In terms of this year’s exhibition program, Ride the Caspian is a bit of a taste of what’s to come in APT7, which opens in December and features a strong focus on West and Central Asia. The work itself will also be part of the next Biennale of Sydney, opening shortly.
Ride the Caspian is a collaborative work by Almagul Menlibayeva and Bahar Behbahani. It was one of the many highlights at last year’s Sharjah Biennial, and was acquired for the QAGOMA Collection shortly after. Menlibayeva comes from Kazakhstan, while Behbahani is from Iran, two of the five countries that border the Caspian Sea, a space of extraordinary historical and geopolitical significance, which also forms the focal point of this mesmerising work.
You may remember Menlibayeva’s name from GOMA’s ’21st Century: Art in the First Decade’ exhibition, as the artist behind the striking lightbox Wrapping History 2010 (that work is currently also in our Contemporary Collection display, ‘Lightness & Gravity’). Menlibayeva’s aesthetic is elegant and edgy, and she describes it as ‘Romantic Punk Shamanism’. In Ride the Caspian it blends seamlessly with Behbahani’s evocations of the tension and texture of the region, with little incongruities, stunning photography and a hint of mischief-making. Also worth a mention is the work’s absorbing electronic score, which is itself a collaboration between Ukranian electronic composer OMFO and Bahar’s sister Negar.
Aside from the pure audiovisual thrill of it all, there are a couple of things that keep me coming back to this work, and I think they may be related. One is the way in which the past is brought into the present, with the traditions of ancient Persia and the nomadic Turkic tribes of the region staged against the backdrop of Islamist Iran and post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The other is the starkness and drama of the industrial/post-industrial landscape, with massive oil rigs sitting on the horizon in still shots, while archetypal female figures perform seductively among rusty, outdated equipment on the shore. Quite a few suggestive glances are exchanged, not all of them magnanimous.
For the last couple of years I’ve been quite interested in the “landscape theory” that informed the work of radical Japanese filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi and the photographer Takuma Nakahira in the 1960s and 70s (see this fascinating interview with Adachi — himself a fascinating guy — at Midnight Eye). The idea was essentially that landscape, even picturesque landscape, is shaped by ruling powers, and that it, in turn, has a role in shaping the lives and sensibilities of those who live within it.
With Ride the Caspian, Menlibayeva and Behbahani complicate this account in interesting ways, lending it some contemporary nuance. They seem to suggest a non–linear version of cultural inheritance that overlaps in time and space, and also the role of certain libidinal forces in mediating the relationships that take place there. Which begs the question: does desire liberate us from the power of landscape, or is it part of the landscape of power?
That’s an open-ended question, by the way. So don’t take my word for it. Come and see the work currently on display at GOMA, and post your comments below.