Azerbaijan was another country I had to google when I found out I was going there. I had a vague sense of it being somewhere between the Middle East and Turkey and Russia but was a bit hazy beyond that. I didn’t know anything about its culture, its history or its current pressing issues. A google search featured the Eurovision song contest heavily (for those of you who are unfamiliar with this cultural pinnacle of achievement, each European country – an ever-expanding list as countries are added and fragment into smaller countries – submits one song and then they all vote on each other’s submissions to find a consensual winner) and Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Cultural centre.
So I was not much the wiser except for knowing where it was and that I could fly there direct.
We were a bit surprised when our impending visit was reported in Private Eye the week before we left (a satirical current affairs magazine). It’s not easy to find a country where you agree with everything the government does. There probably isn’t one on the planet. But regardless of that we still felt the artists in Baku and the children in the hospital where we would do an art intervention deserved an opportunity to think differently.
At one of our presentations in an art institution there, the archetypal angry young man was bristling next to me while the artist I work with was speaking. Eventually he could contain himself no more and leapt to his feet. “But this is not art!” he cried in rage. “Michaelangelo is art. Van Gogh is art. This is… ” he sputtered, barely able to find words to express his extreme indignation. “This,” waving an arm vaguely towards the screen, “Is DECORATION!!”. I tried not to smile. After all he was a product of a system focused on technical brilliance over the more open-minded approach to art in contemporary Europe which is more likely to be about challenging thinking, shining a light on assumptions and absurdities. “I cannot stay here and listen to this!” he continued as he gathered an extensive collection of bags and drawing pads and stormed out. The room paused to absorb the event. “That’s a valid point of view,” observed the artist who was presenting. “I admire his passion.” This embracing approach confused the room even further but we pressed on.
Creating a participatory public artwork in this extraordinary city was definitely an adventure. We hawked our wares around several educational institutes and gathered together an unlikely crew that included a graffiti artist, an interior designer, an architect, several artists, the manager of a women’s refuge and a chemist. They all had in common an open and curious mind, a sense of adventure, a refusal to accept the status quo and a sense of merriment. We met every day and pushed their ways of thinking, broke old patterns, searched for ideas together. In between we worked on finding a location for the artwork (which in the end was the national children’s hospital), gathering materials for the workshop and turning the enormous lounge in our rental apartment into a magical making space. We explored the city, speaking to hat sellers and chess players, visiting galleries and bookshops and museums to understand the local view of the world.
After we had identified and persuaded the hospital to participate I ran an entertaining focus group, in the local language thanks to an interpreter, with a group of children staying in the hospital for weeks during their treatment. I had to adjust my approach a little to accommodate the group.
The artist continued to work on the project with the local team after I had gone back to England. The final piece involved tailors, foam rubber and a lot of paint. The result was a great success. We had introduced an important experiential space for the children who could spend weeks at the facility, with their families maybe hundreds of miles away and very little to do. We hope we also opened some eyes and hearts and minds to the possibility of change, the importance of considering the world from somebody else’s point of view (in this case the children) and challenging the status quo to adapt.