Echoes from Chechnya

A still of the People of No Consequence video, Aslan Gaisumov, 2016. | Photo courtesy the artist, Emalin, London and Galerie Zink, Waldkirchen

If No One Asks is the first solo North American exhibition for Chechen artist Aslan Gaisumov. Though the specific history behind the work hails from across the globe, Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) curator Kimberly Phillips feels the issues it wrestles with can resonate just as strongly in Vancouver.

On display at the CAG now until March 24, 2019, If No One Asks consists of two pieces. The first is Memories of War, a single page from a found book to which Gaisumov applied black ink to redact most of the page’s words. The second is People of No Consequence, a single-channel video that shows the gathering of 119 Chechen elders, all survivors of the 1944 Chechen and Ingush deportation forced by the Soviets. These two works were both created in 2016, but have never been shown together until now.

“We wanted to create an exhibition that would bring [Gaisumov’s] work together in a new way,” says Phillips. “To prompt a new set of questions – a new way of looking at the work – in front of a brand-new audience.”

Foreign yet resonant

Phillips has followed Gaisumov’s work for a number of years, and last summer she saw two of his works exhibited at the Liverpool Biennial in the U.K. That display cemented her desire to bring his art to Vancouver.

“I felt that Aslan’s work came from a different place,” says Phillips, “but would resonate in very powerful ways in the set of conditions we ourselves are grappling with.”

Phillips says Gaisumov fits with the CAG’s mandate of bringing in work from artists all around the globe, but far from simply being a window into Chechnya and the Chechen people. The issues and ideas behind his pieces are far from foreign.

“The concerns of Aslan’s work, of history and silence and the body as a witness to history, I felt like that would resonate very potently in Vancouver,” says Phillips.

Measured and powerful

While some art exhibitions fill galleries with a high number of individual pieces, If No One Asks looks to have the same effect with just two. For Phillips, this type of presentation works just as well – if not better – than any larger-scale works they could have brought to the CAG.

“I’m a fan of very edited exhibitions,” she says. “Instead of trying to say more with more things, you can often say a lot more with less. Work like this is very potent: it’s work that deals with witnessing very difficult events in history, and brings up questions around war and displacement and trauma. I think there is so much that’s already in the work that requires time to sit with and think about, so you don’t need 25 other works to say similar things.”

Phillips feels that Gaisumov’s message is powerful, and doesn’t need to be conveyed through words. For People of No Consequence, he contacted hundreds of Chechen survivors, inviting them to come to Grozny, Chechnya, to gather together. Those who appear in the video don’t say anything, but they don’t need to.

“I think one of Aslan’s strengths is the incredible clarity in his work,” says Phillips. “The video is very clear, very matter of fact. The camera doesn’t move, it’s not flashy. The strength of his work is the tension of this clarity along with the utter opacity and the difficulty of actually bringing into language the atrocities these people endured.”

The history and concepts that Gaisumov touches on are deeply personal and complex, but Phillips believes he is able to explore them with a deft and thought-provoking touch.

“There are a lot of artists who work with difficult, traumatic works from the past, but it can be easy to say too much, or become overly melodramatic, and Aslan refuses to do that. His work is very measured, and quiet in a sense, but there’s so much there that is both invisible and visible at the same time.”

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