Interview with Slavs and Tatars

Nicholas Cullinan, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has defined the art collective Slavs and Tatars as “the most cosmopolitan of collectives, where a geopolitics of globe-trotting allows their shape-shifting projects and concerns to continuously cross-pollinate divergent, and sometimes diametrically opposed, cultural specificities”. Founded in 2006, the duo – composed by Kasia Korczak and Payam Sharifi – explores the too-often forgotten affinities, syncretic ideas, intermingled narratives and belief systems, language politics and histories of exchange, co-existence and, at times, conflict between the populations that inhabit the large area that goes from the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. Their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and has been exhibited, just to name a few, at the Barbican, the London Design Museum, the Netwerk Center for Contemporary Art in Belgium, The Centre Pompidou and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, the city where the nomadic duo – in the rare moments not on the road – is officially based.

Born and raised in Texas, Slavs and Tatars founder Payam Sharifi is an Iranian-American writer, artist, and lecturer based between Moscow and Paris. Sharifi, a graduate of Columbia University and the Royal College of Art, has written for, amongst others, The New York Times, Libération, Art Review, Black Square, and Purple and is contributing editor to 032c, the European bi-annual on culture.

1. Let’s have a closer look at the name. “Slavs and Tatars”. How did you come up with it?

We founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006, shortly after the entry of the new member states in 2004 into the European Union. If you recall, there was quite a bit of prejudice, if not hysteria, about this ‘other’ Europe, namely Eastern European states joining what Europeans had imagined themselves perhaps an exclusive club. There was the infamous Polish plumber, the Bulgarian builder, etc…The name Slavs and Tatars clearly plays up this fear —both in a contemporary and historical sense —

as if there were hordes waiting to rape and pillage à la Braveheart.

2. At first glance, it evokes a whole series of cultural antithesis: Slavic vs Turkic, Christian vs Muslim, white-skinned vs dark-skinned…

Our name–Slavs and Tatars–is not an identity, it marks the collapse of identity. Between these two terms, “Slavs” and “Tatars” there is a whole story of confluence and tension. It is only by accumulating several identities —and negotiating the tensions between them —that one can begin to move beyond the reductive and brittle identity politics which continue to plague us.   

3. You define the area of interest of Slavs and Tatars “the large area that spans from the “Berlin Wall to the Great Wall of China”. The decision of centering your lens on this large geographic area was the result, you once declared, “of the end of a “Western promise” in our lives”. What did you exactly mean by that?

The “Enlightenment mind”,  which separates body and thought, action and contemplation, continues to enjoy overwhelming, surprising support, despite having led to colonialism, genetically modified food, a disastrous emphasis on the individual over the collective, to name just a few. We found ourselves interested in a different geography, that has a geopolitical connotation as a poetic one, which is as real as it is imaginal. Henri Corbin, scholar of Persian philosopher Suhrawardi and French Orientalist, used the term Mundus imaginalis to redeem the active, very real, and cognitive appreciation of the imagination found in Sufism as opposed to the common understanding as fantasy.    

4.  Could we say that a large part of your artistic production is devoted to showing how many supposed cultural antithesis are the result of an operation of oversimplification? This result is achieved by revealing the often forgotten linguistic, ethnic, and political complexity at the heart of Eurasia.

Indeed. We like the term “metaphysical splits”: that is, an attempt to stretch the different lobes of the brain around seemingly antithetical ideas, much like a gymnast will train his/her legs to reach for antipodes on the ground.

5. Which of you past works, do you think, exemplify this “specialty” of Slavs and Tatars at best?

Our installation “Reverse Joy”, for example — a project that looked at the role of mysticism in the perpetual protest movement at the heart of the Shi’a faith — manages to suspend the law of non-contradiction through the very simple gesture of fountain spouting a red liquid. There you can see both a metaphysical reference to the role of mysticism as a joyous agent for change in the world but also how the bloody results of that change are effectively the opposite of joy when it leads to casualty. Not surprisingly, when visitors entered our Projects exhibition, “Beyonsense,” at the MoMA, the fountain would elicit opposing responses. While children would often run towards it, seeing in the red a joyous color, not unlike that found in kool-aid or the more Eurasian kompot, often their parents would hold them back, as they saw in it blood and violence. So in essence two understandings that couldn’t be more contrapuntal: naïve joy and the cynical political instrumentalization of violence or martyrdom.  Most recently, perhaps “Alphabet Abdal”, a carpet featuring a string of words in an exodus spelling out in Arabic “Jesus, Son of Mary, He is Love.” Traditionally considered the sacred language of Islam, Arabic is also the language to a very important, increasingly fragile population, of Christians in the Middle East whose approach to faith offers an antidote to the often capitalist, individual understanding of Christianity found in the West. Louis Massignon, the Orientalist scholar and biographer of al-Hallaj, believed in the idea of mystical substitution, to pray, as a Christian in Arabic, in a gesture of linguistic hospitality.

