‘If history is written by the victors, will the future be written by the defeated?’ ask Slavs and Tatars, a collective founded in 2005 by a Texas-born Iranian and a Pole, and focused on history’s marginal, often-forgotten moments and geography’s liminal sites (and in particular on what they describe as ‘an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia’). Practising a sort of post-Pop anthropology in the neopunk costume of a quasi-educational endeavour, spiced also with a neo-Dada politics of slapstick and the carnivalesque, Slavs and Tatars smoothly travel between a variety of primarily research-based forms including writing, graphic design, performative acts and lectures. Their Book Works publication and exhibition Kidnapping Mountains (2009) is a unique, wannabe-sophisticated, Lonely Planet-style exploration of the cultural legacy of that ‘mountain of languages’ – the Caucasus region. Here, in another chapter of Slavs and Tatars’s collective process of identity-search hysteria, is a mélange of historiography and tourism in which critical nostalgia is applied as a tool to subvert post-national narratives from within and to jump over a mythical Eurasian vernacular.
Slavs and Tatars’ new, multiplatform project, Friendship of Nations: Polish Shi’ite Showbiz, currently awaiting its final expression at the forthcoming Sharjah Biennale, is a comparative study that examines the unlikely heritage between Poland and Iran, from seventeenth-century Sarmatism to the 2009 Green Movement in Iran. Jammed together here are archival materials (a letter from the Ayatollah Khomeini to the Pope, a record of Bomb Iran by Vince Vance and the Valiants); canonical artworks (original constructivist posters and Qajar paintings, among others) and the artists’ own sculptural, print and audio work and talks, referring to both the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Poland’s Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s. Supplementing these with research into cultural habits and styles (such as, for instance, an analysis of the sex appeal of the monobrow in Muslim and Christian countries), Slavs and Tatars map – with typical wit and intellectual sharpness – a barely known terrain of cross-cultural and nationalist epiphanies. Their new book, Slavs and Tatars Presents Molla Nasreddin: The Magazine That Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve (JRP/Ringier), published this month, contains a selection of the best 200 or so pages – published for the first time in English – from the legendary early-twentieth-century Azeri political satire, perhaps the most important Muslim publication of the last century, with illustrations suggesting a Daumier or Toulouse Lautrec of the Caucasus. Next year, meanwhile, Slavs and Tatars will mount a solo show at the Vienna Secession.
This article was first published in the March 2011 issue.