Performative Traces: The Union of Fire and Water
Almagul Menlibayeva in conversation with Basak Senova
Kazakhstani-born Almagul Menlibayeva is one of two artists taking part in the project The Union of Fire and Water (2015), a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale, together with Rashad Alakbarov. The project, commissioned by YARAT and curated by Suad Garayeva, explores the historical and cultural links between Baku and Venice using the Palazzo Barbaro as one of the project's main contextual frames. The building was the former residence of Giosafat Barbaro, a Venetian ambassador who travelled to Azerbaijani cities and wrote extensively about these and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan in the late 1400s. In this interview, Basak Senova talks with Menlibayeva about the project. See a video excerpt on Ibraaz projects here.
Basak Senova: With your multi-channel video installations installed all around the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, you have constructed an exhibition together with Rashad Alakbarov. What was the inspiration behind your participation in The Union of Fire and Water?
Almagul Menlibayeva: I was attracted to the story of the Bakuvian industrialist Murtuza Mukhtarov and his wife Lisa Tuganova and their Venetian Gothic building, constructed in Baku in 1912. Murtuzas' wife left town when the Red Army took over Baku. She died poor in Paris, France, in about 1950, but nobody really knows what happened to her as contact with her family was blocked under the Soviet regime. After being acquainted with this Bakuvian history, I was introduced to the story of the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice. Frankly, I was overwhelmed with this Venetian palace and started to think about how I might put these two histories together.
Suad Garayeva suggested using two formats together: the sculpture installation realized by Rashad Alakbarov and the video installation that I produced. This proposal determined the visual language of the project. We decided to do a multi-channel video installation. I made two trips to Baku for the shootings. The first trip was mainly preparatory so as to select actors, locations, costumes, and work out scripts. The second trip was for the full shooting.
In addition to Suad Garayeva, I worked with historian Fuad Akhundov, and of course, our assistants on the project: the young Bakuvian contemporary artists Zamir Suleymanov, Emin Ezizbeyli, and Elturan Mammadov. The most important process for the installation of the ten channels was the video editing, which is also my favourite phase because the process can be flexible and surprising. Last but not least, the final phase was to work with the Russian composer German Popov.
BS: While designing the exhibition, you considered the history and architectural features of the building. What was the starting point to this understanding of the space as a frame?
AM: Rashad discovered a book written by Giosafat Barbaro called Travels to Tana and Persia written in 1487. I think this book influenced and shaped the route of the exhibition as a whole. Suad also shared some information and many ideas with us. I had a fantastic opportunity to learn about the history of the Caucasus and Persia in this process. The installation in the Palazzo Babaro also includes the architectural features of Murtuza's palace in Baku as a connecting link. Further to this, the commissioner of the pavilion, YARAT Art Foundation, has planned a series of 'Fire Talks' with me at the Venetian palace of Murtuza in Baku in December 2015.
BS: Could you elaborate on the performative aspects of the exhibition in Venice? The building itself has formed the 'setting' within which a performance seems to take place between works that give references to each other and the characteristics of the palace. This creates linear narrations further encouraged in the outstanding choreography that occurs by the way that the audience is routed around the space.
AM: In the work I presented, I try to connect Palazzo Barbaro in Venice with Murtuza's Palace in Baku through their story. Therefore, in my installation I combined various media and formats: through cinema storytelling with three video screens; the window rooms working as the video installations; a video in the wardrobe; the voice of a historian; the archival material; the installation of a classical portrait painting of Barbaro; and the video portrait interview of a homeless man from Baku who has similar physical features as Mr. Babaro. As you can see, the story of the palazzo itself is important and already performative.
The route for the audience was considered in the sense of reading a book – with each room you turn a page. Each work in the show combines the history that unites Baku, Venice and us as storytellers – of the modern 'Silk Road'. This installation is a historical update to the events in the book of Giosafat Barbaro: the suicide of Murtuza as a parallel to the escape of Giosafat Barbaro from Persia, both of them faced the dramatic political changes in the country. I read each room like a scene of a film or a story. In the case of the video sculptures in the Palazzo Barbaro, the viewers witness Murtuza Mukhtarov's last lone minutes before his suicide, facing a clash of his political belief with radical bolshevism in his European Gothic palace.
The main part of the video installation is a narrative story edited for a three-channel video. The scenes have psychological aspects. I use the 'cinematic language of acting' as an artistic tool - the language we are familiar with from films – to push the borders of contemporary video art and combine it with unexpected situations. For this three-channel video, I worked with the actors, who we had selected after two trips to Baku, for about three days of filming. This was the most memorable part of the work and was exciting for everyone because we needed a full understanding of each other's capacities in order to work together. Each actor was given a role to portray different characters in the video chosen by me.
