“what color is the Black Sea?”
That’s the intriguing but also rather curious question that is the title of a new work—and the exhibition—by Georgian artist Levan Mindiashvili. He adds to it studies for a “Book of Patterns (Morphemes of my Consciousness)” that consist of other significant objects from his childhood.
The exhibition is carefully, ceremonially staged as a “psychological tableau,” as he dubs it, conjuring an experience from the artist’s earliest memories. Most of these objects are placed to be viewed from a child’s height.
An elegant, planar fixture with grow lights drops a few feet down from the ceiling, suspended by wires. Shades of a ravishing, alchemizing magenta illuminate everything within its range, creating a hothouse-like ambience. Draped through it on the left cascading to the ground is a double-plied natural latex curtain that suggests flesh, stripped from the body’s architecture. Its color, without the grow lights, approximates the artist’s skin tones. The back panel is longer and sweeps across the floor in an haute couture swirl. The room seems to expand and contract, under the spell of the incandescent pinks that he persuades us is surely the color of memory.
Silkscreened onto the latex skin, a tattoo of sorts, is a positive and negative version of a snapshot of the artist as a cherubic, naked three-year old, seated on a rock, knee-deep in the sea, engrossed. There is a teasing note handwritten by his mother scribbled across the photo: “as you turned me black at the Black Sea, now turn me white at the White Sea.”
A hazily reflective metal platform that mimics water functions as the installation’s base, floating a few inches above the floor. On it is a potted tangerine tree, some additional stones, a photo of one of those stones, a branch snaking gracefully out of a clear beaker of water, and other similar objects. Recurrence is frequent in this project. Alongside the platform is a child-sized edition of a kind of hassock that is jauntily trimmed in fake orange fur. Peering in, there is a short video loop of a hedgehog, an amiable creature that was Mindiashvili’s earliest awareness of an existence distinct from his own.
Hung on the wall behind this installation is an image of a child’s gridded chalkboard, one of three that refers to a common tool used to teach reading, a process dependent upon rote but also on a leap of the imagination. My Consciousness Patterns is spelled out on them, one word per board, in Georgian script. There are also a number of framed silkscreened remnants of his cherished baby blanket, no longer in one piece.
Standing against the wall to the right as if in the wings of a theatre, waiting to make its entrance, is a palm tree, its base swaddled in a vintage fur coat, cast in the character of a matriarch that seems both comedic and forceful, beloved and feared. Next to it, in white neon, is the central text: what color is the Black Sea? The words facing the viewer are painted black, but the light of the reverse side bounces off the wall, brilliantly haloing them.
Mindiashvili’s question might seem straightforward at first, but he doesn’t ask it flippantly and it becomes increasingly complicated as the exhibition points to the slipperiness of memory and its encryptions. Autobiography is not his concern as he proposes different methodologies of representation and analyses that are both verbal and visual, to see past events in the present tense, from other perspectives. Yet the exhibition inevitably refers to what particularly concerns him. For instance, it might allude to blackness in Georgia and its cultural and social implications which differ from what constitutes blackness in the United States (although hierarchies, discrimination and inequities are not monopolies of either country, of any country). That perpetrates other questions. As a Georgian, for instance, is he European, Asian, or Eurasian, and if the latter, does he incline more East or West, leading to yet other questions about identity such as queerness and intersectionality.
“what color is the Black Sea?” is a kind of trick question with countless responses but no ultimate answer. For Mindiashvili, the exhibition focuses on consciousness and the capture of foundational moments in the construction of self, a framework for reassembling memories and reconsidering them. It is a renovation of sorts, an amelioration, poignant glimpses backward that lead forward.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic, independent curator and journalist.