Baku Biennial Installation
Seed Grantee 2019-2020
At the invitation of the Republic of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and the Baku Biennial’s curator, Dilara Vagabova, James Lipovac traveled to Baku to create a site-specific work for their Biennial exhibition. Baku Biennial Installation explored notions of how histories and cultures are created, and this interdisciplinary installation was conceived as a fictitious entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. With patches of truth, the work allows some things to be known while others remain hidden. It can be viewed as representation of an imaginary society or, perhaps, as representation of our own seen through a filter.
Slide 1: In 2014, the curator of the Baku Biennial, Dilara Vagabova, reached out to me to create a site specific work around the Biennial’s theme of “ the values in our lives.” The chance to participate in this international, non-commercial art exhibition, and the opportunity to foster relationships with a diverse group of artists and designers not just from Baku, but from dozens of countries was something I could not pass up.
My participation was sponsored in part by the Republic of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture, but continuous issues with funding had me concerned that the trip would never happen.
In the fall of 2019, with the artwork complete and just weeks away from the exhibition, I reached out to Research and Strategic Partnerships and applied for a Seed Grant to make this unique opportunity come true.
With Pratt Institute’s generous support, in November of 2019, I traveled to Azerbaijan to participate in this life changing exhibition.
Slide 2 and 3: Azerbaijan is the intersection between the East and the West. Until recently, Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, and in addition to their own rich history, Azerbaijan exhibits a rich Soviet influence, as well as Russian, Iranian, Georgian, Arabic, and, perhaps most intensely, in part because of a shared ancestry, Turkish influence.
Slide 4: Azerbaijan, which means protector of fire in Persian, has been seen by many religions as a sacred place. Zoroastrians settled in the mountains surrounding Baku around 500 BCE because of the naturally occurring fires. It is said that three pillars of fire burned up to 50 meters high and would light up the night sky. To this day, natural gas burns from holes in the ground. This is a video from the most famous contemporary site, Yanar Dag or Burning Mountain, outside of Baku.
Slide 5-6: The biennial took place in locations throughout the city.
My installation was installed in Shirvanshah’s palace, a 15th century UNESCO world heritage site inside the old walled city of Baku.
The opportunity to see my work and the work of other contemporary artists in this environment was alluring and startling.
Slide 7-11 : Participating in this international, non-commercial art exhibition gave me the opportunity to foster relationships with a diverse group of 40 artists and designers not just from Baku, but from 17 countries.
The theme “values in our lives” inspired challenging, intelligent work that was political and deeply concerned with a global citizenry struggling to find balance across borders. Artwork dealing with immigration and colonization and censorship were common.
Slide 12-15: This interdisciplinary installation titled Colony, is set up like a stage, with a large painting for the backdrop, showing people fighting amongst themselves as well as an invisible enemy. The work was conceived as a fictitious entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and explores notions of how histories and cultures are created. With patches of truth, the work allows some things to be known while other things remain hidden. It can be viewed as representation of an invented society, or, perhaps, as representation of our own but seen through a filter. The final result is an experience where each specific element is singular and simultaneously implicates the other objects in its individual narrative, creating tension between the elements.
Slide 16: The biennial itself generated a lot of local press coverage. I did 4 or 5 interviews while I was there.
My recent practice has been concerned with expanding not just my formal inclinations, but challenging myself to create work that explores and attempts to communicate with an audience outside the Western tradition.
Slide 17: After returning to the states, I was excited to follow up with my new friends. In addition to exchanging photos and holiday greetings, and social media sites, there have been several tangible outcomes. Two of particular note, Dilara, the curator and I are working on a catalogue together, that will be funded by both the Seed Grant as well as funding from the ministry of culture. Sho, my roommate in Baku, and a conceptual artist from Japan, and I are working on a show proposal for an exhibition in New York City in 2021, where he will be living for the next 2 years.
I am extremely grateful to Pratt Institute for making all of this possible, and am looking forward to updating everyone as this project continues to grow. All my best!
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