vereschagin.

In Kazakh Funny Games, the artist is not as concerned about the personal agency of the subaltern as about cultural hybridity and different forms of cultural transfer. She is equally fascinated with the post-modernist double entendre and the blurred borders between different artistic genres. Her patterns, rooted in the tradition of political caricature, openly ridicule familiar iconic images borrowed from the contemporary Kazakh context and her art objects, on the one hand, only pretend to be wallpaper designs, but on the other, are genuine designs as soon as someone is ready to perceive them as such. These multiple levels of reference as well as the gap between the explicit and the implied, confused some in the audience. Dyussenbina’s irony was somewhat erroneously mistakenly taken at the face value and some commentators on Facebook deplored her blue and white imagery of Astana as a sycophantic attempt to woo the authorities. 

Another project which also uses irony as a universal tool to test the limits of a religious taboo and the restrictions of a genre is All the Borders are Within Us (2016) by the German artist Viron Erol Vert who has produced a roll of headscarves with a flashy design featuring women’s hairdos to be worn as a mandatory element of the Muslim woman’s attire. Playful and serious at the same time, the art piece explores intrinsic deficiencies of any taboo or restriction. Seen in a broader perspective, such projects that challenge some rigid formal definitions and distinctions of the art world (e.g. an art object vs. designer product) often question some social or cultural limitations as well. One explanation to this is that any shift in a formal definition of an object involves re-definition of its borders and therefore of the ways it interacts with the cultural background. Another argument is purely postmodernist in nature: a refusal to accept a conventional, essentialist interpretation of an object undermines the rational seriousness of the claims behind the convention, and demonstrates its arbitrariness. If we question the unspoken rule that says that what a wallpaper design or a headscarf usually looks like is what it must always look like, we immediately challenge the validity of the common wisdom derived from a certain habit and step out of the comfort zone.

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While challenging the existing or socially construed borders and definitions in the Eurasian (post-Soviet) context is one of Die Grenze’s  key objectives, one should be wary of the reductionist view that the project postulates that all the borders are ‘bad’ and therefore have to be transgressed or otherwise be done with. The border is not just something that separates one entity from another, it is also something that is shared by the entities, it is a zone of engagement. Raising questions about the ownership of the border and questioning the right of the dominant entity or culture to draw it makes sense only when there is some contact, interaction or a dialogue between the parties. The absence of a border between them means either there is no contact between the entities or that one entity has been absorbed by the other, which brings us back to the post-colonial discourse.

In other words, any form of dialogue or interaction implies the existence of definitions, distinctions and boundaries. At the same time, these borders are never fixed or simply given, they are always in transition, they are fluid, vague, ambiguous and disputable. One can even say that any dialogue or engagement is, in fact, just a re-negotiation of some kind of border: spatial, temporal, political, cultural or philosophical. Another important quality of the border is that it can only be a part of an entity and cannot define it completely. A boundary is always one or more dimensions lower than the entities engaged in a contact. A crossing point of two one-dimensional lines is a dot. The border between two flat geometric figures like countries or seas is a line, the one between three-dimensional bodies is a surface; between two periods of time it is a moment and so on. Borders are often (one may say always) disputed: where does Europe end and Asia start? Where does modernity stop and post-modernity begin? Where does your responsibility cease and mine commence? In everyday life these disputes are often just about details: should the border be drawn on this or that side of the mountain range? A specific power of art is that it allows elevating this discussion to a higher level and questioning not only the exact location of a border, but also its very character and the causal relations around it. In the physical world the right to draw the borders usually rests with the stronger; art can empower the subaltern and give them a voice.

This is well illustrated by one of the most defiant art works in the exhibition, The Wedding Dress (2015-16) by the Ukrainian artist Alina Kopitsa which features a real dress she wore at her wedding. The dress is decorated with a print of all the e-mails she exchanged with her Swiss husband during five years preceding their marriage and which she had to demonstrate to the Swiss immigration authorities to prove the seriousness of their relationships. The powerful artistic statement is not just a documentation of a subaltern’s plight in today’s world. It researches that other aspect of the border which seems to be relegated to the official interstate discourse, the border as a form of protection. It also shows and undermines a narrow and one-sided definition of protection. The migration authorities obviously acted from the need to protect the state borders from an alien intrusion and by doing so they have breached all the principles of privacy and intruded into the couple’s personal space. This is, of course, what authorities often do and what subalterns struggle to protest against, to protect the intimacy of their lives, their integrity and identity. In a remarkable act of exhibitionism, the artist reclaims her agency and her right to define different boundaries; and the wedding dress, the traditional symbol of a bride’s pristine virginity, becomes a document of intrusion but also a document of love.

