The art of Alexander Nikolaev vividly reflects the history of conceptual art of Uzbekistan – brief yet self-sufficient in terms of genesis and evolution. Isolated from European influences and even more so – from exposure to modern actual culture earlier on, in the late 20th century the Soviet Central Asia experienced momentous transformations, and in the years of independence began to formulate a new strategy for the development of arts. Twenty years on one can see that the term “new strategy” is an understatement veiling tremendous effort that artists and curators invested in quickly mastering new forms and finding, in the complete absence of art management practices, a possibility to present their first experiments with contemporary art in the country, still avoiding its localizing without the context of international art scene.
Domestic situation, naturally, was not homogeneous. First experiments were made here and there – sometimes in the artist community, sometimes in the quiet of a loner-artist studio. It all matched the spirit of the “reckless” (as the term was) nineties. Young artists T. Akhmedov, M. Jalalyan, and E. Kagarov, who started together with Nikolaev, were neither social activists, nor even those who “upset their parents”. They simply could feel the time, and young age urged them to challenge, to provoke argument and a new situation in the art process. United around an independent forum such as “Ilkhom” studio-theatre, they tried to articulate a critical discourse on the then accepted standards in art. The matter of principal was to position themselves as a new marginal group in the situation of crisis and ideological deadlock of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Importantly, they candidly posed ontology-level questions, such as “What is contemporary art?”, “What objectives does it pursue in society?” As for many in this situation, their milestones were the works by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and John Boyce. Creative strategy of these notorious rebels matched the radical sentiment of the young artists who intended to move in the opposite direction to what they had been taught. They took to “breaking the rules”, running “provocation” exhibitions at the “Ilkhom” theatre, bringing “anti-art into the strictly limited territory of art”, as Duchamp put it. Painting exhibitions such as “Unity Out of Style” (1990), and the first installations (“The Road” and “Vanderful”, 1992) reflected the mood of anxious anticipation and unease, akin to the themes in the songs by Boris Grebenshchikov, or the characters in the film “Assa”.
But the reality of existence turned out to be much more complex than rebellious intentions: communities were falling apart, and many artists emigrated. Once Nikolaev moved deeper into conceptualism and post-modernist aesthetics, he took an independent road to project art. He progressed, not in search for “special ways”, but essentially reflecting a general pattern: he started by leaving the “framework” of a picture, now too narrow for him, for the space of a showroom – towards installations, objects, readymade and symbols. Despite crushing feedback from artists and critics, his 1999 “Kum-loi” project became a turning point. It was finally realized that conceptual artist is not “a poet of things beautiful and sublime”: he is “honed” primarily for studying – be it natural or manmade structures, or life issues. Introducing loess clay into “canvas, oil”, together with pieces of timber, metal, and computer parts, the artist tried to express some kind of tension between the primary archetype elements and the products of urbanism. Nikolaev’s spatial and kinetic objects such as “Saint Sebastian”, “Sultry July Score”, “The New Adam”, and “Modulor” (2001) finally overcome the two-dimensional limits of easel painting and paved the way into the three-dimensional space of an exposition.
“Modulor” objects are painted structures reflecting the stages of human evolution and referring us to the constructivist experience of Le Corbusier, from who Nikolaev borrowed the term “modulor”. For the first time in the art of Uzbekistan, the artist’s desire to develop his own concept of objects actualized connections with the European XX century constructivism.
Eventually the artist brings together installations, objects, photo and video images, as in his first major project “Reality Ready to Be: The Ark” (2003) presented at the “Ilkhom” theatre. The artist’s explication says: “…Everyone builds his own ark. For the artist it is his work and quest for identity. Still, whether he likes it or not, his art mirrors processes that take place in society. And since these are the processes of disintegration, images created by the artist are destructive. Destruction and disintegration have gone deep into the subconscious of modern man as a social creature, becoming his integral components. So, is this the art of disintegration? But just as any creative process entails disintegration, so destructive processes, too, paradoxically, bear the seed of re-creation. This is the perpetual spiral of creation…” Apparently, Nikolaev is familiar with such fundamental category of postmodernist philosophy as deconstruction, applying it to environmental and social problems; as well as with myths reflecting the collective unconscious, standards and utopias of modern man.
