Gathering in Akhalkalaki
December 5, 2016
What happens to rural life when the Iron Curtain falls and hyper-capitalism moves in? Cities are economic engines attractive to younger generations, and in Georgia, settled below the Caucasus mountain range, the typical split between the booming city and sleepy countryside also signifies particular cultural and historical divides. What lost treasures are to be found in the villagers’ homes and lifestyles, which have been abandoned by urbanites? Are there lost relics that speak to the experience of private and social life before and during the Soviet occupation? And what happens now to those who wish to—or have to—stay in the countryside, now that business and resources flow to the capital, Tbilisi?
These questions appear to lead the inquiry into the endangerment and invisibility of rural life touched on by “Future Memory,” the title of this year’s annual Fest I Nova exhibition, the yearly contemporary art festival run by the Art Villa Garikula in Akhalkalaki, a small village an hour northwest of Tbilisi. After a short drive along windy roads through steep, wooded mountains, Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of the next Carnegie International, and I pulled up to the majestically dilapidated 19th-century mansion that houses the Art Villa.
The Art Villa, which, in addition to housing Fest I Nova, also has an artist residency and exhibition program, is run by Karaman Kutateladze, a relative of the Georgian historic avant-garde Dada and Futurist artists known as the Zdanevich brothers, to whom last year’s edition of Fest I Nova, a celebration of the Art Villa’s 15th anniversary, was dedicated. Fest I Nova was founded in 2009 as an evolution of the Art Villa, with a new curator and theme each year, and has functioned as a public event, mostly drawing visitors from the city to explore the rural town, which otherwise wouldn’t garner the attention. As Tbilisi sucks populations away from the far corners of the country with the allure of education and jobs, Fest I Nova becomes an occasion to revisit a peasant heritage from a post-Soviet present.
Kutateladze first arrived to the estate as a squatter in 2000, and that commune-like atmosphere pervades the now-established artist residency and cultural center, with sculptures and other handmade structures placed throughout the expansive, unkempt property, including a makeshift café run by the Art Villa to serve the residents and visitors. While this year there wasn’t a formal show on in the house, we perused a group of pavilion-like objects from previous Fest I Nova editions remaining in the yard, newer and old—some were assembled from refuse, while others were more like slick architectural studies, yet all were seemingly abandoned, spread throughout the knee-high grass enveloping the property. Mixed in with the stone facades of the mansion and horse stables-turned-bathrooms, relics of an agrarian pre-Soviet country, it was unclear what was old, what was new, what was in use, and what was just left over at the Art Villa, something that also applied to the rest of the town. Seemingly frozen in time, Akhalkalaki charms with only a couple of old world roadside general stores, pre-Soviet and some Soviet-era architecture in ruins, and a healthy population of farm animals. Yet it betrays a complex social, political, and economic history, and current reality, that “Future Memory” attempts to dig out.
The walk from the Art Villa to the central venue of the exhibition took us up a windy mountain road. As I stopped to admire a yard full of goats, an intimidating orthodox priest came out of the house and yelled briskly; I couldn’t tell if it was an order to leave his property or an invitation to come on down. Either way, I quickly walked on. With abandoned structures emerging from bucolic scenes, I was enchanted, yet it was difficult not to sense the economic and social isolation of the town in comparison to Tbilisi. Dealing with civil and political unrest as well as mass protests against various forms of government corruption in post-Soviet Georgia—like the well-known Rose Revolution of 2003 and the more recent demonstrations of 2011—most of the artists we spoke to were suspicious of the country’s leadership and economic opportunism, even in this relatively calm moment. In our short time in Georgia, one thing was clear: economic and structural investments are fraught within the capital, and slim to non-existent only 80 kilometers beyond.
Upon entering another romantic estate in disrepair, we found ourselves in what was formally the exhibition’s main venue, the Bolgarski Palace. However, any formality of the exhibition quickly dissipated, as did the expectation to see a traditional exhibition of contemporary art. This year’s curators, Mariam Natroshvili and Detu Jintcharadze, have attempted to integrate the town into the exhibition, in part by leaving the confines—and privacy—of Art Villa Garikula’s property, where it has normally been held. The exhibition claims to mine the past, specifically of this nearly “forgotten” village, which now operates as a sort of time capsule of rural Georgian life before and under Soviet rule. By moving it into a more neutral site, i.e. not Karaman’s place, locals might feel more comfortable to check it out, and by weaving locals into the fabric of the exhibition, the curators intend to give them ownership over a local event that has thus far mostly catered to Tbilisi-natives.
What is private, what is public, what is official, and what is unofficial come under stark assessment with the exhibition. These lines are slippery, making it hard to know what was planned and what was unplanned. The context of Georgia and the construction of the private citizen over the decades are paramount to an understanding of what’s going on, and not only in this exhibition. Many of the curatorial strategies are reflections of how one organizes one’s self in a country that continues to face social and political challenges leftover from the Soviet era, in tandem with the relatively recent influx of late capitalist forces. Putting the private expression of individuals—those who don’t identify as professional artists—on public display points to modes of personalization in spaces beyond social control.
