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Rustam Khalfin

The work and life of one of the protagonists of contemporary art in Kazakhstan, who died in 2008.
By Valeria Ibraeva | Apr 2010

"Life sacrificed to art", a romantic formula, a frequent cliché in talking about artists, is indeed tragic. Is it really romantic to live a life of loneliness, poverty and sickness? However, this formula can be justly applied to Rustam Khalfin, an artist from Kazakhstan - a country that was for decades hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Until 1991 Kazakhstan was one of the most secret places on earth, not just beyond the concrete of the Berlin Wall, but also behind the walls of the Kremlin and the Great Wall of China. Most of Rustam Khalfin's life was lived in political, economic and informational isolation. This is probably why he is a most closed artist, whose work does not show traces of the outside world, instead focusing on the workings of his inner psyche, the most integral part of which is a phenomenon of art. For Khalfin, the writings, thoughts, and works of Matisse or Beuys, along with his own ideas, were far more important and more real than Kazakhstan's current sovereignty or the breakup of the Soviet Union. This, despite that fact that it was these events which brought forward his own sense of freedom.

He calls himself a disciple of Vladimir Sterligov, which is perhaps why Kazakh art historians draw a direct line of descendancy from Malevich to Khalfin, calling him "a descendant of Russian classical avant-garde". This is piquant, as Rustam Khalfin was born, grew up, and lives in what was once the Soviet 'Orient', the 'Tahiti' of Central Asia, 'discovered' by the atists P. Kuznetsov and V.Volkov in the 1920s. These two could never imagine that it would be there that Malevich's lover Vera Ermolaeva would be shot on 29th September 1937. It was there in Kazakhstan, while a prisoner of Karlag (one of the countless local branches of Gulag), that she met Vladimir Sterligov.

Khalfin got to know Sterligov's work much later, at the time of "developed socialism" in the 1970s, when he, a graduate of the Moscow Architecture Institute, settled in Almaty. While working as an architect for the state he started to paint. His works were exhibited along with other followers of Sterligov – G. Zubkov, M. Tserush, and A. Kozhin – in semiunderground galleries in Moscow and Leningrad. Soon he set up a group in Alma-Ata with his wife Lida Blinova, Ablai Karpykov and Boris Yakub, and started organizing apartment shows in Kazakhstan's capital. He always strived towards a union of artists, towards setting up a school – of course, with himself as leader.

His paintings from the 1980s to mid 1990s investigate the phenomenon of "art proper"; its emotive and intellectual capabilities, its ways of most intimate and thorough insight into objects, phenomena, and their interactions with each other. Attention is focused on the fragmentary essence of all of these - be they pieces of a broken cup, part of a light flow, or balance between the yellow, the blue and the grey. The precision and elegance of form in the artist's Broken Pieces (1989-1992) series sharply contrasts with the basic primitivism of his 'oil, canvas' technique – a mediated expression of contradictions between plain commonness of reality and sophistication of an intellectual game.

The idea of an edge, a fragment, a broken piece, and their interface with space are further developed in the Self Portraits without a Mirror (1993-1996) series. These demand more than close attention - most thorough scrutiny, even prying. Fingertips, their touch, their prints, vacuity within the outer boundaries of arms, legs, or the torso, are filled with either colour or another spate of vacuity, or contoured with a gruff stroke on the dominant tint. Here, approximation borders on abstraction without ever negating the original shape: abstraction here is just a key, a code for deciphering.

In the mid 1990s a quiet period of self-isolation and self-absorption came to an end. Perestroika was succeeded by independence and wild capitalism. The once close ties with Moscow and Leningrad - the only Soviet beacons of civilization - were crudely severed. Lida Blinova, his wife, soul mate and kindred spirit, died of cancer. He could no longer carry on creating homages to Matisse: Velásquez got overshadowed by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys.