The time between 1999 and 2005 was very intense: the artist explored and at once rejected different types of imagery he mastered: from mimetic – through symbol and metaphor – to signature. Not afraid of being unoriginal, he studied and experienced abstraction, collage, pop art, minimalism and more, knowing that one has to learn a new thought system, the basics for further professional work in this domain. To an idle question of how to become a conceptualist that some people ask, seeking to take part in different projects, there is the example of Nikolaev and his evolution as an artist. One has to study the principles, techniques and language of the art, as any language, for that matter, if one wishes to express oneself and one’s ideas.
As with any master who chooses project art, Nikolaev’s personal and professional contacts, as well as the existence of his art, are linked with international art institutions. To be in demand, the artist must simply “breathe the same air” with his fellow colleagues. These connections and dialogue with international community are crucial for the master of this calibre.
In the 1990s, when video art became the most common format of modern art not only in the country, but also in the region at large, Nikolaev had difficulty making progress. Sponsorship and technical support were badly needed. Almost everywhere the history of Central Asian video art began in 2004 with the project called “Video-Identity” by the Kazakhstan curator V. Ibraeva. “Vaccinated” with a picture coming alive as a video, many artists quickly adapted to the new media. This has brought about new exhibition strategies, and, naturally, changed the general mode of art in the region. In his video art Nikolaev showed his independent vision, primarily in the realm of ideas: he noticed and pondered something important; something universal and expressed rather overtly. At that moment it was quite understandable: the young artist treasured a laconic device his had found of “squeezing” his message to the end. He builds meaning on contrasted worlds and systems: there is an acute sense of conflict between urbanism and the fragile world of nature, resulting in environmental disaster (video installations “The Aral Sea”, “Fish”), an of emptiness in the faceless blocks of a ferroconcrete city (video “Elevator”, “Shaman “).
Gradually, Nikolaev turns to semantically developed character, adding narration to his devices; he shows interest in personal experience as a reflection of challenges posed by the time. His video “I Wanna Go to Hollywood”, the sublimation of the whole generation’s sentiments, launched Nikolaev to the international artistic orbit. The piece is an ironic tale about a young man who became hostage of his idée fix to visit the shining “Olympus”, home to the western movie stars. Frame by frame, the viewer can see how he looses his identity, trying to match the stereotype. The video showing an episode from the life of an everyman relapsing into sovok inferiority complex is actually a very accurate reflection of the soviet man’s idea about the world, with his meagre knowledge about western “paradise”. The aesthetics of this video is deliberately un-staged and akin to amateur filming. This produces the effect of getting inside the private world of a lonely man who feels at ease to imitate his movie idols, imagining himself to be one of them. Intentionally poor image quality and shaking camera as an artistic device are essential to communicate the sense of anxiety coming from the outside world.
A milestone in Nikolaev’s art was the project “Constellation” (2005), the first actual art exhibition in Uzbekistan, which ran on the premises of a former maintenance plant. Abandoned buildings and workshops, now a crippled monument to soviet industry, became a real installation providing appropriate context for the project participants. Nikolaev presented “The Aral Sea Water” readymade that alludes not only to the environmental disaster, but also to crisis in the entire anthropocentric concept of worldview, with which the twentieth century ended. He converts each object into a sign, and “strips” the objects of their conventional semantics, “recoding” them: empty or broken “Tashkent” mineral water bottles, maps of the disappearing sea on the wall – all this has lost its meaning. Resting on things familiar and habitual, he demonstrated his keen understanding of the readymade principles: addressing banality entrenched in the collective memory. The artist’s new optics reveals that even these bottles now signify not only the exhausted and completely drained nature, but also the entire doctrine.
Kinetic installations “In Search of Perfection”” and “The Wings of Icarus” also presented as part of the project, are not merely an original engineering invention of the artist. “The Wings of Icarus” tells of the timeless human desire to make a dream come true, and further – to attain high ideals and break free from the shackles of routine. A machine with white plaster arms that steadily and coldly keeps stamping human forms reminds us of norms and standards – something that is usually the end result of this notorious “search for perfection”. It may have broader philosophical connotations: cloning or the crisis of the human uniqueness idea in the globalized world. As a result of experience he gained addressing universal problems of our time Nikolaev learned to be free in the post-modernist play with conventional meanings and easily recognizable myths, as did he learn to be a serious and ironic, but never indifferent to the current developments.
