The city of Almaty in Kazakhstan recently was the scene of a special exhibit. 'The Transformation of Space in Almaty' was put together by the international collective 'Artpologist' at the Soros Centre of Contemporary Art, and open to the public between the 15th and the 25 of August 2007.
'Artpologist' has three artists and an anthropologist: Gaisha Madanova, Daniel Gallegos, Aminatou Echard and Zhanara Nauruzbayeva. Their exhibit in Almaty had as its subject the hyper-construction and transformation of urban spaces in that city. Its point of departure was local artists' studios. Gallegos and Nauruzbayeva: "The study of the studios just brings to life the city at a micro level."
The exhibit comprised of multi-media installations that used canvas, video footage, photographs and text, accompanied by a 'processual artwork' daily blogs on their website. Documenting and artistically rendering the work spaces of several local artists, the authors essentially drew attention to the transformations in artists' spaces and methods of work from the time of the Soviet period until the present. The world of the artist's studio, moreover, is located in and intertwined with an urban site of indiscriminate demolition and relentless construction activity. The exhibit tells you of a city where busy cranes and metal fences have become iconic of urban transformation. Here, many old buildings and public spaces considered unworthy of preservation are giving way to business centres and elite residential complexes at a frenetic pace. Furthermore, the state-directed aesthetic transformation of Almaty has little room for museums and art galleries.
Nauruzbayeva explains the need for the 'Artpologist' exhibit: "I remember how the director of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art, Almaty, said that it is surprising how all the artists who paint Almaty's urban life always fail to see and portray those metal fences that are everywhere in the city! Indeed, there are many artists who portray the contemporary city but everyone treats the subject of transformation in a romantic way. Among younger artists we have noticed a more urgent concern for their city."
Reviews about this contemporary approach to viewing art in its urban context have been generally encouraging. One reviewer recommended that artists use their work to remind authorities of what makes Almaty unique, rather than turn 'creative encounters' into political acts. But in general, the exhibit has had resonance with an audience concerned about Almaty's dizzying changes. Nauruzbayeva: "People were grateful to us for raising this issue it is something that affects everyone in Almaty."
The exhibit will soon travel to museums and galleries in Europe and the United States.
Forget whats-his-name. For news on Kazakhstan, check out artpologist.net, the multilingual website of a group of scholars and artists studying the contemporary creative scene in Almaty. They write, We will work with artists of three generations trying to show continuities and ruptures that have taken place in society since the break-up of the Soviet Union. One of the members of the group is Stanford anthropology student Zhanara Nauruzbayeva. In an interview, Nauruzbayeva notes intersections between contemporary creativity and its rapidly changing urban context:
"Initially we were fascinated with the artists studios, artists who live in Almaty, you know, what amazing and unique spaces those are. I just feel like there is so much in there and it would be really cool to show them. And this is something to be really proud of. But as we started here on the project we came across this subject of the transformation of the city, the construction and how it changes peoples daily lives and we just thought that we cannot ignore that subject anymore.
Kazakhstan and particularly bigger cities Almaty and Astana have changed a lot in the past 3-4 years maybe, but I feel like this year its particularly strong, its escalating. With construction, transformation of the city is affecting all areas, not only the older areas that are being demolished. And those spaces are being transformed into apartment buildings and commercial entertainment centers, malls, and also theres a huge number of cars here, so lots of roads are being built to accommodate that quantity of cars. What else is the transformation, the construction affecting?""
Wallpaper magazine has been tracking the urban scene in Kazakhstan recently, having featured the new capital Astana on the cover a few months ago. Presently, Wallpaper.com features something like artpological photos of denizens of Astana. Check out Stefan Ruizs beautiful photographs here. Ruizs description of the city cracks me up: North Korea meets Las Vegas.