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Reinvention of Oneself

1. Starting from zero

Just like a newborn from the first moment of life instantly arrives into a thick web of sounds of a language spoken around him, any artist entering the territory of art immediately finds himself or herself within what previously existed as art. Until the advent of avant-garde, the strategies of which were inherited by contemporary art, the artists’ new approaches involved only cosmetic changes to the classical legacy and a sensitive attitude towards the past. This is why from the 15th until the beginning of the 20th century art reluctantly changed its external forms, despite changes in artistic styles. Avant-garde drastically changed it all; classical art underwent serious evaluation. Revolutionary avant-garde art took a course towards breaking the previous aesthetic standards.

Then the most interesting thing happened. Modern art, because of its development in time, and thus due to the arising tension between the actuality of the present and what becomes the past right in front of our eyes, itself became a serpent eating its own tail. To make a name for oneself and to claim a place in modern art, a contemporary artist is called upon to break away from the already esthetically legitimate forms of contemporary art itself. According to the Russian artist and curator Dmitry Bulatov, “…contemporary art is always an open project, created not through the artist’s past, but through the reoccurring choice of an artist. By making this choice every second an artist always recreates himself from ground zero and recreates his entire past as well. This step requires a great deal of courage and a constant willingness to give up own beliefs.” Keeping this idea in mind, let’s look closer at the new project of CHINGIZ (Chingiz Babayev), the carpet project which I believe has a potential to become flagship of his work. 

2. Overview

The project offers five (seven) pile carpets that were woven fully in accordance with traditional techniques of this ancient decorative and applied art. At first glance they can easily be identified as traditional carpets. In terms of texture we see a soft pile surface, and in terms of design they contain ornaments of various configurations. The color also follows the traditional color scheme. Much tells us that what we see are traditional carpets. But is it so? If it is so, than inevitably we have to question the innovation.  What is the author’s statement here? What is he trying to tell us? We know that CHINGIZ is the artist who has worked in the field of contemporary art for many years by now and he has created a number of works in various media formats, including objects, installations, photographs, performances, and videos. The artist’s work is characterized by a strict conceptual approach, minimalism, and an indifferent attitude to everything that contains dramatic decorative elements and allusions to commercial design. Therefore, the very fact of the artist’s use of the traditional technology of carpet making and creating a carpet that visually cannot be distinguished from a traditional carpet is nothing but a certain hidden aesthetic and strategic “trick”. In fact, as soon as you look carefully at the visual structure of these carpets, you notice one peculiarity. Despite the material (thread, fabric, texture) and external (geometry, ornaments) similarities with traditional Azerbaijani carpets, Babayev’s carpets nevertheless not only do not fit within the established format of tradition, but also first, present themselves as objects that are alternative to tradition, and second claim to belong to contemporary art.  Once again, “carpet products” by CHINGIZ are somehow positioned “in between” contemporary art and traditional carpet weaving, not fully belonging to either. This raises a number of questions. How is this possible if possible at all? How are we supposed to confirm that these products are actually carpets in the full sense of this term? Or, if they belong to the discourse of contemporary art, should they be appraised as a product of contemporary art? To answer these questions one should follow the genesis of CHINGIZ’s carpet related works and then find out exactly where this path brought the artist today.

3. Insight

Carpets seem to be a key aspect of CHINGIZ’s work. Although he created many other art projects, from his earliest work the artist turned to carpets as a visual form that can be successfully implemented in the framework of contemporary art by synthesizing national tradition with the international language of contemporary art (as you might remember,  the 1900s and most part of the 2000s are marked by globalization, when contemporary art, expanding in previously untouched territories and countries, encouraged the “merging of local with global” in these “national” countries, which even created a term “glocal). In 1996 at the Arte Sella-96-Art in Nature symposium, (Borgo Valsugana, Italy) he created his first carpet project, a “living carpet” of twigs, leaves and fruits assembled and compiled on the ground, which used as a pictorial module one of the symbols frequently used in traditional Azerbaijani carpets. Since then the carpet is not only CHINGIZ’s flagship visual concept, but a certain trademark. He uses and develops this imitational carpet matrix incorporating natural materials, fruits, vegetables, and other objects on various scales in various thematic and compositional solutions. Many curators invited CHINGIZ to participate in international exhibits with this “know-how”. Among numerous exhibition projects, the most significant are his large installation “Silk Way” at the Marc Block University in Strasbourg in 2002, and the work “Living in the Beauty” in the framework of the Azerbaijani pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

4. Reinvention of tradition

I. The projects mentioned above were about adapting the visual structure of the carpet to the format of an installation, or land art, which is to “convert” the language of the national carpet into the formal language of contemporary art. Now in this new project, Babayev makes a transition from the installation and simulation method to the technology that is used in traditional carpet weaving, or nominally switches to the grammar of tradition. At the same time, the artist does not deny the discourse of contemporary art, making a claim for a radical innovative gesture within the latter (otherwise the project is under the risk of being unrecognized by experts). Let’s return to the previously raised question: is it possible in this case to perceive any innovation? After all, the traditional technology of making a carpet has long been used by many contemporary artists. What do these artists basically do? They work with ready-made traditional carpets, making visual interventions into an existing composition by distorting, deforming, transforming the image, or creating a synthesis of traditional ornamental artwork with modern visual elements, such as pixels, glitch interferences, or various geometric shapes reminiscent of op-art works. They work with tradition within existing reality. In other words, they use a postmodern method of quoting and using the entire cultural heritage of mankind for recombination, reformatting, and formal rethinking. But, we repeat, all this is performed within the framework of existing traditional forms. In the end, we see quite spectacular and fascinating carpet compositions with obvious commercial potential, and thus with a weak connection with the intentions of contemporary art. This implies the artist is making a radical breakthrough, the outcome of what is now identified as contemporary art.

