Salt, Matches, Soap [Part of the exhibition: Elene Chantladze & Nata Janberidze / Keti Toloraia (Rooms Studio)]

Elene Abashidze

2023

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Salt, Matches, Soap

An essay written by Elene Abashidze about Elene Chantladze and Rooms Studio

When visiting Elene Chantladze at her home in Tskaltubo, the air becomes somehow thicker and heavier, and the temperature of the already intolerably hot August day skyrockets. We are shrouded in the humidity of the once very popular resort town favoured by Stalin and mostly visited by the USSR power elite. I cannot breathe, and I wonder how it was ever possible to take a holiday in such heat, as if the elitist spa town were not mysterious enough. Skipping the exotica of the Soviet ruins, we head for Chantladze’s house, near the palaces of Stalinist architecture.

Our hostess meets us in her own palace of rural architecture. Her strong presence instantly fills the room. This intelligent woman, a former librarian with a wide knowledge of poetry and literature, certainly knows how to construct a story.

She starts by recalling her tomboy childhood, followed by her rebellious teenage years and bridal indecisions. Her happy and successful marriage to an important man ended one tragic day with the loss of her beloved, at the same time that her daughter lost hers. This day changed her life, she says. She stopped collecting stones from the seashore she visited each year; as born in Supsa, a town with a seaport, the Black Sea was something she would always miss. Instead, she devoted her time to helping her daughter raise her son who, now an adult, sees to our needs as we speak. It was in the aftermath of loss, at the age of fifty, that Elene started to paint, mostly in her bed and with materials she found close at hand. Ever since that time, she has written constantly. Her work ranges from romantic verse to children’s poetry, diaristic prose to fiction and more besides. Through an Annie Ernaux style of storytelling, zooming in and zooming out, Elene lets me in on her personal life, in one breath and without me ever asking. In front of me is a strong persona, masculine-feminine, knowledgeable, respectful, with a strong volition and dignity, self-made and ever-evolving.

Soviet times, like all other times, were hard on women. Elene served the demands of society. She started a family and settled down in Tskaltubo as a conscientious spouse, parent and librarian. Out of interest, she attended the writing workshops of a local writer and public figure, Otia Ioseliani, whom she remembers fondly. It was through this writer that Elene, along with a few other talents attending the class, was chosen to have her work published widely in various literary journals in Kutaisi, the largest town in the area. Along with the work of other well-respected writers of the times, Chantladze's poetry attracted attention in the region.

‘It’s mealtime’, she says, in the middle of the conversation. We are invited into her kitchen and served food she has cooked for us as well as vodka, which she is no longer allowed to have. The kitchen is decorated with her framed paintings and shelves holding numerous magazines that contain her published work. With Elene dressed in her gardening clothes, the conversation shifts to this other passion of hers. The area is known as the birthplace of the antique figure of Medea and for a variety of medicinal plants. Elene is knowledgeable about these plants and speaks of gardening as yet another practice. ‘Do you ever use your garden as a source of inspiration for your painting?’ I ask her. ‘I wish I did’, she answers. ‘It would make things much easier, but I never look at the flowers as I paint them.’ On the contrary, she uses memory and pure imagination to guide her painting. She has never seen any of these animals, plants, people or landscapes the way she presents them in her works. Instead, they are collections of fragments of various moments, some seen and some imagined while reading, thinking or dreaming.

Within her visual work is the fluidity of thought, intimate as a diary yet fictional as her poetry; mythological, transcendental, flowing like her persona. Shifting from one subject to another, Elene’s work can’t be described as belonging to one particular style. Materials such as gasoline, mulberry, an office pen or a sequin sit alongside different, ever-changing pigments mounted on corrugated paper, cardboard from chocolate boxes, plastic plates with leftover cake stains from her grandchildren’s birthday party and all kinds of paper. She often includes xeroxes of her pre-existing work, which she likes to photocopy and then modify, repurpose and draw upon. The material she uses has a historical and political dimension dictated by her immediate environment, the socioeconomic crisis of the developing country after the collapse of the USSR, poverty, instability and transition – it speaks of many things, but ultimately, it evokes the artist’s own particular approach to life. Her painting is gestural, and the material she uses is also a gesture. Elene is an innate poet and this poet’s approach is clearly manifested in her painting.

