They Kept Shadows Quiet
Opening Reception: October 11, 6-8pm.
Curated by Rui Mateus Amaral
Exhibition Text by Milena Tomic
When Tbilisi-born Vajiko Chachkhiani represented Georgia at the 2017 Venice Biennale, he transported an abandoned wooden hut from his native country to the Arsenale, where it was reassembled piece by piece. In A Living Dog in the Midst of Dead Lions (2017), visitors were barred from entering the two-room dwelling but could look through its large windows and see a perfectly normal domestic space apart from the constant “rain” falling through holes in the ceiling. One might describe what happened to the interior of the house over the course of the Biennale in purely material terms, as an act of controlled destruction by water of various surfaces like wood, glass, metal, and stone. This would reflect Chachkhiani’s strong interest in materials as they pass between raw and processed states. Another way into the work is through its psychic resonance, particularly in how it dealt with the trope of the home, that locus of the Freudian uncanny. Installed at the Artiglierie building, the house didn’t quite touch the floor, its weight distributed on stacked cinderblocks and a three-step stone staircase; this left a wide gap under the structure, as if to signal its apartness from the surroundings, its dreamlike suspension between worlds.
Anyone familiar with Soviet-era science-fiction cinema would have recalled the final scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), a film based on a 1961 novel by Stanisław Lem in which human scientists orbiting a distant planet try and fail to establish contact with the ocean-like sentience that envelops it. In response to the researchers bombarding the organism with radiation, Solaris returns fire by manifesting perfect replicas of people and places drawn from the crew’s repressed memories. After a series of traumatic encounters with his dead wife, the protagonist Kris Kelvin finally seems to have returned home to his childhood dacha in the idyllic Russian countryside, where he meets his father and kneels before him like the prodigal son. But this vision of Earth turns out to be another one of the planet’s illusions, its realism betrayed by the indoor rainfall.
Read through the lens of Tarkovsky’s humanism, the vision of home that Kelvin finds on Solaris conforms to the traditionalist idea of a self-contained world guided by the biological rhythms of a small rural community, its eternal cycle of births and deaths, growth and decay. If the station represents the evolutionary narrative of technological progress, however doomed to fail, the countryside becomes the nostalgic space of authentic creativity and human connection. The uncanny environment that Chachkhiani created and abandoned to gradual destruction in Venice might be read as changing the meaning of this cinematic image: it played up the simulated nature of the alien environment while rejecting any notion of home as a place where one belongs by virtue of ancestry or national identification. In his new exhibition at Scrap Metal in Toronto, his first in North America, the Tbilisi-based artist deconstructs the idea of home and belonging in various ways, going far beyond images of a literal house.
They Kept Shadows Quiet (2018), the eponymous installation commissioned especially for this exhibition, consists of two “interrogation chambers” installed side by side and flipped inside out. These chambers recall border patrol checkpoints where refuges and migrants are detained to await “processing,” and yet their reversal of inside and outside defuses these sinister connotations, as visitors are able to traverse the narrow passage between the two chambers unimpeded. The situation is familiar and unfamiliar at once: not only is the exterior architecture built and painted to resemble the exterior, but the installation also reverses the usual direction of the surveillance gaze by installing spyglass along the walls facing the passage and making the mirrors semi-transparent. Looking out from each room, the figure of authority is partly visible as a silhouette, implicitly menacing yet ultimately powerless to interfere with the passers-by.
In much of his work, Chachkhiani alludes to the rites of passage described by French ethnologist Arnold van Gennep as marking transitions between one life stage and another. Equating border crossing with an initiation ritual—a kind of “right” of passage—They Kept Shadows Quiet recalls the installation from Venice in how it stages a disorientation of inside and outside while “interrogating” the mythology of home as a refuge from the geopolitical upheavals that define the present time. In her recent book on the trope of home in contemporary art, Claudette Lauzon suggests that a conception of home as a shelter from the storm has become untenable everywhere, not just in regions affected by armed conflict and climate change. Interestingly, Lauzon sees the Freudian unheimlich as having limited use for how contemporary artists have been “unmaking” the space of the home over the past two decades. While the traditional uncanny remains a necessary touchstone, the site is increasingly haunted by “unsettled memories of its own incapacity to shelter its occupants from the terrors of the world at large.”
Chachkhiani might have been thinking of something similar when making his installation Endless Ends (2018), which can be seen in different parts of the Scrap Metal space. The materials here are burnt twigs, some of which are brought over from Georgia while others are of local origin. The installation lacks a stable form and just meanders across the walls and ceiling, responding to the shape of the gallery and the arrangement of the other works. Each twig traces a curve, with at least one end affixed to the wall or ceiling. From afar, these arrangements look like drawings made in the air; what remains invisible is the provenance of the wood. The Georgian trees recall an earlier installation shown at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen and titled The Missing Landscape (2014), where Chachkhiani reconstructed a small patch of woodland using dead trees from a region in Transcaucasia ravaged by the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
The physical encounter in the gallery with such things as a forest’s charred traces or an abandoned hut from the Georgian countryside isn’t exhausted by our knowledge of their origins and the traumatic histories they evoke in our minds. I would argue that there is always a sense that these works are defined by their materiality first and foremost, even by a certain ambiguity about their status as “things.” The relevant distinctions come back to the issues of materiality and process. In philosophy since the Enlightenment, the word “thing” has come to designate everything from brute, inorganic matter to technologically complex assemblies of human and non-human actants. In his famous essay on a worn pair of boots painted by Vincent van Gogh, Martin Heidegger defines three varieties of “thing.” The first is the unformed object that comes straight from nature, such an ordinary stone. The second is the “equipment” painted by Van Gogh, or the old shoes worn by imaginary peasants to perform manual labour. The third is the work of art, something formed by human hands yet irreducible to questions of utility.
