Society of Rascals
October 4 – 28, 2017
VILTIN Gallery, In the framework of OFF-Biennale Budapest
Fanni Magyar (F.M.): What is the story behind the name?
Slavs and Tatars (S.T.): We founded the collective in 2006: a short time after the ten new member states joined the European Union. The name Slavs and Tatars clearly plays with the idea of misunderstanding the Other, the foreigner. If you recall, there was a lot of hysteria about the Polish plumber, the Bulgarian construction worker taking jobs, in some sense coming and invading the precious Western European economies. For many ‘Slavs and Tatars’ evokes a horde of foreigners on the horizon. Usually, a group gives itself a name about what they represent, but in our case the name is actually mission statement or a brief. It points to the regional remit we will investigate. It is not the name of the artists, it is the name of the work; actually all of our work is Slavs and Tatars.
F.M.: Why do you prefer anonymity?
ST: Because we are living in an age which is obsessed with the individual, especially in artistic practice. There is a kind of excessive attention paid to the individual artist, like the very romantic and old idea of the artist as an innovative, individual genius. That is why we are interested in folk, crafts and ethnography: when you have a gobelin or a carpet you do not know in most cases who made that carpet under your feet. It is interesting in the crafts that you disassociate innovation from individualism. Today people tend to believe the very modernist tradition that innovation is always the work of one person; that innovation is often disruptive. Art history tells you that each group comes and goes against the previous group, pop artists against the abstract expressionists, New realism against Pop art. Everybody comes as some kind of patricide and kills its father. We are interested in a different understanding of art history and history, which is about continuity and not rupture. In crafts you are actually repeating your tradition for ten years before you do something new. You build on the tradition as opposed to tearing it down, which is a rather self-important, modernist tradition.
F.M.: How does your collective working method look like?
S.T.: It is a true collaboration, not only between ourselves but with an extended group of scholars, researchers and craftsmen. We are constantly editing each other’s ideas. This method of creating knowledge together, the collective idea of reading comes from our reading club as we started originally working together.
F.M.: Are you rather the theoretical and your partner is more visual?
S.T.: It is more complex than that because for example my partner has a much more sophisticated understanding of non-rational knowledge. Her understanding of material and also of metaphysical texts is much more developed than mine due to the different backgrounds we have. I am an Iranian American and have been living and studied in Russia for many years. She is Polish who has been living also in different places in the Middle East and in Europe. We share an idea of expatriation, of distancing oneself from your traditions and culture to understand it better and therefore to understand other cultures as well.
F.M.: What is the role of linguistics in your artistic practice?
ST: We often think that it is very important to reify language. Reify in the meaning of giving a three-dimensional quality to language. It does not mean creating sculptures, but rather trying to make language concrete in order to go behind it. Behind, like the expression in English ‘through the backdoor’, which has not only homoerotic but also other historical connotations. The ‘backdoor’ has historically been the point of access for immigrants and blacks who were not allowed to go through the front door of the house. The backdoor is a way of approaching something differently from the conventional way. It is important to show how to ask stupid questions to smart subject matters, how to mistranslate, how to give a voice or space to those misunderstandings, what are deliberate or accidental misunderstandings that arise from language. Our focus lies on translation, not just in a linguistics sense but also how to interpret a tradition from one culture to another. We are interested in the interpretation of these rituals or traditions, from Catholicism to Shi’ism or from Iran to Poland, even from theology to pop culture. How to not just translate a language but to translate a series of ideologies, rituals that are usually considered to be specific to a certain context.
F.M.: How do you usually develop your complex object-based installations?
S.T.: There is no conscious strategy. Our methodology has developed organically. Now I look back and I can see that there was a methodology already at the beginning, which was kind of like a bazaar, because we had a proliferation of media. For example if somebody is interested in objects then there is sculpture, or somebody is interested in graphics then there is print, and if somebody is interested in performance there is a lecture performance. Something for everybody in some sense. It speaks to a certain generosity vis-à-vis our public, because we are dealing with generally remote or obscure topics, like 19th century Polish literature, or syncretism in Islam and in Central Asia. There is definitely an attempt to reach beyond the insular art world and meet our public in halfway, whether it is with pop culture or humour.
F.M.: What is the role of the book in your artistic practice?
S.T.: The book is the main impetus or motivation for doing what we are doing. Our future ideas for projects are first discussed in the book and then realized for example as a sculpture, a print, or a lecture in the months and years following. The book is almost like a compendium of research, it is where we can extend the research the furthest. The first 3-4 years we had only done print, so people had to read. But unfortunately we live in a visually dominated world and this is a challenge now. Our practice has proliferated in the past seven years and has added lectures, installations, and sculptures. The artworks are rather like a bait for fish, a bait to hook. The problem is, if you give people the chance not to read, there’s a good chance they will not read.
F.M.: Have you heard about the first OFF-Biennale Budapest?
S.T.: We had not heard about the first OFF-Biennale in 2015, but we were immediately interested when we found out that there was such a project. We take any opportunity to exhibit or to engage with the region we are devoted to. We recently completed a ten years mid-career survey, in our region only, from Warsaw to Tehran, through Vilnius, Istanbul and soon in Belgrade. It is important to support those cities and places where there is not such an extensive contemporary art infrastructure as in say Germany or in the United States.
F.M.: Are you familiar with the Hungarian art scene?
S.T.: To be honest, we are not so interested in art or art history as a subject matter. We are much more interested in art as a language, as a kind of platform to engage with the ideas we are interested in. The artists interest us, like Endre Tót or Wael Shawky, all have got something to do with language or faith. For us art always leads you to another discipline, to another form of thinking.
Slavs and Tatars is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. The collective’s practice is based on three activities: exhibitions, books and lecture performances. They have exhibited in major institutions across the Middle East, Europe and North America. They have had solo exhibitions at Salt, Istanbul (2017), MoMA, NY (2012), Secession, Vienna (2012), Dallas Museum of Art (2014), Kunsthalle Zurich (2014) and NYU Abu Dhabi (2015). Slavs and Tatars have published several books, including Mirrors for Princes (JRP|Ringier / NYU Abu Dhabi, 2015), Not Moscow Not Mecca (Revolver/Secession, 2012), Khhhhhhh (Mousse/Moravia Gallery, 2012), Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz (Book Works, 2013) as well as their translation of the legendary Azeri satire Molla Nasreddin (in its second edition with IB Tauris).
Cover photo: Slavs and Tatars: Figa, 2016. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw