In this essay, artist Alexander Barkovsky writes about his comfort zone, his attempts to escape it, and the reasons why he ultimately had to return to it.
An artist must deceive everyone for the sake of his path—this is a struggle, but first the artist must find his own way, and this path should start from the heart, or else the artist will only deceive himself all his life, and this is a false and destructive path. We live in a world of deception; art itself is a deception, so an artist must learn from childhood to deceive everyone, everyone but himself. An artist can only deceive himself when everything is going very badly, when everyone has turned away from him, when there is no money, no women, nothing to eat, paintings are not selling… At this moment an artist can deceive himself, quietly whispering to himself, “Everything will be fine!”
Alexander Alexandrovich Barkovsky (born in 1979) is an artist from Uzbekistan who paints and makes photo collages. He is a participant in many prestigious exhibitions, namely Moscow Youth Biennale, Sotheby’s, Art Dubai, Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, etc.
Series “Place on Earth”, 2013. Offset printing, paper, watercolor, gouache.
My name is Alexander Barkovsky, I live and work in Uzbekistan, and I am an artist.
I am 42 years old and by this age I have realized several very important things. I know where in my neighborhood to buy the most delicious pilaf cooked on a wood fire, and not on gas, as is now commonplace. I give 15,000 Uzbek soms and in return, I get a serving of the best pilaf, achuchuk salad (salad with sliced fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions), a quarter of lepyoshka (bread), and tea. Sometimes the cook adds more carrots and kishmish (raisins) for me; he knows what I love. In general, I think that in order to protect the national idea from encroachment by Western brands such as Burger King or KFC, it is necessary to write in the Uzbek constitution that according to the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, every citizen of the Republic of Uzbekistan has the right to one portion of pilaf, tea, lepyoshka, and achuchuk salad.
I also know where they sell the best samsas, with the finest dough, tender juicy beef, and real lamb fat, instead of internal fat, which instantly hardens and turns white as wax. This samsa does not even burn in the tandoor, so its base does not need to be rubbed on a metal grater to peel off the burnt dough. And the Uzbek samsa absolutely should be included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
And if you walk to the Kadyshev bazaar, then inside the bazaar you can find a very small cafe where they make amazing shashlik. The liver (dzhigar) is especially great there, but you should always specify whether you would like it roasted or with blood. Personally, I prefer it with blood because the shashlichnik (the cook who prepares the shashlik) buys the meat from a butcher two meters away who immediately cuts the carcass into pieces. To wash down a shashlik with green tea No. 95 with delicious orange Uzbek lemon and sugar is a special pleasure. You can ask for anything from the bazaar and the waitress Shoira-hon will immediately bring it for you. I usually order three different skewers of shashlik, liver with blood, balls—this is when ground beef filling is rolled into a small ball and subsequently wrapped in a thin layer of strips of lamb fat. The fat is fried on the grill and transparent drops flow onto the sliced onion rings. Mutton is not always soft, so you need to check with the shashlichnik if the lamb is soft today. Generally, Uzbekistan is a country of specificity and the creation of very subtle connections. You pass by some person and if he sells something, he will tell you: “Oh! Brother, I haven’t seen you in a long time, you’ve probably had a lot of work? What do you want today?” and there you are already standing and thinking about what you’d like today, and he already has a full bag on the scale and you only have time to clarify—“Fresh?” Of course, everything is always fresh, juicy, and tender, there are no clear equivalents anywhere, top class, original and solid chocolate, meat chocolate, persimmon chocolate, and even chocolate-chocolate, and if you don’t believe it—“Try it! Brother, take the liver! Chocolate liver! The liver is like a girl today! Brother! Buy cheese! The cheese is generally very delicious, unique, as if we didn’t make it!”
Also, Uzbekistan has the worst vodka in the world, and its seller is like an oracle—a shaman, on whose advice your life depends, will you wake up tomorrow and who will wake you… Typically, I buy cognac made by Uzbekvino—it is called “Uzbekistan.” One day I went into a store called ALKO-MIR and asked the seller, “Brother, is there Uzbekistan?!” The seller replied “No, there is no Uzbekistan!” I turned around and began to leave, but he caught up with me with the words: “Brother! Brother, I’m sorry, Brother! Uzbekistan is there! There is Uzbekistan!!! There is no cognac ‘Uzbekistan’…”
Series “Gypsy Madonnas”? 2010. Lithographic printing, paper, watercolor, tempera.
