A One-and-a-half-eyed rifleman: The part of Kobyz. Notes on artworkS by Kyzyl Tractor art group
If someone asks a hypothetical average expert what art in Kazakhstan can be considered truly unique, original and authentic that is to ask for what art critics like to call «identity» and searching for what they run deeply into some weird discourse depth, then hypothetical average expert might refer to Kyzyl Tractor art group as Kazakh/Kazakhstani vehicles of identity. Indeed, their art fits ‘national format’ rather well. They utilize leather, felt, wood and other eco materials; the artists turn into shamans and wandering Sufis during their fascinating performances. They play traditional musical instruments, such as dombra, kobyz, tambourines and drums (besides, these bizarre archaic-shaped instruments were made by the artists). All the specific signs of national art are present here.
So no one would object the answer of a hypothetical average expert. Yes, the expert will be quite right, Kyzyl Tractor is extremely original and unique phenomenon in the art of Eurasia. Yet the reasons and grounds for this answer are rather different.
So Kyzyl Tractor is an art group from Shymkent (South Kazakhstan). The group was founded in 1990. They have been known for over a decade with numerous events in Kazakhstan and overseas and became one of the leaders of contemporary art in Central Asia. According to the website of Fonkor Gallery that used to be the office of Kyzyl Tractor in Shymkent: «All they had done made the history of Kazakhstani contemporary art»; and there is no exaggeration in this declaration.
In early 2000s the art group didn’t work as a constant collective project any more. Currently out of more than ten members (this number varied in different years) there are three people in Kyzyl Tractor, who keep on doing contemporary art. First of all, it is Moldakul Narymbetov who remains committed to original «shaman» aesthetics of Kyzyl Tractor. Often Arystanbek Shalbayev joins him, and their duo actually inherited the patronymic name of Kyzyl Tractor. The third member is Said Atabekov, he has modified the format of his art and turned to new media though still using his dervish image (dervish is a character in his video art).
In this article we’d like to focus to Kyzyl Tractor as an entire phenomenon rather than to personal stories of the group members. We’d also like to shine new light on the art group and probably highlight some important features in their art that still have not been under examination by local art critics. Though Kyzyl Tractor has never disappeared from the focus of critical attention, many people were willing to write about them, but the articles didn’t differ much from one another. The interpretation of their creative approach was usually limited to art restoration (of archaic rituals of baksy shaman, Sufi practices, traditional Kazakh crafts), i.e. as the most straightforward and basic though exalted way to represent the National heritage. Sometimes such definition was non-judgmental and neutral, sometimes it was a compliment (usually in the articles of foreign critics), and in other ones there was accusation for the same action. In other words, Kyzyl Tractor members were often implicitly suspected of superficial ethnography as touristy cheap art. They were and keep on being blamed; in skeptical eyes Kyzyl Tractor looks like some sort of combination of ethnography museum and folklore show (as for actual examples we suggest you accept our word as we wouldn’t like to waste your time with it).
However, the accusations in superficiality can be easily redirected to the accusing party. What we are trying to do in this very article is to prove that Kyzyl Tractor is a unique phenomenon not only due to their shamanic costumes, which are really very spectacular though.
FROM MATISS TO KORKUT
We shall start from the very beginning. Everyone knows that Kyzyl Tractor is not merely a performance show or a folklore theater. The art group has an interesting and complicated genesis, and it started as a club for learning Western modernism – no matter how weird it looks like. In the 70s a teacher and painter Vitaliy Simakov left Ufa for Shymkent; he was a follower of Mikhail Nazarov, who was a student of Pavel Filonov. In Shymkent Art College Vitaliy Simakov organized a seminar where the college students and all the visitors could study the heritage of European modernism and the Russian avant-garde. The art group was founded on the basis of Simakov’s studio; in a few years it changed several names, such as the SaA group, Shymkent-Transavant-garde, «The structural school of Si» (from the first syllable of the surname of the leader). In 1995 the group was finally named Kyzyl (Red) Tractor, it is a passionate name associated with avant-garde labor enthusiasm. The idea of the name was hinted by a tractor statue, an industrialization monument that was located near the Museum of Local History of Shymkent.
