Not one of the most obvious players at this year’s Venice Biennale, but most certainly offering one of the most intriguing pavilions, is Azerbaijan. Located in the Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal it was once home to Contessa Marina Querini Benzon whose famous salon feted Lord Byron and Ugo Foscolo.
It’s a fitting location because the presentation of works by six artists spanning some four decades of Azerbaijani art may have had a curatorial approach grounded in relational aesthetics, but as is pretty clear to anyone approaching many of the works, it might also be accurate to say that they strongly resonate relational poetics.
Curated by the Pavilion’s comissar Cinghiz Farzaliev in collaboration with Beral Madra of the BM Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul and co-commissioner Vittorio Urbani of Nuova Icona, Venice, this is a rather different approach to the monographic or celebrity artist-driven affairs that often dominate the choices for Venice. Here the approach is one that has focused on selecting artists of different generations whose work, shown together, create a narrative and a context for the massive changes that have occurred in the country since the fragmentation of the Soviet Union.
Azerbaijan, the world’s earliest and largest Muslim secular democracy occupies a strategically and economically important position in the Caucuses. Its position in the modern era mirrored that of its ancient and feudal past where it controlled key land trade routes between east and west. As such, it has remained a rather exotic place for westerners traveling overland between east and west whilst, for much of the twentieth century, it occupied a rather ironic position of being both rich in resources eagerly welcomed back at Soviet Bloc HQ, yet remaining rather isolated and remote from the hubbub of international pop culture.
One of the key stands that snakes through the presentation is the way in which all the artists are strongly influenced by the modernist ideology of the Soviet era, particularly in relation to the current developments of Azerbaijan into an affluent consumer society. Yet, despite their direct engagement with this modernist visual vernacular what is perhaps most striking about much of the work is its lyrical and poetic nature. It is not, perhaps, hyperbole to say that a number of the artists, by directly confronting the modernist vernacular of the Soviet era end up reinforcing the underlying poetic nature of the regional sensibility.
In the case of the New York-based artist Aga Ousseinov, for example, works in diverse media often have a melancholic gentle humour about their strange and refined visions of science and adventure. Scuba divers, fantastic machines straight out of Jules Verne and a general pre-Steam Punk air add up to a vision of science and endeavour – those things that characterized the ideology of Soviet progress- that seems to be most definitely located in the past. These are works that engage with a certain ambivalent nostalgia for a Utopian past that, even if it could have been, feels like it was never truly a reality except in the best of human intentions.
By contrast Aidan Salakhova – an artist of a similar generation to Ousseinov- presents works that are seductive in the their sumptuous materials and have an almost Pop Art slickness in the realisation of largely representational imagery. Salakhova, whose work in more commonly associated with addressing gender identity and, more specifically, women in Muslim cultures, might not seem like an obvious choice in this context. Yet, examined more closely, the forms of her marble sculptures have a connection with the tradition of Soviet era monumemtalism as much as they do with her content that, once again draws on the female experience of Islamic culture.
Ultimately, the connections made between the works of artists in a diversity of media that initially prompt a socio-economic consideration repeatedly return to their gestural poetics.
The Pavilion of Azerbaijan at the 54th International Art Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia, showing works by Mikayil Abdurahmanov, Zeigam Azizov, Khanlar Gasimov, Aga Ousseinov, Altai Sadikhzade and Aidan Salakhova, continues until September 2011.