When a large stainless steel sculpture by Gabriela von Habsburg was installed in front of the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi in 2009 it immediately caused a stir.
The sculpture was designed as a public monument marking Georgia’s transition from Soviet rule to independent democracy, symbolizing the separation of its three main powers — the executive, legislature and judiciary. It is called “The Monument to the Three Powers of the State.” But its large scale and abstract style chaffed with entrenched local attitudes, and perceptions of how public monuments should look.
In Tbilisi, public sculpture is associated with Soviet-era figurative monuments — typically depicting male leaders on horseback, or the more recent golden St. George that sits atop the column in the city’s Freedom Square. Von Habsburg’s abstract geometric forms were an alien visual language in this environment, a challenge to mainstream ways of seeing and understanding of public art.
A decade later, it is too much of a stretch to say those attitudes have gone. But they are certainly less common, diluted by the emergence of a wider range of views towards public sculpture and art in general. And it is Gabriela von Habsburg — whose work is showcased in the Tabula Rasa exhibition in the courtyard of the Georgian National Museum — who deserves a good deal of the credit
It is true that several other female Georgian artists had already begun the process of chipping away at such thinking — such as the celebrated sculptor Tamar Abakelia (1905-1953), and then, in the early 2000s, Tamara Kvesitadze, best known for her “Ali and Nino” moving statue on the seafront in Batumi. Von Habsburg has built on this, as a female artist creating monumental works from stainless steel, thereby confronting the stereotypical image of a sculptor.
She has taken this further in her role as a professor at the Visual Arts, Architecture and Design School,VA[AD}S, at the Free University of Tbilisi, where she has been teaching ever since its inception five years ago. Not only has she given students a new visual language through her three-dimensional art workshops, she has also taught them the skills of welding. She has also helped them install their public sculptures throughout the Free University campus.
So it is fitting that Tabula Rasa also includes work by four of her students: Giorgi Geladze, Salome Chigilashvili, Liza Tsindeliani and Giorgi Vardiashvili. Their exhibits are very different to the stainless steel sculptures von Habsburg is showing, but they are nonetheless largely the result of her pedagogy.
There is another message in the Tabula Rasa exhibition, about where the new generation of Georgian artists are getting their inspiration — and how the country’s exhibition spaces are responding to them.
When I organized an exhibition of young Georgian artists’ work at Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project’s Rustaveli 37 space in 2014, I coined the phrase “Degree Zero” to describe this new 21st century, post-Millennial generation. It felt like they were starting all over again.
Georgia is rightly proud of its distinctive cultural history, maintained in the face of successive invasion and occupation. Yet however successful our museums have been in keeping Georgia’s creative past alive, they have not shown the same enthusiasm for the present.
There is no permanent display of Georgian contemporary art from the second half of the 20th century onwards in any of our museums. So there is nowhere for this new generation of post-Millennial artists to, in effect, continue the lineage of Georgian art, setting their work in the context of their predecessors.
As long as this space — and public acknowledgment — is missing, young artists will keep looking elsewhere for affirmation and inspiration: everywhere from the internet and their immediate environment to the Soviet-era leftovers on sale in Tbilisi’s Eliava market.
These “Degree Zero” artists are, in other words, starting from a clean slate. They are the Tabula Rasa.
This sense of freedom, unburdened by preconceived notions, is how von Habsburg says she felt when she first started making her art in Georgia. She could work here without the constraints of the Western art world where her career began. So this is the common thread between her and her students’ work in this exhibition.