Art Week Style.uz: true celebration or loads of kitsch?
Alex Ulko expressed his own opinion about the ArtWeek Style.uz project, which is organized by Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the Uzbekistan president
This week is arguably the most important week in the not-so-small art world of Uzbekistan. Sponsored by Fund Forum, it brings together a range of artistic and near artistic events with the intention on the one hand to show the world the relevance of today’s Uzbekistan in the context of contemporary art, glamour and haute couture and on the other, to introduce bits of the celebrity world to the citizens of this country.
This event, or rather, a series of events, split the public opinion. Its supporters go over their head to extoll the high artistic quality of the installations, exhibitions, music, dresses, jewellery and films on display. They also enjoy the attention of the world’s celebrities, who this year apparently include Abbas Kiarostami, Lara Fabian, Yuri Bashmet, Nadejda Babkina and even Kim Ki Duk. While hundreds if not thousands of mostly young citizens of Tashkent (and a handful of their peers from other cities) rush to share the limelight with the greats and to partake of the world of their dreams, others dismiss the whole thing as an overblown and cynical heap of rubbish.
Their criticism, firmly rooted in the negative attitude to the current regime, does not spare anyone involved, starting from the international celebs, who obviously value a solid cheque written in their name more than their reputation among human rights activists and ending with the cheaply fooled kids blinded by the glare and the noise surrounding the pompous celebration of vanity in a country where shortages of water, gas and electricity have become commonplace and the overwhelming majority find it hard to make ends meet.
While everybody is entitled to have their own opinion, I do not think that these two opposite viewpoints are mutually exclusive. The key to Style.uz is to understand not only what it is (which may prove confusing given the sheer variety and amount of things happening all at the same time), but what it is not. The most important thing in the latter category is, of course, contemporary art. I don’t want to be rude or disrespectful towards the many artists involved in the event – it is just that what they’re doing is a mere imitation of the contemporary art world. It has less to do with the artistic quality of their pieces (although one may also identify the artists’ desire to follow some well-known patterns developed elsewhere), but more with the way the whole thing is arranged and constructed and how it is framed by declared intentions, real undercurrents, messages, issues of power and politics and other worldly considerations, so important for the contemporary discourse.
Interestingly, as a political statement, Style.uz does not qualify for a neo-liberal project either. It has nothing to do with the so-called ‘free market’ and is the product of a heavily administered, top-down and monopolistic agenda. So, it is just all bluff, pomp, and a garish caricature, a feast in the time of plague? Not necessarily.
ArtWeek Style.Uz advertise. Screenshot from official website.
Now, I must admit here I’m really biased, just one reason being my inability to see any difference between glamour and kitsch. I always thought that a price tag does not change an ugly thing into a piece of art even if it is endorsed by such sophisticated and subtle connoisseurs as Paris Hilton, Alyona Vodonayeva or 50 Cent. Or Kofi Annan or even Shohruh, with all due respect. So, assuming that glamour IS kitsch and that the very seriousness of the claim to be the former makes it even more the latter, I would like to assert that ultimately it is good for our people.
Why? First of all, because it resolutely breaks away with the obsession with the ‘true national art’, developed in the Soviet times. All right, there is still obsession with some folk motifs, but they do not even claim to be authentic. The hegemony of ‘traditions’ and ‘national mentality’, so heavily visible almost in any piece of modern art from Uzbekistan, is indeed, stifling and Style.uz is in a certain way a necessary change of the gear. It lures away the youth from the unquestioned and undisputed backwardness of the fossilised culture squeezed between the Muslim and the Soviet dogmas and offers some alternative: urban, secular, driven by consumption and personal vanity, ambitious, mischievous and cosmopolitan. In other words, it offers some vision. While I almost entirely agree with those who point at the numerous drawbacks, deficiencies and even perversions of this vision, I still believe that such an alternative is way better than none, especially in the current geopolitical context, when the Muslim East is brimming with fundamentalism and such countries as Russia – with equally coarse nationalism.
Second, one may look at Style.uz as an interesting incarnation of the same spiritual entity as Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama – that is, of an unimpeded and unrestricted Central Asian dream. Again agreeing with many critics of both, I would like to maintain that the very practice of dreaming, of making new virtual worlds cannot be made more sophisticated and relevant without actually making these clumsy first steps. It is this very utopian, unrealistic, pseudo-elitist and openly hedonistic character of Style.uz that attracts the youth. It is easy to laugh at their naivety, as we all did when we read about the aborigines eager to exchange diamonds for pencils – but have we not forgotten too easily the time when some of us collected empty beer cans and cigarette packs thrown away by careless tourists to mount them on the wall? Or the time when we were introduced to the fresh chemical flavour of ‘Yuppi’ and enthusiastically dissolved this brightly coloured powder in water to enjoy with friends?
To sum up, Style.uz should not be seen only against the events and projects it seeks to imitate: are there any other ways to learn? Neither we should be too concerned about public money being spent on sheer pomp: it is being stolen in other, much less conspicuous and much more efficient ways not only in Uzbekistan but all over the world. It is a controversial, quite unethical, but truly important occasion, and while I am not willing neither going to attend any of its events, I know that it will be a lifetime’s experience for many – and I have some reservations whether we have the right to deny and deride this, ultimately, learning, experience.