Assembly Complex (2015-2016)
Dilbar Ashimbaeva and Vargas-Suarez Universal for AUCA, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
I created, in collaboration with Dilbar Ashimbaeva, a unique site-specific artwork titled “Assembly Complex” (2015-16), for the forum wall at the new American University of Central Asia's (AUCA) campus in Bishkek. The artwork is part of the “Topografica” public art initiative as developed produced and directed by Karen Davidov, coordinated by Aida Sulova and advised by Ulan Djaparov. Their direction, guidance and advice helped shape many of Dilbar and I's conceptual, technical and material development, process and execution.
On site Education
After 8 months of planning, researching and organizing the Topografica project for AUCA, architect Henry Myerberg, Karen Davidov and Aida Sulova all from HMA2 Architects, and I, traveled to Kyrgyzstan to initiate the Topografica artist's retreat, site visit to AUCA, and to begin research on the curatorial work for a Topografica exhibition. Before the actual trip I had been making the effort to educate myself on as many aspects of Central Asian culture, life, art, and of course learning from Henry about the campus. As I had traveled to Central Asia, Siberia and throughout Russia in the past, I still felt like every aspect of what I was learning was very new and very stimulating. The trip was seen as a success in the sense that the retreat created a very open dialogue between the artists, and many ideas were born from there for the Topografica project including the exhibition held at AUCA in the Fall of 2015. Both Summer and Fall felt very exciting and new. New people, new places, new ideas and the new challenge of the creation of a large-scale artwork for the forum wall at AUCA was a bit daunting, but still very exciting.
Research, Planning and Collaborating
I met Dilbar at AUCA in October of 2015, we expressed a strong mutual admiration for each others work. Dilbar's status and accomplishments as a leading fashion designer in Central Asia have established her as a leading figure representing Central Asian culture at home and abroad. My experience as a muralist in the Americas and Europe have allowed my work to develop improvisational and site specific projects as both permanent and temporary public artworks. It occurred to me that working with a master such as her could result in something very unique. Since 2007 my work has been more and more influenced by textiles, fabrics and weavings, especially from Siberia, Central Asia, North America and South America. I also knew that to work in collaboration and so closely with Dilbar would be a education onto itself. Starting in December of 2015 a constant close and long distance dialogue as well as an exchange of ideas developed into a real collaborative process for Dilbar and I.
In April of 2016 I traveled to Bishkek for a 3 week stay to begin to produce my work onto silk fabrics as selected and customized by Dilbar and myself. Dilbar Fashion house set up an ample studio for me to work at at their factory in Bishkek. Being surrounded by their workers, their equipment and so much material was a bit overwhelming, but again, very exciting to learn so much from Dilbar about silk, it's properties and the possibilities we had before us to develop the work for AUCA. During those three weeks I made eleven paintings on eleven different types of silk. I used silk dyes to create networks of my signature “vectors” using staining techniques, similarly used by Western abstract artists, as well as guta, an Indian material used in silk painting. I had never really worked with any of these materials before but to experiment and learn them was a big part of the trip. Dilbar and I also discussed other possibilities such as embroidery, either hand sewn or with a computerized machine for faster execution.
Returning to New York in early May, we began to see that the amount of possible materials, techniques and methods for Assembly Complex were vast, daunting and technically challenging. From May 7 until July 3 we worked on approximately 35 design development ideas. Having never lost the focus of our concept to fuse ideas about land, culture and connectivity within the Topografica concept already presented at AUCA, we moved forward and operated on reverse time zone schedules conference calls and conversations with translators, both human and otherwise. I arrived in Bishkek again on July 5 to get to the final design for approval. The goal and agenda was to “get it done”. By this point it was more than clear and imperative that the artwork tell or contain a story of a changing landscape, both physical and cultural. The final green light was given after presenting the 45th design development option. Ulan Djaparov said that all the design options could be an entire exhibition onto themselves. As I look at all the design options now, I can clearly see the evolution, and they remind me of so many conversations with the team.
After many months, ideas, conversations and miles in the air, we were set to start the production process of “our project”, as we called it in our WhatsApp chat group. Dilbar and I knew that we wanted to work on silk, embroidery, painting with dyes and we also discussed the possibility of printing digitally on silk. In the end we employed all of these mediums and methods while still keeping an improvisational quality to how the final piece would be composed. Conceptually, our breakthrough came by way of digitally collaging images of existing fabrics at Dilbar's studio with my own and Dilbar's drawings. This was the layering, the complexity and the blending of mediums, cultures and geometries we were looking for. We also decided to maintain a very earth tone rich palette for the fabrics, embroideries and painting. Since April and May we had realized that the earth tones would be appropriate due to their referentiality to landscape, tectonics, and nature. Dilbar had also wanted to continue a sort of lineage related to my “Earth Paintings” created for the 2nd floor commons at AUCA in the Fall of 2015. Those colors were made from actual earth, soils and coal I collected from the South shores of Lake Issyk Kul, Barskoon and Jety Oguz. We took hi-res images of those colors and used them in the final piece. We had used actual natural materials to paint with and suddenly were now digitally sampling them and resampling them and digitally manipulating them to create layers and new forms for the new piece. Dilbar and I visited a printer who could print on fabric and we made a sample on silk. The printed sample gave us a new perspective on the possibility of further printing on fabric. As we were deciding how much to print we realized that we could print out a long scroll like piece of fabric and then “paint” the wall with it.
Once the wall was ready for us, we assembled a team to help us with the installation. Over the course of 5 evenings we installed the print onto the forum wall in a form resembling a unfolding map moving across the wall. We also hand painted with dyes on the unprinted side, painting the forms visible from the other side of the fabric. We also placed most of the stretched and embroidered silk paintings around the large print as “satellites” moving around the large “map”. By this point Dilbar and I's language barrier felt almost nonexistent. We discussed any and every aspect of our project without the need of a translator. We also realized that this was possibly our first collaboration. We regularly discussed how so many options could possibly yield other projects to make dresses with my artwork, paintings with complex embroidery, yurts with her and my designs, she encouraged me to pursue my goal of making my own rugs, and we were teaching each other about our respective fields every day. I constantly showed her the works of artists, architects and thinkers that I am informed by, while she showed me many fashion designs, architecture and materials used for centuries in Central Asia.
Knowing and Unknowing
Dilbar and I taught each other a lot, and we each learned about many subjects we did not know very much about before. Aside from our conversations we've both had the opportunities to have a dialogue with students, and the public around this project. During installation time there were many a curious passerby, usually students, with whom I shared what we were doing. Many expressed gratitude, interest and curiosity about such an artwork. They wanted to know how it all happened, how it all developed, and how they could get involved in the process. Those conversations can only occur after so much other prior work has been completed. As we finished this project and since I have been back to work in my studio here in Brooklyn, I've felt strongly that “Assembly Complex” represents, and perhaps, resembles a map of the complexities that surround us through language, technology, information, geography, culture and time. We used the most natural and organic materials as well as the most current technologies to arrive at this artwork. More than with any other project in my oeuvre, I've learned that my work is perhaps a highly personalized way of mapping reality that takes one on an orbit to and from the known and the unknown. I've also learned that the unknown is my comfort zone. “Assembly Complex” planted many seeds in me to return to Kyrgyzstan and to start other projects. There are so many unknowns and some already knowns ahead of me in Central Asia. Yet, I'll let my curiosities guide me to continue to build, experiment and connect to the past, present and future there.
photos: Rafael Vargas-Suarez, AUCA, Aida Sulova