Valletta Contemporary

Curator Interviews: Maren Richter

 

Interviewed by Ann Dingli 
August 2019

Mikhail Karikiris, Children of Unquiet, 2014

This Land is Your Land is a photography and video-based exhibition surrounding the subject of how land has been commodified or occupied by various interests. Almagul Menlibayeva, born in Kazakhstan and based in Berlin, and Greek artist Mikhail Karikis, based in London and Lisbon, interrogate the disputed fields, wherein land and identity is impacted by history, rights, politics and economy, as well as memory, rituals and traditions. Curator Maren Richter, who explores socio-political themes in her work, talks to Ann Dingli about the show.

Ann Dingli (AD): This show concerns itself with the question of commodification of land, its conquest and occupation, and the issue of appropriation. Can you talk a bit about the idea of land and identity – the relationship between the two, and how this relationship is changing today in an increasingly globalised world?

Maren Richter (MR): Land and identity are so much stronger linked than we often tend to recognise. We feel mostly disconnected to the cycles of nature or to the landscapes that surround us, but what’s probably worse is that we grow up with the idea that land is something which is part of an economic cycle only. The concept of commodification is relatively new. It originally attempted to democratise the idea of owning land as an act against feudalism in beginning of the 19th century in Britain. But this was also the point of departure of creating a (virtual) market value of land. 

 

Almagul Menlibayeva, one of the two artists in the show, who is from Kazakhstan, for example shows one work, Transtoxiana Dreams, a tale-like film situated in the Aral Sea region, which is one of the largest natural disasters on earth. Transoxiana in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – once the eastern part of the Hellenistic regime under Alexander the Great and the former homeland of the nomadic tribes of Persia and Turan – remained an important trade region along the Northern Silk Road with flourishing civilizations. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted two major rivers to irrigate farmland and industrial land, cutting off the inland sea from its source. The Aral Sea has been disappearing ever since, and has turned in large parts into a desert. Afflicted by former Soviet policies and abandoned by commercial and cultural interests, today, Transoxiana lies bare and stripped in a surreal state of existence with discarded fishing fleets on dusty terrain, cleaved by metal scavengers while its inhabitants look on as the sea keeps receding into a far and unreachable distance of a seemingly better world. This is a dramatic example, showcasing a forced disconnect between land and the identity that it has shaped.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Butterfly, 2011

(AD): The notion of belonging to a place is a crucial theme being interrogated in this show. Both Menlibayeva and Karikis’s work deal with its implications, yet each unearth them through varying subjects such as gender and youth. What is the core commonality in their work – what made you bring these two artists together?
 

(MR): Almagul Menlibayeva and Mikhail Karikis are dealing with landscapes, which have been exploited over a long period of time. What they have in common for example is how they see their roles as artists within a framework of addressing those issues. They both give voice to the people, who have been being affected by those exploited, and today mostly deserted landscapes. Both artists use performative elements to encourage the people to engage and speak up. They try to unroll the past mechanisms of land-use by looking at generations who have to deal with the causal, irreparable ecological and social damages today. 

 

Almagul focuses strongly on indigenous life by giving a central narrative role to female mythological figures from all different kind of cultures in order to refer to current states of belonging, economic survival, gender politics and inequality of the country, which affects those living in the rural post-soviet post-industrial countryside. She uses the language of tales in her videos and photography and combines it with performative and documentary elements. Which creates a very special filmic narrative. Mikhail Karikis has two major unique elements. He also works with local communities, very often with the kids of villages of post-industrial regions. He sees his projects as performance pieces too. Karikis has explored collaborative work with communities as a means to help engagement with social causes. His themes are that of labour, industrial landscape, and the effects of globalisation on local communities. In his work with communities he often resonates with new ways of thinking about the destiny of territories scarred by industrial obsolescence. There is a particular ‘no future’ atmosphere inherent to those places. And his intention is to encourage those kids to raise their voice, to revolt or just articulate life in such places and towns. 

 

Both artists share the concern of how we can re-imagine or re-claim space and place through imagination and disobedience. It is in a way a poetic activism, a language of the sensual and metaphysical too. Interestingly enough, for both the aspect of sound is very important too. It underlines, in a way, the rituality of protest or life in general and the spirituality of places.

Almagul Menlibayeva, The Phoenix, 2011

(AD): Menlibayeva’s videos and photographs focus on the non-synchronicity of a country’s development. She in particular deals with the subject of the historic Soviet occupation vs. the Kazakh people living in its aftermath. How far do you believe this dichotomy relates to other places that have been occupied by foreign or outsider powers? What are the unifying aspects of her work that make it relatable – if there are any?

 

(MR): Having been occupied creates a very specific narrative because it seems complicated and complex to look into categories of ‘history’ and ‘past’ if you want to figure out, what ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ may be. I myself come from a country of colonisers, and that ruler’s history and insignia are still very present in Austria. When I came to Malta it really fascinated me to see that the colonial history is so strongly present too. At the same time, it is not widely reflected on a daily basis. People are proud of Malta’s heritage, which is mostly that of the colonisers. And there are quite a few blind spots of history too, which seem to be neglected. So, occupation creates a very fragile idea of narratives like that of history, and a strong maintained linearity. Once someone in South Africa said to me, referring to the blind spots of Apartheid, that history can be invented anew every single day.

