The international art collective on its first solo museum show in the United States, the perils of splitting checks, and Beyoncé.
Your work focuses on an “oft-forgotten sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians, and Central Asians.” How did you settle on this project?
We founded Slavs and Tatars in 2006 for equally intellectual and intimate reasons. Of course, we are interested in researching an area of the world—Eurasia—that we consider relevant, politically, culturally, and spiritually. But it is also the result of the end of a “Western promise” in our lives. After having lived in the major metropolises of the West (London, New York, Paris), studied in some of the finest institutions, and worked with leading companies, we felt there was something missing.
Can you give me an example?
We take issue with various ideas: the positivism that seems to be so rampant in the West; the idolization of youth, coupled with the dismissal of age; an excessive emphasis on the rational at the expense of the mystical; the segregation of children from adults at social functions; splitting dinner bills; disproportionate attention to the individual over the collective.
Your current installation at the Museum of Modern Art is called “Beyonsense.” What does the name mean?
The name comes from a linguistic study by the Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov, called zaum. Literally, za means “beyond” or “across” and um means “intelligence” or “sense.” It’s often translated as “transrational.” “Beyonsense” sort of sounds like “nonsense.” It also sounds like “Beyoncé.” And we like the juxtaposition of the Russian futurists with those two ideas, nonsense and Beyoncé.
The installation takes the form of a reading room with a stained-glass skylight.
The way we describe it is a psychedelic Muslim library. The skylight is a re-creation of a 1970s Dan Flavin installation for a Sufi mosque in downtown New York, one that very few people know about. The silence is quite telling. It seems that putting those three words, “Islam” and “downtown” and “Manhattan,” together is a recipe for disaster, whether 30 years ago or now.
We kind of feel like we’re the Trojan horse inside MoMA. Because, in a way, we stand for everything that MoMA traditionally stands against. We don’t believe that modernity is Westernization. And if MoMA is anything, it’s a temple to Western modernity or an American idea of modernity. We tend to err on the side of the mystical and the sacred, even just aesthetically. So we felt that we had to tell this other side of the story.
And yet your work rarely comes across as confrontational. Instead, you seem to favor gentle humor.
We think it’s important to have a kind of generosity in the way that things are presented. You can’t have a dialogue if you’re going to do it from a position of authority or from a position of provocation, which is not at all what we’re interested in. We’re much more interested in creating spaces of sharing or common discourse.
It’s easier to do work that talks about destruction or violence or other “hard” subject matter, which is taken to be more serious. If we told you as an artist or a writer that we would like to do work that is cheerful, you would think we’re kind of stupid. So this idea of trying to bring mirth or cheer at the same time as being critical, that’s really the Holy Grail for us.
You currently have three members living in three different cities in Europe and the Middle East. How do you manage that long-distance collaboration?
We speak on Skype about an hour a day. And we have at least one engagement a month—an exhibition, a lecture, or a presentation. When we go for the installation or the opening, and all of our colleagues and friends are enjoying themselves and drinking, we just sort of skip away and work. We use every exhibition and conference as an excuse to see each other and work on our next set of deadlines. What normally would be the end becomes a kind of trampoline for the next engagement.
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