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Conversation  |  Curatorial Director, YARAT Contemporary Art Centre

Suad Garayeva

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
Baku, 4 November 2015
Suad Garayeva, Curatorial Director of YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, at The Union of Fire and Water, YARAT's collateral project at the Venice Biennale 2015. Courtesy of YARAT, Baku.
Suad Garayeva, Curatorial Director of YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, at The Union of Fire and Water, YARAT's collateral project at the Venice Biennale 2015. Courtesy of YARAT, Baku.

Suad Garayeva is Curatorial Director of YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, overseeing YARAT’s permanent collection and temporary exhibition programme. Previously she worked as a curator and a specialist in Contemporary Art from Russia and the CIS at Sotheby's, London, curating the pioneering At the Crossroads

exhibitions, which introduced contemporary art from the Caucasus and Central Asia in 2013 and 2014. She also headed up Russian and Eastern European Contemporary Art sales. Garayeva has been a long-time collaborator of YARAT, and has worked on numerous international exhibitions, such as the National Pavilion of Azerbaijan at the 53rd and 54th Venice Biennales. Most recently she curated YARAT's official Collateral Event at the 56th Venice Biennale, The Union of Fire and Water, on view until 22 November 2015. Garayeva is also a member of the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee at Tate Modern, London.

This interview takes YARAT’s current temporary exhibition The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, co-curated by Garayeva and Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor, as a starting point to think about YARAT’s position as an art centre working in a distinct region. As the exhibition text notes, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter “takes its title from Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel about life in a small town in the southern US state of Georgia”—a novel that “revolves around several characters who don't ‘fit in’ with their surroundings, physically or socially, and who experience profound isolation and longing.” As such, “the exhibition reimagines these emotional modes in the context of the contemporary internet, bringing together works by artists who invite identification with onscreen bodies and characters as a way of challenging and transcending normative ways of living.” In this frame, Garayeva notes, Neil Beloufa, Hannah Black, Camille Henrot, Parker Ito, Bunny Rogers, Jasper Spicero and Lu Yang tackle themes of self-invention, transformation, aspiration, desire, trauma and power. Exhibition view: Neil Beloufa, Data for Desire, 2014, video, 47’39’’min. Courtesy of the artist. Fine steel construction, 2015, dimensions variable, the work in the exhibition has been specifically produced for YARAT CAC as a new installation with special help from Rashad Alakbarov (Artist, Baku). Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT. Photo Fakhriyya Mammadova

Let’s start with the current show at YARAT, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The artist list, and the fact that the show is curated by Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor, suggest that this is an exhibition that fits the term ‘post-Internet’. I saw a tweet the other day which mentioned the show, saying it was funny how Azerbaijan has a post-Internet art exhibition when the majority of the population doesn’t have the Internet. How might you respond to such a critique?

You could say that this show is something that is much more relevant to New York or London, but maybe not so much to Baku. But this relates to a kind of condescension you can get from the Western world, in which you might argue that a country has some catching up to do before they can be exposed to something serious or challenging.

In fact, in discussions with Michael Connor, what was really interesting is that the Internet means something completely different here in Azerbaijan when compared to New York. The Internet is actually a much more important tool in this part of the world than elsewhere because it has not yet been taken for granted. I come from London and there the Internet emerged in the 80s and 90s, but here in Azerbaijan things were completely closed off at the time; it was a Communist Republic and the links with the Western world and all these contemporary art movements were very limited. But then things changed. And all of a sudden, from one day to the next, borders opened and we entered this process of globalisation. The Internet is part of that process; young artists and students have become exposed to Western culture much more so than before because of it. This has had a much stronger effect in Azerbaijan compared to somewhere like New York, for instance, where all this access is taken for granted.

Exhibition view: Parker Ito at The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Razzle Dazzle of Inhaling B67 Fumes w/ Chains / Kombucha Dog (The Road to the Sleep Deprivation), 2013-2015, oil on canvas, acrylic on aluminium strainers, artist frame, hanging hard-ware, 310 x 244 x 6.35 cm, recto / verso (recto view); A Lil' Taste of Cheeto in the Night, 2015HD Video, 6.33 minutes; and The things we do for love (so proud so alone), 2014, silkscreen print over digital pigment print , 44.5 x 57.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Château Shatto and YARAT. Photo Fakhriyya Mammadova. So, instead of saying we don’t have Internet in Azerbaijan, it’s actually the other way around. Here, the Internet is almost everything, because now we have this growing middle class and of course people can now travel more freely. But you also have many people who cannot afford to go to Europe or America or go to Australia or elsewhere, and so the Internet becomes this point of access to everything that’s going on around the world. Even here in Azerbaijan, the Internet is relevant, and for us this show was about exploring this medium in a new way, while taking into account the context.

Of course, there is a schizophrenia that we find ourselves in with this new medium and the show isn’t exactly positive about the Internet. We are looking at the purely human, individual experiences online that are often very alienating. It’s inevitable that we would become part of these online networks, though, so this exhibition is also a way of looking at this new domain or online network from another point of view.

Exhibition view: Camille Henrot at The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, He Keep Telling me it's Real, 2015, watercolour on paper mount-ed on dibond, 150x193cm; My Anaconda Don't, 2015, watercolour on paper mounted on dibond, 150x207cm; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, 2015, Ikebana: painted ceramic vase, corn poppy, Martha Washington Geramium, Plexi label, 57.2 x 29.8 x 29.8 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, and YARAT. Photo Fakhriyya Mammadova.

Could you talk a little bit about the political aspects of the different works?

