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Belonging to a borderless nature

On Kazakhstan’s Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale.

  • Review
  • May 21 2024
  • Luise Willer
    is a researcher and organizer based in Berlin. Currently she works as a research Associate at the research center Intervening Arts where she examins forms of assembling and organizing in contemporary Art to learn about their visions of futurity, their collaborative processes and their critique of institutions.

The 60th Venice Biennale, curated by Adriano Pedrosa and entitled Foreigners Everywhere - Stranieri Ovunque, offers several interpretations of being foreign. Beyond the aesthetic dimension of Pedrosa’s curatorial project, it is critical to understand the politics of his selection of artists for the main exhibition in the Arsenale. With a total of 331 artists and collectives,  a large number of whom are being shown for the first time in Venice, Pedrosa tackles the Bienniale’s power structures - adding as many new names as possible - including many deceased artists - to the Biennial canon. [1] In doing so, he uses the over-a-century-nurtured hegemonic power of the Biennale in controlling the art discourse, forming its “imaginary center”, as the philosopher Oliver Marchart puts it. [2] The presentation of new names and communities stretches and challenges art history’s canon. The dynamic Pedrosa highlights also plays out in relation to visibilities on the art market. In the context of national pavilions the Biennale’s power also manifests in relation to questions of representation and nationality. History and the present demonstrate the role of the pavilions as agents of national historiography - extremely instrumental for political representation - and are deeply anchored in histories of nationalism.

A total of 88 countries organized national pavilions this year. This year Kazakhstan presented its second pavilion after first appearing in 2022. [3] Benin, Ethiopia, Panama, Tanzania, Timor-Leste and Senegal all participated for the first time. While there is a level of emancipatory triumph for each newly independent national representation, the format inevitably reproduces the violent logic of imperial and colonial forms of nationalism intrinsic to the Biennale. These remnants from the beginning of the 20th century are levied on younger nation-states including the Republic of Kazakhstan, which gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

Throughout its history, Kazakhstan has been a pivotal crossroads of nomadic traditions and diverse communities. The Golden Horde dominated the region from the 13th to the 15th centuries, while clashes with the Dzungars and Russian influence gradually transformed its political, social, and cultural landscape. Integration into the Soviet Union in the 1920s brought significant forms of repression, including famines and the establishment of Gulags that further changed the country's demographics. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan grappled with poverty and identity formation as a newly independent state. Home to over 130 ethnic groups, [4] the country navigated multiethnic complexities, pursuing an ethnically-based nationalism while asserting its global presence in embracing its Turkic, Muslim, nomadic, and post-Soviet identities. [5] With its multi-ethnic population, political and linguistic tensions - notably between Kazakh and Russian speakers - have persisted and underscored the dual challenge of internal and external image-building in the Republic. These varied layers found expression in Kazakhstan’s pavilion at this year's Biennale, offering insights into its citizens' identification and self-image. 


fig. 1


The exhibition Jerūiyq: a Look Beyond the Horizon which is located in the historical building of the Naval History Museum, demonstrated the chronology of key artworks including the utopian imaginings of Kazakh artists since the 1970s, as seen in works by Kamil Mulashev, Sergey Maslov, Saken Narynov, Anvar Musrepov, Yerbolat Tolepbay, Lena Pozdnyakova, and Eldar Tagi. The show is organized around the ancient legend of a land called Jerūiyq, as narrated by the 15th-century steppe philosopher, Asan Kaigy, and has survived many generations through the oral storytelling traditions of Central Asian nomadic culture. The story recounts utopias and the prospect of a promised land for Central Asian nomads, “where birds weave nests on sheep’s backs, and time bestows eternal life.” [6]  Jerūiyq constructs a narrative of utopian visions connected to mobility and migration as seen from the perspective of nomadic culture.

The artists, coming from different generations, and sociopolitical influences, shed light on nomadic imaginations influenced by Communism, Cosmism, and the USSR. Works such as Kamil Mulashev's Over the White Desert (1978), or Sergey Maslov’s Baikonur-2, clearly reference the Communist ideology, as they simultaneously unveil the rich imaginaries of nomadic life. Baikonur-2 consists of a yurt that resembles a spaceship. Reworked in shape and form, and adorned with felt and traditional elements, inside the yurt, an old screen runs a slideshow of people from different historical times traveling to space - replacing Soviet cosmonauts with images of Kazakh people in traditional costumes as well as Soviet attire. This imaginative vision paradoxically replicates both the colonial endeavor of occupying land and the immanent eternal movement of nomadic traditions. The idea of colonizing other planets references the “Space Race”, during which the Russian spaceport Baikonur Cosmodrome, built-in 1955 brought as much prestige as environmental degradation to southern Kazakhstan. There are many layers to Maslov’s collage, he shows customs of hospitality, for example, serving soup which relates to nomadic culture yet takes place far in outer space. One could also note the relation of the sky and the man in cosmogonic perspectives rooted in Tengrism, wherein the equality of the earth and the sky emerges from a circular understanding of time. 