We Drive Far, You in Front (2016), a single-channel video shot near a basalt quarry, represents all three varieties of the Heideggerian “thing.” Filming in slow motion, the camera remains stationary as five seven-ton rocks are dropped at regular intervals from an undisclosed height. What happens to them on impact depends on the size of the rock and the shape of what it lands on. Some only kick up a little dust as they fall, while others break apart quite dramatically, projecting fragments into the air at a mere fraction of the real speed. Even though Chachkhiani here focuses on stone in the unformed, unprocessed sense of the word, we anticipate the stone being crushed for mixing with concrete or cut to make decorative tiles or façades for human dwellings. The quarry becomes a kind of liminal space where material in its raw state exists on the verge of its “initiation” into another state of thingness.
The materiality and semiotic valence of stone—or, rather, of concrete, a highly processed version of stone intended for human use—returns in the one-channel video projection titled Winter Which Was Not There (2017). Chachkhiani, who tends to work at the intersection of video, performance, and sculpture, often by reproducing the qualities of one medium in the field of another, has spoken about appreciating concrete’s “metaphorical potential,” its connotations of the inherent fragility of human structures. As the video opens, a crane is pulling a massive concrete statue out of the sea as a middle-aged man accompanied by a large black dog silently awaits its retrieval on the shore. At first glance, the heroic statue resembles all those monumental Lenins that once graced innumerable “freedom squares” in the Soviet Union (including one in Tbilisi) and were mostly toppled after the Berlin Wall fell to signal transition to post-communism. A closer look at the statue, however, reveals features identical to those of the man on the shore. There is something rough-hewn about the statue’s face that suggests an amateur’s attempt to self-memorialize in a heroic fashion. Using rope to attach it to the back of his truck so that its face scrapes on the asphalt, the man begins to drive through the countryside, diminishing it bit by bit. The process is slow at first, as the heavy object leaves a chalky trail on the road, but soon it accelerates: when the man starts up his truck after briefly stopping to look at cows grazing on a hillside, the whole head crumbles away in an instant, exposing the steel innards of the reinforced concrete. Only the rope is left dangling once he finally arrives in Tbilisi and his journey ends.
This might be interpreted as a story about the release of a psychological load, perhaps one that comes with a certain dose of humility or hubris. After all, the stone-faced protagonist must drive far to divest himself of his stony lookalike, which drags behind the car for a long time until it finally erodes away. One could also read Winter Which Was Not There as an allegory of post-communist transition, a collective divestment of historical traumas heavily mediated by televised and cinematic images (to give just one example, in Theo Angelopoulos’ 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze, which deals with that era’s Balkan wars, there is a lengthy sequence where a broken Lenin statue is being transported down the river in a barge). I would argue for a third possible interpretation of the work as a sequence of images unencumbered by the heavy load of history or personal myth—in other words, the video might be taken primarily as an exploration of the same material processes that Chachkhiani keeps returning to in his sculptural practice. This reading would emphasize the matter-of-fact way in which the video is shot and edited, which doesn’t particularly reflect a psychological journey. The choice of lead actor also supports this idea because the man’s face is uniquely blank and emotionless, betraying no hint of hidden neurosis.
The protagonist from Winter Which Was Not There makes a cameo in the background of Cotton Candy (2018), another short video included in this exhibition. This time, the protagonist is a young-looking grandmother who takes her granddaughter to the Tbilisi circus, where she appears to undergo her own interior journey whose precise significance is impossible to reconstruct. The video opens with a shot of a round neoclassical building from the Stalinist era perched on a hilltop overlooking Heroes’ Square. There is an inescapable awareness that the circus is an obsolete Soviet spectacle whose days of cultural respectability are long gone, though the problem isn’t the acrobats that are seen tumbling, hula-hooping, walking on tightropes, and swinging on high wires. Chachkhiani also trains his camera on a range of animal performers, from the donkeys that trot around the ring with their heads down as dogs jump between their backs to the muzzled bear “playing” mournful notes on a trumpet to happy cheers from the audience. Whether or not these depressing sights are the cause of her introspective mood, the grandmother starts to have visions of an utterly calm landscape where an old-fashioned house, reminiscent of those seen on the Tbilisi streets in the earlier video, seemingly floats on water beneath a slowly dissipating cover of fog. At the end of the circus performance, the woman buys some cotton candy for the little girl and the two descend the long steps down to the street. What happens next is not fully explained: the final shot of the eponymous treat dropped on the road may or may not indicate that a traffic accident has occurred. In the split second before the camera alights on the fallen confection, the granddaughter appears to pull away from the woman, who is still caught up in her reverie and thus disconnected from her immediate surroundings, perhaps with tragic consequences. The work’s official description lends credence to the idea that the falling candy signifies the woman’s psychological freeing. However, this is clearly not the only way that this sequence of images can be read.
The ultimate meaning of the grandmother’s journey is ambiguous, much like her memory of the old house standing on a body of water—an image that, coincidentally, recalls the real hut Chachkhiani transported from Georgia to Venice, subjecting its interior to a “permanent” downpour and thus conjuring the same dreamlike atmosphere of a purely psychic reality. Nevertheless, there is a concreteness to these projects that belies their apparent concern with psychology and interiority. Cinematic in their scope without being reducible to cinematic modes of visual storytelling, Winter Which Was Not There and Cotton Candy both create images of transition that may or may not be about individual or collective acts of unburdening. All five works in “They Kept Shadows Quiet” show that Chachkhiani understands the fragility of the built structures that surround us, and that he also knows the value of keeping certain things in their raw state, as unprocessed material.
Image: Vajiko Chachkhiani, Cotton Candy, 2018. Still. Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Marzona, Berlin.
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