ARTIST TALKS is a PCAI online series of talks and interviews between PCAI Collection artists and other artists, art historians, curators, or art theorists. For the second ARTIST TALK, visual artist Almagul Menlibayeva discusses with curator Aigerim Kapar.

Vostok is East_ Almagul MenlibayevaVostok is East, 2019,  Almagul Menlibayeva©

It’s been almost a year since our ordinary life has been paralyzed due to the covid-19 situation. We have managed to change our habits, got used to the so called ‘new normal’ and continue to rethink; imagining a new reality and a post-pandemic future. In the age of the Anthropocene, alienation from nature, disputes between people and technogenic factors aggravate the environmental situation in the globalizing world. Therefore, the pandemic is approached as a consequence of all this, which, in its turn, results in social, economical, and political crisis. The intervention of the pandemic in our daily routine accelerates the process of rethinking, the perception and development of space, territories and borders, along with mobility and socialization, digital environment and online/offline communication. 

Neo-nomadism and urbanism are not feasible nowadays, when we need to remain socially distanced inside our apartments or stay in unsafe cities. Thus, we practise digital nomadism as our only way to travel. Meeting, working, watching, and creating art online, being flexible and adapting to the rapidly changing conditions. How can art practices redefine the interaction between human, nature, and technology in the Anthropocene and Capitalism era? We will discuss this question with Kazakhstani artist Almagul Menlibayeva, whose photo and video lens focuses on ecology, memory, future, nomadic culture from a contemporary perspective, globalization, migration of knowledge and the decolonial perspective.

Aigerim Kapar, curator

Shamanism vs Anthropocentrizm_ Almagul MenlibayevaShamanism vs Anthropocentrism, “Transoxiana Dreams” project, 2011-20, Almagul Menlibayeva©

Aigerim Kapar: Nowadays, as our world has become extremely fragile and humanity seems once again to have reached a dead end, we are faced with the need to create possible scenarios for the future. Scenarios in which economic and social models sensitive to the Earth’s ecosystem and Space will be revised and environmental challenges, as the consequences of the colonization of nature, will be taken into account with attention to our historical past and memory. Scenarios in which we will show more solidarity towards each other and the planet.

Especially in the context of the Kazakhstani experience that went through colonization and modernization during the USSR as a result of various environmental disasters survival: the Aral Sea disappearance, the nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site, the extensive excavation and development of virgin lands and the extinction of the traditional nomadic lifestyle and culture. In the nomadic philosophy and worldview, the relationship between man and nature was based on the principles of interdependence and the so called responsible consumption, which shaped an indifferent  ecological memory. You comprehend and explore this memory, experience, and the current state of affairs through your artistic practice, through personal stories and your position as a woman. For example, in the “Transoxiana Dreams” video project (2011), filmed in the Aral sea in a zone of ecological and social disaster, we discover the stories of people affected by nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk polygon in the 5-channel video installation “Kurchatov 22” (2012). How did you choose this particular topic and which factors influenced your choice?

Almagul Melinbayeva: As a child I was impressed by the conversation between my mother and famous Kazakh singer Roza Baglanova. My mom used to pick me up from the same school her son went to. Roza and her mother spoke Kazakh from the position of temporary guest on Earth by using special linguistics of the nomadic culture, the 3D metaphor of the temporality of the body in space. It turned out that Roza Baglanova was from Kazalinsk, which is located in the area near the Aral Sea. I remember this strange feeling in me regarding her experiences and the expression in her eyes. While the strangers moved their bodies into the bright future, Roza Baglanova spoke very eloquently about the Great sea that was disappearing…

Every time when I hear her voice, I recall this conversation. Perhaps that is the reason why my project “Transoxiana Dreams” was born. This film was shot without any  script, on the spot, which is full of my childhood associations.

“A human is a temporary guest on Earth.” Kazakh national proverbAral Beach II_ Almagul MenlibayevaAral Beach II, “Transoxiana Dreams” project, 2011 Almagul Menlibayeva©

“Transoxiana Dreams” is a little girl’s projection of the world  living in the middle of the ecological disaster of the disappearing Aral Sea. She leads the audience through her Dreamtime beliefs to the post-Soviet hyperreality, in which her dad works as a fisherman in the new expanding Aralkum desert. Dad and other fishermen daily get used to the shrinking sea that has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters”. The region’s once-prosperous fishing industry has now become devastated, bringing unemployment and economic hardship to the locals.