Kyzyl Tractor approached ethnic stylistics, that particular «national form», much later after several years of creating modernist paintings and spatial art objects. It was a natural consistent process: from Cubism, Fauvism and Suprematism to shamanic performance, and none of that can be achieved with a simple statement of ‘accelerated learning’ or «playing the roles» of the art history in the 20th century, like they had learned performance and happening in the process of chronological study of Western aesthetic experience. According to the artists themselves they did not know about the existence of performance in international art practice and invented it independently. For example, Moldakul Narymbetov at the opening of his solo exhibition in Rukh gallery (1995), where his paintings and spatial art objects were exhibited, offered his visitors to ritually wash their hands before viewing the exposition and then to go through the wooden wicker gate. The exhibition was a total installation: the exhibits were covered with apples and pears that were meant to be eaten by the visitors. The artist also performed a dombra improvisation; he made the musical instrument with his own hands following the example of the first Kazakh shaman Korkut, who invented kobyz. Moldakul Narymbetov did not know then that he was doing a performance, as he later remembered he «did everything by intuition» (an interesting fact: in the mass media the artist was called an «installation master», i.e. the one who makes installations, thus the conceptual definitions for the «new art» had not yet been created by the art critics).
Therefore, in the case of Kyzyl Tractor we see a pure and unique result of a pure and unique experiment on the perception and development of European modernism in post-Soviet Central Asia.
The local and foreign researchers of Kyzyl Tractor’s art usually mention that the group began its existence as a studio for studying modernism, but they do not explain or comment on the final choice of «Shaman» and «Sufi» ethnic esthetics, or they see no direct linkage there («Mastering the culture of the West and transforming it into Kazakh culture – the movements that are interweaving but not merging together» by Raminta Jurenaite, New Art of Kazakhstan, in the collection «The Essential about the Essential», Almaty, AIK-2000).
Whereas we believe that the «shamanic project» is a logical and natural outcome of the art group’s searching, which began as a school of structural art.
And in order to understand the inner motives and creative logic of the artists it is necessary to perceive Kyzyl Tractor not simply in its last «shaman» image, but to evaluate it as an integral phenomenon considering all periods of its biography, including of course the experience of interpreting the modernist heritage. After all, in moving from easel painting to acting Kyzyl Tractor did not change essentially its philosophical and creative credo (besides, the group members never stopped painting while doing their performances).
Vitaliy Simakov taught his students the doctrines of modernist trends through the prism of his theory of spatial-structural composition, he also taught them practical methods of mastering this theory.
For some time Simakov’s group named themselves «Shymkent-Transavant-garde», thus they incorporated themselves into the scene of international transavant-garde, whose ideology was established in the late 70s by a famous Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva. Actually the term of transavant-garde is usually defined as an art movement originated in Italy, though its main principles such as the rehabilitation of the traditional painting, the picturesque corporeality, the manipulation of the previous styles, the appropriation, the citation, the refusal to claim the creation of a new one, the abandonment of the destructive strategy of the avant-garde, can be attributed to other national trends of the 80s, such as German neo-expressionism, American «bad painting», Spanish new figurativeness, etc.
Indeed, the listed components of trans-avant-garde are easily attributed to the ideology of Kyzyl Tractor. However, such overlaying looks rather legitimate according to external formal characteristics, but it reminds of Procrustes’ experiments in the criteria of internal intimate content.
Transavant-garde as a world or rather Euro-Atlantic trend emerged as a reaction to conceptualism. And this is a phenomenon of the bourgeois world, which needed the resurrection of the traditional easel painting as a commodity.
Shymkent project appeared «in another place» and «at another time», it left behind socialist realism rather than pop art and conceptualism. And if transavant-garde was understood as a «turn to tradition» and return to the past, the avant-garde project of the Shymkent people was more like «return to the future».
In our opinion the Shymkent structural school is related to the classical avant-garde rather than to its latest «bloodless» versions regardless of the «pacifist» and peace-keeping intentions of the Kyzyl Tractor team. However, these intentions do not contradict their avant-garde aspiration, and we will speak about it later.
The similarity begins at the level of school organization. It should be noted that Simakov’s studio on avant-garde research looks like the reincarnation of the avant-garde clubs and schools of the early 20th century, such as Malevich’s UNOVIS or Matyushin’s ZorVed.
