“What comes to your mind when you hear the term myth?
The fragrance greeting us each and every morning.”*
Communism and Islam are the two grand narratives of Central Asia, claim Slavs and Tatars, and they go further: “In fact, Communism and Islam are the two most important geopolitical factors of the 20th and 21st centuries.” With the exhibition Not Moscow Not Mecca in the Grafisches Kabinett and an outdoor installation at the Secession, the collective formed in 2006 writes the “autobiography” of a region that is little known in this country and that bears many names: from Central Asia to Greater Khorasan, from Turkestan to Ma Wara’ al-Nahr—Arabic for “the land beyond the river”.
With this exhibition, which is part of a cycle of works with the title The Faculty of Substitution, the artists pursue the theme of self-knowledge in the broadest sense. “Substitution,” say Slavs and Tatars with reference to the title, “means the mental agility needed to develop coordination and equilibrium so that we can tell one story through another.” Not Moscow Not Mecca is the title of the show at the Secession—neither, nor. In their ongoing search for a basis for comparison between cultures, between Orient and Occident, between modernity and Islam, Slavs and Tatars discover similarities between things that seem incomparable. These processes of equation lead to an appropriation and reinterpretation of history, a process at odds with the familiar narratives of the powerful and victorious.
So what do the two large watermelons in the pots by Robert Oerley at the entrance to the Secession tell us? “Watermelons are a caricature, the fruit of the Other. In the USA, they are often used as a racist substitute for African-Americans, in Russia they recall the contested Caucasus, and in Europe the countries of origin of the migrant populations, be it Turkey, North Africa, etc.” Watermelons are also pleasant on the eyes, their surfaces seduce with graphic relish, the red flesh entices. They taste good. “And they are harbingers of spring, of summer. Ver Sacrum!” They embody a call to approach the exhibition at the Secession not only on an intellectual level, but also emotionally and sensorially, an invitation that is repeated and pursued by the “syncretistic shrine” inside the building.
The artistic practice of the collective not only extends across the heterogeneous Central Asian region but also across a variety of media, disciplines, and formats, covering a broad spectrum of different cultural registers. In their primarily research-based works, Slavs and Tatars address issues such as antiquity and the past, the marginal and oft-forgotten, presenting the results of their processes of study in the exhibition space in poetic ways.
Finally, in the Grafisches Kabinett, visitors are met by the “collective autobiography of the flora of Central Asia” that takes the form of a setting transferred from the region. Pomegranate, mulberry, sour cherry, cucumber, persimmon, quince, fig, apricot, and melon, this time in two varieties. “We offer many points of entry to the work,” say Slavs and Tatars, “it’s actually like at a bazaar. We put things on display and visitors choose the level of engagement they want.” Based on the idea that fruit acts as a medium or talisman to challenge familiar notions of oral tradition and setting down in writing, Slavs and Tatars open up issues such as the influence of landscape on memory, or the dichotomy between sacred and profane knowledge, confronting them with the legacy of western modernity.
The fruits in the Grafisches Kabinett are served in bowls to be eaten and are also presented in the form of enormous sculptures. From the branch of a mulberry tree to inflatable watermelons, or a globe with the quince’s uneven surface in lieu of earth’s smooth sphere. Each fruit stands for one or more forms of substitution, be it linguistic, spiritual, emotional, or political. They can be shared and enjoyed by the visitors or considered as objects. But it is also possible to relax on the mattresses from Uzbekistan or to read about the biography of the fruits in the extensively-researched artist’s book edited and designed by the collective. Colored ribbons tied to the branches of a mulberry tree stand for the particularly progressive religious syncretism, including influences of Buddhism and Hinduism, in Central Asian Islam, an urgent alternative to the often rigid view of the faith. For political syncretism, Slavs and Tatars chose a mirror—old, beautiful, half blind. It bears the words “Boxori ye Sharif” (Noble Buchara), in Hebrew. “Boxoro,” another word for the Uzbek holy city of Buchara, also refers to the script of the Jews who speak Farsi, but write using Hebrew characters.
Originally a reading group, the Slavs and Tatars collective was founded in 2006. They travel, they conduct research, they have often lived in Eurasia and will continue to travel and live in the region in the future. “We will dedicate the rest of our lives to this region, and we want to share our enthusiasm for it with others.” Sharing and generosity, then, is a central formula of their artistic work. Humor, they say, is generous because it leads to shared laughter, hospitality is generous, the transmission of knowledge, too.
Slavs and Tatars take a bold approach, mixing popular and high culture, historical and current material, supposedly incompatible levels and registers: “It is crucial to resuscitate the historical. We don’t know of a better way to demonstrate its relevance to people who might otherwise consider our interests in the region or the history as arcane or irrelevant. We use the word resuscitation for a reason: its sensuality, the idea of breathing life into a subject (by placing one’s lips on the mouth of the area of study if you will) points to an affective relationship with an idea or a text.”
Not Moscow Not Mecca is an exhibition that is sensual, humorous, and intellectual at the same time, which is something Slavs and Tatars also wish to be themselves, even as artists: “We want to be both happy and intellectual.”
* from: “Die kürzeste Strecke zwischen zwei Punkten”, Slavs and Tatars in conversation with Franz Thalmair, in: Not Moscow Not Mecca, exhibition catalogue, Secession, Vienna 2012.