November 22, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Other Skies Tell Other Stories

Female pilgrims at the tomb of Bahadur Al-Naqshband, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, 2011. Photo courtesy Slavs and Tatars

Slavs and Tatars is an international collective of artists, designers, and writers, founded in 2005. Through their printed work, installations, and performance lectures, they investigate the spheres of cultural influence at work in the vastly complex regions east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. Engaging a broad spectrum of cultural registers, both high and low, the collective’s projects often take a precise historical moment or geographic location—and its representation in text and image—as a starting point, applying sharp-witted wordplay and visual pranksterism to their chosen theme. Slavs and Tatars’ multidisciplinary approach lends itself to pointedly agile, delicately poetic works that confront complex and often potent topics.</p>

When I first encountered their work, at the 2008 New York Book Fair organized by Printed Matter, I took immediate interest, and have continued an ever-evolving conversation with the group since. In 2012, the many threads of our exploratory discussions will converge in </i>Projects 98: Slavs and Tatars (part of MoMA’s ongoing Projects series), their first solo museum exhibition in the United States. This post is the first in a series leading up to the exhibition, providing a platform for dialogue and proposition, integral aspects of the collective’s process. – Gretchen L. Wagner, Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr., Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books

Other Skies Tell Other Stories

We touched down at Tashkent airport at 3:00 a.m. after a 28-hour trip that took us from Nowy Sacz to Krakow to Warsaw to Riga before finally arriving in the Uzbek capital. A legitimate question could be: Why? An equally pressing question, at least for those geographically challenged, could be: Wait…where?!?

We are slavophiles, and slavophiles, as a rule of thumb, are suckers for maximalism. In this case, it meant a dizzying range of vehicles: from car to bus to train to plane. As we moved eastwards, across a region formerly under Soviet influence, our mode of transport evolved, grew, as if on steroids, and finally got wings and took flight. An entirely different, perhaps less romantic, Slav would have surely opted for a helicopter or yacht instead of our hapless bus or rickety train. Alas, given the cuts in cultural funding, we’ve all got to pick our battles…

We were heading to Uzbekistan as research for our third cycle of work, called the The Faculty of Substitution—replacing one thing for another in the widest sense, from alchemy to al-badaliya, from mystical substitution to the antimodern. What does it mean to adopt the innermost thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and sensations of something, someone, or somewhere else, as one’s own, in a drive towards self-discovery? After devoting the past five years or so to two bodies of work, a celebration of complexity in the Caucasus (Kidnapping Mountains</a>, Hymns of No Resistance, Molla Nasreddin) and the unlikely shared heritage between Poland and Iran (Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, A Monobrow Manifesto, 79.89.09), we are eager to turn the page. The story of modernity is too often told as one of utopias, progress, and hope. We’d like to help round out that picture, as it were, emphasizing both arcs of the pendulum—not only the rational but also the mystical, not only the analytical but also the affective, not only the unbridled hope but also the tempered defeat that follows. In essence, the notion of the antimodern will allow us to excavate perhaps another, resolutely Eurasian understanding of the modern project, one which belies the polarizing noise that sees an irreparable divide between East and West.</p>

Left: Slavs and Tatars. Molla Nasredin. 2011. Offset print, 208 pages. Right: Slavs and Tatars. Wheat Mollah. 2011. Wheat, cotton, and brick

In his book Les Antimodernes</a> (2005), Antoine Compagnon describes the true modernist not as the utopianist who only looks forward (e.g. Vladimir Mayakovsky or F.T. Marinetti), but rather as the “antimodernists,” the somewhat conflicted visionaries deeply affected by the passing of the premodern age. Compagnon traces this particularly equivocal position across 19th- and 20th-century French literature—from Péguy to Barthes—arguing that those who might otherwise appear reactionary are in fact the most robust modernists. As Sartre said about Baudelaire, the real modernist is s/he who goes forward, but with an eye in the rear-view mirror. It’s a commonly used trope: Walter Benjamin describes his Angel of History as propelled forward, with his back to the future, facing the past. And a recent stay in Madagascar helped us discover another, this time linguistic, take: the Malagasy language uses words such as ‘behind’ to describe the future and ‘in front’ to convey the past, a stark contrast to the Indo-European languages we know—be it French, Polish, Persian, or English—where the past is considered behind us and the future ahead of us.</p>

It’s not the first time we turn to this subject: the antimodern has underpinned most, if not all, our work to date, from a small, early piece for the 10th anniversary of the legendary Paris boutique Colette to the more recent Molla Nasreddin</a>—but it’s the first time we’re giving it our full attention. When we touched down in Tashkent, historically the largest city of Central Asia, in the wee hours of the night, we got the news from Gretchen Wagner, Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books, that MoMA had invited us to their Projects series in September 2012. </p>

True to (our immigrant) form, we thought, enough Paris, London, and Berlin, it’s time for a bit of Bukhara, Baku, and Kashgar. And what better institution than the MoMA, where the thorny issue of modernity is locked in its very name, to confront the issue head-on?