As she takes some of her stone works from their boxes, I notice smaller boxes which she continuously sets aside. ‘Ah, those are just something my mother-in-law taught me to keep. She would say, “one should always keep salt, matches and soap handy”’, Elene replies to my curious gaze. I do not need to ask why. Growing up amidst crises myself, I am reminded of other women of the same generation I have met who stockpile various objects, just in case of another disaster. These women have lived through many such disasters, and I do not dare to ask which one Elene’s objects refer to specifically. Although the situation seems to be better today, I know that, for Elene, the present is still precarious and the future unpredictable.

Back in Tbilisi, I visit Rooms Studio, located in the centre of town in a historical building overlooking the city. It is a gorgeous space in an old, roomy apartment. I am greeted with a Parisian smize from an extremely well-dressed duo, followed by small talk, strong coffee and cigarettes. Chic and glamorous, the studio is also simple and generous. Attention to work and detail can be sensed in every corner. Calling upon themes evoking global metropolises – Paris, London, New York – the designers of Rooms Studio have established strong aesthetic links to the Georgian capital. Tbilisi – chaotic, contrasting, mismatching, dramatic, hot, sad and ludicrous – is a strange place that cannot leave one indifferent.

There is a lot buried deep under the slick, polished disguise of the studio’s demeanour. Conceptually thought through, detail by detail, Rooms Studio literally builds design from scrap, with Tbilisi serving as the main anchor and material for the studio’s practice. As if it were a mould of the city, the studio makes casts of the most delicate details of street furniture found in various public spaces – abandoned bus stops, railway stations, parks, street markets – and reproduces what had already been constructed in the past by unknown designers. This way of working functions as a monument to the precarity of these objects, vanishing on a daily basis from the streets of Tbilisi. The latest collection especially has become a love letter to the artists’ hometown, acknowledging the turbulent time it was put through and how it has been left vulnerable today on its way towards a horizon as yet unknown.

Repetitive in their methodology, the designers often return to their older collections. These collections are never abandoned nor left by the wayside, but rethought and repurposed. The designers’ working process is fluid: it is as if they are building one whole body of work that progresses over the course of time, comprising multiple fragments. One can trace references to old and new, archaic and contemporary, historically Georgian and belonging to global popular culture, all simultaneously present in the studio’s practice.

Multitasking between care and work, Keti and Nata have been friends since their teenage years. The two studied together at Tbilisi State Academy of Art during the years when the capital was cut off from international object and interior design tendencies, and simultaneously cut off from electricity, heating and the water supply. It was during the years after the collapse of the USSR that the young women came of age. Growing up between various conflicts in a newly independent republic turned the two students into lifelong friends and business partners. They married and had children young, as did most of the women of their generation in Georgia, learning meanwhile through practice and diligent curiosity. In Georgia’s pre-internet era, they enriched their academic education with black-and-white xeroxes of international magazines, self-sourced from and circulating among friends. Nata and Keti had their own Salt, Matches and Soap to count on, and that was their friendship. Through friendship, they built the first contemporary design company in Georgia run by women.

Gradually escaping the confines of the influences heralded by magazines, the designers identified self-reflection as their main field of interest. The women started to explore their own cultural heritage while digging deeper into the ruins of empire.

Their stance on the past is interesting and reflects Georgia’s cultural approach to history. Surrounded by the ever-extending architecture of social housing blocks, characterized by irregular structures of extended loggias jutting out of buildings like mushrooms, with interiors mirroring a similar experimental approach, Rooms Studio strikes a balance between the irregular shapes and forms dictated by its immediate culture. Through exquisite tailoring, the details gain additional meaning, becoming a reflection of a specific culture. However, the objects cannot simply be described with one umbrella term – they neither belong to Soviet or modernist styles, nor to a yet-to-be-defined ‘Georgian’ style. We might well assume, though, that rethinking and defining contemporary Georgian design is what the studio has been doing over the years.

The otherwise distinct practices of Elene Chantladze and the Rooms Studio share fluidity as the manner of working process, as well as, certain fluid concepts: a relationship with time and material or their scarcity, and engagement with the trivial. Immortalising the trivial, using it as a source of inspiration without abusing the muse, and gracefully acknowledging it is where these female practices collide. They meet through assiduous care and devotion to their practice and their immediate contexts.

Elene Abashidze

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