Transoxiana Dreams . Crying Camle_Almagul MenlibayevaCrying Aral Camel, “Transoxiana Dreams” project, 2011, Almagul Menlibayeva©

We are caught in a girl`s posthuman world of hybrid reality inside her dream with the disturbing body experience of our possible futures of environmental social injustice. All-day and all-night, fishermen circle along the bottom of the dried Aral Sea. She pushes her father and his friends to enter the ghosts Ex-Soviet Union’s top-secret Aralsk-7 biological weapons research centre and test site in Vozrozhdeniye Island. The girl’s “Portal to Mystical Ecology” opposes the idea of human’s supremacy over nature, she seduces it on the trip with hybrid and chimeric bodies produced by the compost of human and nonhuman, the Greek mythical Centaur, the prototype of a nomad on a horse, with semi-humans, semi-animals all the futures remains of evolutionary possibilities. When the father and his friends overcome the temptations and dangers of illusions comparable to those from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Sea decides to come to the father and fishermen and pass on to the girl the message of the screaming fish. The Aral Sea appears to have a consciousness of an intelligent female.

Altar of the East_ Almagul Menlibayeva 6Altar of the East, 2011, Almagul Menlibayeva©

I witnessed the movement where Kazakhs united the victims of nuclear tests from all around the world and rose up against the totalitarian system and the nuclear military race. “Nevada Semipalatinsk” was formed in 1989 and was one of the first major anti-nuclear movements in the former Soviet Union. It was led by author Olzhas Suleimenov and attracted thousands of people to its protests and campaigns which eventually led to the closure of the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk in north-east Kazakhstan on 29 August 1991. The test site was closed by the government of the Kazakh SSR. The movement gained global support and became “a real historical factor in finding solutions to global ecological problems”.  This event undoubtedly influenced my work “Kurchatov 22″.

Here_ udated view 2020“Here”, “Kurchatov 22” project, 2012  Almagul Menlibayeva©

In this work called “Here,” I re-enact the story of an old woman who survived the nuclear explosion in 1953, the consequences of which became evident after 30 years through the genetic mutations of her grandchildren. At the end of her story, she uncertainly and controllingly said ly: “Maybe I talk… too much?” The collective traumatic memory of the ecology destruction and the connection  between  body and the places should be discussed in environmental issues and their successful solutions in Kazakhstan directly affect the memory of the past politics  which is inherited from the past regime.

“A man gets used to everything in three days”, Kazakh traditional proverb

1Kurchatov 22_ Installtion shot Almagul MenlibayevaVideo still from the project “Kurchatov 22”, 2012  Almagul Menlibayeva©

From 1949 to 1989, at least 468 nuclear tests were carried out at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in which at least 616 nuclear and thermonuclear bombs were detonated, including 125 atmospheric bombs (26 terrestrial, 91 aerial, 8 high-altitude); 343 nuclear test explosions underground (of which 215 in tunnels and 128 in wells). Dozens of hydro nuclear and hydrodynamic tests have also been conducted. The total power of the nuclear charges tested between 1949 and 1963 at the Semipalatinsk test site was 2,500 times more than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Radioactive clouds of 55 air and ground explosions, as well as the gas fraction of 169 underground tests, spread outside the test site. Exactly these 224 explosions caused radiation contamination throughout entire East Kazakhstan.

A.K. How environmental movements spread their message in Kazakhstan today, in your opinion?

A.M. In contemporary Kazakhstan there are environmental movements like the “Defend Kok Zhailau” and “Defend Almaty”. These are long-term public initiatives that draw public attention to the issue of environmental protection along with other issues, like the systemic corruption of the market economy, the ideological criminalization of the country and the change in tolerance. Thanks to the solidarity and hard work of excellent activists from different social segments, they manage to successfully defend people’s rights whereas contemporary artist Saltanat Tashimova is actively working among them. Her longstanding eco-activism has become part of an artistic practice research project. In the 2000s Saltanat took active part as a performer in my projects “Transoxiana dreams”, “Apa”, “Steppen Barokko”, “Kurnab”, “Exodus” and I hope that we will continue cooperating and sharing our experiences further.