This is a commune school (there was time when the Kyzyl Tractor artists literally lived in a commune); there was the same high credibility of the ideological teacher as in the schools of the beginning of the 20th century (the artists now call their leader the Commissioner) and the community-conscious attitude from the members solving the common aesthetic task. Of course each member could carry out his individual art within the group; and the works by Kyzyl Tractor artists were very different stylistically, but they all had to be strictly committed to the principles of the school. The following quote can be an illustration of the last statement (here and further we use the materials from the group archive): «They (the followers of the structural school) are now having sort of ranks purging, where the litmus paper for selection is the degree of correspondence to the ideological postulates of structuralism. It is probably correct. In any case, the history of the world art has been repeatedly marked by campaigns for the genre purity. The format must be honed» (Z. Savina, The Svoya Gazeta, Shymkent, 1995). Or here is the quote from Vitaliy Simakov’s interview: «It’s almost impossible to get into our group without going through certain stages of training. All of us are united by the conceptual idea of a structural school» (The Karavan-blitz newspaper, Almaty, 1995).
It should be noted that the transavant-garde movement usually gravitated towards the primacy of a personality, to individualization, personalization of the language of each artist to «his own poetics» (Bonito Oliva). In fact, they perceived their art as a group project, as a Structural School mono project, and not just as a «movement», within which a single artist creates.
Of course, the true core of Shymkent school is the study of spatial structural composition and art works ranking according to scientific principles; first of all, it evokes the avant-gardists of the early 20th century, their cult of science and the their search for only true solutions.
Postmodernism and its weird child transavant-garde lost the supreme goal of art creativity. Transavantgarde belongs to the avant-garde same way as postmodernism to modernism (no wonder the terms of Transavant-garde and Postmodernism are sometimes linked); it is a new version of a tragedy in the form of a farce, it’s a loose cranky type of avant-garde, gutta-percha elastic type of avant-garde, it is devoid of the skeleton («The attention of the artists of the transavant-garde is thus polycentric and dispersed over a broad area. These artists no longer seek head-on confrontation. They engage instead in a continuous lateral movement whose path crosses every contradiction and every commonplace, including that of technical and operative originality»- Bonito Oliva).
The art group based in Shymkent leaves the impression of an almost tangible passionarity, conviction, strength and enthusiasm. The artistic supreme task of the art group is searching for a rigid structure of visual space, a clear system, which is, of course, an objection to postmodern split: «They (structuralists) do not allow chaos. They also have no concept of chance ... I suspect that they hope to inscribe themselves into a single not yet existing undeveloped Formula of the World. They wish to generate it. How once the genius of Albert Einstein fought over it» (Z. Savina, The Svoya gazeta, Shymkent, 1995). How can one not recall the experiments of Khlebnikov on the search for the universal laws of time?
Here is another quote: «If, for example, the father of Greek mathematics, Pythagoras expressed the whole universe in numbers ... then the followers of structural art seek harmony in various forms» (R. Kuatova, The Delovaya Nedelya Nespaper, Almaty, 1997). Here are the words by Vitaliy Simakov: «... The elements and forms are the beginning and a part of the space and time. Their consistent interaction creates the unity of the World» (The Fundamentals of Structural Art, Foncor website). Simakov’s students sought to grasp and comprehend this Unity, as well as to simulate it. This is so unlike to «nomadism» and «evasiveness» of transavant-garde.
However, at some moment the artists understood the inadequacy of the term «transavant-garde» for their association, and preferred a new name of Structural School. Simakov’s comment: «In fact, we changed nothing. Though the name of «structural school» simply keeps you committed to specific things. Transavant-garde is too extensive, other people began to build by us. While it is time they shall be built in» (The Svoya Gazeta, Shymkent, 1995).
ART COMMUNITY OF DERVISHES
So, we believe that Vitaly Simakov’s school resembles an avant-garde school in many ways, and, of course, it is rather intriguing that such unexpected successor appeared over a considerable distance from the times of the classical avant-garde.
However, the «emergence» of an avant-garde club in Shymkent does not look so unexpected if we recall that South Kazakhstan is the area of original appearance of the Sufi doctrine. Thus we might as well remember the authority of the Ishan sheikh in the Sufi orders and the fact that Sufi considered spiritual practice to be done in the forms of art: dhikr was often performed through dancing and singing poems by Sufi poets (the grandiose and luxurious building of classical Turkic poetry was erected on the Sufi foundation).
There is a reversibility of comparisons – the clubs of the classical avant-garde were similar to monastic orders, and the Sufi order was consequently similar to an art group. Therefore, it is not surprising that the form of the avant-garde club took roots in the South Kazakhstan.
To some extent the mystical background of Sufi can be attributed to «pacifism» and political indifference of the art group (that’s what distinguishes it from socially active neo-avant-gardists of the 60s). The true aspiration of the Sufi is to merge with the One, with the Beloved, with Harmony, according to Kyzyl Tractor artists’ terminology. In fact, it is strange, if a Sufi sets out to carry out a revolution in the world of emanations, although, of course, he is not stranger to social criticism. Remember, for example, the verses from «Diwan-i-Hikmet» by Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a famous Sufi sheikh (whose famous Mausoleum, a masterpiece of medieval architecture, is located in Turkestan not far from Shymkent):
There is no generosity in our people as it was before ...
The trace of the truth of the shahs and visors erased...
God rejects the Dervish’s vow ...
For the people it’s the time of terrible troubles, oh people!
The projects by Kyzyl Tractor often contain a critical charge, for example, the Brigadier’s Harem performance done in Shymkent (1998), where the very word «brigadier» refers to the Soviet totalitarian discourse. Four members of the group were head-to-toe wrapped in a white cloth playing the «harem» as slaves to the establishment; the brigadier dressed in black was giving commands and playing drums, and the harem people were rhythmically standing up, falling, moving among the even rows of low seedlings.
Of course, we cannot forget about The Sufi Performance, which was one of the signature performances showing all the significant features of the art group in the recent years. One of the many performances is The Drunken Dervishes, it was shown at an art festival in Washington in 2005. Moldakul Narymbetov and Arystanbek Shalbayev were drinking wine from glass bottles (the Sufi symbol of detachment from the hassles of life) and painting a weird world flag on a large cloth, where the cross and the crescent united against the background of American flag stripes into the recognizable outlines of the sickle and hammer.
West in the East, East in the West
Of course, Kyzyl Tractor is an ambiguous phenomenon. Of course, we cannot consider this project pure avant-garde (trans-avant-garde citation, rejection of the novelty principle, freedom in choosing media, postmodern irony, which happens frequently in Kyzyl Tractor projects, etc.), but as already mentioned it doesn’t fit in the niche of postmodernism either. Until now the members of the art group are actively engaged in painting based on the structural theory, they promote the priority of craftsmanship and quality, plastic values. They are skeptical about the conceptual art: «What our modern artists are doing now ... it is necessary as clearing up the rubble ... Though the task of Kyzyl Tractor is to build, to create new works» (from the interview of Moldakul Narymbetov, The Novosti Nedeli Newspaper, Almaty, 2001). Here speaks Vitaliy Simakov: «...the artists keep on ignoring the purpose of art. Still it belongs to beauty. How is it expressed? In the harmony of a form...» (The Moya Gazeta Newspaper, Shymkent, 1998). These words sound quite in line with the modernist «discourse of truth».
The duality of the art group can be obviously traced along the West-East line: it can be stated that a project, initially very western, became famous as a very eastern one.
Such bi-directionality unwillingly recalls the extravagant image of Russian art invented by Benedikt Livshits, the futurist and the chronicler of futurism. This «One-and-a-Half-Eyed Sagittarius» is a rider, one of his eyes sees the East, and «half of his another eye» is turned to the West. Actually Livshits’ character is a Scythian warrior rushing towards the West (obviously in order to attack it with his arrows). Consequently, this is exclusively modernistic image, it describes the belief in linear progress albeit with a slanting gaze.
Kyzyl Tractor artists do not rush anywhere, for they are busy with their every day life. And they postponed their arrows (you cannot say that they have no arrows at all, for example, Said Atabekov has made several projects, in which weapons is the key link).
And they take their kobyz and tambourines, it is a shaman’s weapon to fight not against the man, but for the man.
Shaman’s efforts and Shaman’s days
Now we are close to the most important thing.
As we all know, the avant-garde position in the classical sense is a pre-programmed negation of some existing system of values (ethical / aesthetic) and an attempt to build a new order instead of this supposedly archaic obsolete system.
