Irena Popiashvili,
Dean of Free University's Visual Arts, Architecture and Design School

Founder and Dean of the Visual Arts and Design School of Free University, Curator, Gallerist.

From 2001-2013, together with Marisa Newman, she managed a gallery in New York. Initially it was called Suit 106 and from 2005 until its closure the gallery was called Newman Popiashvili Gallery. 

After returning to Tbilisi she founded Popiashvili Gvaberidze Window Project together with Tamuna Gvaberidze. The project’s goal was to demonstrate modern art and design to large audiences through unused commercial shop windows in Tbilisi.

Currently she’s involved in the project entitled Tbilisi Kunsthalle, which aims at the re-contextualization of modern Georgian art through cooperation with foreign curators and artists.

Levan Mindiashvili: How did art first suck you in and when did you realize that it was your place?

Irena Popiashvili: I’ve been drawing since childhood. Nobody had a talent for painting in our family, that’s why my ability to draw attracted special attention and caused surprise. My parents encouraged my drawing efforts, they even took me to art school, but actually Alice Neel’s exhibition made the biggest impression on me. We were in Moscow in the summer of 1981 and during one of our walks, we strolled into an exhibition gallery even without knowing who this American painter was. I remembered her name very well, because I liked her portraits so much that I imitated her afterwards.

Levan Mindiashvili: Why did you decide that you were not actually interested in creating pieces of art and that you wanted to participate in that process in a different form?

Irena Popiashvili: After defending my graduation thesis in art school I already knew for sure that I didn’t want to be a painter anymore. Somewhere deep down in my heart I probably felt that I was not a sufficiently strong artist. I knew I could be an average artist, but it wasn’t enough for me. However, I gradually learned everything I was interested in. For example, I took a course in photography in Athens. I took an additional course in painting while studying for master’s degree in art history, I attended various seminars and debates. It was very important for me to monitor the dynamics taking place in painting studios.

Knowledge of how pieces of art are created really helped me in my curator activities. One day we were talking about Kandinsky and one of my college friends said about one of the details at the corner of his painting “it’s Mother Russia!”. That’s when I first felt estrangement from and distrust towards art criticism – because if you have painted at least once you realize (especially when talking about Kandinsky’s works) that when you paint you don’t think about your homeland, you just need a red vertical right in that spot, right at that moment, that’s all. It was all so organic to me that I couldn’t even imagine that anyone could see a symbol in it. 

For me as a curator, the biggest pleasure is when I understand the artist’s motivation, initial impulse, inspiration and I help them convey that. Artists are happy when their message is understood and taken to heart, when communication takes place. I’m a facilitator, so to say. It requires great empathy and the ability to share in others’ feelings.

Levan Mindiashvili: I can recall my own personal experience: very often, when speaking about my exhibitions, instead of commenting on the concrete piece, you place emphasis on questions or doubts that I had while working on those pieces.

Irena Popiashvili: I’m very glad if it is so. We had a very good lecturer at Tbilisi University – Dinara Vachnadze, who once told us that we, art experts, had been dismissed by Guram Rcheulishvili when he said in the film Alaverdoba the following: “The intensity of passion is in the construction process, not in enjoying whatever has been built.” I remember these words to this very day, especially because I loved Rcheulishvili very much. However, now I can remember the exhibitions where I didn’t have this feeling of being second-rate. Two such important exhibitions took place in New York. First was Spanish artist Ferran Martin’s exhibition, it was curated by Javier Tellez. Martin had the ceiling lowered down to 163 centimeters. Every day when I opened the gallery I would hit my head against the ceiling – I had to lower my head and literally crouch inside the gallery. This was also associated with personal phobias. The second exhibition was Jorje Perry’s gelatin mounds on the floor.

You become invigorated when an artist shares their ideas and desires with you and you experience it deeply as if they’re your own ideas and then you help them implement these desires – you become their part.

Nothing can compare to this feeling of implementing a seemingly crazy and unimaginable project; especially in New York where you have to pay the rent at the end of each month.

Once in Turin, at Artissima, I met very interesting artists Francesco Stocci and Parris. Parris told me there what she wanted to do – the opening of the exhibition had to be the end of the project, because the artists had been boiling, freezing and distributing gelatin on the floor (like some kind of landscape) right there in the gallery for one month. The feeling of evanescence and passage of time was very physical, because the gelatin didn’t solidify, didn’t stay in one place, it would melt and start to rot. Going back to Guram Rcheulishvili’s phrase and intensity of passion – when you become a part of such a project I don’t think the intensity of the creation is lost.

Levan Mindiashvili: I just remembered a story from your childhood – how you directed a group of kids and made them build an airplane.

Irena Popiashvili: How did you remember that story? In my childhood we would spend a couple of months in Kakheti together with our grandparents. Now that I think about it, that project was a hybrid of Pippi Longstocking, Jules Verne and the Sherekilebi movie. We started gathering together and building an airplane, a plank box, we were looking for an engine too. In short, we worked on that strategic project the entire summer.

Today, my curatorship is similar to that: when somebody has an idea to fly, I help them implement that idea and eventually we fly away together.