BS: In terms of creating this space with Rashad Alakbarov, how do you describe his artistic approach and working methodology in comparison to yours?
AM: I see Rashad as the insider, a Bakuvian who lives near the Caspian Sea, in contrast to myself as an outsider. I noticed this structure in the titles of his work, such as Do Not Fear (2015) or I Was Here (2015).
BS: How do you position the role of the curator Suad Garayeva in this pavilion?
AM: It was a dynamic partnership, working with a curator who sets research as a task. We were totally lost in time. While Suad was in the Middle Ages, for instance, I was in the revolution of 1917. In the work, Lisa Tuganova told her own story about Baku, but this time the story is in the context of Venice. It debunked much of my historical and cultural misconceptions or misunderstandings in general.
BS: Throughout history, oil has been the generator of wealth and political power intertwined with wars and catastrophes and will remain the decisive strategic commodity to dominate the global economy and politics for some years to come. Thus, oil is a significant symbol for pervasive power struggles that take various forms of legitimization in your works in general. How do you read the struggles at play in this exhibition?
AM: Oil in the Caspian Sea was discovered and even used much earlier than people tend to think. Even in 7 BC people widely used oil in its crude form. There are historical documents from different periods mentioning the customs of oil for different purposes. For instance, the ninth century Arabian traveller Baladzori (Al Belazuri Ahmad) wrote about how political and economic life on Absheron had long been connected with oil. And another ninth century Arabian, historian Masudi-Abdul-Hussein, identified two main sources of black oil and white oil (kerosene) on Absheron. Likewise, Arab historian Istahri-Abu Iskhak described how the people of Baku used soil soaked in oil as fuel. In the thirteenth century, after visiting Absheron, Arab historian Muhammad Bekran wrote about the shaft extraction of oil in Balakhani (today, a suburb of Baku).
I would like to point to a quote about oil and Baku from Giosafat Barbaro's book Travels to Tana and Persia. For this Venetian ambassador, oil was more than a local and exotic custom:
Upon this side of the sea there is another city called Baku, whereof the sea of Baku takes name, near unto which city there is a mountain that casts forth black oil, stinking horribly, which they, nevertheless, use for furnishing their lights, and for anointing their camels twice a year. For if they were not anointed they would become scabby.
That is why I included in the first video installation a dialogue between two figures: the portrait of a homeless man and a classical painting that belongs to Mr. Barbaro.
Furthermore, also referring to the title of the exhibition, 'Fire' connotes 'oil' as well. In this reading, I propose to look at oil differently, not through politics (though perhaps the symbol of fire still talks with us through the politics of the oil industry) but as an archaic cult. The use of oil has always been locally and globally distributed through an ancient network, the 'Silk Road'. Baku is known not only as the land of fire but also as the cradle of its cult. The 'Burning Mountain' Yanar Dag is still there, burning: the people of the Caspian land have been watching it burn for centuries. During World War II, Stalin ordered people to hide under the earth platform of Yanar Dag to hide from German pilot scouts.
BS: Just like a chain reaction, there is a set of translation phases in the exhibition, from the links produced between cultures, architectural features, stories and the cities. Many symbols were also used in the installation. Could you explain some of them?
AM: All of the symbols are from Bakuvian history and culture. The symbols of fire and water are the main symbols. There is also a clash of images, such as the traditional Azerbaijani warrior dance on the burning and crushed pomegranates during Murtuza's and Lisa's marriage or the opera action by Lisa in the oil field set on the oil machines. Lisa, the wife of the Murtuza, was a woman with an Islamic cultural background at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the middle of historical events and political radicalism. I thought about her a lot and I often put myself in her place, feeling her mute and suffocating scream.
Therefore, as a symbolic act, I decided that Lisa would sing the part of Leyli from the opera Leyli and Majnun written by Azerbaijani Uzeyir Hajibeyov. This project is a layered puzzle. For example, the shifting symbols of the pomegranate: in Azerbaijani culture it is the symbol of fertility presented in intact form; in Christianity it is broken and bleeding as the blood of suffering; in Judaism it is a the symbol of fertility of 'the promised land', as the fruit of 613 seeds corresponds with the 613 commandments of the Torah. In the case of Leyli, I had her walking under hypnosis into a crashing fire of pomegranates, wearing her wedding dress and dreaming of the future. But she learned to understand the symbolic meaning of the '613 seeds' in silence and thought.
Mir Yusif Mir-Babayev, 'Azerbaijan's Oil History: A Chronology Leading up to the Soviet Era', Azerbaijan International 10.2 (2002): http://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai102_folder/102_articles/102_oil_chronology.html.
Quoted from the book of Giosafat Barbaro, Travels to Tana and Persia, 1487.