Underground Art: Interview with Patara Gallery Co-Founder Gvantsa Jishkariani

 

The alienation that is so often felt by many outsiders living or visiting cities in the former USSR tends to stem from the surrounding urban design and architecture. The large rows of grey Khrushchyovka tower blocks that line the suburbs, the former leader’s predilections for large monuments, and the yards that accompany each space seem to overwhelm the senses. These buildings and monuments are not merely symbolic aspects of a past era but are also entrenched in the basic design of the city that will live on long after socialism becomes a distant memory in the former USSR. They are the ghosts that the former USSR continues to live with.

While apartment buildings and monuments attract the majority of attention from artists, tourists and other commentators, underground passes, constructed during the Soviet era, remain one of the more interesting facets of urban design in the region. In contrast to the flats and granite statues that stand static or were destroyed in the aftermath of independence for the various states, these underground passes, which allow citizens to cross the thoroughfares of their cities, hold far less symbolic weight and are treated far more functionally. They continue to be fully utilized and tend to double up as commercial centres for small trades and ventures. Serving as the prime location where ‘Made in China’ products are sold, along with various other goods for the working class, they continue to evolve to meet those demands. In some respects, they offer a glimpse at where the working class in the respected country stands. For instance, the underground passes in Riga house international brands, while those in Bishkek are rather decrepit, with flickering lights.

Recently, PATARA Gallery (meaning ‘small’ in Georgian) opened in central Tbilisi, close to the Rose Revolution Square. Co-founded by Tbilisian native Gvantsa Jishkariani, this venture is just one of the many progressive projects that she has started, including which art portal GarGar.ge. The gallery exists in an unlikely space for an art gallery, surrounded by small kiosks and Arab/Persian night clubs. The gallery showcases another example of a post-Soviet generation embracing their heritage instead of looking to replicate galleries in Western Europe. We spoke to Gvantsa about her project and the ups and downs of opening up a gallery in an underground.

 

Undergrounds are so integral to Soviet imagery. They are where cheap crap is sold and where the past resides. What encouraged you to open up a gallery in one?

For me personally, undergrounds are not Soviet imagery, at least not in Georgia. Actually, in the very centre of the city it was a huge underground architectural complex which was built for random shops and spaces. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, the shops were closed and the place was abandoned.

During the 90s and up until the early 2000s, it was used by skaters as a training space, by homeless people as a shelter, by drug addicts, and so on. On the central avenue of the city, there are many underpasses and mostly they are more or less clean. But this one had a terrible smell and, as I observe, people mostly prefer to cross the road from above, despite the danger, rather than going through the underground and cross it safely. As I was working nearby I had to pass it very often, and once I saw how a small part of this underpass was cleaned and reconstructed. Some rooms with huge windows appeared and that’s how I got the idea: why not open a small gallery in one of those little white boxes, which are supposed to be shops just as in other undergrounds, but because of the horrible look and smell no one is renting them?

I think that tiny spaces are more challenging. They are like a micro cosmos, so the size and the shape of PATARA gallery is my second favourite thing, after its location and neighbours. From that moment, I had hundreds of ideas for my works which I dreamed would be exhibited in one of those empty rooms, but I never dared to ask the rent price. As a commercial space in the city centre, I thought the price wouldn’t be affordable to me. Still, opening a gallery in such a place seemed like a great idea, as people hate that place because of the situation with all the Arab clubs and their very bad reputation. Maybe we wouldn’t have a very big audience, but still that would provide a reason for people to go there and see the exhibition. So I proposed the idea to my friend Nata and she liked it too. Then we talked to the owners of the space and actually the price was not as high as we thought, so we decided to do it!

 

Where you are located is close to clubs popular with Arab and Persian tourists, along with the same assorted shops one would find in any underground. How have your neighbours reacted to your gallery?

When we started in September, the owner of this space had difficulties in understanding what we were doing or why we were doing it without any dream of profit. The gallery definitely grabs the attention of people working there as it is the brightest part of the area. Some like it, but to some it evokes aggression, especially to women who work there. Since it is a contemporary art gallery and currently there’s an installation exhibited, they just don’t understand it and are always asking questions: “What is that? What does that mean, and why do you make it?” Sometimes they are even aggressive towards us, trying to insult us by calling us satanists, demons, and so on. But we don’t take it seriously and just keep doing our thing.

 

Obviously, this has not been easy, but I think it is a really brilliant idea. Do you think art needs to make itself more present in spaces popular with working class people?

Yes, I definitely do, especially in Georgia. In our country, a big part of the population really works hard to survive. Not only are there no means and time left for art, but they also don’t have any interest in it, especially contemporary art. So I think it should be available, not only at some particular galleries, but also in random places. We keep seeing the same audience at almost every exhibition here in Tbilisi, or outside of the city, and this circle is actually very small. Our gallery most of the time works as a shop window, works are visible 24/7 for everyone passing by. In my personal experience window galleries work better in the sense that sometimes people are afraid to step inside the gallery, but they certainly will stop and take a look from outside. There’s a long way to go; even my parents have asked me questions like “Is there an entrance fee? Can I go inside the galleries just like that? What should I be wearing?” Hopefully that will change. We just need not to take it as seriously as we do now. It should be present, it should be speaking to them, and it should also make them ask questions.

 

What shows do you have coming up soon?

Now you can see the Anuk Belugas exhibition till mid-December and then we’ll have an artist-produced magazine presentation. Currently we have an open call for future exhibitions, which you will never see in galleries, but we are very proud to have our doors open to everyone, with their most insane ideas. We already planned the next two shows, and as each exhibition lasts at least a month, we are going to have some presentations in between. But we won’t tell you more about selected artists yet!