Founded in 2006, Slavs and Tatars is an international collective whose eclectic work focuses on the vast, multiethnic portion of Eurasia that lies, according to the artists, “east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” At Tanya Bonakdar, the group gleefully redirected Donald Trump’s call to “make America great again” in their work Make Mongolia Great Again (2016): a map of Eurasia with splotches and swirls of white paint suggesting aspects (military campaigns, migrations, trade routes) of the Mongol Empire in Genghis Khan’s day. Slavs and Tatars deals in hybridity. The words on the map that call for Mongolia’s renewed greatness are inexplicably, and hilariously, in Spanish.
Fermentation was a prevailing theme in the show, including the use of microbes to preserve or produce culturally important foods, with various works referring to dairy products, leavened bread, and pickles. The doctored photograph After Pasteur (2016) was displayed just inside the gallery, on the wall next to the front desk. The work shows Louis Pasteur—the microbiologist famous for inventing a standard process for purifying milk and other food of harmful bacteria—with “milk” (it’s actually white acrylic paint) spilling from his mouth and splattering his clothes. Nearby, spanning the entrance to the ground-floor exhibition space, was Milk Champagne (2016): a curtain made of PVC panels, akin to the strip doors sometimes used on walk-in coolers, printed with a faux advertisement for kumis, the ancient Central Asian beverage traditionally made from fermented mare’s milk. The advertisement, which features an image of three horses against a field of magnified microbes, ironically calls this drink, in English, a “traditional Russian remedy,” although it is identified with those long resisting Russian hegemony. After Pasteur and Milk Champagne present two types of microbes: bad ones that have to be eradicated (to render milk safe) and good ones that work wonders (by enriching milk with probiotics and making it mildly alcoholic). Microbes can be considered immigrants of sorts, as they reside in and on hosts, and thus the works implicitly address a central immigration issue—whether alien “others” are to be feared and repelled or welcomed and absorbed.
Slavs and Tatars’ works make surprising connections between disparate signifiers. A suite of United States military cots are covered by wool blankets that recall Oriental carpets and Islamic prayer rugs. (US soldiers are a dramatic foreign presence in “host” Eurasia.) On one blanket, the statement GIVE PEACE A CHANCE appears above an image of a bomb containing the absurd phrase BOMB AYRAN. Ayran is a beloved yogurtlike Turkish drink, but this statement evokes rabid calls to bomb Iran. Meanwhile, a convivial milk bar in the gallery dispensed ayran, giving visitors a taste of the Middle East.
The show also included eight works from the series “Tranny Tease (pour Marcel),” 2009–, which consists of vacuum-formed plastic signs featuring words and phrases in different languages. One of the examples on view, Kwas ist Das (2016), concerns kvass, a Slavic and Baltic fermented beverage made from rye bread. In the work, a German transliteration of the drink’s name (“Quaß”) is followed by a Cyrillic transliteration of “ist das” (as in the German question “was ist das?”)—the combined phrases seeming to ask, what is this weird drink? Addressing fraught issues such as shifting borders and cross-cultural exchanges in Europe and devastating conflicts between the Germanic and Slavic worlds, Kwas ist Das, like so many of Slavs and Tatars’ works, offers a pithy, humorous take on complex historical and geopolitical matters.