Stepping into Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, originally built in 1890 to power the machinery of industrial London, the similarities between the history of the space and the exhibition currently situated within it become immediately apparent.
With its spaces of former industry now playing host to bars and art galleries, it seems apt that London — the former ‘factory of the world’ — should be the starting point for an exhibition series where post-industry and a changing of national/cultural paradigms are the prominent themes.
The country in this case is Kazakhstan, a vast country which stretches across central Asia, taking up a land mass close to that of mainland Europe. Until visiting this exhibition I was unaware of this, my only ideas and imaginations of the country being deeply rooted in its former being, pre-1991, as a Soviet state.
“Postnomadic Mind” is the first of four exhibitions that make up the Focus Kazakhstan project, the others taking place in Berlin, New York, and Suwon in South Korea. Although the sense of the past life of the Hydraulic Power Station is prominent, the space, near the site of the former London docks, seems almost purpose built for the art currently exhibited within it, dealing with as it does the question of epochal change between the Soviet era and Kazakhstan’s identity post-independence.
A common theme of the exhibition is the mixing of motifs between an idealised vision of a nomadic, rural people, and the transition to a post-industrial nation grappling with the pros and cons of globalisation. This can be seen in the work of artists such as Syrlybek Bekbotayev, whose piece The Modernist Paradigm shows a naturalistic painting of a nomadic family painted on to a series of rotating wooden mechanisms, each with each rotation forming new abstractions of the same image.
While the more conceptual installation work is the most striking and dominating of the range of the art that sprawls through the various caverns of the power station — the felt tapestry piece Labyrinth by Gulnur Mukazhanova being a memorable standout — there is also a strong painterly presence, such as the work of Vladimir Eyfert, whose 1957 painting Blizzard captivated me with its depictions of barren industrial landscapes in the midst of winter, which creates a feeling that is equal parts bleakness and optimism.
But despite the obvious progressive ideas of the artists in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, it is the art which alludes to the victims of the Great Purge in the 1930s th era that give the exhibition its definition. In particular Asel Kadyrkhanova piece Machine, in which endless reams of red emit from a 1930s cyrrilic typewriter, which then pin up hundreds of copies of real arrest warrants from the era, which also line the floor.
It is a moving, tragic piece, but one that gives the scope of Kazakhstan’s development, or at least, the development of its artists. For in this, the first major international retrospective of the nation’s contemporary art, the overwhelming takeaway is the depth and future of its art culture, and the vast possibility for the new identities and histories that its artists are forging, both national and personal.
Focus Kazakhstan: Postnomadic Mind will be at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, London, E1W 3SG until Tuesday 16 October. Tickets available here.
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Words by Robert Greer