a source on Armenian Art

A Pink Elephant in the Caucases - Azerbaijan's 'Bilbao'?

One of Baku's proposed new mega structures: Zara Hadid's design for the cultural center named after Aliev Senior.

When it comes to cultural practices of Azerbaijan, there really isn't much that can 'spring a surprise'. Ranging from the pathetic attempts at appropriation of a long-lost (Christian) cultural civilization (the Afghans) to ruthless and methodical destruction of all remnants of Armenian heritage in Nakhijevan - the most recent of which was the annihilation of the Jugha cemetery - the Azerbaijani government continually proves its relentless enthusiasm towards the construction of a 'national' cultural identity.

However, destroying those annoying cultural traces of your enemy-nation is just one aspect of the job. After all, there isn't much art or culture associated with the name of Azerbaijan, unless you count kitschy performances of neo-orientalist trash-pop at Eurovision as art. But all of that is about to change! The American journal ArtNews reported in their November issue of active plans by Ilham Aliyev to instigate a new cultural policy, which would "transform Baku into a cultural destination".

The linchpin of Aliev's magnum-opus is apparently a new museum of contemporary art that would rival the Bilbao Gugenheim in its scale and ambition. Its function is to present "the best art of the region". Presumably this excludes Armenia.

While Aliev and co are willing to spend so much of their oil money on these gargantuan projects, the process of turning culturally backward countries (Dubai and Saudi Arabia come to mind) into Art conglomerates, is not a one way street. Like in any good marriage, the true head of the family is not the most obvious one. Mr Thomas Kren, the ex-director of Guggenheim and now the head of a consulting firm, zeroed in his attentions on Baku after 'insistent' approaches from Aliev's team. Kren is an essential part of many similar projects, including a new 'destination' museum in Vilnius, Lithuania. What is symptomatic about the current state of the art world is Kren's attitude (as reported in this article). He readily admits that Baku has the kind of infrastructure that would be able to sustain a major centre of contemporary art. Thus, the trajectory of cultural marketing is made infinitely clear: Art goes where the Money flows.

Of course, Art, which is never created in places like Dubai and Bilbao anyway, is really besides the point as numerous new museums of contemporary art have recently demonstrated. Nobody really goes to Bilbao to look at the Art. What matters is the destination and the aura that the marketing team can create around Ghery's building and the whole endeavor.

What is curious of course is that Azerbaijan's sudden drive towards cultural emancipation coincides with the rather reluctant and somewhat bipolar activisation of artistic life in Yerevan (for let's face it, it doesn't occur anywhere else in Armenia) as well as the important archaeological discoveries in Artsakh. The recent projects of the Lincy and especially the Cafesdjian Foundations have certainly been attention grabbing, while Armenian artists in and outside the country continue to showcase art of the highest caliber. Now that Yerevan has not one, but TWO major contemporary art museums, the artistic gravitas of the city, in-spite of its poor economic status, is the most undeniable in the region. The Cafesdjian Museum is arguably the first example of a destination museum in the Caucasus and its 'strange' building has been wholeheartedly embraced by the city's population, while its two nascent exhibitions have had record-breaking crowds.

The difference is that in Armenia, most of these projects are based on purely private initiatives, while in Azerbaijan they are becoming part of the national[ist] policy.

Whatever the future of Baku's bid for cultural supremacy in the region, there is no doubt that Aliev's move to sprinkle his country with museums of all kind is yet another political maneuver. Whether it'll work in further sidetracking the West from the realities of the region is open to question, but one can't fault their approach.

Perhaps Mr. Sargsyan should make a note to see Mr. Kren next time he ventures overseas on a shopping trip?