Among the many exhibitions landed in Venice last week, The Union of Fire and Waterat Palazzo Barbaro, Official Biennale Collateral Event and newly commissioned project by YARAT, gives a range of sensations that, room after room, lead the visitor in a immersive time-journey through the bodies of cities and lost stories.
Michele Perna: The Union of Fire and Water presents multiple relations between the histories, the architecture, the lights and shadows of the powerful past and presentof both Baku and Venice, through the works of Rashad Alakabarov and Almagul Menlibayeva. How did you come up with the curatorial concept?
Suad Garayeva: When I was first invited by Aida Mahmudova, the Founder of YARAT and Commissioner of the project, I thought it would have been nice to create a conversation between Baku and Venice, YARAT’s hometown and the town that hosts the show during Biennale. And even before starting the research, I thought it could be interesting because of the many similarities: both were important ports; Venice became decadent and hedonistic, as now it is maybe happening to Baku; many buildings, now inextricable parts of Baku, were realized in Venetian style during the first ‘oil boom’, and today we are living the same spirit of prosperity with the second ‘oil boom’.
When we were searching for a place, we wanted a very Venetian environment because the idea was to infiltrate Bakuvian elements in it, in the same way the oil tycoons were infiltrating Venetian architecture into Baku’s cityscape at the beginning of last century. So I asked myself what happens if we did the same in Venice: whether there would be questions of where these Sufi, Oriental, Islamic elements come from or whether it would be natural. We carried out deeper research and the stories emerged from historical facts and conversations with the artists.
MP: The choice was Palazzo Barbaro, the former residence of Giosafat Barbaro, a Venetian ambassador who travelled to and wrote on Azerbaijani cities in the late 1400s. Can you tell us more about the finding of this special connection?
SG: We found out about this connection during the production period. The Palace is so rich but also quite intimidating: it has its strong history and aesthetics and we knew the works had to be site-specific, not only formally but also reflecting its context. Initially our research was focused on the end of 19th century, because that was a revival period for both Venice and Baku. Palazzo Barbaro was home to Monet, to Henry James, who based his “The Wings of the Dove” on it- the story of Lisa Mukhtarov evokes the character of the novel, Milly, who comes to end her days in Palazzo Leoporelli, as Lisa was forced to leave her palace in Baku and fled to Europe, so it becomes a dialogue between the two palaces as well. The Palace of Happiness, erected for his beloved wife by one of the first oil magnates, Murtuza Mukhtarov, saw Mukhtarov’s suicide following the Soviet invasion and now houses the main marriage registry office.
When we started to study the Barbaro family history, we discovered that Giosafat Barbaro was actually at the court of Shah Uzun Hassan, because he spoke Turkish language fluently, they became good friends and Barbaro stayed by his side until his death. At Barbaro’s return, he published his travelogue, describing the cities and many stories which are now interesting: for instance, he writes about this insignificant but useful ‘smelly oil’ used for fire, four hundreds years before the ‘oil boom’. This was kind of a serendipitous moment and added a completely new dimension to the project: somehow we were visiting Venice, like he visited Baku.
MP: And what about the choice of the artists?
SG: The idea was to have site-specific sculptural interventions and video installations. It was a very natural choice because Rashad Alakbarov works with installations and mixed media sculptures, and he is very interested in oriental history and poetry. Rashad, in a way, becomes the voice from the East that comes to occupy this space.
Whereas for Almagul Menlibayeva, a very talented video artist, the idea was to commission the story of the Palace of Happiness, the early 20th century Baku and of the Mukhtarov love and suicide. Such an intricate story needed to be narrated through video, and that’s why I invited her to tell it in her own particular, immersive and sensitive way. Furthermore, Almagul is from Kazakhstan and one of Yarat’s objectives is to be a platform not only for Azeri artists but also for those from the wider Central Asian region.
MP: YARAT has become an important platform for Azeri artists. How has contemporary art evolved in Azerbaijan after YARAT’s foundation in 2011 ?
SG: When YARAT was founded by Aida and a group of artists, the scene was quite different. There was much love for traditional and modern art, music, literature but contemporary art was not so widely understood. However YARAT started to organize unconventional exhibitions in warehouses, abandoned factories, construction sites, open to a new generation of local artists, bringing new forms of art, like performance, to local audiences, as well as a public art festival which reanimated many places of the city and opened art for interaction with the people. YARAT’s first participation to Venice Biennale in 2013, with the exhibition “Love Me Love Me Not”, attracted larger international attention. Since then, there has been an increasing interest in contemporary art and support for artists: now YARAT has studios and residencies for artists and a gallery that acts as a social enterprise to help them promote their works. We really see the change: contemporary art is perceived in a different way and more people are attracted to it.
MP: The Organization just opened (in March 2015) a brand new Contemporary Art Centre as permanent space for YARAT activities, with you as Curatorial Director. How deep is people’s engagement with YARAT’s new space in Baku and its educational programme?
SG: This Center represents a new home for YARAT and it’s the first of its kind in Baku. It is going to host international artists through a dynamic exhibition programme (Shirin Neshat solo exhibition is on display until June 23rd), but also support artists from the region through its permanent collection, creating a dialogue between cultures. Of course it is open to everyone, everyday, with exhibitions, educational activities, a dedicated library, lecture series, screenings and performances in the auditiorium.
MP: As it’s widely reknown, some artists and curators born in such countries historically far from international artistic exposure, tend to leave looking for it. If so in Azerbaijan, according to your experience, how is YARAT working to stop this phenomenon?
SG: I think this phenomenon is already somehow over, thanks to globalization of the art world and the exposure given by the internet. What we are trying to do is to give Baku its voice on the global map of the art world, to give artists the possibility to travel (Yarat has residencies’ programme abroad, for example at the Delfina Foundation) but also to stay in their home country and choose subject matter which inspires them.
- The Union of Fire and Water, installation view
- The Union of Fire and Water, installation view