There’s body politics, but it’s very nuanced. Camille Henrot is showing new works that have everything to do with female sexuality. They were partly inspired by Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda music video, which itself was quite problematic because it spurred this debate around whether Minaj was a feminist figure or not. I think Henrot at once pays homage to the video and the discussions around it, and treats it as subject matter; the idea of a powerful female who is in complete control of her sexuality and does what she wants. The fact that the music video caused so much outrage means that even now in this kind of second decade of the 21st century people still have a problem with female sexuality on screen. Then you have Lu Yang, who created a superhero based on the female body, Uterus Man, or the masculinity of Hannah Black’s work, which plays with the critique of bodybuilding as a masculine act. Of course, for Hannah, it’s more about the critique of capitalism. The body gets built up as the city gets constructed and then all of a sudden you notice how everything is vacant and the wind is passing through these buildings and there’s actually nothing in them.

Exhibition view: Lu Yang, Uterus Man at The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist, Beijing Commune and YARAT. Pho-to Fakhriyya Mammadova. 

With Black there is also this sense of a foreigner coming to a new context and having to deal with a very alien kind of experience, because she was commissioned by YARAT to come to Baku and produce a work especially for the show.

Of course. Her alien experience was twofold actually. On the one hand, she was in this completely new environment, and at once she didn’t know and knew what to expect and some of her expectations were fulfilled. She came to this place that is having a construction boom and consider what it means, so it’s all a little bit disorienting because some of the buildings are not even finished and there’s this old history overlaid with this extreme capitalistic boom. But on the other hand, it’s also Hannah as a female trying to penetrate this extremely male environment. She was there and interviewing these bodybuilders, not only as this foreigner, but as a woman who enters this world.

The point is the thing that unites these works is artists who produce constellations of meaning using onscreen characters that have direct relevance to the artists themselves and to their own humanity. It’s the ghost in the shell as opposed to just being a shell. With Parker Ito, for instance, he is part of the story he tells in his work; it’s like a self-portrait of the artist in chains; there’s this frustration with the Internet as a structure, but it’s also this personal shell. So in his work, Ito presents either imaginary characters or real characters, either self-portraits or portraits of others, but it’s all portraiture in its different forms.

This idea of the Internet as a site of chains rather than networks relates to Jasper Spicero’s video work, _C.I.P. Video System 4B_ (2014), which touches on surveillance, and the panopticon.

Exactly. The artist took a prison that was fully built but lost its funding during construction, so it became this prison building with no use; it just had janitors washing it every once in a while and with no prisoners. Spicero calls it Centers in Pain because if you think about it, a prison is just this part of town that’s supposed to have this trauma, through its purpose. But in this case, it never actually happens, so the artist writes out this narrative and scenario and plays out the lives of the janitors and films it through the CCTV system of that prison. But instead of the prisoners, actually, the janitors are being watched, so they are the guardians of it and they’re maintaining this empty shell. So here surveillance takes on a completely different dimension where it’s more, kind of Foucaultian surveillance camera.

Jasper Spicero, still from Centers In Pain, 2014, video, 15’42’’min. Image courtesy of the artist.

Where does this show fit with YARAT’s position as an institution, and its intentions for the future?

YARAT is now four years old, so it’s a very new organisation. However it came at the right time and is in the right place. There is a desire for contemporary practices and through our programme, we gain more of a following with every project; more support and funding, because this is something that has been lacking very much from Baku. We are one of the only art centres of its kind in the whole region, and we’re also very focused on education, which I think is the most important thing. So that’s why every exhibition is accompanied with a series of talks, events, screenings, but also a programme of events outside of the exhibition, too. It’s important to open up discussions and invite people to talk about things and not just show things.

So YARAT is consciously performing a public role.

Absolutely. You cannot just throw contemporary art at people and expect them to understand it as it is, so it’s important to have discussions around it so people can come and participate in the discourse. The questions you get asked here are sometimes very different to the questions you get asked in London, and that’s the beauty of it all, you know.

Camille Henrot, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, 2015, Ikebana: painted ceramic vase, corn poppy, Martha Washington Geramium, Plexi label, 57.2 x 29.8 x 29.8 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

Have you ever come across major problems?

No. We’re very new here, as an institution—this is only our second show. Our first show was with Shirin Neshat. It was a very symbolic moment for us to open with Neshat because we wanted this space to be for the local people and for people from the region. So we commissioned Neshat and she tried to show this diversity by producing an almost ethnographic portrait of different people, their faces inscribed with Persian poetry and questions about home and how people of different ages consider home, because it’s something very personal to the artist.

This is what we are trying to do through our exhibition program: bring artists to make new work and interesting work inspired in some way by the local and regional context. In this way, we give artists an opportunity to explore their practice and to expand in new ways and do something interesting. Likewise, for our audiences, it brings something that’s not too alien, that’s something they can relate to and that can be a completely new form because it’s by an artist whose art they haven’t seen before but at the same time the subject matter strikes a note. It’s very important not to alienate your own audiences.

Does the permanent collection expand on this strategy?

We’re hoping to get our collection very much in line with our strategy. We have decided to concentrate only on the region, and our neighbours: Central Asian countries, the Caucasus, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. There’s so much shared history and shared heritage within this whole region; we share a Soviet history. Of course, this isn’t the Olympics so we don’t enforce strict geographical restrictions. But, we are trying to avoid straight-out purchasing Western art because it is a public collection, and our commissions should take the local context into account. With every temporary exhibition we stage, we try to commission one work from the show, so Hannah Black’s work will stay with us, and this creates a history of the YARAT collection, too—a living memory, along with the collection of Central Asian and Caucasus art. Today, there are all these different centres in the world, and what we’re trying to do is bring it all together: to collaborate on shows with partners from around the world, and to create—and position ourselves while we do it.—[O]

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