His utter indifference to social and political life was, by necessity, shaken by crude realities, by fundamental shifts in the social and political textures of existence. Soon Khalfin joined a motley crew of people - a circle without a strategy, without a clearly defined common position, even without proper mutual understanding: Irina Yuferova, Sergey Maslov, Natalia Melehina, Kanat Ibragimov, the Vorobievs couple, Erbosyn Meldibekov, Yulia Sorokina, and this writer. We all wanted only one thing: fresh air, new information, and freedom of expression. Freedom was understood as a possibility to cast off the clichés and dogmas of the official Artists' Union, a Soviet Institution with its rigid regulations of creativity. Something close to a conspiracy was ripening in endless, often drunken, conversations – in furious arguments, and scorn of the still-alive Soviet system. Alma-Ata radical performance art of mid 90s was a direct outgrowth of that conspiracy, that found its outlet in a stream of furious actions. Artists felt an almost physical urge to break out of the old stereotypical confines. A time had come for bloody actions (Sergey Maslov and Kanat Ibragimov), fake religious vigils (M. Razhev and S. Atabekov), ironic political rallies 'pro' and 'contra' (E. and V. Vorobiev). Khalfin succumbed to the elements without ever losing touch with his inner intellectual self: he wore a hat à la Beuys, shot arrows into his own paintings and put together the Large Glass installation (1995), in which he polemicized with Duchamp. In 1996 he staged his first performance art piece Autumnal Gestures of Wrath. In complete self-absorption, he was chopping cabbage heads stationed on tall podiums that were supposed to imitate sculpture plinths. A sense of condensed aggression was so overwhelming that I felt my hands were trembling. The finale, though, was quite peaceful: chopped cabbage was deployed into a pan to be marinated. It was consumed in a new century when the state, through official commissioning, started to shape new 'national' artistic milieu in which achievements of socialist realism were mixed with kitschy ethnicity.

In 1999, having received a grant from the newly organized George Soros Centre for Contemporary Arts, Khalfin started working on his ambitious Clay Project, Level Zero (1999-2000), which filled an entire two-storey building. "A figure of the dismembered main character is a metaphor for disassociation, disconnection of people in today's world, and, in particular in our artistic community. It appeals to consolidation, to understanding the situation in contemporary art and working out a strategy that could introduce Kazakhstan to international art community" – wrote Khalfin in the catalogue. He was the first amongst the participants of our crazy gatherings to articulate a strategy of "entering a larger artistic world looking for distinctions rather than similarities". He found these distinctions in Kazakhstan's historic past. The nomadic way of life is an exotic style, and studying it with contemporary techniques and technologies disclosed lots of interesting opportunities in the search for a new form. This thesis became especially relevant after he read the Treatise on Nomadology by Deleuze and Guattari. The book further convinced the artist that his strategic choice was right. In fact, Khalfin's Clay Man was nothing else but visualisation of the treatise.

The Space of Minimal Distances, which is "rather tactile than visual", consisted of a grass covered mountain slope, a video room, and room with takyr - an imitation of clay desert ground cracked under the blistering sun - all within a human body house. In the middle of it there was a large model of a pulota. Pulota is the artist's own concept, meaning 'void in a fist'. The word itself is an amalgamation of the Russian words pustota - void - and kulak - fist. Nomadic wanderings through the inner space of the Clay Man were supposed to permeate the viewer with a sense of pulota. They was supposed to feel as like a pulota, assuming the shape of a place - a leg or an arm - or entering the stomach, where they would be treated with snacks and drinks. The head was symbolised by shanyrak, a ring normally used to brace the foundation of a yurt. Then, through the knee, they entered the video room where they were exposed to the screening of the film Landscape of Desires. In the film the idea of wandering was further confirmed by the mutual penetration of naked male and female bodies. There was also a batch of viscous clay with a texture prompting associations with human flesh. "Getting back to the fundamentals of our craft, we distance ourselves from the avant-garde, actualize tactile perception of the world, switch on the closest of the close-ups with its feeling of the curvaceous surface of the human body" – this quotation from the previously mentioned installation's catalogue became a kind of a manifesto, a programme for further actions.