As we enter the first rooms of the rundown house, we are surrounded by a group of children and their parents, captivated as a man leafs through the pages of scrapbooks made sometime in the 1960s. We are told that the man, an anthropologist, found the books in a local woman’s house. Filled with photos of her husband and sons in military uniform, the woman also added her own twist with expressive drawings, collages, and personal notations. What is presumably a self-portrait in markers is surrounded by colorful bubble letters spelling out, in Russian, “730 days without love and tenderness.”
This woman’s prolific family photo albums—filled with emotion and fantasy, most notable in several collages of her sons next to images of attractive women cut out from advertisements—are key to the exhibition. Her private domestic activity takes on a new meaning when understood within the context of the Soviet occupation of Georgia from 1922 to 1991. With many abandoned homes and businesses, the exhibition attempts to “bring back life to the old gathering places of the village” through the particular social occasions provided by contemporary art. The momentary reinvigoration of the rural attempted by “Future Memory” is put in contrast with the gravitational pull of Tbilisi for the rest of the country.
For their contribution to the exhibition, the artist collective Group Bouillon invited local families to display their china cabinets in a series of upstairs rooms, each owner responsible for the display of the fine dishware and knickknacks. The families and their friends mingled with the contemporary art viewers examining their arrangements. After admiring their wares, I swung around the balcony to another room on the side. Sheepishly peering in, with a TV playing loudly, walls plastered with kitschy posters, and loads of stuff piled around a desk, I realized it might not actually have been an installation. Once I glimpsed a group of men off in an adjacent room chatting, I darted out of what I later learned were the offices for the local forest department, who benevolently turned a blind eye to the unofficial presence of the festival.
Loose structures, provisional architecture, and undetermined objects continued to emerge as we explored “Future Memory.” With visitors mixing with locals and a flexible schedule of opening events, as outsiders we were uncertain about what was specifically made for this edition of Fest I Nova and what was already there, or what was scheduled and what was spontaneous—a facet of the exhibition’s integration into the flow of the local community that perhaps continued to unfold as additional events were planned throughout the summer and into the fall.
My confusion at how one was supposed to know the difference speaks to muddled distinctions and the unwrapping of public and private space. The entire town had come under scrutiny; I wanted to open the drawers of the exhibition, as well as those of the forest workers who are not part of the show. Their interior lives had cracked open to the viewer, and I wanted to know more. To be sure, as a foreigner, I was already curious about Georgian culture, but as evidenced by the conceit of the exhibition, even Tbilisi natives found something worth exploring there. We were all lured in.
It wasn’t only people’s personal things in the show, there were also sophisticated and surreal sculptures made by a precocious16-year-old from the village who had early on approached the organizers about his work, and some artists who are well established in the Tbilisi scene. Between all the projects, and despite the range in types of makers, the most notable connecting threads were folk culture and amateurism. Although it isn’t quite craft or folk art that is on display, as with Group Bouillon’s gesture, it’s the idiosyncratic tastes and expression, in part perhaps a reaction to the standardized Soviet Union-issued products that we later encountered in the exhibition’s flea market, as well as in the other markets we saw on our travels through the region.
After a couple of hours spent roaming the estate—and hanging out while people started to crack open beers from one of the tiny general stores nearby—a large group of us migrated on to the next event of the exhibition, the flea market. Half-full, the market was modest and sparsely populated. I bought a few little porcelain bowls and Ingrid purchased some Soviet-issued flatware. I was hoping for more, but it was clear that the flea market, as part of the exhibition’s program, was solely for our benefit. There were only as many shoppers as there were vendors, creating an intimacy that made it feel more like a performance than an actual flea market. Although the vendors surely wanted us to make purchases.
The short-lived market quickly transitioned into cookout. Another group walked to an old winery in the basement of a nearby house which was temporarily brought back to life for the occasion—maybe in response to a broader international interest in Georgian wine in recent years. An old woman started making traditional bread, fired in a special brick pit, and a neighboring family prepped the piles of meat for the barbecue. Sitting on logs, we stayed for a while, realizing that this would go on well into the evening. The food and conversation was a way to merge communities, although the different groups still seemed to stick together. As an official unofficial program, the convivial gatherings of this year’s Fest I Nova seemed to pull the village out in several ways, asking it to perform itself as an integral part of the exhibition. While some tensions were underlying—not fully clear to us as outsiders, but visible in certain comments and looks—the general feeling was of mutual benefit and exposure between the locals and the visitors.
While I can’t speak to the precise reasons for what seems to be a renewed appreciation for country life as articulated by the curatorial angle of “Future Memory,” I wouldn’t confuse it for nostalgia for simpler times. Ties to rural life remain strong cultural markers in Georgia, which even cosmopolitan artists and intellectuals don’t want to completely let go of. What methodologies and traditions can be recovered from underneath the history of Soviet occupation? What creative cross-pollination can occur through the merger of contemporary art and ancient wine making techniques? What can be learned from breaking bread with those who still reside in the village? Sadly, Ingrid and I had go back to the city, so we left on a crowded marshrutka bus before the party got into full swing.