Levan Mindiashvili: I’d like to emphasize two aspects: first – how important it is to receive education and life experiences somewhere else in a foreign country, outside one’s comfort zone, and second – how we have to first adapt our own cultural heritage and stereotypes to the new environment and afterwards when we come back “home”, how we need to adapt that foreign model to the local situation.

Irena Popiashvili: In my opinion, direct copying is a result of ignorance. For example, soon the first project under Kunsthalle is going to be implemented. The works of art that are going to be displayed under that project will be adapted to two spaces: Angelica Mesiti’s video and Nika Kutateladze’s real, functioning water mill in one of the Khrushchovka-style buildings.

Besides the fact that the project is quite hard to implement, my goal is to plan the project in such a way that it remains relevant for another eight weeks. Currently, for me it’s much more interesting to work for the viewers who wouldn’t have come to the exhibition under another context or situation. I don’t want to show or do something only for people who are directly connected with the art world; I want to bring a taxi driver to the exhibition too and I want to make sure that the idea behind the exhibition is clear to him as well. In New York we already have a prepared audience, but here one needs to create an audience on one’s own. This was the main reason and goal of the “Window Project” – we wanted to create an exhibition-going audience.

Levan Mindiashvili: When we speak about gentrification and globalization of the art world and while we worry about how the local scenes should retain their originality and how they should become “individual”, independent units, I believe that searching for such flexible communication forms would reveal their individual forms, which we could later call “Modern Georgian Art” for example.

Irena Popiashvili: After I organized Karlo Kacharava’s exhibition at the National Museum, I started to think back about the 1980s and 90s Georgian art scene again. It was a very intensive, active and interesting period, which strangely resembles our current situation. We have a very active process in the art area now. However, at the same time, the political reality and context is very important – an artist exists within a modern political-economic environment. In the eighties and nineties, the whole generation of artists could have developed in an absolutely different manner if not for the horrible context of that era. Of course, I’m not saying that nothing was done during those years, that nobody became a real artist then; but it’s a fact that only a few actually managed to do that. I’m afraid something similar may happen to my students’ generation. However, we still have one important change since that period – in the eighties and nineties people were mostly trying to get somebody in the West see their work, but now young people seem to make their works of art for each other, in a local context.

Levan Mindiashvili: I can’t recall any other Georgian artist today who could create such an intellectual foundation for realizing modernist art. How important is it to create a new context for the works of the deceased artists of such magnitude?

Irena Popiashvili: To tell you the truth, the fact that Karlo’s work entitled English Romanticism (1993) was included in the group exhibition called Sputterances during Armor Week held in New York last year, was very important. Absolutely all the important publications – Artforum, Art in America and so on, used Karlo Kacharava’s work as an illustration for their articles rather than the works of for example Rene Daniels to whom that exhibition was dedicated. It once again convinced me in what I already knew: Karlo was ahead of his time. Yes, his friends did value him, but I think that people didn’t fully understand him. But when he was placed in the right context, he became relevant again – even after 25 years. That’s why I believe that we need to have a more comprehensive study of his heritage.

Levan Mindiashvili: Karlo is the kind of artist who can’t be judged only by his paintings or drawings, as his art is a combination of visual and textual works. Therefore, I believe that it was a very good decision in terms of curatorship to place as much emphasis on the text as on the paintings themselves during the exhibition organized in the National Gallery. You also involved young artists in the exhibition – with that you placed an emphasis on interesting historic or formalist connections, which once again accentuated the relevance of Karlo’s works. 

Irena Popiashvili: The National Gallery was an easy space to organize that exhibition. I remember Christian Rattemeyer organized a very good exhibition of Alighiero Boetti’s works in New York’s MoMa where he placed the artist’s quotes about a meter and a half above each painting. So the visitors could perceive the exhibition in several layers – there were visual and textual parts. Of course, New York’s MoMa and our National Gallery are very different in terms of size and magnitude, that’s why I needed to find another decision. Gagosh’s text that I noticed in one of the underground passages really helped me in my thought process; as soon as I saw that inscription on the wall I realized how I had to exhibit the works. I know it irritated a lot of people, many people didn’t like it, but the text written on the wall brought about another aspect. It was also interesting that many visitors got to know Nino Kvrivishvili’s works in another light too – there was a glass showcase in the hall and some people thought the items displayed in it were Karlo Kacharava’s family items rather than the works of textile painter Nino Kvrivishvili.

Levan Mindiashvili: What is the school’s concept based on and what ideas is it based on? What does it give to the students? What does it offer them and what does it prepare them for?

Irena Popiashvili: While organizing the modern Georgian art exhibition, I realized that we are not the country where a few exhibitions can change an art scene how, for example, the greatest curator of the 20th century, Harald Szeemann managed to do. He really changed the European art world with his exhibitions. In our country, only art education can bring about such radical changes. That’s why I agreed to Kakha Bendukidze’s proposal and together with all the progressive artists and art experts we created the School of Visual Arts and Design. We accepted the first wave of students in 2014. This year we also added an architecture program and became Visual Arts, Architecture and Design School (VA(A)DS).

