In 1859, the Russian author Ivan Goncharov published Oblomov, a book about a man who cannot find a reason to get out of bed. As a result, he spends the majority of the 600-page novel supine: sleeping, dreaming, receiving visitors, reminiscing and weighing the relative benefits of action versus inaction. More than any other novel (that quintessential Russian art form), Oblomov has been cited by authors, critics and academics as capturing the essence of the Russian soul.
It seems only fitting, then, that the ethnic Russian, Kazakhstani-based husband-and-wife duo of Yelena and Viktor Vorobyev open their mid-career survey with an installation that features a nameless artist waiting for a reason to get out of bed. The cot at the centre of the exhibition’s eponymous installation, The Artist Is Asleep (1996), contains the suggestion of a figure, his or her head covered with a blanket. A statement scrawled on the wall behind informs us that he or she will remain there, waiting for just the right moment, at which time we are warned to be ready, for ‘his efforts may result in a masterpiece’. Or not. The Artist Is Asleep was made a mere five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and could be read as an appropriately Oblomovian, tragicomic commentary on the struggle for artistic freedom in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Indeed, that it remains an apt summation of the state of art in Central Asia and much of the contemporary post-Soviet realm makes it an ideal starting point for a show that takes the surreality of everyday life in this part of the world as its primary subject. This condition is heightened by the fact that the country that the duo call home is still led, in characteristically autocratic fashion, by the same Nursultan Nazarbayev who first came to power in the waning years of the Soviet period.
Though they began their careers working in traditional forms (Yelena as a painter and Viktor as a sculptor), the visual language of the Vorobyevs’ collaborative practice is decisively conceptual, with video and photography being their primary medium for documenting the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet life. Bazaar (c.1990–2006), a series of snapshots of improvised second-hand market stalls in the streets of the erstwhile Kazakh capital, Almaty, provides a cracked, sooty window onto the shift from socialist to capitalist economy, capturing citizens’ vain efforts to survive by selling off their meagre possessions – everything from prosthetic teeth to Soviet memorabilia. These photographs simultaneously capture the dawning of a new era, an ambivalent nostalgia and a sense of uncertainty facing the future. That transition is likewise the focus of Kazakhstan: Blue Period (2002–05) and Fence (2004–12). The former is a photographic chronicle of the country’s chromatic shift, told through the painted facades of buildings, from communist red to independent Kazakh blue. The latter traces the dismantling of various symbols of the former regime (the hammer and sickle, the CCCP acronym) and their transformation, as metal objects, into fences demarcating private property, often painted green as a token of the return of religion, in this case specifically Islam, to contemporary Central Asia.
In addition to their interest in daily life, the Vorobyevs frequently reference the history of art. Provincial Hole (Suprematism Lives!) (2001) finds the stringent geometries of the Russian avant-garde in the humble architecture of outhouses in rural Kazakhstan. For Classics Bidding Farewell to the People (1997/99), a performance originally staged on the streets of Almaty and later re-enacted as part of the 6th Istanbul Biennial in 1999 (video documentation of the latter is included in the present exhibition), the artists made paraffin casts of the plaster models of classical sculptures common to Soviet art academies (and their present-day heirs). The artists set the casts on fire and allowed them to disintegrate amid the hustle and bustle of their urban environment – the melting figures a metaphor for the weakening hold of the academy on contemporary art production in the post-Soviet realm, as well as a reminder of the continually fraught relationship between the Western canon and its ‘Eastern’ challengers and followers. (It is worth noting that this exhibition was organized in an art museum named after Abilkhan Kasteev, a landscape painter of great local renown and ‘National Artist of the Kazakh SSR’.) Viewed collectively, the Vorobyevs’ work is a chronicle of a dynamic quarter-century of both continuity and change. In it, we catch glimpses of everyday life refracted through the prismatic processes by which the symbols of the past are adapted or discarded as so much ideological detritus.
First published in Issue 177