Having paid his dues to performance art, installation, and total art - all novel forms in the Kazakhstan of the late 1990s - Khalfin's involvement with the still newer form of video art was only logical. Desire to be ever first, to be a leader, fuels his passion and boosts his ideas and feelings, even on an aesthetic level. Unfortunately, he was the first in another area: the title Clay Project, Level Zero turned out to be prophetic. A year after its installation, the owner of the rented two storey shell for the clay man demanded that the artist "take away all the rubbish" from the building. Later, artists in Kazakhstan got used to their sculptures being destroyed (Sakhen Narynov, Monument to Asyk), their names scorned in the media, and their buildings torn down (Contemporary Arts Centre). In 2000, this barbaric action still stirred some feeble resistance. Developing the "objectivity" of the situation, Rustam connected it with the myth of Osiris, showing surviving fragments of the installation in various exhibitions. It brought him back to the technique of 'close viewing' and created a somewhat strange, 'reverse', situation: It was no longer the artist who manipulated his work but, rather, his own creation took over, setting its own conditions. An idea of history and culture so dominant in his work, as well as his method of extra-close viewing, touch and tactile feeling, were further expressed in the two Northern Barbarians (2000) videos.

Both films reconstruct the everyday life of nomads, but his view is far from the traditional idyllic pictures of a shepherd playing his dombra amongst beautiful grazing sheep, or scenes of impressive horse riding skills. Instead, we see fragments of the nomads' intimate life, which make up an axonometric perspective of living in the steppe. In other words, both films are about possibilities of implementing the desires of the flesh in the severe nomadic life, and the absolute flatness of landscape - where there is no hidden little corners, nowhere to hide from prying views. The first of the two films is a about two lovers who, through an old custom, are forbidden to see each other before their wedding day, except through the kerege – trellis walls – of the yurt. The custom was described by the 18th century English scholar and adventurer John Kestle. The second film, Love Races, is based on an Old Chinese etching, where a couple are making love on the back of a riding horse. A view from the outside – either of an English traveler or a Chinese artist – describes an exotic custom. Khalfin not only meticulously reconstructs long forgotten customs but also goes further than this, looking for and finding the idea of the universality of love. Exoticism is certainly one of the most important plastic ideas of the series, but the sense of history which we get through the sienna monochrome of faded old photographs gives the film a natural, fly on the wall, documentary touch, as if the Lumiere brothers went to the Kazakhstan steppe in the 19th century and instead of Breakfast of a Child filmed a couple in love by a yurt.

Artistic reconstruction of traditional life became one of the more important ideas in contemporary Kazakh art. It was a foundation for shaping new identity, so drastically needed by a country that, until now, has been known only as the territory of Karlag, virgin land, and the space-launch complex of Baikonur – all shrouded in Soviet style secrecy. The same idea of identity was extended by Khalfin's friends E. Meldibekov, S. Atabekov, A. Menlibayeva in a more postmodern style and became a conceptual foundation of Kazakhstani art of the early 21st century.

The Northern Barbarians series was the artist's last work before he was hit by the stroke that paralyzed the entire left half of his body - a body he so meticulously studied, whose parts he transferred onto his canvases, sculptures and objects. His art, detached from the artist, lives a life of its own, a life much healthier and jovial than the artist himself. His works grow in popularity and recognition, exhibited at major international shows in Germany, Italy, Canada, Spain and even at the 51st Venice Biennale.

By early 2006, however, the Spartan atmosphere of the apartment which doubles as his studio was filled not only with the smell of medicine but also with the fresh and longforgotten aroma of turpentine. Khalfin works again, continuing his series Self Portraits without a Mirror. In early 2007 he had a show called Intime-Intime that was full of light, silence, and insatiable attention to his own self: as if a dying doctor-scientist tells his assistant to record his premortal feelings.

Hardly visible contours of the nose, cheeks, or skin wrinkles are seen from an unusual angle and dissolved into the flow of white, into bleached green and yellow. They vibe and flow into each other, not in the subtle way of the Broken Pieces series but in a weightier and gruffier manner, abruptly cut short by a blunt black stroke. The face, the fingers, the hand, dissipate in the texture of the painting, moving further and further away from the specifics of life before turning into yet another embodiment of the artist Osiris, whose works as well as his body parts are dispersed around the world - broken pieces of memory, of another fanatic who lost himself in his art.

Text originally published in Nadim Samman and Aliya Abykayeva-Tiesenhausen, eds., Rustam Khalfin: Seeing Through the Artist's Hand. Exhibition catalogue, White Space Gallery, London 2007.

Nafas Art Magazine thanks the White Space Gallery for the collaboration.


Valeria Ibraeva

Art critic, curator, director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art Almaty. Lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

(Translation from Russian: Alexander Kan and/or Keith Hammond)
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