Dossier | Kamikaze Renovation: Parasitical Forms of Renovation | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Kamikaze Renovation: Parasitical Forms of Renovation

  • Kamikaze Loggia, Georgian Pavilion, interior view, Venise, 2013. Photo : © Gio Sumbadze

Kamikaze Renovation: Parasitical Forms of Renovation
By Nathalie Desmet

Renovation, understood as a desire to transform, improve, or restore to working condition, takes on a particular meaning in former Eastern Bloc countries. The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a permanent construction zone. Part transition and part transformation, this renovation, like a vast construction site that opens the right to self-determination, asserts itself as both a wager on the future and a wish to break with the past. In this context, artists have often questioned the vocabulary that has evolved to describe its qualities: “Sighnaghization,” (1) “Brusselization,” “Dubaization,” “Euroremont.” Such neologisms refer to urbanization policies that attempt to radically modernize the living environment, often at the expense of existing urban structures and their inhabitants. Georgians and Armenians speak of Euroremont (Euro-renovation) to denote a process that consists of blindly renovating a living environment according to European — that is, Western — standards. (2) Under cover of renovating, of erasing the years of the Soviet Union and its characteristic architecture, current leaders are also interested in historic neighbourhoods — ones that survived the Soviet era intact — for their touristic potential. The issue of urban renovation lies at the heart of Westernization policies in Georgia.

Artists, too, are caught between the desire to sweep away the vestiges of communism and the need to be part of modernity; thus, many of them find themselves occupying the renovation field. (3) The Bouillon Group (4) has focused on Tbilisi’s medieval district, Betlemi, long abandoned and now the object of an urban revitalization project. (5) Betlemi is a prime example of a neighbourhood that hasn’t yet entered a process of Brusselization. Its main characteristic is that it is largely self-governed, from both an architectural and economic point of view. The art project Betlemi Mikro Raioni (2009) (6) as a whole seemed to embody Jean-Luc Godard’s watchword: “Change nothing so that everything will be different.” (7) The collective endeavoured to map and highlight a district that hadn’t been stigmatized by Soviet microraions (8) or transformed by gentrification. In the same vein, the Bouillon Group’s three-day collective performance-action, Apartment 4, envisaged the participatory demolition of a typical communist-era apartment to which everyone could contribute: initially furnished with objects identified with the Soviet period, the apartment and its contents were reduced to a pile of rubble. The action was meant as a metaphor for the ineluctable demolition of Georgian heritage. (9) This performance may be seen as a call for a “DIY” approach and a rejection of Euro-renovation (Euroremont) and its standardization of historical heritage, which entails taking apart, or destroying, in order to better “rebuild”; to propose a remont, to borrow the Soviet term, or to designate a “redecoration” that follows neither European nor Soviet models.

With Euroremont: A three-day renovation according to the “Western” renovation standards (2010), (10) artist Nikoloz Lutidze, in an inevitable follow-up to the Bouillon Group’s performance, renovated an apartment strictly according to European standards. Tbilisi appears to be threatened by a drive toward standardization, a Euroremont Westernization that may well extinguish Soviet ideology but also eclipse any other form of renovation. These productions are symptomatic of the uncomfortable limbo that Georgian artists on the international art scene must also navigate. The Westernization imposed on Georgia is inescapable for artists wishing to have a presence on the global contemporary art scene. They too are caught between a critique of a largely Westernized system and the need to conform to that system to survive. In the art field, the brutal opening heralded by the fall of the Soviet system kindled a desire for transforming and renovating the art system that existed at the time. In the end, this could be construed as submitting to the Western art system, to the extent that most of the institutions that establish what may or may not be part of contemporary art are Western and continue to validate productions from the East. One of the questions apparently lurking behind these renovation practices seems to relate to the model of Western modernism. Must the erosion of Marxist ideology necessarily lead to this model? As Igor Zabel pointed out after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, “Dualism has been abolished; economic, political, and cultural systems — ‘free market,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘international style’ — are converging. Yet, a radical difference remains”(11) between former Western Europe and former Eastern Europe. As a possible alternative to Western domination, Zabel proposed the idea of “an artistic production that would develop by deconstructing its own conceptual and institutional framework, which presumes that artists become aware of the real circumstances of the work (that is, of the constitutive relationships at play in the art system and of the structures of domination that operate through it) and make them visible through the work itself.” (12)

