From his 2009 “Asian Weapon” series of black-and-white drawings of household items converted into weapons, to his vividly colored ceramic plates depicting camels with hi-tech rocket launchers on their backs, Erbossyn Meldibekov is known for politically loaded works that appropriate simplistic views of Central Asia as a region defined solely by barren landscapes and violent histories. Born in 1964 in southern Kazakhstan, Meldibekov lives and works in Almaty. ArtAsiaPacific talked with him about the fictional nation of Pastan, cannabis and the evolution of Soviet monuments.
In a performance at the Venice Biennale in 2005, you introduced yourself to tourists as a native of Pastan, and they pretended they knew the country. Why do you think they did this?
I think few people care where Tajikistan or Turkmenistan is. To them, Central Asia might as well be a meteorite that exploded out of Venus.
In your 2005 performance, Pastan on the Street, and your 2004 video Pastan 2, you allow people to verbally and physically abuse you. How does this meekness relate to your views of the political situation in Kazakhstan?
That period of protest against president Akayev was a time of optimism, and I was attempting to create protest art. But now, instead of violence and obscenity there is only laughter in my work. My rebuttal to the Pastan works is Shu-Chu (2009). Its title comes from the railway station in my hometown, where cannabis grows, and it means “I joke.” This is important, since the main quality of this herb is that it makes you laugh.Black Square (2005), is a parody of Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square (1915)—yours is a square of live worms. What led you to appropriate this artist’s work?
I had a passionate period of applying my revisions to other artists’ work. I wanted to take the static Malevich and connect it to the earth, like the nomads, who are in constant motion.
Wolf-Ram (2006) is a taxidermied sculpture made from the front half of a wolf and the back half of a ram sewn together in the middle. What are you implying with this piece?
Kazakh mythology, nomads and animals play a big role in the aesthetics of most of my works. Wolves represent an idealized image of courage, bravery, skill and, most crucially, independence. Meanwhile, the ram, especially its backside, signifies stupidity and thickheadedness. With this work, I wanted to create a sort of hybrid animal because that’s what it felt like after Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991. Many artists tried to renew these kinds of mythologies and legends, not only here, but in the Ukraine and Russia as well. I, on the other hand, tried to demythologize these themes.
What is your religious standpoint, especially in reference to the performance Hypermuslim (2006) in which you circumcise yourself a second time?
The 16th-century general Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat is one of the original founders of Mongolian-Islamic culture in the Kazakh homeland. I like his thoughts and teachings about Islam. I was born in the religious part of southern Kazakhstan, but I’m an artist and do not consider myself very religious. I was always interested in dead-end questions, such as these little pieces of ourselves, which we cut off, making them useless. It’s very strange.
You have become very popular in the European contemporary art world. What sort of treatment do you receive in your home country?
In Central Asia, the people in power are allergic to artists like me. It is becoming more and more dangerous to make radical works. I am afraid to make these kinds of works there now. In Uzbekistan, Umida Akhmedova was recently taken to court [for photographs that allegedly “insult and slander the Uzbek people and traditions”], and the Russian dealer Marat Guelman was beaten up in his own gallery in Moscow in 2006 after he showed politically provocative work. Instead of blatant pessimism, now I employ irony and laughter.
All of your work so far has been about Kazakhstan. Do you feel like you will ever run out of subject matter, or is Kazakhstan an endless theme for you?
Perhaps because I was born on the mountainous border between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, I consider myself a Central Asian artist and cannot discern Kazakhstan from its neighbors. I find the political problems in Kyrgyzstan closer to my heart and more interesting than the political intrigue in Kazakhstan.
Your “Family Photo Album” series (2007–09), which you made with your brother, shows family members posing in places they visited decades ago. Here, your medium appears to be time itself. Many of my new pieces consist of forgotten utopian stories, incidents and even gossip. For instance, there’s a monument in Uzbekistan that was changed 11 times in 90 years. At first, in 1912, it was governor-general Kaufman, but in 1917, the Bolsheviks replaced him with a red flag, calling it “Monument to Revolution.” Then it was Stalin, Karl Marx and Amir Temur. It’s absurd to change a monument every ten years. Another time, we found a picture of our sister standing in front of a monument of Lenin in Kazakhstan, and decided to photograph her there, in the same pose. The strange thing was that the background stood out more than her. Lenin’s figure was replaced by an equestrian statue of the Kazakh hero Baidiber-Batir, but in the end it looks like the Soviet military leader Kotovsky or the Red Army commander Chapaev. It was interesting to see how these Soviet symbols mutated and in some cases disappeared altogether.