Sandwiched between the two world wars, for many the 1930s were a dark period of mistrust, uncertainty, fear and political deceit.
In his latest exhibition at Cihangir’s Pilot Gallery, İstanbul-based artist Bashir Borlakov draws his audience back in time to life in Mexico during this period, introducing six prominent figures of the 20th century and spinning a speculative web of thought on the intimate dynamics of their personal lives.
A panoramic series of eight computer-generated photographs, Borlakov’s historical fantasy “Dreams of Mexico” presents a sequence of events between the married artist couple Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the Russian Marxist revolutionary and theorist Leon Trotsky, his secretary Sylvia Ageloff, assassin Ramon Mercader and would-be assassin David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Six very different individuals, politics, love and revenge united and divided Borlakov’s heroes during one of the most turbulent periods of the 20th century. An enigmatic couple whose exceptional works and turbulent love story have captured the hearts and minds of art enthusiasts for decades, Kahlo and Rivera hosted the great Marxist theorist and Soviet politician Trotsky in their home in Mexico City for a substantial period following his deportation from the Soviet Union. During his stay at the couple’s home Trotsky engaged in a passionate affair with Kahlo before moving on following a fight with Rivera.
A friend of Rivera’s, the social realist painter Alfaro Siqueiros, a member of the Mexican Communist Party, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Trotsky in May 1940. Alfaro Siqueiros’ unfinished work was later successfully executed by the assassin Mercader. Mercader befriended and seduced Ageloff, a close confidant of Trotsky in Paris, as a means to penetrate Trotsky’s close inner circles before attacking and fatally wounding him with an ice pick in August of the same year.
Borlakov, a Russian artist who first came to Turkey in 1993 after completing his high school education in Karachaevsk, suggests that historical realities change according to eras and proposes that history is written from the perspective of the present day. Speaking in an interview with Today’s Zaman, he explained that his latest project is focused on the immensity and unpredictability of possibilities that define history.
“The series begins with the image of the six characters sitting side by side on a swing and then disperses out into the characters’ separate ‘dreams,’ depicted in the other seven images. My aim behind the exhibition was to reintroduce these very important figures in history to modern audiences and breathe light and new meaning into their stories.
“History is full of speculation, and interpretations of history always change so I wanted to present these characters as they were but with my own twist and interpretations of their personal worlds. Essentially the project is not based on concrete realities but on possibilities -- on ‘what could be’,” Borlakov explained.
“The base appeal of these particular characters and their intertwined stories is that in these relationships we have everything -- politics, love, revenge, hatred, murder and, of course, art -- in many ways it is perfect theater material. For me there was a lot of scope to embrace all sorts of absurd, yet at the same time plausible, possibilities, which was what really inspired me to pursue the project.”
A body of work which Borlakov has been working on for six years, the individuals featured in the series are actors and models bearing semblances of similarity to their characters. “I found my six actors, which did take a while, and then completed the photo shoots and began adapting and working on the images digitally,” he explained.
An interesting detail which may well slip the attention of a distracted browser, the scene of Trotsky’s dreams, to which Borlakov dedicates two images, are based on paintings of the famous 20th-century Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, “The Promenade” and “Above The City.”
“The Dream of Trotsky” depicts Trotsky standing in a desert grasping the hand of Kahlo, who flies above him, whilst the second portrays the two characters flying through the sky together in a passionate embrace. The irony of course is that as two iconic Russian-Jewish figures of the same era, it is quite plausible that Trotsky could have envisaged Chagall’s paintings in some form in his dreams.
Borlakov subtly captures the absurdities of the shadows of sleep throughout the series -- a guise which lends itself well to the dynamics of the bizarre relationships between his protagonists. In “The Dream of Ramon Mercader,” Borlakov presents Trotsky’s eventual assassin, hacking brutally through a stack of watermelons in the desert with a pickaxe.
“The watermelon is of no particular symbolic value. Perhaps it was an odd choice, but, of course, dreams are filled with completely illogical events and sequences,” Borlakov related, adding, “For me the ‘dream’ aspect of this project was a liberty I really enjoyed working with because in dreams anything is possible and plausible.”
A minor yet clever detail, none of Borlakov’s characters are wearing shoes in the images, a subconscious reminder that the series is not situated in the realm of reality but within the hazy boundaries of dreamland, where incidences that would normally be considered abnormal are completely acceptable.
Historically and artistically engaging, Borlakov’s latest exhibition is as fascinating as it is striking and thought provoking, but to enter with a grasp of the relationships between the individuals and the impact of this on the wider historical context will be helpful for most browsers to fully engage with the work. The first time the exhibition has been on display for public viewing, “Dreams of Mexico” runs through Jan. 21.