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This kind of ambiguity is exactly what Die Grenze seeks to address as a project by bringing together a range of different personal stories, narratives and contexts. The exhibition is also fragmented and at the same time united by the design of the show which features exquisitely made but robust black boxes which allow the art works to be transported across many borders for two years. The boxes, conceptualised by Thibaut de Ruyter, ‘contain’ the works in more than one sense: they include them in their space and protect them from the hostile environment of international shipment; they restrict the pieces physically as well as aesthetically by their austere, almost sinister uniform look. At the same time they give the exhibition an underlying coherence similar to the game of draughts and invite reflections on different Orwellian connotations arising not only from the elegant and formidable look of the boxes but also from the broader post-Soviet and post-colonial terrain they travel through.

Once inside an exhibition space, the boxes stop being containers with a hidden meaning and open up to become bridges between the art works and the space. They provide different spatial configurations that contextualise the art pieces – from an open platform to a pedestal to a chest of drawers to a kind of puppet theatre, and this process of transformation from a closed container to a form facilitating different kinds of dialogue is crucial for the curatorial concept of the exhibition. The curators were very much aware of the need to make the show a fluid and transitional hyper-object capable of engaging with different exhibition spaces in different contexts. Each time Die Grenze is installed in a space, it engages with it in a different way, generating new meanings and experiences for the viewers. It is an eloquent illustration of a thesis developed by Homi Bhabha in his introduction to The Location of Culture (1994) who claims that ‘terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively’ and do not stem from pre-fixed identities or traditions.

This brings us back to the issue of definitions raised by the curatorial refusal to dwell on the post-Soviet and to focus on the Europe and Asia divide. The border between the two is not simply blurred, unclear, or as Bhabha has it, liminal. It is not even a question of multiple borders overlapping and obscuring each other in a polyphony (or cacophony) of meanings. It is all about identities, which are themselves fluid, hybridist and de-centred. At the same time the border is there, it is not an illusion or fantasy; it does limit and restrain things, it defines and clarifies; it protects and secures; it is a zone of contestation and a zone of dialogue – and so is identity. The exhibition addresses this issue head-on and challenges the familiar ethnocentric interpretation of identity so common in all ex-Soviet countries, inviting the artists and their audience to reflect on their own multiple and transitional identities.
In a way, the project is not about the border or any boundaries; it is the border itself – an open flexible space for a dialogue and negotiation for meaning.      

Alexey Ulko, born in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) in 1969. Studied English at Samarkand University and obtained an MEd TTELT degree from the University of St Mark and St John (UK). Taught English and Literary Analysis at the Samarkand State Institute of Foreign Languages and since 2003 has been working as a freelance consultant in English, Culture Studies and Art. Has been making experimental films since 2007 and is an active writer about Central Asian contemporary art. Current artistic interests: experimental cinema, photography, visual poetry. Member of the European Society for Central Asian Studies, the Association of Art Historians (UK) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society (USA).  

Bibliography for further reading

Homi K. Bhabha, „The Location of Culture“ https://archive.org/stream/TheLocationOfCultureBHABHA/the%20location%20of%20culture%20BHABHA_djvu.txt
Boris Chukhovich, „Local Modernism and Global Orientalism: Building the 'Soviet Orient' “ https://www.academia.edu/9264637/Local_Modernism_and_Global_Orientalism_Building_the_Soviet_Orient    
Radim Hladík, „A Theory’s Travelogue: Postcolonial Theory in Post-Socialist Space“ http://www.postcolonial-europe.eu/essays/153-a-theorys-travelogue-postcolonial-theory-in-post-socialist-space.html
David Chioni Moore, „Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique“
http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/p/postcolonial-postsowjetisch/is-the-post-in-postcolonial-the-post-in-Post-Soviet-toward-a-global-postcolonial-critique-david-chioni-moore.html
Vera Sidlova, „Viewing the Post-Soviet Space through a Postcolonial Lens: Obscuring Race, Erasing Gender“
www.etd.ceu.hu/2013/sidlova_vera.pdf
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Nancy Condee, Harsha Ram und Vitaly Chernetsky, „Are We Postcolonial? Post-Soviet Space“, PMLA Bd. 121, Nr. 3 (Mai 2006), S. 828-836 https://www.jstor.org/stable/25486358?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents  
Alexey Ulko, „The shift of the paradigm in modern Central Asian art“ https://www.academia.edu/5534113/The_paradigm_shift_in_the_modern_Central_Asian_art