Friday, May 22, 2009

If You Can Fill the Unforgiving Minute

An exceptional exchange took place at the screening and discussion at MoMA this past Monday by Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev (many, many thanks again to Barbara London for inviting them to speak). A woman in the audience (later revealed to be a Russian art historian) asked the Kyrgyz couple why they portrayed their homeland in such a negative light in their work. Paraphrasing is always fraught with projection and faulty hindsight, but her argument went more or less like:
I have been to Kyrgyzstan. I have been to Bishkek [the capital], back when it was Fruenze [its Soviet-era name], and it's a beautiful city. Yet in your work you focus only on the negative. Your point of view is so pessimistic. I think you are misrepresenting your country. Why don't you present it in a more positive light?
Muratbek and Gulnara (M&G) have heard such feedback before (mostly from Kyrgyz diplomats though), and so Muratbek was both prepared and very evenhanded in his response. He began by noting that it was not their intention in their work to present Kyrgyzstan in any particular light. Their practice involved doing sociological research, using predominantly documentary approaches, and then through a collaborative process (that admittedly involved a good deal of arguing between themselves) presenting work that attempted to express what it feels like to be in the places or situations featured in their videos and photographs. The fact that they're particularly good at doing this was confirmed by a Kyrgyz woman in the audience who noted that their 3-channel video "Transsiberian Amazons" took her back to those difficult days just after the Soviet Union collapsed so powerfully that she could literally smell what it felt like to be on such a train ride again.

But then Muratbek said something that elicited one of those responses from the audience you never forget...a cheer-filled applause that virtually burst out triumphantly from M&G's friends and supporters who were clearly somewhat anxious about the Russian art historian's blunt rebuke in such a setting. Again, I paraphrase:
I agree with you that Bishkek is a beautiful city. Of this I know. But I disagree with you that this work is pessimistic. In fact, I feel that it is optimistic. To think that in all these situations, through these difficult times, that art can emerge makes me feel very optimistic.
The duality of hardship and hope is a re-occurring theme in M&G's work. From the somewhat surprisingly calm second half of the otherwise very violent video "Revolution" to the very subtitle of their 5-channel piece "A New Silk Road: Algorithm of Survival and Hope," their work has always acknowledged that difficult times always come hand in hand with the opportunity for a fresh start and hopefully a better future. Coming from a culture that was already ancient when Alexander the Great trekked through does perhaps give you a patient perspective on how cyclical life can be, but I will admit to finding a particularly comforting encouragement in how they view the world.

You hear so much in the news these days about our national "gloom." It's tough right now, for many, many people, and possibly going to get tougher before it gets easier. But the only reason to give up hope is to lose sight of the fact that few of the world's true success stories came about easily or via the path anyone could have predicted. Adversity is often an essential element of eventual success. Be willing to fail spectacularly. There is little else worth doing really.

Labels: tough love


Blogger CAP said...

Yes! Another response to the Russian art historian (and nostalgic traveller) would have been to ask why she takes such a subjective view.

5/22/2009 08:43:00 AM  
Blogger Hans said...

Can we see any of their videos online ?

5/22/2009 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


We're working on getting some up. There are two complications in doing so, though. One is that many of their works are multi-channel and meant to be viewed within an installation. The other is one of the central questions about video art online: How much do you post? The entire thing seems too much, but that leaves you with choosing how to represent a complete work with an excerpt.

I liked the way the Getty presented snippets online from the California Video exhibition, but with non-time-based work you don't usually have to compromise this way. It's an ongoing debate in most quarters.

5/22/2009 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger Hans said...

Hello Edward, thanks for the explanation, as this medium Video is so much made for the Internet, and easily to spread, projects could parallel work for an more or less adequate translation for the web. I heard a lot of these artists via your blog and other resources, but the still images alone are often just too fragmented to give an idea of the work. Thanks, best regards, Hans

5/22/2009 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Hans said...

PS Thanks for the interesting video link to the Getty !

5/22/2009 09:51:00 AM  

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