BERLIN — Visitors who walked into the installation Slavs and Tatars at the Arsenale at the 2019 Venice Biennale found a serenely bubbling fountain, a PVC curtain printed with bold graphics and a working vending machine filled with bottles of sauerkraut juice. Each custom bottle label featured a picture of a cabbage chained to a foot, like a ball and chain, and the words “Brine & Punishment,” a reference to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The machine had to be refilled several times.
This kind of humor – silly, playful, on the fine line between witty and corny – runs through the work of this Berlin-based collective. The sculptures, installations and interactive performances, characterized by clean lines, bright colors and pop art references, have appeared in major European museums.
But Slavs and Tatars do much more. The group publishes books; it gives lecture performances; it oversees a residency program for artists and curators; and it runs Pickle Bar, a Berlin space where artists and scientists host events, and where guests can nibble on pickles and drink vodka.
The collective’s activities are all rooted in the giant strip of land between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China, including countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Her work explores the languages, history, politics and religions of this area, with a focus on the legacy of communism and the evolution of Islam there. Its members do not consider themselves experts in the region, but rather curious students of it. Everything they produce is accompanied by extensive research.
Slavs and Tatars has translated pages of an early 20th century satirical magazine from Azerbaijan that has been read across the Muslim world, and has explored beauty standards in different cultures with a series of printed balloons showing characters with a single forehead and asking “Hot ?” or not?” Often the group plays with transliteration and wordplay, freely combining languages including Georgian, Persian, Arabic, Polish and Russian.
“You want to trick people into this content because it’s obscure,” said Kasia Korczak, a founder of Slavs and Tatars. “One thing I always shy away from is the Soviet aesthetic. I’m not generally a nostalgic person and this is more about looking forward than looking back.”
The Pickle Bar, where speakers have covered topics like Soviet textbooks, Sufi folktales, and Arabic calligraphy, is located in the Moabit district of Berlin. It also travels as a pop-up and has appeared in cities such as Vienna, Tallinn in Estonia and Oaxaca in Mexico. In each iteration abroad, Slavs and Tatars work with local curators to choose a range of artists; fermented foods and drinks are always on offer.
Over the weekend, facets of the Pickle Bar traveled through Berlin to the Humboldt Forum, to celebrate the dedication of a new wing, the latest phase in a lengthy opening for the museum. Slavs and Tatars hosted a club night called “Sauer Power” or “Sour Power”, with DJs, musicians and performances by artists from Kazakhstan, Armenia, Poland, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Above it all hung a 36-foot plastic pickle.
Pickles have recently become a kind of business card for Slavs and Tatars. “You can unravel or explain complex things through something seemingly banal or approachable,” explains Payam Sharifi, another founder. A principle of the work of Slavs and Tatars is the search for contradictions that raise questions rather than provide answers. “A pickle is counterintuitive,” he said. “It has been preserved by rotting.”
He also described the bacteria that are a crucial part of pickling as a metaphor for Slavs and Tatars’ conception of migrants or foreigners: “They are outside us, and yet they are good for us.” For the group, bacteria represent a truth about the world: that outside influence is necessary for change.
And of course, a bright green pickle with crunchy bumps is a memorable sight that will turn heads. The only sign indicating the location of the Berlin Pickle Bar is an artwork by the group called “Open Mic” that hangs by the door: a pickle-shaped light box atop a round, inverted microphone, shaped like an exclamation point. “It’s an invitation to come in and participate,” says Stan de Natris, head of design for the collective.
Julia Schreiner, one of the curators of the Humboldt Forum who invited Slavs and Tatars to host the club night at the museum, said she was enthusiastic about the pickle’s appeal as an attention-grabbing comic object. “Anyone who sees the pickle will laugh, and I think that’s a good start to a celebration,” she said.
When choosing artists for events, Slavs and Tatars members Anastasia Marukhina and Patricia Couvet look for performances that will work in a noisy bar and that combine humor and references to the group’s focus area.
When Slavs and Tatars started in 2006, Sharifi, born in Austin, Texas, and whose family is from Iran, taught architectural theory at the Royal College of the Arts in London, and Korczak, who is from Pabianice, Poland. , was working on a master’s degree in design in the Netherlands.
Korczak and Sharifi, now married, wanted to combine their skills – research and design – to publish zines, books and other printed matter. They started making posters, pamphlets and small reprints from out-of-print material and sent them out to a circle of friends and colleagues. Collette, the now-closed French boutique, commissioned the couple to create a T-shirt print.
Korczak and Sharifi knew from the start that their work would look beyond the West. “I wanted to get out of that New York Review of Books world where everyone has read the same people,” said Mr. sharifi. “I wanted to hear and read things I’d never heard of.”
In 2007, they made a series of posters for the New York Art Book Fair, with puns like ‘What’s the plan, Uzbekistan? I am your man, Azerbaijan!” or “Men are from Murmansk / Women are from Vilnius.” A curator at the Museum of Modern Art wanted to buy the posters.
“We sold them for about $50 each,” Sharifi said. “We had to raise the price ten times to be credible. We didn’t have a gallery then, so we didn’t know any better.”
They expanded from posters to books, sculptures, lectures and videos, and the group grew with two more members, who are no longer part of the collective. Slavs and Tatars now has five members and is represented by galleries in New York, Berlin, Warsaw and Dubai.
In a 2010 project titled “Love Me, Love Me Not,” Slavs and Tatars collected the names of 150 cities within the group’s zone of interest that changed over time based on who was in power. One example was Donetsk, Ukraine, which was called Stalino for decades under the Soviet Union. It published these names in a book and also created a free piece of art, featuring the changing iterations of each city’s name in black lettering on a gold-colored mirror.
As part of a 2018 retrospective at the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, Germany entitled “Made in Dschermany”, Slavs and Tatars turned metal barriers used for crowd control at protests into a sculpture featuring interconnected cushioned seats and attached book stands, such as those used to support religious texts during a lecture. The stands featured ‘Wripped Scripped’, a book on the politics of alphabets that Slavs and Tatars produced for the exhibition, and some of their other publications. “It’s a readable bar,” said Kathleen Reinhardt, the show’s curator. “It invites people to sit down and read books and go deeper.”
By including certain references in their work, such as the book stands, which are common throughout the Muslim world, or the names of former Soviet cities, Slavs and Tatars speak directly to audiences from countries such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, which are usually ignored by Western European or American art institutions, Sharifi said.
“These cultural touchpoints may seem strange to a traditional Western audience, but they are very familiar to people from our region,” he added. He mentioned a machine that cools and pumps ayran, a salty yogurt drink popular in Asia and Eastern Europe, which the group installed at an exhibition in Hanover, Germany. “An ayran machine speaks to everyone from Kazakhstan to Turkey to Iran,” Sharifi said. “They immediately feel welcome.”
The collective works on many fronts and in many places. This fall you can find their art at exhibitions in Helsinki, Istanbul, Tunis, Vienna and Tbilisi, Georgia; Pickle Bar’s Oaxaca pop-up runs through December. But the principle with which Slavs and Tatars started remains: to learn a lot about topics that the members do not know much about, and to share that knowledge with others.
“I had a eureka moment when I realized that most people just go deeper and deeper into one topic,” Sharifi said. “Your working area – where you summer, your favorite restaurant – gets narrower as you get older. And really, the challenge in life is to broaden your scope of experience.” He added: “We are not interested in art as a personal subjectivity or as a therapy. It’s about looking out into the world.”
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