Central Asian Project At Manchester Cornerhouse

By Poppy Bowers | 14 February 2007
a photograph of a group of naked women standing arms outstretched in mounds of snow in a beautiful desolate and snow bound landscape

Almagul Menlibayeva #195978. © Almagul Menlibayeva

Poppy Bowers enjoys a colourful and thoughtful exploration of central Asia through photography, film and art at Manchester Cornerhouse.

With its latest show spotlighting current developments in central Asian artistic practice, Manchester’s Cornerhouse continues to introduce innovative areas of creative activity to its exhibition program,

Running until April 1 2007 Central Asian Project explores the developing cultural identity of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan through both British and central Asian perspectives, giving attention to previously overlooked and underrepresented regions.

a black and white photograph showing a view of the turbine hall of Tate Modern with a muddy field with a dog in

Alexander Ugay, Two Banks 2006, 1. © Alexander Ugay

As countries that only acquired independent status after the 1991 collapse of Soviet Union, each of the three central Asian countries are in the process of establishing a cultural identity of their own.

By focusing on this process, Central Asian Project captures the current impact of contemporary issues of globalisation and new technology on a region that is rooted in rich and varied historical and traditional practices.

With three floors showcasing seven artists, three British and four central Asian, the exhibition aims to explore how individual and national identities are created through landscape, culture, history and politics.

a colour picture of woman with a long colourful headscarf

Almagul Menlibayeva #195976. © Almagul Menlibayeva

Through film, photography and digital media, the artists draw upon the various historical roots of central Asia, including references to past industrialisation, connections with the Russian empire and their role as part of Soviet Russia.

A major theme throughout the Manchester show is the exploration of land and the relevance of the body within it. Ruth Maclennan’s Valley of Castles (Hunting Eagles) (2006-7) captures the barren and vast landscape of South East Kazakhstan, with the recorded violent noise of the wind reinforcing the harsh isolation of the location.

Maclennan’s unspoilt landscape creates a striking contrast to the activity of the Kazakhstan construction sites in Dinu Li’s film Episodes of Time (2007).

a close up photograph of a mountain eagle held by a man in a fur hat

Ruth Maclennan, Valley of Castles, Hunting Eagles. © Ruth Maclennan

Elsewhere, Kazakhstan artist Alexander Ugay’s series of montages merge images of London’s iconic landmarks, including Westminster and Tate Modern, with locations from his hometown. By isolating such civic and prominent British buildings, the artist highlights the Western traditional use of architecture to reflect aspirations of national pride and achievement.

When fused with Kazakhstan landscapes, Ugay creates images that underline the differences between landscapes while simultaneously placing his country’s ambitions firmly within the context of Western values.

In other works, the landscape becomes secondary as artists focus on the way people behave according to religious and social meanings. Almagu Menlibayeva’s film piece Jihad depicts a young Kazakh woman moving along the exterior walls of the mausoleum of 13th century Sufi Hodjo Ahmet Yasawi, the poet and teacher credited with Kazakhstan people’s conversion to Islam.

a photograph of a man standing in the doorway of a dark cellar wearing a large hat

Shona Illingworth, KZadmininsdest-
airsman, Karlag. © Shona Illingworth

Playing with an Islamic headscarf her movements fluctuate between fast and slow, as the woman’s performance echoes the current conflicting debates aimed at the religious garment in today’s media.

The collaboration between UK and central Asia makes visiting this show a reflexive exploration that immediately raises questions of identity, culture and a sense of nationhood that goes far beyond the project’s title.

This is best demonstrated by Alexander Ugay’s second piece Dog Show. The black and white footage of a British rural event points the lens away from central Asian regions onto our own cultural traditions. As a result Ugay illuminates the universal human initiative to conduct ourselves in particular ways with the aim of reflecting particular values and meanings.

a black and white photograph showing a view of the houses of parliament with a muddy lane superimposed onto the foreground

Alexander Ugay, Two Banks 2006, 3. © Alexander Ugay

It is no surprise Central Asian Project is developed out of a wider exchange programme including not merely exhibitions but artist residencies and cultural interaction.

Co-ordinated by Cornerhouse, Space (London) and Asia Art+ (Kazakhstan), the project aims to “increase communication and cultural understanding by acknowledging and reflecting upon the prejudices and preconceptions held about other cultures”.

Central Asian Project propels this largely unknown region into our mainstream consciousness, raising universal issues of landscape its role and relevance to our presence and behaviour within it. The project’s first major exhibition at Cornerhouse sets a high benchmark of things to come and let’s hope they continue to expand this important and timely cultural exchange.

A concurrent exhibition is showing at the [space] studios in London as part of the Central Asian Project, featuring work by many of the same artists mentioned above, including a new video work by Shona Illingworth and a video by Dinu Li inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's film of the Rolling Stones rehearsing, One plus sympathy for the Devil. The exhibition runs until April 14 in London.

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