Usually focused on universal problems, in 2007 Nikolaev presented a surprise meditative black-and-white video art piece called “Prayer”, one of the discoveries of the “Constellation. PS” exhibition. Consciously or not, he was able to capture one of the trends in contemporary art: a study of religious and metaphysical subject-matter. A common misconception is that timeless themes do not interest the actual artist, and that if the conceptualist makes a video or puts up an installation of rusty pieces of iron, being also ironic about it, he cannot possibly be thinking about anything sublime. Yet many a problem concerns us in its own way “here and now”. American video artists Bill Viola who earned a reputation of being the Rembrandt in video art and who repeatedly turned to spiritual subject-matter, was once asked about the most important thing for him in art, and he said that most of all he was interested in the invisible world he associated with the teachings of mystics, and that for him important was the art that “captivates the entire consciousness: memory, intellect, and deeper psyche”.
In the stylistically minimalist “Prayer” the slow pace of telling a story about a lonely man praying amidst a snowy landscape is magnetic in its suggestive power. The man’s state of being one with God is unbroken; on the contrary, away from the hustle and bustle, in the silence of nature, each movement of the Sufi is sacred, and the sound of wind and water is woven into the recitation of the Koran. Man absorbed in his prayer, exposed to God and nature, is there to know himself, before anything else. Still the artist allows himself to ask questions. Going deep into his study, he comes up with the idea that contemporary man lives not only in the fast-changing rhythm of information boom and the joys of consumption generated in the dimension of capital and ideologies. Having lost the ability to comprehend it, he “quits”, insulating himself from within, and also stays in the mystery of spirit and the rituals of a thousand-year-old tradition of his ancestors.
At the 2005 and 2007 Venice Biennale and other famous art forums Alexander Nikolaev’s videos “I Wanna Go to Hollywood” and “Prayer” represented contemporary art of Uzbekistan for the first time. And it is not merely a fact in the artist’s personal biography. What is important is that video, evolving, has become a valuable segment of the artistic process in Uzbekistan, increasingly often representing the country in international cultural dialogue. The success of the two Nikolaev’s pieces, completely different in “language” and style, has to do with the fact that the artist explored a situation well hidden from superficial glance, which signals the presence of existential problems in today’s world. These very different characters show a kind of vulnerability and loneliness, which people experience in the West and the East alike. In reality, this condition often provokes escape or a quest for another reality. This can be the out-of-reach Hollywood, imaginary or virtual worlds, or religion. The artist has sensed and exposed this specificity of our shared social and cultural reality.
Nikolaev’s analysis of the metamorphoses of modern society is accompanied by questions about the nature and role of contemporary art practices and feedback from the audience known as attractiveness. He believes that it requires a timely conceptualization of a particular problem. Building on the work of the Russian painter Vereshchagin, “The Apotheosis of War”, Nikolaev created a video-installation about the apotheosis of cash, and the element of capital. Notably, for the first time in the context of Uzbekistan’s contemporary art the classical painting got involved in the critical discourse in the spirit of “rewriting the history of art”, characteristic of postmodernism.
Nikolaev’s work “The World of Good People” attracted a lot of attention at the 5th International exhibition “The Signs of Time” in Tashkent, at the Moscow and then the 54th Venice Biennale shows. Six panels were created by a woman-master A. Panova based on the artist’s sketches in the aesthetics of kitsch and naïve art. What has the artist contributed to them? Bringing these unsophisticated images into the context of contemporary culture as something ingenious and authentic, “pure” and un-glamorous, he changed their triviality with the new optics of perception. Shiny inserts, satin patches, sequins and other tinsel communicated the ancient magic of something tactile and golden, and shone their lustre on the new images of salesmen, owners of computer shops and kebab stalls. Aptly and originally the artist employed these images together, making reference to altar iconography.
If in “The World of Good People” Nikolaev found the “nerve” of modernity in the territory of kitsch and primitive art, in his “Water. Conversation” project (2012), by modelling real environment, he followed the road of minimalism, and, as philosophers say, phenomenological reduction: show things as they are and then bring in associations. Table, chairs, three large cans with water flowing through some kind of tubes, gurgling ceaselessly, white sheets of paper, and a TV set next to it… This is how, flowing and gurgling, engaged in an endless conversation, years go by and problems flow away: “everything passes, everything stays”. The artist’s device is deceptive: it seems “like life”, within arm’s reach, yet to comprehend it one has to make an intelligent effort to enter the reality of the author’s ideas and concepts.
Alexander Nikolaev, together with his colleagues, went through the time of “storm and fury”, and the time has come to analyze accomplishments and assess prospects. He calls himself a realist, believing that the truth of life and the study of reality have now taken new forms and express new meanings.