Tezi Gabunia: Playing with Our Heads

Tezi Gabunia’s multimedia installation “BREAKING NEWS: Flooding of the Louvre,“ will be presented at Armory Show in the Focus section this March, thus becoming the first work of an emerging contemporary Georgian artist to be showcased at this prestigious art forum. As he was preparing for this exhibition, I spoke to Gabunia and this is a modified version of the conversation.

Gabunia, born in 1987, studied architecture as an undergrad and concedes that the systemic mode of thinking so inherent in architecture influences his conceptual outlook, the way he processes challenges and issues that contemporary art and society face today. While studying at Tbilisi Technical University the artist connected to a group of likeminded architects, who later became part of the Tbilisi-based collaborative group Copy Paste, a birthplace of many refreshing ideas and a perfect brainstorming lab for Gabunia and his projects.

First of the installation series that started Gabunia’s engagement with gallery walls as ideal mise-en-scene for his experiments was 2015 project “False Exhibition.” For this project he created a mock exhibition within a miniature architectural model of Saatchi gallery projecting it as a real space and posting faux news about it on his social media platforms. Such an exposure brought various reaction from people who fully believed that Gabunia was exhibited at the prestigious London venue. Here the artist’s main interest was the concept of ‘falsification,’ how accessible it is to falsify any given notion and then to use social media channels to make it real. Art as a simulation, discussion of copy and an original in the context of reality, using social media channels as exhibition space were some ideas behind his critical thinking.

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A logical next step after this project was expanding on the space and adding three other miniature ‘venues.’ In 2016-2017 Gabunia in collaboration with him added the Louvre (Rubens room), Tate Modern (works by Hirst), Gagosian Gallery (works by Liechtenstein) to Saatchi model (Gabunia’s own works were ‘exhibited’ there). One important twist this time was that any viewer could look into galleries, take a photo and become an exhibit. First presented in Tbilisi at a space not at all connected to any art activity and drawing on its anti-establishment quality “Put Your Head into Gallery” draw a lot of international attention to Gabunia and his interplay between real and imagined, constructed and genuine. His ‘galleries’ were exhibited in 2017 in Vienna Contemporary Art Fair, Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art, featured in Beaux Art, Suddeutsche Zeitung, etc.

The work that will be on view at the Armory Show in New York follows Gabunia’s main interest of systemic thinking, analyzing our engagement with digital screen. 2018 Paris flood was the main inspiration for the him as Gabunia imagined what could happen if flood generated by our collective careless consumption and climate change would have endangered and destroyed Western cultural legacy. The flooding of the Louvre Museum speaks about news culture and our fluctuating perception of disasters as it is seen through mass media. The scale of the disaster is often difficult to assess from news coverage. In the work “BREAKING NEWS Flooding of the Louvre” water slowly infiltrates the Rubens room of the Louvre, letting the viewer to gradually watch the destruction of interior. Initially, the video was premiered on Facebook Live, thus underlining this novel medium as part of the message. The video brings the viewer shockingly close to what has not happened but easily could have, viewer sees the before and after effect in a highly visualized manner, that is convincing, threatening, and fake at the same time. The artwork presents a scoop, a situation, where the informative value of the spectacle exceeds the terrifying dimension of the catastrophe and where the real event is abolished in favor of news consumption. Is the information a new type of reality? How possible is it to cover real events? These issues arise during encounter of two situations – destruction of priceless artefacts and spectacular video of this process.

As with “Put Your Head in the Gallery,” with “BREAKING NEWS Flooding of the Louvre” every viewer/participant becomes a dominant hero, almost like Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (1974) whose Buddha cannot transcend the present time, by being pinned by the camera circuit, the viewer is faced with fully identifying with her surroundings that she cannot escape.

Another important caveat to “BREAKING NEWS Flooding of the Louvre” is that by recycling miniature space of Louvre from his previous mock gallery project this artwork analysis issues of cultural leftovers, recycling becoming another element of this process. By destruction of model that was a part of previous project Gabunia reconstructs and adds new meanings to them, using rational effort to articulate his understanding of the surrounding world. By working on producing this video, all shot in one take, Gabunia spent over four months in Tbilisi cinema studios working with a team of physicists and technicians.

In his systemic play Gabunia, works with a new perception of space as it relates to our traditional understanding. While doing so he uses falsification as a method and simultaneously as an instrument, playing with our heads as in manipulating our understanding and perception of space and of our own role in it. In both his recent projects Gabunia manages to stage a drastic and eye-catching narrative, where every person becomes a spectator and a participant. In a direct reference to Guy Deborg, Gabunia works show us that “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images … the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.”[1]

Interestingly, Gabunia brings in individuals within the context of galleries and museums created on a micro-scale, using walls that already have a built-in informative and cultural code. When the Georgian artist engages with relational aesthetics on par with theoretical vision of Nicholas Bourriaud and social interactions of Guggenheim’s theanyspacewhatever Gabunia uses gallery walls are ready-made materials, elements for his process art. His inventive take capitalizes on today’s informational abundancy, making possible to create these projects without the artist ever visiting any of the spaces he used for his pseudo-exhibitions.

Fakeness, unfortunately, has become an attribute of our lives, yet by alarming viewers of his Louvre piece Gabunia as a good stage director plays on our feelings of ore, helplessness, sentiment of tragedy as well as underlining inevitability of changes to the earth’s environment. Yet, his piece is not as much a commentary on the global climate change as a commentary on our reactions to it. By rendering us all helpless theater goers who watch the show without a capacity of changing the drama in front of our eyes Gabunia overtly pushes us to reflect more, to consider steps for stopping such a calamity.

[1] Guy Deborg, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, p.2



Relevant links:

The 10 Best Booths at The Armory 2020

This Artist’s Vivid, Consciousness-Raising Video of a Flooded Louvre Is a Hit at the Armory Show. Here’s How He Did It