So, I am an artist and over the past seven years I have had two solo exhibitions in Uzbekistan. The first was at the airport before the pandemic, when I flew to Dubai on the invitation of a gallery. At the airport, the customs officer—an SNB officer (an employee of the former KGB)—asked me to pay an additional fee for the paintings (in Uzbekistan, there is a law that after three months, you pay a fee for an examination of your paintings and you are given a certificate to show that you are actually the author of these works, but this certificate is only valid for three months. Then you need to pay again for the same paintings, so that experts will again confirm your authorship of the same works).
I think this is a very original system. I came across similar schemes when as a child, near school, I was met by bullies and told that it was necessary to save some kind of district authority, which was held by the cops, and they needed just 10 kopecks more, which was conveniently the amount of money that my mother gave me so that I could buy myself a bun and tea for lunch. At the airport, when I was passing through customs control, I was stopped by an employee of the SNB (former KGB) with the question “What’s in the box?” I said paintings, he asked for the permission to export, but it was not there and he ordered me to open the box. I opened it and began to put all the paintings on the floor, and it turned out to be a personal exhibition at the airport, where the SNB was the curator and the other passengers were the audience. The SNB looked at all the paintings, was silent and twirled a cigarette in his hand, then turned to me and asked for a light. I took out a lighter, held it to his cigarette, and struck the flint with my finger, but it didn’t light, and it didn’t light again, and it didn’t light again. The SNB officer figured out what was happening and said to me, “If it lights now, I’ll let you pass with your picture! But if it doesn’t light up, we’ll confiscate everything as contraband, don’t you agree?” “Yes, I agree!”
My next solo exhibition took place in Uzbekistan only two years after the airport exhibition, and it was an exhibition on the presidential highway (this was the pinnacle of my artistic career). It happened by accident. Due to the lack of space in my studio, I decided to move some paintings to my mother’s apartment, in the Hospital Market area along the Presidential highway (this is the name of the asphalt along which the president periodically passes during the day). I carried my work in a large black folder (it’s a special folder for artists to carry paper), and well, it turned out that I was walking on the sidewalk to my mother with a folder on my shoulder along the most beautiful road in Uzbekistan just an hour before the most important person in Uzbekistan was supposed to drive on it. On the sidewalk, every 10 meters, there was a beautiful policeman, each of whom asked—and many of whom even demanded—that I stop (which was especially nice, because it’s not every day that you meet such surprisingly greedy citizens interested in art. It was then that I noticed that the deepest, most curious, and most eagerly interested audience of the artist is customs employees, the prosecutor’s office, and the police). On that day, my work was examined by about 50 policemen. When I asked what they liked the most, the answer was largely that they liked the folder.
Series of graphic works “Gracious Jihad”, 2016. Paper, watercolors. Co-authored with Sergei Yurtaykin and Alexander Nikitin.
Today, if you are a little-known non-conformist artist living in Uzbekistan, and you are about 40-70 years old, then most likely, with a 99% probability, you will die in oblivion, and your works will end up either at a flea market or immediately in the trash. Unfortunately, the Savitsky museum died together with Savitsky and now no one in Uzbekistan engages in searching for little-known good artists and buying their works from them. Now is the era of corporations, institutions, and state propaganda ideologies. They have very successfully occupied the place formerly held by the church and the wealthy royal clans. The birth of hipsters and TikTokers is just a reflection of the state of modern cultural processes. People don’t go to exhibitions; people go to brands. Goethe-Institut is a brand, British Council is a brand, Imperial Academy of Arts is one and the same. Brands do not form a cultural environment; brands form an “electorate” located in a “global discourse” in which you are taught what to look at and how. The artist in this discourse, like exhibitions, is formal and secondary, necessary only for decoration, for general content. If I hold an exhibition of a genius non-conformist artist in their yard and exhibit their “art-bru” or abstractions, then a local police officer will come and shut down the exhibition and no blogger will write about it, unless the artist opens his veins as a political activist or is stabbed by religious radicals. Maybe I should write “exhibition” in quotation marks, because no one needs exhibitions now, but only content that is promoted by corporations and institutions: feminism, LGBT, social projects, global warming. If these projects are promoted by Western foundations, then they are interdisciplinary projects about tolerance and the global environmental, political and humanitarian crises, migration or gender issues; if these projects form local pro-state institutions, then the projects are associated with the revival of national ideas, eternal values, the cultural heritage of ancestors, and traditional handicrafts. Now if you ask anyone—everyone makes projects, just no one draws on paper anymore. So where should a non-conformist artist go today, when his comfort zone in his small room is no longer cool and artistic, when the non-conformist artist has ceased to be a romantic and competitive figure, when the artist is only interdisciplinary, only institutional, only a brand and you will not prove anything to anyone, they will stupidly bypass you at the reception, moving any potential interest away from you? No grants for you, no halls, no patrons; as Solzhenitsyn wrote—“Do not believe, do not be afraid, do not ask! Regardless, they won’t agree!” And what remains today for a non-conformist artist who stands between the eternal choice: “bite or lick?” The non-conformist artist today needs to become flexible and do both, but only as controlled absurdity: it’s most important to stay in his comfort zone, where he can bite the air and lick the wounds to the heart, dying of self-pity; it’s most important to continue to act steadfastly, no matter what. An artist should not focus on career and professional growth; an artist should focus only on art, and the only growth for an artist is spiritual growth, and the only path for an artist is liberation and immortality.