   The Cult of Mystical EcologyBody memory of Space_Almagul Menlibayeva“Body Memory of Space. Mystic Ecology”, 2012-2019, Almagul Menlibayeva©

Through the modern lenses of feminist archaeology, ethno-cosmism, ethno-ecology on the nomadic world view, I translate through this work the Sacredness of Nature in the heritage of cultures as a personal myth on the Mystical Ecology cult. The nomadic practice and linguistics were deeply related to the art of movement, to the different forms of body, time and space memory, involving all brain functions. Different nomadic astronomical calendars, kept by Esepshi, the priest astrologist, were used whereas a yurt with a shanyrak, an open dome on the top, was represented as a mini-observatory. For instance, it was strictly forbidden to wash and to have bath in the rivers, according to the Constitution of Genghis Khan’s Yasa, because they coud see the consequences of pollution. Worship of the Water cult, the feminine deity of Umay, was another  manifestation of the Mystical Ecology cult.

99 th Color of the Steppe_ Almagul Menlibayeva99th Color of the Steppe – is neither day nor night. #whydontyousleep my #baby, 2018, Almagul Menlibayeva©

The nomadic minimalism, multifunctionality, lightness and practicality of things and architecture have become a concept for the modern eco-traveling generation of digital nomads.

Madona of the Great Steppe_ Almagul MenlibayevaMadonna of the Great Steppe, 2010, Almagul Menlibayeva©

The ecology of ancient and modern communities

While progress cultivates the notion of human supremacy over nature, nomads, like people in many other cultures, have been forbidden to separate themselves from nature. Therefore, as the world progresses, when flora and fauna disappears, languages and cultures with invaluable knowledge will also be forgotten and vanished. Man is just a temporary guest on Earth… and this applies to those who will spend their life in the future either on the Moon or the Mars.

Installation Solo Show_Transformation_2016 Grand Palais_© Rmn – Grand Palais, Photo Didier Plowy_ ParisTransformation, Solo Show 2016, Grand Palais, Paris Curator Jerome Neutre © Rmn – Grand Palais, Photo Didier Plowy

AK: In your immersive multichannel video installations “Fire Talks To Me” (2015), “Astana. Departure” (2016-2020), “Tokamak” (2016), “Ride the Caspian” (2011), you combine staged fiction with documentary plots. There is a lot of space for the viewers in your films. You immerse them in the position of an observer, actor, or even a joint participant, while giving them a chance to discover themselves more, to feel that they are part of the story and the world. The artist is the akyn, a storyteller who creates new myths and remembers forgotten stories. You act as a contemporary shaman, a conductor connecting worlds, spaces, and times of different geography and cultures.Nowadays, while being divided by insurmountable boundaries, people and local communities acquire through their voice great value in understanding their daily reality and community. Art acts as one of the most important ways/ tools to amplifiy these voices connecting them to our common future. In a pandemic, in anticipation of a post-pandemic state, which opportunities for community dialogue are there? How can we rely on local context, intensify the creation of new spaces of cultural interaction and expand global environmental consciousness?

The Map of Nomadizing Reimaginings. Almagul Menibayeva copy

Location settings of Almagul Menlibayeva’s video instalations © Almagul Menlibayeva

1. Astana. Departure. 2016-2020;  Green, Yellow, Red, 2015;
2. Kurchatov 22, 2012;  Tokamak, 2016;
3. Transoxiana Dreams 2011;
4 Ulugh Beg: Intrinsic Futuristic Machine of Central Asia, collaboration with Inna Artemova and German Popov, 2020;
5. Karlag, 2016; Milk for Lambs, 2010;
6. Butterflies of Aisha bibi, 2010;
7. My Silk Road To You, 2011-2020;
8. Steppen Barokko, 2004; Apa, 2003, As the Oil Burns 2004;
9. Fire Talk To me, Baku Azerbaijan, 2015;
10. Ride the Caspian (collaboration with Bahar Benbahani), 2011; Caspian Palmes.

