Background of Stories

Time of the Storytellers introduces contemporary art from the post-Soviet stretching from the European border all the way to Asia. The focus is on the contemporary art of Central Asia and specifically Kazakhstan. The works reveal panoramic views into an environment that appears almost unreal and where several eras, traditions and religions co-exist: prehistoric burial mounds, mosque domes and minarets, ruins and the contaminated environment left behind by the Soviet era, caravans of trucks and horsemen, crumbling concrete housing estates and utopian architectural projects. Moreover, the exhibition highlights ways to interpret the ‘common past' of the Soviet era, its effects on the present and possible futures.

The artists examine this temporally multilayered and often paradoxical situation from distance, without actively taking part in the unfolding of events. However, the laconic and documentary approach always includes a subjective, often empathetic perspective and conscious decisions with regard to the subject matter. The thematic starting point of the exhibition, curated by Viktor Misiano, is to present a panoramic perspective on reality and the emphasis on narration and epic after the focus on reality of the 1990s.

Central Asia to the map of contemporary art

Viktor Misiano worked as the curator for the Central Asian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005. This marked the breakthrough of the region's contemporary art to international consciousness. The exhibition also toured Warsaw and Moscow in 2006. Other important exhibitions of contemporary Central Asian art include No Mad's Land: Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Zentralasien, Berlin 2002, re-orientation: Kunst zu Mittelasien, Weimar 2002, Vom roten Stern zur blauen Kuppel: Kunst un Architectur aus Zentralasien, Berlin 2004 and Stuttgart 2005, Pueblos y sombras: Contemporary Art from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Mexico City 2004 and The Tamerlane Syndrome: Art and Conflicts in Central Asia, Orvieto 2005 and Milwaukee 2007. In the Kiasma exhibition programme, the Time of the Storytellers continues in the vein of the 2004 Faster than History exhibition, the examination of the post-Soviet era through the eyes of contemporary artists.

On expedition

Kiasma is symbolically connected with Central Asia through the equestrian statue in front of the museum building; the monument to Marshal Mannerheim. The Marshal's colourful personal history included service in the army of Imperial Russia, during which time he made a military exploration and geographical expedition to Asia from Samarkand to Beijing on horseback. On this journey, he assembled a unique collection of ethnographic items and took many photographs. The centenary of this trip was in 2006 and to celebrate it numerous Finnish expeditions have followed in Mannerheim's footsteps.

However, the contacts and interest expressed in Central Asia by Finns have been rather limited and it seems that even the geography of this region is a white dot on the map for many, not to say anything about its history or contemporary culture. Many know these phonetically same-sounding 'stans' - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan - from football news.

The return of equestrian statues

Recently, the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has in its own curious manner placed at least Kazakhstan on some kind of map in the minds of millions of cinema goers. Kazakhstan's official counteract to the grotesque image of the country presented by the pseudo-documentary is a film entitled Nomad:The Warrior, which utilises with epic sweep and a 40-million dollar budget the legendary time of heroic warriors. The film contains intentional metaphors to Kazakhstan's current situation lodged between powerful nations interested in its natural resources and shut off from neighbouring countries. The aim is, like in the film, to create a common story to promote national and cultural unity by tinting history with fiction and consciously working the original to fit the desired form. The concrete manifestation of this kind of nostalgia for witnessing that the common past existed are the numerous equestrian statues erected for legendary nomad soldiers since the independence of Central Asian countries in the early 1990s.

Dreams and reality

Dream orientation and escape from reality are also more widely present in the global culture. In his book The Dream Society (2002), the researcher Rolf Jensen argues that humankind is moving into an era of storytellers, which in his theory is the fifth stage after hunter-gatherers, farmers, industrial workers and knowledge workers. The fairy-tale-like images and stories taking place in an imagined past repeated in popular books and films of the early 2000s, such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series as well as computer games and role playing can be placed in this context, as well as Goths and heavy metal music's monster fantasies of today.

From nuclear tests to Osterns

As part of the Soviet Union, the Caucasian and Central Asian republics lived in a curious role of the 'other', subject to many desires and needs. On the one hand, they were used as laboratories for nuclear weapons, testing grounds for radical agricultural projects and the relocation of masses of people as well as useful ground for polluting industrial plants and secret space stations. On the other hand, they were a living proof of the harmonic existence of various cultures and the 'friendship between nations' made possible by socialism.

In the late 1960s, the steppes and deserts served as a backdrop for ‘Easterns' or ‘Osterns' modelled on American Westerns, in which the area's oriental and exotic appeal was utilised. The most famous of them must be White Sun of the Desert (1969) directed by Vladimir Motylin, which has acquired cult following and is still part of the compulsory rituals for cosmonauts before embarking on space flights from the cosmodrome in Baikonur.

Natural resources and period of stagnation

Today the states of Caucasia and Central Asia are building their future amongst the heritage of the Soviet era and modern democratisation pressures. The region has become the focal point of interest for superpowers due to its ample natural resources and geopolitical location. One of the most important objectives in these countries is the attempt to suppress the emergence of fundamentalist Islamic movements in order to ensure "trading peace". In many of the Caucasian and Central Asian states, despite their independence and move to a market economy, societal development is in a state of stagnation, as the presidents chosen in the early 1990s are still ruling the countries autocratically.

In these circumstances, it is difficult for art that does not follow the official, state-subsidised national canon based on history and folklore to become a recognised and significant part of societal development and cultural capital of the country. For example, in Kazakhstan, the state makes cultural investments mainly in architecture, particularly in the giant construction projects of the capital Astana. With carefully thought-out symbolism, they speak of the wealth and modernisation of the nation as well as the peaceful co-existence of different religions; a good example is the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation designed by the British architect Norman Foster and completed in 2006.

New regions of contemporary art

However, the Caucasian and Central Asian states are already developing their own stages for contemporary art, the most prominent of which are, of course, the biennales, which are organised at least in Kyrgyzstan, the Bishkek International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, in Uzbekistan, the Tashkent International Biennale with its international photography biennale, and in Armenia, the International Biennale of Contemporary Art Gymri. In addition, the first Caucasian biennale to be opened in the autumn 2007 is being planned for Tbilisi, Georgia. These events, and likewise numerous artist-led projects, promote the infrastructure of the contemporary and create co-operation networks both in Europe and Asia.

Time of the Storytellers contributes to making the interesting contemporary art and artists of the former Soviet republics visible and their stories take on a human significance in an international context as well.

The majority of the works in the exhibition are videos. It seems to be the most useful and expedient medium whenever art needs to move quickly forward in time, particularly in the midst of difficult and hostile circumstances. The moving image forms a joint neutral framework for the stories, which the storytellers all tell in their own languages.

Jari-Pekka Vanhala