II. CHINGIZ’s work does not fit within this fashionable trend. Keeping in mind the existence of many schools within the carpet tradition, for sure CHINGIZ’s carpets are not related to the ancient tradition of the Azerbaijani carpet. They cannot be associated with any of the existing Azerbaijani traditional schools. They are transnational. This is a fundamental point that can shed light on how we can approach to understanding this project. After all, when we pronounce the word “carpet”, we view it as a code that is inextricably linked to a great national tradition. However, geometric shapes and even recognizable visual structures, signs (for example “buta”), and color scheme of CHINGIZ’s carpets are not associated with the traditional canons of this kind of decorative and applied art. They are autonomous and comply not with the objective space of the canonical carpet, but to the subjective will of the artist who has embarked on a fragile and uncertain path of an unknown. However, the fact that these works are free from the traditional canon does not mean that they do not follow a “new” canon. On the contrary, CHINGIZ does not hide that by starting to work on this project he chose conscious self-restraint, an asceticism of some sort. Working on the carpet composition involves mathematical (geometric) calculations and in any case implies development of a “new” canon. What does it mean to develop a “new” canon in the absence of external landmarks? It is nothing else but a very bold project of reinventing the tradition. Not transforming, not reformatting, not anything else while working with it as with the existing and established reality (as it was noted, such work is done by many contemporary artists), but exactly the radical reinvention. Let’s perceive tradition as a straight line that stretches from the point of zero (the beginning) to the present day. Working within tradition (traditional carpet weavers) or using the tradition as material for individual work (contemporary artists) involves manipulating an already existing line, and doing anything you want with it. Reinventing the tradition means eliminating this line and coming to the point of its origin. It is as if a contemporary artist enters the mental state of the very first carpet artist, who due to not having any predecessors has to trust only their own intuition and inner sense. This inner work is possible only when a modern artist performs a subtle mental operation, similar to the phenomenological reduction in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl of leaving behind the entire great tradition and bringing oneself to zero mode, and taking the “quantum leap” to the time of beginning, when there was no tradition at all. And then, being at the zero point, you start to make your own way, which may or may not become a path to a new tradition. In the case of CHINGIZ’s carpet project, this explanation of the visual strategy intuitively followed by the artist seems to me as the most likely one. If this is so, then this strategy is correct both in relation to the discourse of tradition (as it was noted, on the outside we are dealing with “almost” traditional carpets) and the discourse of modern art. The latter we shall discuss in more detail, as it will help us to better understand the meaning of CHINGIZ’s visual and conceptual strategy regarding his new project.

5. Reinvention of oneself

For contemporary art, a person and personal acts have always been more important than a creation. The most successful strategies in contemporary art from the very beginning of its emergence were the strategies of rejection, annulment, or more precisely, reinvention of the previous tradition. For example, avant-garde painters at the beginning of the last century for the reinvention of the tradition of pictorialism returned to the very beginning of the fine arts, to primitive art, analyzing the primary forms of the visual language – a dot, a line, a circle, a square. But far more radical was Marcel Duchamp. In order to accomplish his so far I believe unrivaled gesture and having absorbed the entire tradition of fine art which preceded the modern era, he at one point took it and blew it up from the inside and presented to the art world a new language – the language of the ready-made. Close to Duchamp’s spirit, but not quite an equivalent gesture, was made by one of the pioneers of conceptual art, Joseph Kosuth. He proclaimed the primacy of the concept over the percept, in fact undermining the very essence of the visuality of contemporary art, and which after it began to move further and further towards the cognitive and performative non-pictorial practices. Taking into account that contemporary art is closely connected with a range of intellectual disciplines, I will give an example from the history of philosophy. It is known that Martin Heidegger, the most discussed and unconventional philosopher of the last century set himself the goal of “abandoning the old thinking for the sake of determining the essence of thinking” and for this he turned to pre-Socratic philosophy, or to the origin of the very philosophical tradition in ancient Greece. All these conceptual strategies were of an openly apophatic character and were aimed not at the development of the previous cultural heritage, but at its “removal” and arriving at the starting point of the beginning. But the main thing in these strategies is not just producing some radical gestures in the social space, but the ascetic practice of subjective reduction, which is when the artist produces certain and visible actions in the work and at the same time performs it “synchronously” also within himself.  That is, arriving to the zero mode of the beginning occurs primarily within the artist himself, which means that the process of reinventing the tradition can be compared to the mental practice of reinventing oneself.  

Teymur Daimi, artist and philosopher