March 19, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Beyond Berlin, Beyond Belgrade, Beyond Bukhara

Vasnetsov Viktor Mikhailovich. Fight of Scythians and Slavs. 1881. Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Slavs and Tatars is a collective founded in 2006. 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’s multidisciplinary approach lends itself to pointedly agile, delicately poetic works that confront complex and often potent topics.

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  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 second 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

Beyond Berlin, Beyond Belgrade, Beyond Bukhara…

We’re a sucker for names. Our own—Slavs and Tatars—acts as a mission statement of sorts and speaks to many things: from our geographic base (Eurasia) to a set of ideas, affinities, collectives, not to mention the chiseled cheek bones associated with the the region. Of course, when some hear “Slavs and Tatars,” the first thing that comes to mind is a horde of thick-necked raiders—not financial, far for more fearful—on the horizon, ready to rape and pillage. While much of our practice tries to disrupt this caricature, no matter how Braveheart-eque, we don’t exactly shy away from it either…

Opening title sequence from Even Dwarfs Started Small. 1970. Germany. Directed by Werner Herzog

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. What other means is worthy of the complexity of our times? We’ve attempted to do this via a collision of scales: the macro concerns of polemics with the micro ones of poetics; via our geographic goalposts, between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China; and perhaps most importantly via the two great geopolitical narratives of our region, not to mention of the 20th and 21st centuries: that of Communism and Islam.

From left: Revoliutsionnaia khrestomatiia futuristov (Rye-Word: A Futurists' Revolutionary Reader). 1918. Illustrated book with letterpress illustration by Vladimir Mayakovksy on cover. 10 11/16 x 7 13/16" (27.1 x 19.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation; Beyoncé Giselle Knowles

For us, the name of an exhibition or cycle of work acts as an opportunity to bend, explore, and embed ourselves within it as if an unwieldy oracle. For our upcoming Projects 98 show at MoMA, we knew what our installation would be called long before we knew what it would be. Beyonsense brings together the high highs and low lows that are the hallmark of Russia, the avant-garde of the early 20th century, and the promises of modernity itself. Whenever we think of the 1920s—Constructivism, Suprematism, and the like—we tend to fetishize the period as some sort of creative euphoria—of hope and unbridled imagination. Unfortunately, often to our own detriment, we forget the despair and terror that follows such swings of the pendulum. But perhaps most importantly Beyonsense brings together Beyoncé and nonsense in all of 10 letters.

Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922)

If only we could take credit for this gem of a name; alas, it comes from the mind of a young man whose own first name was pure invention: Velimir Khlebnikov. Considered to be the father of Russian Futurism, Khlebnikov was a poet, linguist, and philosopher who, unlike his better-known compatriots (Vladimir Mayakovsky) or competitors (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), looked to history as an agency to plow forward towards the future. Even the name Futurism was too dull a word for him: he preferred the Slavic version будетлянство (budetlianstvo)—roughly translated as ‘futurianism’—to the adopted Latin-root in футуризм (futurizm). Determined to find an atavistic common code for all languages in an effort to unite the world, he looked east to Russia’s Asian heritage as opposed to its centuries-long cultural envy of Europe.

Zangezi by Velimir Khlebnikow. 1922. Illustrated book with lithographed manuscript text and illustration by Petr Miturich on cover. 9 1/2 x 6 5/16" (24.2 x 16.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation

Beyonsense is in fact an obscure, less acknowledged translation of заум or transrational, Khlebnikov’s attempt to unite space and time through an exploration of both the mystical and metaphysical. His travels to Persia and the Caucasus, during the rise of the Bolsheviks earned him the nickname “the Russian dervish.” Like too many of his colleagues, Khlebnikov died at a young age—all of 36. His life became the stuff of such myth and hero-worship that there have been backlashes at several times in the past century, arguing to look at his work and not his eccentric personality. We get particularly seduced when opposites attract. When it came to secularization, Communism and capitalism put aside—for however brief the moment—their ideological spat and engaged in a storm of make-up love called Modernity, the last remnants of which we are still witnessing. The founding trio of modern social sciences—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber—all saw modernity as necessarily secular, the inevitable evolution from premodern, traditional, religious society. Beyonsense will try to flip the switch if you will, lifting the proverbial Persian rug to explore the mystical within the modern. Beyond Berlin, beyond Belgrade, beyond Bukhara. Beyonsense.