– Autumn/Winter 2012

Beyond Nonsense: What Slavs and Tatars Make

Anders Kreuger

Slavs and Tatars, Not Moscow Not Mecca, 2012, publication, Revolver Verlag/Secession, off-set print, 23x31cm, 108 pages. Courtesy the artists

When I first came across the name Slavs and Tatars, four or five years ago, I thought they must be one of the newly popular, of-the-moment artists' groups in Russia, perhaps from some place not normally included in the international contemporary art circuit — perhaps even from one of the proud cities on the Volga where Slavs and Tatars have been coexisting for centuries: Nizhni Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Astrakhan… I assumed, without knowing anything about the work, that the collective addressed a crucial in-built complication in Russian culture.

Slavs and Tatars have been united in troubled but often productive symbiosis for many centuries. Both ethnicities are hybrid and complex, each consisting of different peoples with different features, cultural as well as facial. It was only in the fifth and sixth centuries that Slavic-speakers left their supposed homeland in today’s northern Ukraine and spread across much of southern and eastern Europe. In the complicated geography of the so-called Dark Ages this almost immediately led to encounters with Turkic-speakers — Avars, Pechenegs, Bulgars and others — who were originally from north-eastern Asia. The Tatars, or Tartars, enter history around the same time, when several nomadic peoples formed a confederation around Lake Baikal. They were part of Genghis Khan’s army in the thirteenth century, and when his empire broke up they remained in charge of its western parts. Today’s European Russia lived under the ‘Tatar Yoke’ well into the sixteenth century. The many Tatar words in contemporary Russian are evidence of a long shared history.

Later I discovered that my assumption about Slavs and Tatars was only partly right. They are a popular and of-the-moment collective; they have a connection to

  1. Western-style liberal, relativistic views on language, ethnicity and race have been very slow to penetrate the former Second World. I remember a news spot on Lithuanian television from less than a decade ago. A schoolteacher was awarded a pedagogical prize for her dedication to teaching Lithuanian in schools catering to the Polish-speaking minority. She expressed her gratitude by stressing how difficult it was to teach ‘children whose innate phonetics is so totally different from ours’.

  2. The scare quotes are necessary here, because, as the Slavs and Tatars’ oeuvre shows, the geographic and the political are sometimes dealt with so freely in art that they become mere input value for statements that articulate concerns fundamentally different from the factual and the analytical.

  3. Friendship was first shown at the 10th Sharjah Biennial in 2010 and later presented in the Slavs and Tatars exhibition at KIOSK in Ghent in 2012, while the former was launched at Art Basel in 2012: ‘A jungle gym for children and adults alike, Régions d’être celebrates the pluralist and lateral approach to identity found across Slavs and Tatars’ work. Literally “a region of being”, Régions d’être embeds a cheerful complexity to the otherwise innocuous medium of playground architecture. The work goes to the very origins of the artists’ practice: by choosing to lodge themselves between an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.’ See http://www.slavsandtatars.com/works.php?id=81 (last accessed on 6 August 2012).

  4. Slavs and Tatars, Not Moscow Not Mecca (ed. Franz Thalmair and Tina Lipsky), Vienna: Secession, 2012, pp.26—27.

  5. This doesn’t need to be belittling or derogative. If we consult the Oxford English Dictionary, we learn of the English word ‘illustration’ that ‘the sense-history is parallel to that of illumination (n.), the meaning “spiritual enlightenment” being the first to appear’.

  6. Another example of such language, which is too mannered to provide any sociolinguistic information, is the text piece from 2009 based on the English phrase ‘Dig the booty of monoglots but marry, my child, a polyglot’, which is repeated in Latin, Cyrillic and Farsi scripts ‘in homage to the vicissitudes of the Azeri alphabet’. See http://www.slavsandtatars.com/works.php?id=51 (last accessed on 3 August 2012).

  7. See http://www.slavsandtatars.com/bio.php (last accessed on 3 August 2012).

  8. Slavs and Tatars, 79.89.09 (ed. Jane Rolo and Gavin Everall), London and Birmingham: Book Works/East Side Projects, p.24.

  9. See Mikhail Lermontov, Mtsiri and Other Selected Poems (trans. Vaxtang Eristavi), Boonville, MO: Pekitanoui Publications, 2004.

  10. Slavs and Tatars, Kidnapping Mountains (ed. Jane Rolo and Gerrie van Noord), London: Book Works, 2009, pp.8—9.

  11. See http://www.slavsandtatars.com/works.php?id=80 (last accessed on 3 August 2012).

  12. See Slavs and Tatars, ‘The Faculty of Fruits: the Apricot, the Mulberry, the Persimmon, the Watermelon, the Quince, the Fig, the Melon, the Cucumber, the Pomegranate, the Sour Cherry, the Sweet Lemon’, in Not Moscow Not Mecca, op. cit., pp.73—104.

  13. See Yulia Sorokina’s essay on Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva in this issue, pp.129—38.

  14. Slavs and Tatars, Not Moscow Not Mecca, op. cit., p.71.

  15. Slavs and Tatars, Khhhhhhh. (ed. Mara Goldwyn), Brno and Milan: Moravian Gallery/Mousse Publishing, p.25.

  16. See Human Rights Watch’s website: http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/12/13/uzbekistan-detaineestortured-lawyers-silenced (last accessed on 11 August 2012).