Erbol Meldibekov has been mining the history of his native Central Asia for almost three decades now. Walking through “Hallucination,” his second exhibition at Gelman Gallery, one felt thrown back to desolate Soviet times. In this show, sculptural installations, photography and videos (all 2011) attest to the struggles of Kazakhstan (the artist’s birthplace) and other Central Asian countries to reconcile their Soviet legacy with the reality of a capitalist present.
Mutation consists of four bronze busts of a man in a suit. One portrays Lenin and recalls the mass-produced figurines that were de rigueur in homes throughout the Soviet Union but which many people discarded after perestroika. As a student in Soviet times, Meldibekov worked in a factory that turned out such tchotchkes. The other three busts, though clearly of different men, retain some of Lenin’s characteristics. The second has been altered by elongating the head so it recalls a Giacometti; the third is flattened and takes on Mongoloid features, perhaps meant to evoke those of Genghis Khan; the last wears glasses and resembles the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. Displayed on pedestals, these mutants signify that power can assume various guises.
The installation Communism Peak presents six smashed pots that have been upended and hammered until all the white enamel has fallen off the sides. The two at either end are beaten down almost to the level of the kitchen stools on which they stand; the tallest pot, in the middle, is less damaged. The piece is named for Communism Peak, the highest mountain in Tajikistan, which has, at various times, been renamed for Stalin, for Communism, and, in 1998, for Ismail Samani, the “father of Tajikistan.”
For Meldibekov, who lives in Almaty, Kazahkstan’s former capital, history’s changes are also embodied in architecture. The Family Album is a collection of photographs of vacationers, including his family, taken on a central square in Tashkent in the 1980s. During the last 90 years this square has changed its name 10 times as its namesakes came into and fell out of favor with the authorities. Meldibekov has restaged many of these snapshots, sometimes including the same family members. While young girls have become middle-aged women, the commemorative statues in the square have also changed, from Lenin to local heroes. The photos together set in contrast the natural changes of time and the willed changes of men. Meldibekov collaborated with his brother Nurbosyn Oris to create these works. As Central Asia adopts a market economy, Meldibekov shows that regardless of socialism or capitalism, power has a similar face.
Photo: Erbol Meldibekov: Mutation, 2009-11, bronze and mixed mediums; at Gelman.