6) A propos hospitality, many of your artefacts are meant to be seated on, or inhabited, rather than hanged: your artistic practice shows a clear idiosyncrasy for the walls. For “Their PrayWay (2012)”, you set up a carpeted seating area in the New Museum in New York that was a cross between a rahlé — a holy book stand — and a takht – a space for sitting and conversing in teahouses. You chose this “teahouse format” also when you curated the Marker section of Art Dubai 2014, for the first time devoted to the art of the Caucasus and Central Asia. More recently, Berliners had the chance to sit on an a giant Persian carpet, folded like a book at your show in the Hamburger Bahnhof as finalists for the Preis der Nationalgalerie 2015. In the same room, two giant rosary beads hang from the ceiling, allowing visitors to use them as swings. It looks like one of your major preoccupations is to make the viewer feel welcome and comfortable within your art. Has this hospitality or “generosity”, as you often described it, something to do with the fact that Slavs and Tatars began in 2006 as a “reading group”?

Definitely. It is also a commitment to the idea of contemplation in spaces devoted to culture.  Too often, the only place to sit in a museum is the cafe, or the rare bench in front of a masterpiece. If art is to play a transformative role, and not only an educational and entertaining one, the venue of its activation must be more hospitable.

Re: walls, perhaps we should speak to a shrink. Only after 4 years or so did we manage to put something on a wall. In the beginning, we worked exclusively with print: if someone wanted to engage with our work, s/he had to read. There are few things less pleasant, less considerate than putting something to read on a wall. Even though the practice proliferated —to include sculpture, installations, lecture-performances — walls somehow did not become any more attractive in our eyes. If we live in an age of visual glut, then walls are amongst the (many) guilty enablers.

Among the three axes of our practice, the lectures and publications articulate a series of concerns that the sculpture, installation, the material art work with a capital ‘A’ must disarticulate. That does not mean to remain silent: rather to undo, unravel these very ideas, like a loose thread of a sweater. 

7. Here at DUST we strongly believe that all sort of cultural oversimplifications can be very dangerous, especially in the uncertain times we live in. We have a hard time believing to all those claims, more and more present in the media after the recent waves of terror attacks in the heart of Europe, that East and West are, intrinsically, meant to collide, to misunderstand each other, and ultimately, to be at war. We hope that an alternative, less monolithic narrative is possible. What do “expert explorers” of the West-East “cultural borderline” think about the inevitability of a culture clash between these two macro-areas of the world?

First of all, we don’t consider ourselves “experts”; in fact, if anything we’ve consistently devoted ourselves to ideas which we do not understand, belief systems that pose obstacles to our ragingly secular education, regions that are unfamiliar to ours. We believe it is in the margins of ideologies, the edges of empires, where one finds the most fertile, progressive syncretism, not at the rotten core.

8. Some examples?

For our Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, we looked at Sarmatism, the cultural ideology of the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth, when the nobility claimed to be descendants of a long lost Iranic tribe from the Black Sea, a ‘macho’ attempt to distinguish themselves from what they considered to be their more effeminate Western European counterparts.  Or the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia who speak Persian but write it using a Hebrew script: a kind of linguistic transvestism.

9. The Syrian-born writer Abdul Aziz Said  — senior-ranking professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University and founder of AU’s Center for Global Peace, which undertakes a range of activities aimed at advancing the understanding of world peace — wrote in his essay “Islam and the West: Clash of Symbols, not Civilizations”: “The shared cultural roots joining Islam with the West are forgotten far too often. Although recently voiced (and frequently ill-conceived) opinions regarding a ‘clash of civilizations’ posit that Islam falls outside the Judeo-Christian and Hellenic cultural continuum. The reverse is in fact the case. Classical Islamic civilization was constructed out of Arab, Biblicist and Hellenic cultures, but cast a wider net by integrating Persian, Central Asia, as well as Indian components within its cultural synthesis. Historically, Islam is the true bridge between the West and East”.

To quote the late Marxist and psychoanalytic scholar of William Blake and Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California, Santa Cruz: “Civilization from start to finish has been a theocratic structure. The theocratic structures of the first cities is evident in the architecture, dominated by temple, palace, pyramid…The prophetic tradition is a critical response to the urban revolution, that irreversible commitment of the human race to the city and civilization, which spread from the Nile to Oxus heartland around 3000 BC.” Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is one of these prophetic traditions and as such we’re interested in the question of the sacred, its transmission, its broadcasting, its translation, it’s ‘stickiness’ to use the parlance du jour, which has been brushed under the proverbial rug since the Enlightenment.

10. Where do you see hope?

We see hope for example in the translation of Islam in China where a neo-Confucian idiom was used, perhaps the first example of the translation of Islam into a foreign intellectual tradition. China is not often even considered to be part of the Muslim world despite having one of the largest population of Muslims: in northwestern China, female imams (Nu Ahong) administer to the faithful. 

Thanks to the support of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, this is one of your major areas of research today.

11. What other projects are you currently working at?

We’re preparing a new body of work called “In a Pickle” that tells the story of German, Polish, and Russian orientalisms —studies of the East that serve as a corrective or antidote to the Saidian understanding of the term — through the perspective of an anthropomorphic piece of horse-radish, also known as Monsieur Meerretich, Pan Chrzan or Хан Хрен.

12. A pretty unusual perspective! To my joy, it sounds like another work imbued with humor à la Slavs and Tatars.

Humor has always played a very important role in our work: both as a disarming form of critique as an extension of generosity.

Published on DUST #9, spring 2016

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Die Eröffnung der Ausstellung zum Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst 2015 im Hamburger Bahnhof.© Foto: David von Becker
Die Eröffnung der Ausstellung zum Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst 2015 im Hamburger Bahnhof.© Foto: David von Becker
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NPgallery_020608 0016

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