Levan Songulashvili | Triptychos
9 October – 13 November 2021
The Georgian National Museum, Tblisi
A prologue on Triptychos by the curator Basak Senova
“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
Dealing and coping with watching a loved one die is a challenging process in which many contradictory stages and feelings—such as sadness, fear, regret, hope, love, anxiety, and anger—overlap and merge into each other in a restless movement. Hence, without any defined borders, this process constantly evolves the witness mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The Georgian artist Levan Songulashvili channelises the upsetting experience of losing his beloved mother into a body of work which delicately conceals his personal narrative. The work takes the shape of an exhibition, which spans three rooms in the National Museum of Georgia.
Titled Triptychos, the exhibition unfolds by constituting a plotted assembly in three stages and settings. In its most performative way, the exhibition suggests three separate but interwoven acts for the viewer, encourages them to rethink the challenging and continuous transformations in life. Each room was designed to give a detailed account of the artist’s work and working methodology while subtly and inclusively following the stages of a personal story of the artist’s recent struggle with an imminent death as a compelling reflection of this process.
Referring to the Greek word triptychos, which connotes to have “three folds or layers", a “triptych” often signifies a coherent artwork or piece—of visual arts, literature, or music—consisting of three complimenting or contrasting parts/components/themes of a narrative, sequence, or pattern. Rooted in Christian religious painting as an altar piece that appeared broadly in the Middle Ages, a triptych—as a form—mostly depicts images separated on three different canvases or surfaces. With this exhibition, Songulashvili proposes a sight-specific triptych. The entire exhibition transforms two-dimensional visualities into a three-dimensional multimodal sense by altering static spaces into dynamic and stimulating experiences. Loaded with a series of iterations informed through Songulashvili’s painful process of losing his much-loved mother, each room conduits to strong experiences and memories, both personal and universal. Hence, Songulashvili never mentions or depicts “death” directly in the exhibition, yet he builds a journey throughout these three rooms while silently bridging his experience with the imagination, perception, and personal experience of the viewer.
The exhibition starts with a dreamlike—almost haunted—birch tree forest. Closer to the aesthetics of Songulashvili’s ink drawing “The Nun (Dante)” dated 2012, the site-specific installation with soft light over murals and countless painted trees calls the viewer into another universe. The monochrome forest surrounds the viewer with a tidal sensation; while the black and white detailed trees which dissolve and merge with the alike murals on the walls create a crowded and visually detailed environment, they also create a feeling of solitude which refers to the artist’s childhood alone with his mother. Like a camera, the eye diverges and converges attention to focus on the detailed surface of the trees by re-assembling details reflected from the entire scene. In this instant, the details of the birch trees alter the perception by reverting the gaze. The forest benignly watches the viewer. The relationships between the viewer and the viewed, the act of watching and being watched keep shifting in the space until the viewer detects a glass deer delicately hidden/placed among the trees. Yet, with the fragile existence of the deer, the source of the gaze is finally defined: she is watching the viewer. This room gives hints about the artist’s past and the safe heaven he had with his mother.
The second room requires a step into darkness, accompanied by a sound of a breathing machine that can be heard in a random sequence. A cube is located at the centre of the gallery space, almost rotated slightly in proximity to the angles of the walls. The viewer should walk around and discover both the entrance and the content in the cube by following the sound. Upon entering the cube, the viewer is challenged by her/his own gaze through mirrors. By using reflections, the artist once again turns the gaze inside out. It suggests a further play between the conscious state and subconscious thoughts, and how they are constantly defined and re-defined by the gaze.
Staring into endless darkness through the gaze is a detectible metaphor of Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism “…if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”. The cube both shares and recalls the dark side of his journey; since it was designed to be occupied by a single person, it insinuates an intimated and alone moment by dragging the viewer into an endless darkness with multiplicity of self-reflections. The sound of the breathing machine becomes a natural background noise of the gaze and this intimate moment.
The final room breaks this background sound with a powerful piece of music by the Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti. “Requiem” (1961) certainly creates an aural effect of dense choral performance that fills the room, which contains a large-scale painting titled “Elysium”.
The first mention of the word “Elysium” is in Homer’s Odyssey; then Hesiod, Pindar, Socrates, and Plato mention a land for the blessed, heroic souls and the pure after death, like “paradise”, and it has been used various times in the works of many writers and thinkers from Schiller to Shakespeare. It also indicates an afterlife. The painting hence functions as a closure for the entire journey in the exhibition. As Songulashvili puts it, this painting demonstrates “abstract shapes, figurative elements, dynamic brushstrokesin a bright palette; pixel-like figures create a puzzle of the whole universe through a bird-eye view. For me the past, present, and the future spin in a circle in this painting”.
Aside from the content-based associations, there is also an overlapping connection with Ligeti’s process of composing the requiem. The process of producing this painting started before his mother had diagnosed with her fatal disease, continued until she lost her life, and after some months of pause, was completed for this exhibition. Therefore, compared to his previous paintings, the painting has an exceptional approach that combines different stages of his journey. In like manner, as Wolfgang Marx wrote in his article, Ligeti twice began to work on a requiem: in the late 40’s and early 50’s before fleeing to Austria, and then again in 1956, where none of these attempts produced a completed piece. Finally, upon a commission from Sweden, he composed the requiem between 1963 and 1965. Ligeti once stated that “[…] one dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death”.
The close attachment to the concept of death becomes invisible in Songulashvili’s painting as the only visual presence in this room. The painting clearly demonstrates the outcomes of his interrupted production process through complicit colour schemes, passages, the almost canonical repetition of brush strokes, large scale-gestural abstractions, and expressive multiple layers.
Even though Songulashvili’s journey—which routed this exhibition—was under the shadow of death, dissolution, fear, and darkness, Elysium concludes the exhibition with a radiant light and “joy” reflected from the canvas. The exhibition Triptychos at the end opens a door to an afterlife lightened by fond memories as a controversial coverage of grief.