In general, modernism is always and inevitably associated with destruction (there was such a Soviet book with rantings against modernism; «The image destruction» by Yelena Roslavets was published in 1984 in Kiev, and this compact book along with the famous «Modernism» was a valuable source of knowledge about Western art for us in perestroika time, just a pocket-size catechesis).
Kyzyl Tractor artists did not destroy anything, they always strove for creation and harmony, on which they were constantly giving their testimony: «Our concept is harmony and minimal means in expressing this harmony» (from Simakov’s interview, The Karavan-Blitz» Newspaper, Almaty, 1995). They seemed to have missed the stage of destruction proceeding immediately to construction, as if they had found an old warehouse of bricks, to which the classical avant-gardists once split the universe, and decided to create their own material from this finding, and of course it was the ideal version of the universe according to the avant-garde tradition.
Let’s remember now when they appeared on the Kazakh art scene? It was early 90’s, the world was lying in ruins. The old universe collapsed, people lost their value orientation and confidence in the future... and so on and so forth. We shouldn’t go on with truistic statements; everyone remembers this time perfectly.
We can say that the reality itself was avant-garde then, it was destroying the old world to its foundations - and then the Kyzyl Tractor took up an avant-garde torch and began to build a new world according to old maps and schemes.
And here the image of the shaman becomes clear. More specifically, this image becomes clear immediately, when you trace the genesis of the shamanic project that began with the study of the avant-garde heritage. After all, the quasi-religiousness and mysticism of the avant-garde project is widely known. In early 20s century avant-garde artists considered art as something due to affect the world (Malevich) or as something that contributes to spiritual improvement (Kandinsky). The first concept is about magic, it is actually shamanic activities, the second one is mystical, Sufi. Hence we can see these images in the works by Kyzyl Tractor. This is an obvious and simple connection; having mastered the avant-garde «alphabet», having understood the form and the essence through the form, Kyzyl Tractor artists turned to the essence directly and already in the organic form, in the form rooted in their native land.
Who is a shaman? He is the mediator between the world of spirits and the world of people, the healer who casts out the demons that have processed, or the one who returns souls to those who lost them. He is the one who is called to shake the misfortune, to recreate the lost happiness, to restore the order of things.
The artists from Shymkent began their story in a difficult hopeless time - they began their work to restore the lost structure of the world. First, they created space on the spaces of their canvases, then turned to the form of a shamanic action, and this change was only external, but not qualitative. Both modern painting and «sacral» performance are the different forms of one «mystical project», different forms of spiritual practices, which can be compared, for example, with quiet dhikr and loud dhikr. These are just different modifications of a single project for the creation of the world, or rather its recollection from fragments. In other words, from the very beginning Kyzyl Tractor project was «shamanistic», and in the process of formation it only took an appropriate form.
Performing his rituals, the shaman heals and gives spiritual strength to the man, the shaman has his influence on the man, and in the «sacred» actions of Kyzyl Tractor artists there is communication between the artist and the viewer like the «invisible wall» is destroyed. The traditions and schemes of contemporary art intersect here with the actual shamanic practice: for example, the spectators are fumigated with the smoke of burning steppe plants (the ancient ritual of purification) or sprinkled with water; they are given nuts and fruits, they are invited to take part in action. Here is a quote about the performance held in one of the universities of Almaty: «Kyzyl Tractor artists built some kind of a large boat, which was solemnly rolled along the corridors of the educational institution with shamanic screams, squeals and strokes of sticks against the tree. This action was so much liked by the audience that after the performance they were still punching the sticks on the wooden skeleton of the boat and creating drumming masterpieces» (S. Suleyeva, Continent Magazine, Almaty, 2001). The artists often use Zen method of giving shock, raising the public from depression, sketchiness in thinking: for example, during one of the performances the dervish approached the viewer by offering him a white ball, and as soon as the spectator was about to take the gift the dervish was suddenly falling at his feet.
Ethnographic authenticity, archival affinity for the letter in the re-creation of national rituals is not what artists are concerned about. Their «rituals» are often free in fantasy, they have no lack of improvisation, they are not immune to humor. For example, in 2001 in the Pavlodar Art Museum Moldakul Narymbetov climbed the ladder (the shamans really used ladders during the ritual ascent to the upper world), played the shan-kobyz, and then took his cell phone and began to communicate to the god of Tengri, sending him greetings from Pavlodar. We do not doubt that God heard the artist.
