It needs more salt, I thought, sipping from the chilled ayran served in traditional copper cups as part of Afteur Pasteur, art collective Slavs and Tatar’s New York gallery debut at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Flattened by the beer and wine that had been served at every other opening that evening, my palette hesitantly awoke to the ayran’s yogurt-heavy essence; however, the untimely nostalgia of experiencing such texture and flavor that are fixated to childhood and home caught me off-guard. In an exhibition in which bacteria stands to symbolize the Other and the foreign’s intrusion into hygienic territories (as the press release points out), I immediately felt estranged for being familiar with the beverage that is so common in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Returning to New York following their ambitious 2012 Museum of Modern Art project Beyonsense, Slavs and Tatars come on in full force, filling both floors of the gallery with their irony-imbued mixed-media work. Political and social satire, heavily relying on multifaceted puns, peculiarities in translation, and cultural parallelisms, remains at the core of their practice, in which they recurrently scrutinize Eurasia, a dispersed land they define as “the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” From pinning down the mutual history Iran and Poland share (members of the collective include an Iranian and a Polish artist, both of whom choose to remain anonymous) to investigating the semiotics of modern Turkish, their areas of interest span a broad range, though their subject matters swiftly intertwine and compact into intriguing narratives through pertinent details.
Take, for example, “Milk Champagne,” a striped PVC curtain one could possibly come across at a butcher shop, here hanging at the entrance to the first-floor gallery with kumis written on it in Cyrillic letters and “Milk Champagne” below that in Latin. The comparison is being made between champagne, a symbol of wealth and sophistication in Western culture, and kumis, the fermented yogurt beverage commonly made from mares’ milk in Central Asia that is similar to ayran. Beyond this door is a selection of sporadically installed works, among which woolen carpets spread on U.S. Army cots stand out. Tongue-in-cheek expressions such as “bare back-teria,” “biz kimiz” (“who are we?” in Turkish), or the Hebrew word khametz, meaning “leavened” but also the origin of the word kumis, are stitched onto carpets whose shapes range from traditional to unconventional. Next to one that has a breast on each side, another carpet silhouetting a hand pointing its index finger aptly accompanies microphones similar to those politicians use to appeal to crowds, though in this case they are fully dysfunctional.
While the collective benefits from the phonological and symbolic profusion different languages offer, objects and sociocultural gestures, both being symbols of power and heritage, provide vast possibilities in which function and familiarity slowly haze, evolving into new visuals specific to Slavs and Tatars. Known in some places as the “fig sign,” the gesture of protruding the thumb through the index and middle fingers in a fist is considered vulgar in Eurasian countries, but the collective’s mirrored version humorously boasts a pickle instead of a thumb.
Up on the second floor, the scene stealer is “PraySway (blue),” a functioning swing made of turquoise prayer beads decorated with a bullet on each side, which viewers are invited to climb onto. Perfected by a fringe sweeping the floor with each swinging guest, this replica of the Middle Eastern accessory commonly used by men both to signal religious devotion and as a demonstration of masculinity evolves into an article of ridicule. The whimsy and farce inherent to swinging on such a cultural token, blown up and debauched, only elevates the absurdity of doing so within the confines of an art gallery, where touching art, let alone sitting atop it, is strictly prohibited. Surrounding this participatory sculpture are works from the Tranny Tease series: vacuum-formed plastic plaques decorated with text and iconography from various languages juxtaposed together. Russian, Hebrew, German, and Arabic decode, merge, and ultimately regenerate to examine and subvert cultural and political hierarchy. Thus, stripped of their utilitarian and didactic essence, letters evolve into emblems of sociopolitical mockery on a global scale.
The Kitab Kebab series, on the other hand, furthers the collective’s interest in reinterpreting the canon, rebelling against the steadfast depictions and distinctions of Eastern and Western ideologies. In it, literary essentials from countries the collective’s work constantly refers to are pierced by traditional kebab skewers. Monumental yet now illegible other than their spines, these books that hypothetically would never unite are now adjoined with the aid of an essential cooking tool, while the analytical thinking commonly associated with the Western perspective substitutes for the ground beef.
Immersed in cultural and lingual elements from a vast yet often overlooked part of the world in Eurocentric discourse, the exhibition swiftly interweaves subtleties uniting and diverging these cultures. Rather than striving to rationalize or clarify these nuances for larger audiences, Afteur Pasteur resumes the collective’s humorously inquisitive tone that eschews answers for the sake of more questions.
Slavs and Tatars: Afteur Pasteur continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22.