Life in River’s Magic Garden by

by 6. 3. 2023

Draining the South slopes of the Greater Caucasus (northern Georgia) and North slopes of the Lesser Caucasus (north-east Turkey), Mtkvari cuts through Georgia, flowing east through Azerbaijan, into the Caspean Sea. Tbilisi, accommodating about half of the Georgian population has been built on the two coasts of Mtkvari. While the initial “city-developers” relied on Mtkvari and the surrounding hills to guide them into ways of habitation, maximally relying on the natural resources – using water for irrigation, cleaning, washing, bathing purposes, the urban development throughout the past century, especially the last decades, has followed different motives of infrastructural development, polluting the river and rendering its shore basically inaccessible to people. Mtkvari is guarded by highways on both sides. While this infrastructure facilitates the transportational flows, it denies access to the riverside to pedestrians or fishermen. Overpowered by the rationale of economic greed, demanding transportational efficiency, the infrastructure surrounding Mtkvari sets this natural resource – which implies the cross-border continuity, as well as connectivity to Tbilisi’s urban history, beyond the cognitive realm of the inhabitants.

River’s Magic Garden was set on the shore of Mtkvari, close to the transportational center of the city – with highways crossing over each other. The exhibition space stretched to the point where “Verarechka”, flowing from Tbilisi’s south bordering hills and acting as a sewage system, enters Mtkvari, flowing under one of the highway-bridges. The wooden staircase led pedestrians from the embankment, down to the shore filled with trees that had been growing there for decades. The stairs were barely accessible to pedestrians, as there was no cross pass on the highway guarding the shore. Despite this, they acted as a portal to the time-space measured by the slow and steady pace of the river and the height of the trees. The experience of the visitor was paradoxical and full of contrast. The natural and historic essence of the city became tangible, as people could access the river. Yet the strong smell of the river, as well as the heavy traffic, flowing parallel to the river’s flow on the surrounding highways, strengthened the awareness of the contrasting context. The symbolic access to the “natural”, more than offering the promise of reappropriating Mtkvari as a natural resource, was effective in its juxtaposition with the surrounding infrastructure.

For two weeks the Mtkvari shore – filled with site-specific works, a great selection of diverse documentaries projected on the river-bank wall and the central space of gathering – Place of Knowledge, became a social hub – a space for sharing, exchange and reflection. Providing space for the community’s necessity for connectivity, reflection, curiosity and self-expression – this portal picked up life with a natural pace. Collaborating with Tbilisi City Hall, the CCA team cleaned the shore and provided electricity and light to the exhibition site from the city lighting system. In this way CCA acted as a mediator between city resources and the inhabitants’ need for a space to create and share. The intention behind many of the works created for this exhibition has been a certain kind of care, an offering of treasures to the community. Some works suggested different functions of the given space, while others stressed the subversive character of the paradoxical context. The arena-like stage, made of long wooden stools, hosted many local and international artists and musicians for talks, performances and presentations. Place of Knowledge was the center for exchange, reflection and joy.

Filtering Mtkvari water, Mariam Kalandadze created a spring – symbolically returning the cleansing function to the river water which had been used for bathing, washing and cleaning by Tbilisi inhabitants for centuries. With a half-cut Qvevri (ancient Georgian vessel used for making wine) as the spring basin, the work invited visitors to experience the water, bath and wash. In a way the work suggested the possibility of reclaiming the river’s historic function. Surrounded by salt, this installation brought the access to water to a symbolic realm – securing a cognitive space, rather than making a political statement. Bringing magnetic sand – traditionally praised for its healing powers – from Ureki (village on Black Sea shore), Gala Eristavi offered visitors natural treasures, inviting them to play. Collective work by Ariali created a circular curtain, made from thin coin-like circles of brass. Hanging this sculpture from a willow tree, artists invited the visitors inside for a magical view. Mamuka Japharidze, cutting small holes through tree logs provided “nesting” for the local ecosystem of water-side insects. 

On the shore where “Verarechka” enters Mtkvari, Zura Tsosurashvili placed an aircraft-looking wooden structure. Offering visitors an “office” to sketch, work and dwell, eventually this sculpture got appropriated by local fisherman. Closeby, Ilia Makharadze opened A Store for Everything where visitors would write what they desired. Afterwards Ilia led workshops with other visitors to create these objects from scratch and leftover materials. Gocha Jgenti’s sculpture stretched a vessel used for carrying construction materials from the highway-bridge to the point where polluted “Verarechka” enters Mtkvari. The vessel provided the base of a sculpture and resembled trash carried by the river. This work was a snapshot of the complex infrastructure processes surrounding Mtkvari. With a similar subversive attitude, Austrian artist David Prieth stretched a banner between several trees, showcasing caricatured versions of the political posters which cover Tbilisi streets. This social oasis, the river’s magic garden, served as a space for diverse impulses and exchanges. Starting from works delicately treasuring the natural resources, the exhibition ended with a performance by Caddamkvana – a collaboration between musicians and an artist chanting mantras: “having lived like a dickhead living with a dickface haunted by messiahs om na my so good om na my so new”.

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Elisabed Zhvania