Infrastructure in Georgian art sphere is either non-existent or rundown. Where this infrastructure is on par that found in New York, London or Berlin, where the roles of artists, critics, curators, gallerists, collectors, art consultants, profitable and non-profitable art institutions, official and alternative spaces are clearly differentiated. It’s paradoxical, but in countries like ours where this lack of infrastructure exists, it gives even more freedom to the art force – artists perform many different roles: they open galleries, private collections play the role of museums and private galleries act as art centers.

My goal is to turn the lack of infrastructure into our advantage and teach students how to perform various roles in the art world in a professional manner. Students know how to create works of art and at the same time they know how to present them well, they have professional portfolios and they can also critique them, they write good press releases and professionally organize exhibitions, they also organized a “non-charity auction” and managed to sell their works quite profitably.

Everybody knows how proud I am of the Georgian artists who went to Europe and the United States in the 1990s to learn. They achieved a lot of success there – people like Tea Jorjadze, Anna K.E., Tamuna Sirbiladze, Tamuna Khundadze, Dato Meskhi, Salome Machaidze and Levan Mindiashvili. I believe that based on the example of Orozko’s protégé students, modern Georgian artists can achieve international success from Tbilisi. I view my students studying in VAADS as such a generation.

Levan Mindiashvili: During one of our conversations when we were discussing young generation’s art, you mentioned the term “zero generation”, what did you mean?

Irena Popiashvili: When I decided to organize a series of exhibitions called 21st Century Georgian Artists, I selected Nino Sekhniashvili’s video piece and light boxes called Approximately. In Nino’s video we see a white house whose door and windows cannot be opened – they are bolted down and every time you want to open the window you need to unscrew the bolts. However, it’s not so evident in the video, it’s visible “approximately”. In other words, you need to guess it on your own. For me that is a work of art about the “approximate” professionalism that we see around us. Therefore, I called the whole exhibition that name, and in fact if you look at it from a wider angle, modern Georgian artists cannot receive historic experience or knowledge straight from the source – they can’t see the works of any previous generation artists in the museums. For young Georgian artists, Sergo Kobuladze is as distant and virtual for example as Picasso or Miro. That’s why for me they are the “zero generation”, because they’re starting to form their own visual language not from the local area but from absolute zero, from the internet. Because of that, their criteria has changed. When I ask the students while reviewing their portfolios for entering VAADS who their favorite artist is, they usually name artists who have lots of followers on Behance or who are popular on Instagram. In other words, their communication and thought language is mostly coming from social networks and maybe that is the new blood that we now need.

Levan Mindiashvili: For me it’s also interesting to see how the post-Soviet traumas lost their relevance. There may be a few artists who are still interested in that period and they may be even researching it, but for the new generation it’s a sort of aesthetics or a stylistic past. Take for example the terms you used during the presentation of Documenta: “We” and “They” (in other words we and the West) don’t sound like before – that boundary is also fragile. When artists living in Tbilisi and Brooklyn are united in one internet space and pop culture the following question arises: how relevant and important career-wise is it to study in New York, London or any other art center?

Irena Popiashvili: It always makes sense to go, at least in order to gather experience, in order to not have the illusion in the future that if you had left somewhere else you would have “made it”. I’ve met a lot of artists who came back with little to show for themselves. The degree of becoming a part of that foreign space is very important. The important thing is how widely you look at the picture and how precisely you set your priorities.

The main motivation, desire and need that made me go abroad was discovery: in our local books, modern art ended with Picasso, whereas I knew that a lot of things were taking place after Picasso; that’s why I was constantly looking for something new, I translated and read different things  all the time.

Levan Mindiashvili: What is about New York that never changes for you? Or maybe the constant change is what you love so much about that city?

Irena Popiashvili: Whenever I think about New York I remember the feeling I got when I first landed there: when the plane approaches the land you see the water, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and you feel that now everything is possible. I wrote my Master’s Degree thesis at UGA on Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, and I read a lot of things about 1960s New York, its art scene, Truman Capote, Warhol’s Factory, Greenwich Village and East Village’s 80s art scene – this information plus Woody Allen’s earlier pictures were the beginning of New York for me. Now New York is an important part of my life, there are my friends there, I have my work and home there.

Years and probably meditation taught me that you need to be “here” and “now”. New York is that sort of city. In Georgia we’re too much hung up on the past and on the constant expectation of a better future. We really lack this feeling of reality – the feeling of the “here and now”. New York is just like that: every morning when you go out to the street no matter how penniless you are, what problems you may be experiencing, when you look up into the blue sky you get so much energy that you realize that you can do anything. It’s strange really – it’s so chaotic and noisy, but it still has a kind of “order”, a structure to it, which we don’t have in Tbilisi at all. Therefore, the outside chaos has an impact on us and taking into consideration the uneven emotional background, it gets even more difficult to be productive. Since I moved back to Georgia I sometimes think that (no matter how ridiculous it may sound) there should be a big sign above Manhattan saying “Sanatorium” – because that’s where I actually get some rest. I learned that special feeling of transience of time in New York, I realized there that you can’t cry about the past, you need to follow the time.