Series of photo collages based on old Uzbek prewar and postwar photographs. “Tales of Power”, 2012.
The Internet today can help the artist immensely, both to obtain necessary information and to communicate with other artists. An artist can organize for himself, not just virtually, but through any medium that he likes, write texts, speak at Zoom conferences, upload his video art to YouTube, sell paintings, participate in online auctions, and much more. Another problem, in addition to hipsters and TikTokers, is bots, which we now need to somehow adapt to; they will dislike your content on YouTube, and the bots will remove all your video art as extremist, then the bots will see your comments as violating the rules of the bot community and the bots will disable you from participating and being able to publish, but they will never disable you from advertising. Currently, many non-conformist artists hide from bots in secret chats on Telegram, but this will not last long: Usmanov bought “contact” from Durov, sooner or later corporations will completely control our dependencies with the help of robots. Therefore, the first thing we should do is quit smoking, well, and gradually overcome our addictions. The second thing is to learn how to plant tomatoes and bake bread yourself, and not go to the supermarket for it, because since the pandemic, it has become clear that all this postmodernism—with all the Foucaults, Guattaris, Deleuzes and Baudrillards—will not save you, but nature will save you and knowledge will save you, not philosophy. May strength be with us!
I am an artist and I live in a schizophrenic world, in which the norm is to have an army and maintain a militia, and I, as an artist, must decide for myself, while defining my path in art, whether art can be apolitical or not. I sometimes take a taxi in Tashkent, and the taxi drivers are mostly former military or police officers who retire at age 45-50, very talkative people. During the trip, they are very interested in your life, as civilians, not according to protocol. They eagerly listen to everything that you tell them.
Taxi driver: Bro, tell me the truth, honestly! The black square is screwed up or a normal picture?!
– Yes, you’re a rational man, of course it’s screwed up!
Taxi driver: Brother, excuse me, can I ask you something? I see that you’re an artist, so why don’t you leave Uzbekistan, then???
Taxi driver: Brother, what do you do in your life?
– I’m an artist! An artist?
– Brother, can you draw on my house, on my wall, on the great hall, how a camel goes through the desert?
I ask them: “Don’t you know anything about life?” They say: “No, man, we did not live at all, we got up at five in the morning and went to the training ground with a machine gun, so all my life I ran around the barracks on orders…” And now the state supports such a person, feeds him, the time comes, and he starts a family, has children, because he is looking for meaning in his meaningless life. He will be given an apartment, and then a pension. At the same time, I am a partisan in this war—a pirate without a homeland, without a family, without state titles and awards, a pirate and an eternal wanderer in search of the beautiful and elusive. I was thinking, what if we lived in a different world, like this, you meet a person on the street and say to him, “I heard that Navalny is dying in prison, and Putin built a palace for himself for a billion?” And the person responds, “Navalny? Putin? Who’s that? I don’t know any of them, brother… since my childhood, I have spent all my time in the mountains and forests on sketches, and on installations, here, brother, such a thing, then one festival in the sand, then another on the sea, then ‘Burning Man’ in America, I need to prepare, I’ve been running through the biennale all my life, my whole life, brother, in the workshop and passed like one day, I didn’t even have time to have children, right now we are recording a new album on vinyl in the studio, so, sorry, I’ve got to go.”
All of us, if we don’t change this world, can at least imagine that it can be different, without the military, lawyers, police, bankers, and KGB.