АМ: It’s a multidimensional process, and I don’t have an answer for it. I see the pandemic period as a very rare and unique time, even though it is very difficult for everyone. We have become members of a global experimental hyper-laboratory. Each country already has “its own quarantine experience”: its level of sensitivity, restrictions inherent in forced captivity, collective drama and collective madness.

The letter _Almagul MenlibayevaThe Letter, 2013, Almagul Menlibayeva©

At the same time, public health and the environment are identified as part of the economy. In this light of culture it is  now a very interesting time to have the so called ‘laboratory experience’ as everybody shares their experiences online or has 2-3 Zoom conferences a day… I wonder, has this lab period become a Transformation or a Mutation for the Kazakh space?

Pantheon_ Almagul MenlibayevaPantheon, 2020, Almagul Menlibayeva©

The reason why it’s so difficult to gather human potential is because Kazakh society is still under the heritage of a totalitarian culture. Although there is no ideology, the memory of the body and its cultural projection are characterized by empty thinking and the rejection of cultural diversity, just the way Soviet materialism worked. It’s cynism against our people in a modern context.

A.K. In January 2020, when it was still possible to gather together, we met offline at Lahore Biennale “Between the Sun and the Moon”, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi. There you presented a site-specific multimedia installation titled “Ulugh Beg: Intrinsic Futuristic Machine of Central Asia,” in collaboration with Inna Artemova and German Popov, a work presented in the PIA Planetarium and supported by PCAI. You created this “alternate universe” in an orbital observatory, a 10-channel 360-degree video with a submersible sound, about the story of Ulugbek, astronomer and the medieval governor of Samarkand. In this project, you attempted to restore the ancient cultural bonds of these regions and project the future. During the performance, spectators and guests of this “universe” traveled through the Ulugbek drama that unfolded in space, among futuristic spaceships, Central Asia Islamic architecture, satellites, and space debris resembling a session of collective meditation. We discovered Ulugbek’s tragic fate through interviews with scientists, mathematical formulas, musical integral sounds, thoughts and views on cosmopolitanism and relationships, the environment, technology, memory and culture. After that you continued working during the quarantine to create the “Ulugh Begh’s Orbite” video, commissioned by PCAI, where “anthropocentrism vs ecocentrism”, the message from his observatory is evident. How did the new conditions influence your creative process?

Video: “Ulugh Beg: Intrinsic Futuristic Machine of Central Asia”, 2020 Almagul Menlibayeva©

АМ: Almost a year ago I started working on this project with my collaborators Inna Artemova and German Popov. In the final project for PCAI, I’ve combined part of the film with installations shots from Lahore and Samarkand and I developed its animation. During the pandemic I was finalized this special one-screen installation that includes parts of the film, documentations of the PIA Plantarium installations, shots of places in Lahore and Samarkand, as well as my position at that special time. Like everyone else, I have become a witness of unprecedented swiftness and sharp political, economic, social changes that the pandemic has entailed in many countries and societies in personal situations. This situation helped me to witness the personal and political drama of the ruler and scientist Ulugbek before his assassination and the unique fate of astronomy and his devoted disciple Ali Kuchi. This drama narration unfolds in modern space, in the orbit of Ulug Bek and its observatory I created, that collects the “space debris” of history. Our pandemic experience has created another way to approach the drama in his last words and I have comprehended the challenges of his time in a more thorough and different manner.

In the film shown in the multi-channel installation, I originally used a theatrical performance of the “Mirzo Ulugbek” Soviet period based on the 1964 historical drama of Maksuda Shikhzod. Several concepts of how to view and evaluate space from different epoch perspectives were combined through this film and its final installation. These concepts were developed through the 15th century of the Enlightenment Islamic Age in Central Asia and its Science of Music, through the lenses of the dialectical communist materialism that had colonial divisions and struggles with the past. This historical drama in the spirit of Soviet modernism was written in 1964, after the first human space flight in 1961. Through it, Space is presented as the political ideology of hegemony over the world and space. Whereas its third part is the modern proximity of space, and how I assess these values during a pandemic, already knowing at what “pandemic” speed space debris is increasing in orbits. Space is available to me through my mobile phone; at the moment, sitting in adjacent rooms, we communicate through it. How much will this consumerism cost us in the future? In this work I attempt to align our world views for the best in order solve issues without risking our freedoms and opportunities.

