Rustam Khalfin, a Tartar, born in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), began his professional life during the stagnant Soviet era, graduating in 1972 from the Moscow Architecture Institute. In the 1980s, while residing in St Petersburg, he became involved with the circle surrounding Vladimir Sterligov – a close associate of Kasimir Malevich. It was then that Khalfin was first exposed to the richness of the Russian Avant-garde, a point of departure for his own painting. Shortly thereafter, in partnership with his wife Lydia, he began to pioneer performance art in Kazakhstan. From then to the present day, Khalfin has ceaselessly experimented with a variety of media, also including painting, sculpture, installation, and video.
Khalfin’s artistic experiments have engaged with a wide-array of subjects, including the history of Central Asia, the pre-Islamic history of Kazakhstan, nomad traditions, the inner workings of consciousness, the loss of his wife, to name but a few, and have proved ample inspiration for a generation of younger Kazakh artists. Always, though, the conceptual dimension of his oeuvre is complimented by an underlying sensuality.
Works on show will include Eroscop, a key work signaling Khalfin’s break with the formative influence of Malevich and Sterligov – moving towards a more contemporary practice; self portraits in various media; oil landscapes, and a number of video works which will be screened inside a traditional Urta – a Kazakh nomad house.
One of Khalfin’s more recent video works to be exhibited is Northern Barbarians: Part II – “The Love Races” (2000). This video records a languid flail of arms, slow-jostling thighs, and jerking, heaving, torsos. The strange rhythm of this moving flesh – lilting, rocking – is accompanied by breathy sighs. Through the mass of stirring skin – the sheen of fur. As the camera pulls out, the melange – or ménage – is revealed: The congress of Man and Woman, atop a horse. She reclines, head resting on mane, He is seated, as their mount carries them through a wooded glen. The video is a joint work by Khalfin and collaborator Julia Tikhonova. The carousing couple were hired to re-enact an old ritual: Before the creation of the Soviet Union, and subsequent repression of indigenous Central-Asian cultures, Kazakhstan was a land of Nomads whose daily lives were intimately bound-up with their horses. While the act harks back to an obscure Folk custom from the pre-Soviet era, the title ‘Northern Barbarians’ appropriates an ancient Chinese term referring to the nomadic peoples of Kazakhstan. We might view the piece as exploring the notion of a Kazakh identity set apart from the longstanding cultural and political influence of their powerful neighbours – Russia and China. At any rate, the work has played a pivotal role in announcing the emergence of a ‘contemporary’ Kazakhstani culture to a western audience: It represented the nation at the Venice Biennale of 2005.
Khalfin’s works are part of major collections such as the Tretyakov State Gallery (Moscow), the State Museum of the Peoples of East (Moscow), the Vorhee-Zimmerli Museum of Non-conformist art (New Jersey , USA), the Moscow House of Photography, and A. Kasteev State Museum of Art of Kazakhstan (Almaty). In 1998, “The World Art Dictionary” devoted an entire article to him. His curatorial projects, personal and group exhibitions include “In the honor of L.B.” (1999), “Autumn signs of wrath” (1996), “In the honor of horse-rider” (1997), “Big glass” (1998), the First Biennale in Valencia (2001), “No mad’s land” (Berlin , 2001), the International art festival “Tengri-Umai” (2002), “People and shadows” ( Mexico , 2003), the 51 st Venice Biennale (2005).