fig. 2


The search for land also recalls a darker story: the forced migration of Kazakh people during Soviet collectivization in the 1930s. This traumatic period for local people was defined by the deracination of “displaced nomads” (otkochevniki), severed from their herds and familiar environments. The interplay between the imagined and the historical illustrates that the notion of time in works such as Maslov’s - but also others, not least the painting of Kamil Mulashev - is not linear. Time is associated with a complex mesh of worldviews, beliefs, and technologies that do not constrain the sense of belonging. The imagined futurity responds to different pasts and is anchored in a return to ways of living together in unknown circumstances of wilderness. It draws upon experiences wherein the notion of migration and change is defined by the resiliency of tightly-knit community structures in given environments.


fig. 3

The low and somber noise of the sound installation Presence (2024) by Lena Pozdnyakova and Eldar Tagi issues from a side room bathed in blue, dimmed light. Part of the installation consists of movable mats placed around the space. These mats are inspired by körpe mats, a traditional Central Asian quilt. But, instead of traditional ornaments stitched to the surface, they are enveloped in fabric. The prints on the mats juxtapose zoomed-out aerial views of landscapes in Kazakhstan with collages of cultural motifs and human activity within these geographies. Depicted sites are characterized by melting glaciers, urbanization, drying water bodies, sandstorms, and sites of nuclear experiments. People can sit or lie down on them to contemplate the sound of a multi-channel audio. It fills the room with toneful, yet estranging repetitive singing. The composition centers around recordings of throat singing – a tradition of indigenous groups in Inner Asia, here performed by Abzal Arykbayev – a carrier of this tradition. These vocal traditions originate among Turko-Mongol groups and are among the world's oldest musical forms.


fig. 4


These evolving sounds were seen as a way of connecting humans to spirits, to a domain of the supernatural often associated with the physical environment. As the artists point out in their description of the work, the vocal techniques were used to imitate the sounds of harsh winds of the steppe, natural flora, and fauna. In other words, this embodied practice can be understood as a nomadic sensibility for an ecosystem, as a feeling of interconnectedness with natural surroundings. The work furthers the understanding of beliefs and techniques of belonging as connected to an immanent state of participation in the environment, not as observers, but as co-shapers.

In contrast to the national self-image that the pavilion of Kazakhstan puts forth, it is crucial to understand the implications of nationhood imposed upon cultural identities that emerge from nomadic heritages. By revealing the contradictions of cultural representations confined by national borders, traditions such as throat singing can be viewed as antagonistic to constructions of collective memory as imposed by imperial cultural paradigms. These are cultural forms that resist ideas of belonging to a formal definition of the state, and instead expand to include shared traditions among very diverse groups located on the territory. Works such as Presence, rooted in a shared tradition across Eurasia, offer a critical perspective on colonial narratives within the Biennale format. As a generative sound piece, it creates space without boundaries, engaging the body and evoking the vastness of the land. A final thought on these topics can be drawn from the video essay Alstau (2024) by Anvar Musrepov, showcased in the third room of the exhibition. It embeds a vision of Kazakhs returning to nomadic living and ancestral rituals into an environment of wholesale pollution, where the sun no longer exists as a result of nuclear winter. The post-apocalyptic scenario offers one of art’s radical futurisms - in T.J. Demos’ words - which overcome the systems, logic, and power structures of the now, and which unleash new possible worlds and decolonized futures. In this sense, one might ask for the potential of new forms of decolonized exhibiting in contexts like the Venice Biennale, and cherishing and multiplying these potentialities through new forms and structures where they exist.


fig. 5





    [1] In the 2022 edition of Venice Biennale 213 artists and collectives were exhibited, in 2019 there were only 91.

    [2] Oliver Marchart, Hegemony Machines, documenta X to fifteen and the Politics of Biennalization. Published by (Dorothee Richter) and Marius Babias, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Zürich, Berlin 2022.

    [3] The history of Kazakhstan’s entrance into the Venice Biennale reads like the story of continuous individual efforts to make visible the local contemporary art scene by following western canons. These manifested in privately organized, accumulative Central Asian representations, such as the first Central Asian pavilion in 2005, curated by the Russian curator Viktor Misiano and commissioned by Kurama ART from Kyrgyzstan. Informal interventions were also a part of the story, as with  “PROTAGONISTS The Invisible Pavilion of Kazakhstan” in 2015. For more information see:


    [5] Robert A. Saunders, Popular geopolitics and nation branding in the post-Soviet realm. Routledge, 2016.

    [6] Curatorial text of the exhibition, Danagul Tolepbay and Anvar Musrepov.



    Cover: Sergey Maslov, Computer Collage inside the yurt  Baikonur-2 (2001-2002).

    fig. 1: Sergey Maslov, sketch (drawing) of the installation Baikonur-2 (2001-2002).

    fig. 2: Installation view. In the foreground: Saken Narynov, Mobile Unit, architectural model (1979). In the background:  Sergey Maslov Baikonur-2 (2002).

    fig. 3: Detail of Lena Pozdnyakova and Eldar Tagi, Presence (2024), sound installation with körpe mats.

    fig. 4: Installation view of Lena Pozdnyakova and Eldar Tagi, Presence (2024), sound installation with körpe mats.



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