Thibaut de Ruyter is a French architect, curator, and critic. His latest projects include a traveling exhibition for the Goethe Institute in Eastern Europe and Central Asia entitled “die grenze” (with Inke Arns, MMOMA, Moscow 2017 – Artplay, Saint Petersburg 2017 – Krasnoyarsk Museum Center, Krasnoyarsk 2017, Kasteev Museum, Almaty 2018 and other venues) while his exhibition, “A Song for Europe,” was presented at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London in 2017. His interests are based on new media and their archeology; the relationship between art and architecture (mostly through a criticism of modernity); and, in the past five years, the artistic scene in post-Soviet countries, particularly in Central Asia.
Can you describe the contemporary art scene in Central Asia? What kind of picture does it provide, and what drives you to engage with the contemporary arts in Central Asia?
Well, to begin, I would like to try to avoid the use of the term “Central Asia.” I have been traveling, observing, and studying this region since 2014, and I have to admit that I don’t see many links between the art of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. The political, economic, and social context is much too different in each country to speak about one single “contemporary art scene” from Central Asia. The local contexts are diverse, and the artists reflect that diversity.
The Central Asian countries shared a recent past under the Soviet Union during most of the 20th century and, pretty often, artists refer to that time by depicting figures like Lenin or questioning history. But the Central Asian countries got their independence in the early 1990s! It’s been almost 30 years, and 30 years is an entire generation. The young artists that I met in the region have more to do with the Internet and post-Internet, gender studies, globalization, and neoliberalism than the Soviet past. Many of them speak perfect English, and Russian is not a lingua franca anymore. For sure, all of these countries are still very young, and it’s natural that they “search for an identity,” but it might be time to move on from questions that were highly important when these countries gained their independence but slowly lost their relevance because of brand new geopolitical influences (I will mention China later).
Now, as a curator born and based in Europe, my discovery and encounter with Central Asia was an amazing moment and turning point in my life. After years and years of studying, visiting museums or galleries, and doing projects in the West, I suddenly realized how much the world and art history are more complex than the way I learned it. My Euro-centric perception was narrow-minded and blindfolded. A lot of Central Asian artists play with traditions and identity, and they refer to their country and their everyday life—while in Europe, many artists simply refer to their ancestors, to the artists that have come before them. I couldn’t look at artworks in Central Asia by simply mentioning Marcel Duchamp or the Dadaists; I had to understand that another history and art history happened there. This was a great pleasure because, in the end, it broke all my certainties about my own personal relationship with art. It changed my perception and understanding of where I come from.
In 2015, you curated the “ALUAN” Kazakh art magazine. How many issues have been published? Are you going to get engaged with more publications in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries?
ALUAN was invented and initiated by the great Kazakh artist Gaisha Madanova. Her original statement was simple: there are no art magazines and no art centers in Kazakhstan, so let’s try to put both in one—to make a publication that is an “exhibition on paper.” I really loved her idea, and that is why I accepted her offer to curate it. But I refused to approach it as an exhibition about Kazakhstan. When I visited the country, I spent a lot of time in the former capital, Almaty, and made a quick visit to Astana (it was in 2014, and Astana was still called Astana). When I approached that exhibition, I had to admit that I knew nothing about Kazakhstan—that I had only seen the steppe from the window of an airplane. That’s why the exhibition I curated for ALUAN took Almaty and the art scene from Almaty as a focus. I refused to use clichés and fulfill expectations, and the exhibition showed that Kazakhstan is not only about nomads on horses in the desert, it is also about beautiful cities with a complex history.
Here, in Europe, we regularly get to see exhibitions about “art in …”, the only common denominator for the artists being their nationality and passport. I think this national (and sometimes even nationalist) approach is wrong. Because at the end it’s all about clichés (the steppe in Kazakhstan, ak-kalpak in Kyrgystan, or ikat in Uzbekistan) and not about the reality of art. But such an approach makes it simple for sponsors: the embassies see art as a way of promoting their country abroad and culture becomes an instrument for advertising tourism.
Now, to be honest, there are not enough publications about art in Central Asian countries. Any kind of publications! It’s very difficult to get reliable information, and one mostly collects bits and pieces via the Internet (and therefore very doubtful sources). We need more monographs about the 20th century masters; we need more books and small publications about the young generation; we need more critical texts, essays, and interviews; and, last but not least, more regular pieces of information about exhibitions, events, and festivals. A lot of people use Facebook to publish texts, but Facebook is like a never-ending flushing toilet, and what I see there today will already be long gone tomorrow. Printed matter stays and is used as a reference.
At the moment I also support the online magazine Transitory White — www.transitorywhite.com — a young initiative that explores the former Soviet countries without linking or connecting them with their past.
Can you tell us about the exhibition “Borders” that put together artists from Central Asia and Europe? What goals did you pursue and what outcomes did the exhibition achieve?
The title of the exhibition was “The Border” not “Borders,” because it focused on the border between Asia and Europe, a border that is very difficult to read and perceive—a border that you cross without a passport or a visa. Have you ever been to Vladivostok? It’s one of the most European and Russian cities I’ve ever seen! The exhibition was initiated by the Goethe-Institute, which wanted a presentation of art from Eastern-Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia around the topic of borders… But if you speak about the borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia, between Ukraine and Russia, inside of the Fergana Valley, or with China, you start to speak only about historical, political or economical conflicts, not about art and culture. That’s why we (I co-curated the exhibition with Inke Arns) decided to focus on the presence and existence of Asia and Europe in the whole region and worked along that single border. By the way, have you ever noticed that all the small shops in Almaty are selling Korean kimchi? That Baku has plenty of karaokes to go out in the evening? That a lot of old people in Moscow possess decorative Pialas at home?
The great achievement with the exhibition was, for me, the fact that we had artists from most of the former Soviet countries without linking them to their Soviet past—but with a very timely issue (China is becoming more and more influential in Central Asia, a “New Silk Road” is being built, etc.). But we also had artists living in Europe in the exhibition, artists from Turkey, France, and Germany. Therefore, it was not another “national” exhibition, but a larger approach of a territory that allowed us to show that artists today have a global understanding of the world and of art history. The exhibition existed because it had a serious and important topic, not just because it was a national or regional manifestation. Contemporary art is not a Eurovision song contest!
What is your vision for the development of contemporary art in Central Asia?
What will I suggest for the development of contemporary art? The answer is simple: More. More exhibitions, more independent spaces for art, more books, more catalogues, more magazines, more museums, more grants, more conferences, more lectures, more schools, more summer academies, more sales in the private branch, and more public money to support initiatives, more collectors, more education, more artists, more events and more quality in the making… A city like Tashkent, today, has only two serious commercial art galleries (ZeroLine and Bonum Factum), Kazakhstan has three (Aspan, Esentai and TSE), while a city like Berlin already has more than 300! And the struggle for existence from those galleries is simply tragic, they manage to survive but their future is totally uncertain. The art market is only one example and, as I said before, all the countries from Central Asia need more publications, any kind of publication…
From my side, I’m interested in supporting any kind of initiative that will help the development as long as it will make sense. Because one thing is essential here: you need more, but it doesn’t mean that you have to copy the existing models from the West! It is not because every city on Earth now has a Biennial that you need Biennials in Dushanbe, Shymkent, or Samarkand. You have to be proud of your history and specificities; you need to find specific formats and original ways of promoting contemporary art in countries that are not even 30 years old yet and where most of the public (not to mention the politicians) is not ready yet. I see it as an amazing challenge, it will probably take another generation to exist properly, but the art and artists I see in your countries are hundreds of times more exciting and less cynical than what I see on a daily basis in Berlin or Paris.