TBILISI, Georgia — This week in Tbilisi, there are two exhibitions worth checking out. They make a nice pairing for an afternoon, as the first deals with public memory while the second is a very intimate examination of hidden experience. Both are singular in that they reflect life in the Caucasus region yet have universal relevance.
RE: Museum, showing at the Georgian National Museum’s National Gallery, was initiated by the Goethe Institute of Tbilisi and developed by Wato Tsereteli, director of the Center of Contemporary Art – Tbilisi (CCAT). He commissioned two artists, Sabina Shikhlinskaya from Azerbaijan and Vahram Aghasyan from Armenia, to co-curate 14 other artists for an exhibition reimagining a national museum. Over several months, the 17 participants, working with the Georgian National Gallery and its extensive archive, were given one set of instructions: “You are the director of the museum, you have access to everything. Make a laboratory relating to the future.”
As in any show with 17 artists and laissez-faire direction, the results are mixed — but there are more successes than duds.
The real winners in RE: Museum are the artworks that take an interesting artifact or fact of history and place it in a new context. There is a real human desire to look at neat stuff and have interesting stories told to us, but the way most museums’ structures have evolved has made attendance a chore (or a place for children), rather than seizing imagination and spurring thought.
A particularly striking example of this is “Medea’s Garden” by Mamuka Japharidze, which features ancient jars of pickled poisonous snakes in lovely vitrines on a plinth, with a projection showing the Colchian forest shot through and behind them. The installation relates to the story in the Argonautica Orphica that recounts the poisonous and healing plants of the Colchian forest, and points out that the Georgian words for poison and medicine come from the same root.
Also interesting, but more academic, are the artworks that make the viewer aware of the box-inside-a-box aspect of museums. Aghasyan’s “Museum of the Revolution” consists of a two-walled wooden shelter that looks like a hut from the front and a barricade/reader’s corner from the back. The text on the front informs the viewer about a revolutionary museum in Yerevan that was erased from history and the early Soviet idea of reader’s huts.
Tsereteli told me that the primary purpose of the show was to decolonize the museum — to make us aware of the obligations that the space of a museum imposes on us — and to return it to its original function as a place of muses. His tongue-in-cheek work underscores this: Tseretli framed a photograph of a room being remodeled at his current work in progress, the CCAT. Putting a picture of his future exhibition space/school in the show was the only way he could get the Goethe Institute to provide funding to build it. It’s a neat trick that accomplishes the goals of the exhibition nicely.
A 25 minute walk over the river, through a rundown neighborhood full of bridal dress shops, brings you to Tbilisi’s only contemporary art gallery, Nectar. Unmarked and without a sign (this seems to be something that just happens in Tbilisi — it was the third establishment I’d been to that day without a shingle out front), the gallery is currently showing Supra of Her Own by Polish PhD anthropology candidate Agnieszka Dudrak and Georgian artist Tamar Chabashvili, sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (the Germans are doing an excellent job funding arts in this region) and the Mondriaan Fund. Supra is a Georgian word that means both tablecloth and feast. In Georgian culture, supras are special tablecloths that are held onto as family treasures, despite the stains and tears and mends they accumulate.
The entire space of Nectar has been taken over by old supras, which are strung up as walls to recreate the floor plan of a house. The viewer must navigate the supras to enter the successive “rooms.” On each supra are fragments — embroidered, written on, and sewn — of stories of domestic violence recorded by the artists in Georgia. These oral histories range from acts against children or newlywed women to sustained violence that’s lasted decades.
Chabashvili has created different canvases for the words, some in a graphic, manic style of repeating words relating to cycles of abuse, others with cheerful-looking rose embroideries that contain an ominous phrase about the first acts of violence perpetrated immediately after a wedding. They are stunning. Also jolting is the fact that the women who told these stories donated the supras, which now have their stories embedded in them.
Capturing stories in this way is visually arresting and effective. The act of seeing the words and the stains made by perpetrators, victims, and accessories — and having to touch them in order to move through the show — made the experience more visceral than visual art and text alone could. The writing is in Georgian and Chabashvili translated for me, but I think the show could work without knowledge of what exactly was written, as abuse is a universal experience. I asked if the artists planned to take the exhibition elsewhere, but they said they were afraid of a Western reaction of seeing this as an exotic problem of the East rather than a general human failing.
RE: Museum continues at the Dmitry Shevardnadze National Gallery (11 Shota Rustaveli Ave, Tbilisi, Georgia) through the end of September. Supra of Her Own continues at Gallery Nectar (16 Agmashenebeli Ave, Tbilisi, Georgia), through July 31.