The Union of Fire and Water will be based in the previously private Palazzo Barbaro, the former residence of Giosafat Barbaro, a Venetian ambassador who travelled to and wrote extensively on Azerbaijani cities and the court of Shah Uzun Hassan in the late 1400s. Commissioned by YARAT, a not-for-profit contemporary art organisation based in Baku, and curated by Suad Garayeva, the exhibition will be open to the public from 9th May to 22nd November 2015 at The 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia.
The internationally renowned Kazakhstani-born contemporary artist Almagul Menlibayeva works with a range of media including painting, graphics, performance, installation, video and fine art in order to expose shared cultural experiences across time and place. Menlibayeva’s acclaimed practice references non-verbal dialogues across worlds, cultures and eras, with particular attention given to the role of women in pre-Soviet, pre-Islamic, Shamanistic and dervish cultures. Rashad Alakbarov is one of the key Azerbaijani artists to come to international attention in recent years. His installation-based works explore the distortion of sensory perception; using various media, Alakbarov arranges objects and fragments before a light-source to cast shadows. The duality between installation and creation, light and shadow, reality and perception is central to his art.
Drawing on ideas of tradition, history, culture and architecture, The Union of Fire and Water takes inspiration from a landmark building constructed in the Venetian Gothic style in Baku in 1912: Mukhtarov’s Palace. Erected for his beloved wife by one of the first oil magnates, Murtuza Mukhtarov, the building has since changed hands and functions numerous times following the Soviet invasion and Mukhtarov’s suicide. The building now houses the main marriage registry office in Baku and is informally known as the ‘Palace of Happiness’. The story of Mukhtarov’s Palace exemplifies wider themes of unity and conflict, love and violence, dialogue and aggression explored by Menlibayeva and Alakbarov within the show. Using the centuries of exchange and conflict inherent within the architecture of both Baku and Venice, The Union of Fire and Waterseeks to explore the complexities of oscillating cultural unions.
Rashad Alakbarov’s sculptural interventions interact with the Venetian environment of the Palazzo Barbaro and its fourteenth century Gothic interior. Metal, light, shadow and sound installations combine to expose discrepancies and dualities latent within the space. Uniting the Venetian history of the Palazzo with the personal history of Baku, Alakbarov introduces an emerging voice from the East. Almagul Menlibayeva’s newly commissioned video installation plays on multiple channels across successive rooms. The film draws on the narrative of Mukhtarov and his wife Lisa, immersing the viewer in the story of Baku, whilst further exploring ideas of legacy, modernity, conflict and kinship.
Both installations are accompanied by a digital platform allowing viewers to become further immersed in the exhibition. Social media platforms and a dedicated webpage following the progress of the project act as a conduit into the intricacies explored within The Union of Fire and Water. The webpage brings together the layered narrative of the show through both visual and literary references, historical facts and interviews, and will also provide live feeds from within the Palazzo Barbaro.
A catalogue will accompany the presentation with texts by Fuad Akhundov, writer and historian; Francesco Bonami, curator; Lala Kazimova, art historian and specialist in Oriental music and literature; Sara Raza, Guggenheim UBS Map Curator for the Middle East; Kasia Redzisz, Senior Curator at Tate Liverpool and Ermanno Rivetti, Assistant Editor at The Art Newspaper.
The Union of Fire and Water is commissioned by YARAT Contemporary Art Space, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion and nurturing of contemporary art in Azerbaijan.