Vajiko Chachkhiani: They Kept Shadows Quiet
by Kate Kolberg
By the time I reached the final room of the gallery, my mind had begun to bob away with the visual tides of the videos before me, yet my body persisted to interrupt. It nagged me with reminders of its existence through fidgety hands and hastened breath; in lifting my finger to check my pulse, I confirmed that it was noticeably high. Though I had tried to move beyond it, I had not fully recovered from the threat of moments prior—or rather, from what I had perceived as such.
It is rare to confront a threat or fear in art, but this is exactly how I would catalogue my experience of Tbilisi-born Vajiko Chachkhiani’s They Kept Shadows Quiet. This sense of fear was also countered by one of security, and in this oscillation between comfort and dread—imposed through both material and conceptual gestures—I began to recognize the influence that expectation and perception have on feeling secure. This wavering exists within Chachkhiani’s implicit narratives around the histories and mythologies of his home country of Georgia a country that has been marked by numerous wars, revolution and social upheaval during his lifetime. What surfaces is a view into what seems to be a conflicted relationship to home and a more universal call to reconsider how notions of home are framed. Milena Tomic, in her exhibition essay, briefly suggests how the show might be read as an interrogation of “the mythology of home as a refuge from the geopolitical upheavals that define the present time.” Put otherwise, how reliable is home as a site of security if located in a place marked by unrest?
Throughout this exhibition, there was a balanced dispensation of the aesthetically pleasurable or familiar with the rigid or unanswerable. The installation, Endless Ends (2018), consisted of a series of thin twigs emerging from several of the gallery’s walls, as if somehow growing in from the outside—a rather innocuous gesture, though still one that draws musings over the alignments between the physical and psychic deterioration that seem to be at the core of Chachkhiani’s quandary. This idea was similarly taken up in the single-channel video playing immediately at the entry, We Drive Far, You in Front (2016), which showed an unending loop of large stones falling, one at a time, from an unknown height and then proceeding to break over a pile of alike stones. Whether you see the broken stones as new stones or as mere fragments of old ones, there is another ambiguous comment on degeneration—or rebirth—by way of a familiar, natural material.
The titular work was a domineering installation consisting of two large, enclosed structures set in the middle of the gallery. They were unwavering, both constructed out of cinder blocks and painted an institutional white with a grey dado, all of which contributed to their appearance as detainment cells. The enclosures sat side-by-side and spanned almost the full width of the gallery, with only narrow hallways on either side and in between. Walking through the centre, the viewer is flanked by two-way mirrors mounted horizontally at eye level. Either because art is conventionally a voyeuristic practice, or because the structures appeared to be designed to contain someone, I expected to be able to look inside. To my surprise, all I immediately saw was myself.
I stood there looking longer than I should have, a little enchanted by how my reflection was cast back and forth between these mirrors ad infinitum. That was until I was suddenly caught off-guard by an obscurity forming around my reflection, a shadow not belonging to me but aligned with me. I moved to the left, it tracked my shuffle. In a bout of denial, I leaned into the mirror but then couldn’t find the courage to look directly at what I grasped might be a person. In fear of my anonymous spectator, I abruptly walked to the back room. Here, the films Cotton Candy (2018) and Winter Which Was Not There (2017) played, which at first offered some relief with their oddly pacifying and beguiling imagery.
I remember having a similar experience when I encountered Richard Serra’s archetypal installation 2000 (2000) on permanent display at Dia:Beacon in New York. Completing the walk through the tall, inward-spiralling hallway as it slowly decreased in width induced a mild panic in me. Yet, upon discovering the large open core, I welcomed feelings of tranquility, relief and awe. Serra’s work had effectively played on my emotions (and I would argue the same for the couple I found making out there). It had demanded my brain tell my body that this wasn’t a trap, so that, when standing in the suggested climax of safety, my physical vulnerability was made plain to me.
With Chachkhiani, however, rather than a sort of safe haven, I began to recognize this screening space more as the eye of the storm. As the narratives of the two films slowly untangled, their increasingly macabre implications forced me to reconcile with the fact that a sense of security is no more dependable, material or permanent than a sense of fear. I realized then how They Kept Shadows Quiet employed my bodily instincts as a medium. How could I forget that, like with Serra’s 2000, I would have to pass through that which had scared me again in order to leave? And that the refuge I felt in the core of 2000, and initially felt in Chachkhiani’s screening room, was largely rooted in my plain desire to perceive them as safe, as if they somehow shielded me from their surrounding structures. In engendering an oscillation between comfort and unease, Chachkhiani faced the audience with the materiality of their perception, to question their own sites of refuge and to better understand that, for many, the idea of home as an actual refuge is only a myth.