Ulugh Beg Orbite_Almagul 4Ulugh Begh Orbite, 2020,  Almagul Menlibayeva©

During the video, I had the chance to work with the wonderful actors of the Samarkand Theatre, adapting my video installation concept. I am very happy and grateful to all the collaborators in this transnational project that transformed me rather than mutated me.

Ulug Beg Orbite_ 2020 Almagul MenlibayevaUlugh Begh Orbite, 2020,  Almagul Menlibayeva©

AK: Almagul thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and ideas, your art and concerns. No one knows what will happen further on but I do hope this world eventually transforms for the better through this epidemic experience.

Aigerim Kapar is an independent curator, cultural activist, founder of the Artcom platform and the informal school Art Collider. She was born in 1987 in Kazakhstan and continues to live and work in Astana. In her curatorial practice, Kapar focuses on postcolonial and decolonial discourse in Central Asia. Kapar curates and organizes exhibitions, urban art interventions, discussions, lectures, and workshops. To accomplish such wide-ranging initiatives she often collaborates closely with art and educational institutions, as well as scientific apparatuses. In 2015, she founded the creative communication platform Artcom (Almaty) in conjunction with the local art community. The platform brings together different cultural figures to share experiences and discover channels for greater interaction within society in order to develop and promote contemporary art and culture. In 2017, Aigerim initiated the Art Collider (Astana) informal school—when art meets science. Through this initiative artists and scientists jointly conduct research and present lectures and discussions related to current issues. In 2020, she joined the core team of the What Could Should Curating Do (Belgrade) international curatorial program.

Video artist and photographer Almagul Menlibayeva lives and works in Berlin and holds an MFA from the Art and Theatre University of Almaty. She works primarily in multi-channel video, photography and mixed media installation and her work addresses such critical issues of post- Soviet modernity as social, economic, and political transformations in Central Asia, de- colonial re-imaginings of gender, environmental degradation, and Eurasian nomadic and indigenous cosmologies and mythologies. In conjunction  with  her  solo  exhibition  Transformation at  the  Grand  Palais  in  Paris (France, 2016 – 2017), she was awarded the prestigious Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture in 2017. Other awards include the Daryn State Prize of Kazakhstan (1996), and the Tarlan National Award of the Club of Maecenas of Kazakhstan (2003). She was also the Winner of the Grand Prix Asia Art at the II Biennial of Central Asia, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (1995) and the Winner of the Main Prize of the International Film Festival Kino Der Kunst (2013) in Munich, Germany.

Menlibayeva has gained international recognition by participating in: the Venice Biennale, Italy (2005, 2007, 2009, 2015); Sydney Biennale, Australia (2006, 2012); the Sharjah Biennial, UAE (2010); the Mediterranean Biennale, Israel (2010); the Moscow Biennale, Russia (2011, 2015); the Kiev Biennial, Ukraine (2013); the Daegu Photo Biennale (2016); and the Gangwon International Biennale, South Korea (2018); Lahore Biennale, Pakistan 02 (2020). Selected  solo  exhibitions  include: Videoart at Midnight #98: Almagul Menlibayeva, Berlin  (2018); Transformation,  Grand  Palais,  Paris,  France  (2016-2017); Union of Fire and Water, 56th Venice Biennial, Italy (2015); Transoxiana Dreams, Videozone, Ludwig Forum, Aachen, Germany (2014); An Ode for the Wastelands and Gulags, Kunstraum Innsbruck, Austria (2013); Daughters of Turan, Casal Solleric, Palma De Mallorca, Spain (2012); LATT: Europe at large #6, Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst (M HKA), Antwerp, Belgium (2010); Kissing Totems, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, New York, USA (2008). Recent selected group exhibitions include: Haifa Museum, Israel (2018); Neues Museum in Nuremberg, Germany (2018, 2016); Astana State Museum, Kazakhstan (2018, 2016); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium (2017-2020, 2010); National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST), Greece (2017). Almagul Menlibayeva made her curatorial debut with Bread & Roses: Four Generations of  Kazakh  Women  Artists,  co-curated  with  David  Elliott  and  Rachel  Rits-Volloch, organised by MOMENTUM (Berlin) in partnership with the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan (2018, Berlin, Germany)