Apr 29 2014

A Perpetual Loop: The Work of Kazakh Artist Erbossyn Meldibekov

by Kitty Van Leeuwen

ERBOSSYN MELDIBEKOV, Transformer, 2013, bronze and wood, dimensions variable. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.

Kazakh artist Erbossyn Meldibekov is in constant conflict with his identity. His exhibition “Mountains of Revolution,” now on view at Rossi & Rossi gallery in Hong Kong, demonstrates some of the struggles faced by an artist emanating from a region that remains relatively unknown. In his performance at the 2005 Venice Biennale, Meldibekov introduced himself and was accepted as being from the fictive nation of Pastan. When questioned on the gullibility of his viewers, the artist responded challengingly, “Few people care where Tajikistan or Turkmenistan is. To them, Central Asia might as well be a meteorite that exploded out of Venus.”

Where’s the conflict in wanting to put one’s country on the map, one may wonder. For Meldibekov, a politically engaged artist, the answer is evident in both his practice and in the fact that he has few friends in his own region. The latest example of alienation resulting from his hyper-critical stance occurred at the opening of “Mountains of Revolution” earlier this month. When the wife of the Kazakh counsel saw the artist, she ran off, too afraid of being associated with his take on the historical and contemporary politics of the country. The artist laughs off this incident, having long since accepted that he will never gain full recognition in his own country.

ERBOSSYN MELDIBEKOV, Peaks of Lenin2013, enamelled basins and bath, dimensions variable. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.

The show’s title “Mountains of Revolution” nods to the notion that everything comes full circle, and this theme is apparent in most of the works. In Transformer (2013), a sculpture of bronze and wood, that Meldibekov jokingly calls “a serious toy for adults,” the viewer is invited to create his own monument. The artwork references a monument in Uzbekistan that has gone through ten changes in the past hundred years. Due to politics, shifting ideologies and ensuing conflict, various individuals and events have been commemorated, all perched upon the same pedestal.

In another work, Peaks of Lenin (2013), Meldibekov depicts the highest mountain of Central Asia, which has also been subject to transient naming. Having gone through four over the past hundred years, it is still regarded differently from each side of its peak. In Tajikistan, the mountain is known as Ibn Sina Peak, while in Kyrgyzstan it is called Lenin Peak, each referring to the country’s ruler at the time of its naming, respectively. To represent these transformations, the artist created three versions of the mountain. Made from bathtubs that have been bashed in with a hammer, they allude to Central Asian countries’ constant re-visioning or “washing” of their previous identities, which fits perfectly with the theme of the exhibition.

ERBOSSYN MELDIBEKOV, Mountain Village, 2014, plywood, 122 × 168 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.

Meldibekov often finds metaphorical meaning within the materials he uses. In one of his most recent works Mountain Village (2014), he created a village out of plywood rather than his typical medium of bronze, which he cites as “being too expensive and scarce,” to represent a country in which wood and cardboard are more prevalent.

For Meldibekov, Central Asia seems stuck in a different time and in a perpetual loop. While other countries are growing and changing, the artist describes change in Kazakhstan as seasonal—spring, summer, fall, winter—“it’s always a circle, a never-ending circle, ” he says. Despite this slightly pessimistic outlook, the artist strives to achieve political engagement with his work, believing this to be the only topic worth confronting.

Erbossyn Meldibekov’s “Mountains of Revolution” is on view at Rossi & Rossi through May 3, 2014.

Kitty van Leeuwen is a writer currently based in Hong Kong.