Sometimes the costumes and musical instruments of Kyzyl Tractor artists are strikingly different from their «historical prototypes». At the Almaty Open City Festival in 2002 Moldakul Narymbetov was dressed in a felt cap crowned with bird feathers, and a robe with fringe on the sleeves, which also depicts the plumage needed to fly into the other world as typical for shaman dress in different countries. However, its «emancipated» blue and white coloring was more likely of a European theater, such as the French pantomime or the Italian comedy del arte, rather than to archaic steppe rituals. By the way, the slogan of comedy del arte is joyful soul (l ‘anima allegre), and it can be fully attributed to the work of Moldakul Narymbetov. Presenting the East-West Performance at the festival, the artist beat a giant drum, on which the string frame of a concert grand piano was vertically strengthened; thus the piano strings responded to the boom and illustrated the difficult relationships between East and West.
The followers of the theory of «artistic reconstruction» and «national representation» would be very surprised if they visited Astana at the festival «Kultplatforma July 6» (2006), where Arystanbek Shalbayev, Said Atabekov and Vitaliy Simakov were dressed in black suits and gold masks during their performance. After all, as already mentioned above, the main thing for the Kyzyl Tractor is not the external entourage, but the inner meaning.
Sometimes the prophet has some honor in his own country. The performances by Kyzyl Tractor should be perceived not as «intuitive actions», but as harmonious works, despite the strong improvisational element there. The artists arrange their performances and happenings with such careful composition as in their paintings: «Every point of space, every movement and sound are important for us» (from the interview of Moldakul Narymbetov, The Novosti Nedeli Newspaper, Almaty, 2001). Earlier, before the performances the organization of the exhibition space was of paramount importance, when different paintings and objects of art the group’s participants were gathered in a single exposition field as bricks of a mono-work, which actually was the Kyzyl Tractor exhibition.
Here are a few illustrations from the articles of the 90s about their art exhibitions (the lengths of quotations are justified by their eloquence): «The exhibition was presented as a space ... organized according to the laws of the universe ... The words of the author of the exhibition Vitaliy Simakov symbolically describe his own task: «The world of different things at the exhibition is like a diversity that covers one globe. Hence we have this polarity: the artists who come from sensual and emotional impressions, such as Moldakul Narymbetov, Igor Yevseyev, Arystan Shalbayev, Ravil Abdulov - and the artists who are trying to switch off feelings and emotions, seeking contemplation, it’s me and Said Atabekov. The connecting link of these polarities is Smail Bayaliev, Yury Yevseyev and Gulnar Mirzagalikova. All these placers are united in one exhibition with their left and right sides, with their bottom and top, and finally - with their «mid-emptiness», which also has its own philosophy» (R.Yergalieva, The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Almaty, 1996).
«The organization of the exhibition space is almost perfect, it is thought out well along and across. It has its own vertical and horizontal lines. You can check and recheck it and still be sure that the element of randomness is almost lost. This is where the school manifested first of all. At the exhibition everything is worth your attention ... The trans-temporal transfer in the first part of the hall will not go unnoticed, where from the mossy origins of being you will find yourself in a modern interior with a slight turn of your head... If I had spoken to Vitaliy Simakov after visiting the exhibition, I would not have asked him why they found Balbal picture gallery too small. (the described exhibition was held in the Regional Museum of Local History of Shymkent - O.Sh.). Then he replied: Balbal does not quite suit us: we feel uncompacted there. We do not want to have our pictures hang altogether, we don’t want them mixed»... Simakov also called this exhibition a paradise» (Z. Savina, The Svoya Gazeta Newspaper, Shymkent, 1995).
«Nobody is equal in the installation exhibitions to them yet» (R. Kuatova, The Delovaya Nedelya, Almaty, 1997).
«The museum staff... were amazed with artists’ abilities to «create» the exposition - it is very important and not easy at all ... it seemed that no canvas can be relocated to another place and none of the sculptural compositions can be moved even by a centimeter. The Harmony reigned in the exhibition hall!» (Zh. Zhanabayeva, The Novoye Pokoleniye newspaper, Almaty, 1995).