The case of the Georgian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale is worth mentioning in this respect. In 2013, Georgia, a small country with no history of a pavilion and an unknown art scene, marginal internationally, occupied space in one of the two major venues of the international exhibition: the Arsenal. However, instead of being comfortably housed in one of the Arsenal spaces, the pavilion was designed as an architectural parasite, like an outgrowth on an old building at the end of the structure. It is a loggia built of wood and sheet metal by Gio Sumbadze, of the Tbilisi-based Urban Research Lab. What may appear fashionably low-tech and sustainable in a Western context, resembles, in fact, the largely illegal development of loggias throughout the 1990s in some former Eastern-Bloc countries, built as extensions of diminutive living quarters or as an alternative to overly standardized Soviet-era housing. The loggia at the Biennale, already quite Westernized (the absence of any truly recycled materials bespeaks the lack of economic constraints), became an exhibition area for artists Thea Djordjadze, Nikoloz Lutidze, Gela Patashuri, Ei Arakawa, Sergei Tcherepnin, Gio Sumbadze, and the Bouillon Group.

This form of renovation is nonetheless a parasitic appendage to the Arsenal; it tells of a desire to organize independently from the contemporary art system without being excluded from it altogether. Dubbed Kamikaze Loggia (phonically alluding to the common adze ending of Georgian surnames), the construction also refers to the dangers faced by those who take risks. In the context of the Biennale, the loggia is a way of affirming marginality, staking out a sort of parasitism: joined to the Arsenal, literally grafted onto it, it takes advantage of the host while not being altogether sure what future the Bienniale might offer.

In the view of Joanna Warsza, curator of the pavilion — curator, too, of the last Berlin Biennale — the loggia can also serve as a commentary on the petrification of Venice, a city that allows no new construction, that has fewer and fewer permanent residents, and whose only means of renovation is to preserve the image of a bygone time. “Façadism,” so fashionable now in former Eastern Bloc countries, is one of the more common renovation policies in Venice. The only means of preserving the city’s image, façadism also gives the illusion of preserving a kind of urban identity in Georgia.

The Venice Biennale is an old structure, changing little over time. It serves at once as a tourist attraction and as a standard for recognition on the international art market. Kamikaze Loggia is thus also a metaphor for the risks that any fringe artist takes when he or she becomes visible in an event like Venice’s Biennale. Moreover, it connects with nostalgia, or at least an awareness of nostalgia, a wish to renovate that may correspond only to an ephemeral change. The attempts at renovation described above are, rather, characteristic of a reflection on the “modernity of what might have been.” (13) Svetlana Boym identified a kind of nostalgia that cannot mesh with modernity as we conceive it: a longing for a home that no longer exists or that never existed. (14) Boym says that nostalgia is not anti-modern, but that it is the result of a better comprehension of time and space, a comprehension that makes the differences between the local and the universal possible. Nostalgia is also a form of rebellion against the idea of time as “progress.” Former Eastern Bloc artists’ interest in renovation is symptomatic of this break with a particular form of modernity. These renovations may just as well demonstrate an episode in what Boym calls “off-modern” history: a history that must be seen as an alternate solution to questions about the purpose of art or history, and whose aim would be a history of the fringes, of radical breaks, of gaps. Renovation would thus be located midway between a modern fascination with novelty and a no-less-modern reinvention of tradition. (15)

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

NOTES
(1) Refers to inadequate urban renovations or the transformation of historic city centres into business or tourist districts at the expense of urban vitality, typical of the city of Sighnaghi, for instance.
(2) It may consist, for example, of replacing wooden windows with plastic ones.
(3) Curator Joanna Warsza has organized numerous action-exhibitions that question this notion of renovation in the context of countries of the former Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc.
(4) An art collective composed of Vasil Macharadze, Zura Kikvadze, Temo Kartlelishvili, Katya Ketsbaia, Koka Kitiashvili, Lado Khartishvili, and Natuka Vatsadze.
(5) Tbilisi, Kala Betlemi Quarter Revitalisation Programme Report, 2000-2010, accessed September 10, 2013, http://icomos.org.ge/pdf/betlemi_project_report.pdf.
(6) Organized by Art-Zone Poland/Tbilisi, 2009.
(7) Jean-Luc Godard, “Toutes les histoires”, Histoire(s) du cinéma, 1988, France, Gaumont, (DVD), 51 min.
(8) Urban architecture typical of the Soviet era.
(9) Lali Pertenava, “Domestic Resistance of Bouillon Group,” in Kamikaze Loggia (Tbilisi: Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, 2013), 39 – 42.
(10) “Frozen Moments: Architecture Speaks Back in Tbilisi,” 2010.
(11) Igor Zabel, “L’(ex-)Europe de l’Est et son identité,” in Les Promesses du passé, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2010), 210 (our translation).
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
(15) Cf. Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia,” in Atlas of Transformation (Zurich: JPR Ringier, 2010), 401 – 04.

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