PMC “WAGNER” “Russian World”, 2015. Gold embroidery on camouflage fabric, applique. Wooden icon cases.
In 2001, I experienced a severe psychological episode and realized that I could not stay in Tashkent for a day longer. To go to Moscow, I needed money. I met a concubine in a bar and she gave me an order for a painting: I had to paint her lover on canvas with oil paints (he was a Georgian named Dito, about sixty years old). It was necessary to include many different features of his life in the picture: the fact that he was soaring in the clouds with her, cufflinks on his shirt, a cigar in his hand, a bottle of kefir in the other hand, just below the clouds, the players of his favorite club “Manchester” running on the soccer field, and on the side, in the upper right corner, the logo of his favorite TV channel, NTV. I drew all this and I did it very well. Angela (that was the name of the concubine) liked it and she paid me $100. This money was enough to buy a ticket, and there was still $20 left for my first trip to Moscow, or so I thought at the time (it was only enough for a taxi to get from the airport to the city). I collected all my paintings in a large cardboard box from under the refrigerator and flew to Moscow, where I lived for four years. The purpose of my trip to Moscow was to gain new knowledge in the field of contemporary art, which I could not do here in Uzbekistan.
In Moscow, I tried to get any job. I lived in a dorm in Stroganovka, on Alabyan Street, near the Sokol metro station; now Moscow City is there, it seems. And so every morning I woke up, ate a packet of Rolton, and came up with some super idea. One morning I came up with the idea that I absolutely needed to get a job as an artist at Mosfilm. “Brilliant,” I thought, and went to the Kievskaya metro station (I can hardly remember the name of the nearest metro station to Mosfilm, since it was 2001). I remember that from the metro, you still needed to take a trolleybus. I went to the entrance, but the guards did not allow me to enter the territory of Mosfilm and, pointing to the phone, told me to call the list that hung next to it. It was a list of all the studios that were located on the territory of Mosfilm. I began to call and say the same script: “Hello, I’m an artist, I want to work for you.” They all refused me and I decided that this was not a conversation that should be had over the telephone, so I needed to get inside somehow and have a personal conversation, and then I would definitely be successful and I would definitely be hired and my life would change. I went outside and strolled along the long fence, beyond which was a beautifully manicured lawn with trimmed grass. There were several men doing yoga on the lawn; there were no guards. I looked around: it seemed like no one was looking at me, so I decided to climb over the black cast-iron fence. I calculated all the movements: first, I threw my backpack, then one, two, three and I climbed over, picked up the backpack, and just had time to raise my head as these cute harmless hippies who were doing yoga on the lawn immediately pinned me down and dragged me to the basement. It turned out that this was Mosfilm security. In the basement, they put me on a chair and, quite naturally, like in an American movie, they fastened my hands behind me with handcuffs, but not fake ones. They started to interrogate me, and the first question they asked me was, “Are you a terrorist?” “Me? No! What makes you think that?” Then they began to rummage through my backpack and found my passport: “Uzbekistan? Are you Muslim?” “Yes, what does that have to do with anything?” “What are you doing here, why did you climb through the fence?!” I told them in general terms that I was an artist, that I wanted to work in Mosfilm, and I wanted to go through the studios and personally, so to speak, introduce myself, I have an album with photos of my work in my backpack…… and you tied me up so tightly and then put me in handcuffs. The guards continued their questioning: “Do you have anything to do with today’s events in America?” “With what events?” “Don’t pretend, tell me, are you connected or not?” “Yes, with what events, I have no idea, I live in a dorm, I don’t have a radio or TV there.” I was held for about two hours, fingerprinted, photographed in full face and in profile, then taken out through the entrance to the street and released. It was September 11, 2001.
Then I returned to Tashkent, to my comfort zone, and began to work a lot, experimenting with photography and video art. Then there was the first Sotheby’s in London and the first sale for a large sum of money, after which people older than me by 5 and 30 years began to tell me, upon buying pictures from me, “I hope that when you die, I can sell your work for millions…”
I felt that everything had changed around five years ago, when, at rock concerts in Tashkent, musicians began to complain to the guards about my behavior and my dancing. Тhis happened consistently—I was either taken out by the guards from the institution or the police—and I stopped going anywhere. My best friend is a shashlichnik in my neighborhood, and when I’m sad, I buy cognac “Uzbekistan” (not a country, just an alcoholic drink) and I take the train to the mountains, alone, to be in silence.
Translated by Leanna Kramer