Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili’s photos provide a quiet bastion of reprieve. Pinned to the wall are some of her photos—bare, unframed prints swaying almost imperceptibly as passersby ramble their way through the New Museum’s Triennial. One photo is dominated by the shadow cast from a tumble of hair, skimming the edges of a print on which lilies bask in obscured light. In another photo, the cropped face of a woman peers out from an inky darkness; coruscating from one side of her face is a vaporous discharge of brightness. The images suggest a material defiance in today’s post-Internet art world, as image-making becomes increasingly ephemeral.
For artist Alexi-Meskhishvili, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, during the civil unrest of the late eighties and early nineties was a time of total freedom. The Soviet Union was falling apart, the streets were filled with violence, and her parents used to ground her by keeping her home from school. She often attended the funerals of people her age, yet dying was not considered an aberrant tragedy. Living through the civil war, her family witnessed everything unravel around them.
“Nobody knew what would happen. Georgia was fighting for independence from Russia. The government was constantly changing and the rulers kept getting killed, so it was a crazy and unpredictable time,” Alexi-Meskhishvili says. “[But] I don’t remember the violence in Georgia growing up. For us it was the most fun time because nothing was functioning. It was total anarchy.”
hmmmmm, Archival pigment print, 21 × 31 cm, 2013.
In a way, the experience of her hermetic photos mimetically reproduces her childhood. Another image also depicts this isolated position: In the middle of a high-rise building, a woman gazes outward from inside a cut-out triangle. The triangle floats heedlessly against the blanched palette of the background building and surrounding sunlight, and the woman’s face is surgically quartered; only a sliver of nose, a mouth’s corner, and a bisected eye slip into view. She is at once sequestered and on display. Here is the articulation of a ritualized solitary condition, both present and absent within the void.
At the age of fourteen, in 1993, Alexi-Meskhishvili moved to the East Village in New York with her family. “Because I didn’t speak English,” she recalls, “I was only able to half-interpret things going on around me. I felt like I was floating, as though I were a fish underwater. I watched a lot of television and tried to connect the image to the words. My relationship to visual reality became very cinematic, and maybe I seek out those moments in my work. I think that feeling always stayed with me. I natu- rally make images that allow disorientation in a way that’s very comfortable to me because I find myself in that state so often. Now, living in Germany, I’m experiencing the same dissonance with language again because I don’t speak German fluently. Maybe I seek it out.”
Considering that Alexi-Meskhishvili lived in New York for fifteen years, she is as much an American as she is a Georgian. Her father was an artist and a set and costume designer for the theatre. Her mother was a journalist but stopped working to take care of Alexi-Meskhishvili when she fell ill as a child with severe asthma. Without access to Western medicine, Alexi-Meskhishvili practiced daily breathing techniques. It’s striking that looking at her photo- graphs feels like taking a breath and holding it. Does this effect occur because the images themselves are mostly still and quiet, because of the imminent fear of disturbing the subjects within them, or because in many instances there is a woman staring out, seeing as much as she is seen? There is something about the need to secrete oneself, as the observer or the observed, to maintain a placidity that even a breath can displace, that lends her photographs a singular energy wherein immediate freedom is granted.
“I have a terrible memory. My friends tell me about things that have happened, but I have no recollection. I feel like I’m in a constant state of amnesia. I take pictures to remember things. It’s a way to hold onto reality. Recently, I found a contact sheet of pictures that I’d taken after a house I was staying in caught fire. I didn’t remember what the house looked like, but after seeing the images, I did. Having an image, but not having a memory of what’s in the image, is something that’s happened to me many times.”
What’s left out of the frame is equally intrinsic to the image as what’s included. The process of forgetting, remembering, documenting, and rediscovering is precisely the way in which Alexi-Meskhishvili’s photographs lay siege to a reality that resists immutability. “There’s a total erasure of memory now,” she says. “There’s a constant present.”
Photography: Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili. All images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Micky Schubert Berlin
Featured Image Credits: From Left- Cherry, archival pigment print 104 × 88.3 × 3.3 cm, 2014. Rose GL, Archival pigment print, 39.3 × 31.7 × 2.5 cm, 2015.