Thus, the supreme task of Kyzyl Tractor artists to construct harmony in a single universe was obvious for both the audience and the artists themselves: «It is interesting that the artists understand perfectly well that through the point-directed influence of art on the man it is possible to regulate the life processes, they know that through the purification of sight, the ability to see the beautiful, you can restore morality and order to society» (R.Yergalieva, The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Almaty, 1996).
The shaman is called to help and heal, and the creativity of Kyzyl Tractor has a really beneficial effect on the audience. And now it’s a little weird for us to read such enthusiastic responses to the ‘simple’ art event (we are talking about the Kyzyl Tractor group exhibition at the Kasteyev State Museum of Fine Arts, Almaty in 1995): «To say that the exhibition of the Shymkent artists ... is a spiritual event in the life of our city or even the country means to say nothing... It’s just impossible to speak about these artists other than in superlative statements ... Despite the fact that only nine artists presented their works, the impression was that the whole generation was exposed: everything was so beautiful, grandiose and finished in form and content» (Zh. Zhanabayeva, The Novoye Pokoleniye newspaper, Almaty, 1995).
«Nine artists ... created something incredible in the halls of the museum ... The exhibition ... turned into a powerful life-giving phenomenon of the art of our time» (R.Yergalieva, The Vecehrniy Almaty, 1995).
«The works of Shymkent artists study the purity and spirituality that we lack today» (D. Kazannikova, The Nauka Kazakhstana newspaper, Almaty, 1995). «The exhibition ... became a kind of explosion in our cultural life» (R.Yergalieva, The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Almaty, 1996).
The works of Shymkent artists were a source of refined cathartic experiences for the audience: «Perhaps, the most accurate and penetrating statement about his (Said Atabekov’s – O.Sh.) canvases was made by journalist Roza Kudabayeva: «I feel like the wind was chained» (R.Yergalieva, The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Almaty, 1996).
Here are the responses about the Mirage solo exhibition by Moldakul Narymbetov in Rukh gallery in Almaty: «The exhibition must be seen. This is simply necessary, for this is a new art, a fresh new view of eternal things» (V.Rudas, The Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, Almaty, 1995).
«The artist is really unique ... His every work is surrounded with some magical aura» (A. Gakhov, The Horizon newspaper, Almaty, 1995).
«The artists like Narymbetov make us think, purify the soul of filth, bring us closer to the truth of life» (L. Gukailo, Yuzhniy Kazakhstan newspaper, Shymkent, 1995).
Thus, the creativity of Kyzyl Tractor artists had the same strong impact on the audience as the work of classical avant-garde artists on their contemporaries, but unlike the spectators in the beginning of the 20th century the spectators in the end of the century experienced positive emotions. The Russian philologist Shapir in his famous work «The Aesthetic Experience of the 20th Century: Avant-garde and Postmodernism» has chosen the «pragmatic criterion» as the criterion of avant-garde, that is, the criterion of the degree of influence on the viewer, the criterion of the strength of reaction and response. According to Shapir the true artifact for avant-garde art is a stunned viewer. Here we need to remember the modern artists of «interaction aesthetics» (Rirkrit Tiravanija, etc.), whose aesthetic product is all kinds of communication with the public: cooking treats for them, opening stores and various service centers, invitation to participate in discussions, etc. In the projects of these artists «the aura of the art works passed to the public» (the words of the theorist of the «interaction aesthetics» Nicolas Bourriaud). In the case of Kyzyl Tractor, the aura passes to the public in its almost religious ecstatic exaltation, and the aura is still in the work. Here we see an example of positive communication, which is rare for postclassical era, it is almost marriage for the author and the viewer. Apparently, the artists were absolutely adequate to their time, performing a global social procurement ... That’s the border we will stop by.
Our arguments are mostly focused on the situation at the end of the last century, and the analysis of the current situation is beyond the scope of this article.
Though concerning the 90s the article is of course not better than an essay, it is incomplete and blankspaced. The meaning of Kyzyl Tractor in the Central Asian art space is still not descried well. Creativity of the art group is a unique avant-garde project in the area of post-Soviet Central Asia, it needs a sensitive and detailed attention of the researcher. In addition, the art group is also remarkable for the fact that it has set and keeps on setting artistic tasks (honestly, how many contemporary artists think of any artistic tasks besides their career tasks?).
We hope that a detailed study of the creative work of this wonderful art group is yet to come.
Oksana Shatalova, Alla Girik
for Tamyr Magazine, April-July 2006