Once Upon A Time: The Storyteller Vajiko Chachkhiani

The artist explores the influence of myths and tales on present-day Georgia at Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn

Georgia’s history stretches back to a time of ancient myths. It is the land of Prometheus, who was chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. It is the land of the golden fleece, which was stolen by Jason, with the assistance of Medea and Orpheus. Georgia is permeated with these tales, but how do they influence life there today? As is palpable in his extraordinary exhibition, ‘Heavy Metal Honey’, the artist Vajiko Chachkhiani – who is based in his hometown of Tbilisi – has studied this question for years.

At the exhibition’s entrance stands a replica of the marble statue of Orpheus that Baccio Bandinelli made in 1519. Chachkhiani’s version, Orpheus, Secret That Mountain Kept (2018) is studded with wedges that are used to divide stone, pointing to the never-ending process of fragmentation, displacement and reuse that is operative in
the dissemination of myths. Following Chachkhiani’s orpheus is the installation Secret That Mountain Kept, which lls an entire room and introduces the biblical motif of the flood. According
to the book of Genesis, Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, not far from present-day Georgia. In 2015, Tbilisi experienced flooding of biblical proportions, which claimed several lives and saw a number of animals escape from the city’s zoo. For Secret That Mountain Kept, Chachkhiani constructed a series of racks from the metal bars that once caged these animals, interlacing them with a number of vertical sticks tipped with upturned gourds, their forms not dissimilar from those that were used to store wine in mythical times. (Some of the earliest evidence of wine production has been unearthed in Georgia, dated around 6,000 BCE.) between the bars are wooden sculptures of fugitive animals entangled in thickets of branches, as well as a carousel car that was carried away by the flood and got caught in the mud.

Vajiko Chachkhiani, 'Heavy Metal Honey', 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Kunst­ und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH; photograph: Peter­-Paul Weiler

At the centre of the installation
 is a kiosk, reminiscent of those that appeared throughout Georgia as the private sector developed in the 1990s. While they resemble ramshackle huts
– built from boards, sheet metal, found doors and glass panes – these structures were the veins through which the Georgian capitalist economy owed. Today, they have disappeared from the streets but, as harbingers of capitalism, they too have taken on a mythic status.

The film Winter Which Was Not There (2017) depicts a crane fishing a statue from the sea. Gradually, it becomes clear that the statue is of
a man who is standing on the beach. he then ties the statue to his pick-
up truck and drives off. As he travels through the Georgian landscape, the concrete disintegrates until all that remains is the chain that once fastened it to his vehicle. The film is a striking allusion the figure of the dictator, namely Joseph Stalin, who was born in Georgia and whose statues and spirit linger throughout the country.

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Heavy Metal Honey, 2018, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Daniel Marzona, Berlin

Heavy Metal Honey (2018) is a shocking piece of cinema. It depicts a large Georgian family sitting around a dining table, conversing animatedly. Suddenly, rain begins to fall on the interior scene, saturating everything and everyone, but the family continues its discussion as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Only the mother acknowledges the downpour. She leaves the room and, after some time, returns with a pistol. One by one, she shoots everyone except her son, who she does not have enough bullets to kill. The film cuts to the mother, lying in bed with an intravenous drip, either dying or, unlike her family, being kept with the living.

What is the film trying to say through this horror? Is it a dream, an escape from death or revenge for the fact that man is mortal while myths live on? Heavy Metal Honey leaves these questions open because, like ancient myths, there is a plurality of possible interpretations.

Vajiko Chachkhiani, 'Heavy Metal Honey' runs at Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, until 14 October 2018.

Main image: Vajiko Chachkhiani, Winter which was not there, 2017,  video, 10:40 min, film stills. Courtesy: the artist and Daniel Marzona, Berlin

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018

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