 

Occupation is also closely linked to exploitation of natural resource, whether in historic colonialism or in Neo-colonialism. Malta’s resources have been heavily exploited over centuries. I forgot until when there were still forests on the Maltese archipelago, but that was many centuries ago – just like on many other in the Mediterranean. Today every single tree has become precious. So, yes, the story of Kazakhstan is not a unique one at all. Well, just look at the entire African continent.

(AD): Mikhail Karikis often focuses on youth to unearth themes of territoriality and development in relation to place. Can you talk about Children of Unquietand why you chose it as a central work for this exhibition?

 

(MR): Children of Unquietis an amazing project with a lot of layers and aspects. It’s a research project at the site of the first geothermal power plant in the world in Lardarello, in the Valle del Diavolo, Tuscany – also known for inspiring the hellish descriptions of Dante’s Inferno. This innovative site of renewable energy is today a territory disfigured by the effects of industrial automation. Until the 1980s, a few thousand workers and their families lived in a cluster of iconic modernist industrial villages built around the power station and masterplanned by the modernist architect Giovanni Michelucci. Following the introduction of technologies that replaced human labour in the power plant however, unemployment in the area increased and prospects for the young became limited resulting in the rapid depopulation and complete desertion of entire villages. 

 

Mikahil investigates that through the voice as a sculptural material and a socio-political agent. In his work with communities the artist often resonates with new ways of thinking about the destiny of territories scarred by industrial obsolescence. In Children of Unquiet,Karikis collaborated with the kids from the village to orchestrate a children’s ‘take-over’. The work features forty-five children who are growing up in the region and near an industrial village that was abandoned by their parents’ generation. In the video, youngsters between five and twelve years old seize the depopulated sites transforming the vaporous wasteland into an amphitheatre, a playground and a self-organised school at the same time. They sing and harmonise with the powerful subterranean rumbles and industrial noises resonating across the area; they congregate in the ruins to read political texts by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, and play among the abandoned homes. In turn playful and meditative, spectacular and intimate, operatic and realist, Children of Unquietresonates with alternative ways of thinking about the destiny of territories which are scarred by capitalist transformations. It reflects on post-industrial legacies and hints at possible or desired ecological futures conjured up by the poetic and activist imagination of the generation that is most affected by current socio-economic changes.

Artwork by Denis Pondruel

Mikhail Karikiris, Children of Unquiet, 2014

(AD): In your own research and practice, you deal with socio-political art and public space. You have also worked in Malta before, curating the main visual arts exhibition as part of the Valletta European Capital of Culture 2018 term. How do you think the themes in Menlibayeva’s and Karikis’ work relate to the islands’ own constantly evolving definition of public land?

 

(MR): When I came to Malta the first time about three years ago there was one thing very obvious that I found intriguing - that space is contested and that conceptualising land as an economic value has its painful limits. It is of no surprise that more and more people express their worries about urban development plans, which please the growth of economy rather than the quality of life for the Maltese. There seems to be an imbalance. 

 

People have become attentive to things, which they may not have cared for necessarily a few years ago. You can now read every single day in the news stories about decisions being made by authorities that civil society disagrees to. People are worried about the increasing privatisation and economisation of land. What we can see in Malta so vividly due to the limited space is easier to ‘hide’ in large countries. We know that man-made damage causes the destruction of the planet Earth. Each small step is part of a chain of global causalities. Public land or private land – it does not matter. We need a global governance, we need laws without grey areas for politicians and corporates.

(AD): Do you think that art can have a role in communicating a meaningful idea of place or territory? What happens if it communicates a message that is not in tune with how its people identify with it?

 

(MR): I strongly believe that art encourages us to see things from different angles. In an age of black and white production of truth, fake news, viral social media – which all have very short temporalities but maximum affects – artistic practices and artistic research has become very important as a counter narrative to existing channels of communication. Whether it is liked or not. And by nature, this includes controversy. Art is not about identification. That’s what political populism or consumerism does. Art can talk to you, inspire you to think further, or to bring in your own experiences and imagination.

 

(AD): Can there ever be an ultimate truth in the exercise of defining place and its associated histories? Is that the underlining pursuit of this show?

  

(MR): Place, as well history, is never a given. They have always been produced, stressed. For example, look at the idea of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s production of place; or German theorist Walter Benjamin’s definition, also questioning the existence of one ‘history’ that moves away from metaphysical and ideological considerations of the meaning of place towards its experience in the everyday life of place. The same goes for truth. Truth has always been ‘produced’. Politics of truth is something extremely relevant for artistic practice today. How can we create alternative narrative and knowledge to existing manifestation of the truth in an age of algorithmic governance? What agenda does evidence incorporate? Truth – and that is what the show wants to examine – is something that is never ultimate. Truth and its concept need to be negotiated constantly. Consequently, place is a concept which needs to be negotiated.

Mikhail Karikiris, Ain’t Got No Fear, 2016

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