Levan Songulashvili

Curator — Basak Senova
Co-curator — Lela Tsitsuashvili
Photographer — Giorgi Dadiani

Presented by Window Project
Tbilisi, Georgia | 2021.

In 2021, The Georgian National Museum and Window Project presented Levan Songulashvili’s solo exhibition, Triptychos, at the National Gallery. The exhibition spanned three rooms in the museum, consisting of drawings, murals, installation works, sound, sculpture and a painting.

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 Gallery 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, “Milky Way” (“The Leap of the Deer”). 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.

space 1 — Milky Way (The Leap of the Deer)

Spatial installation, bamboo trees, acrylic mural painting, glass sculpture, iron, 177 square meters, 2021.

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 the content in the cube by following the sound and the light source. Upon confronting with the deep pit with a staggering depth at the centre of the cube, the viewer is triggered to step on the glass to see it through her/his reflection. 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 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.

space 2 — Triptychos, Abyss

The final room breaks this background sound composed with fragments of a powerful piece of music by the Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti. The recomposed fragments of “Requiem” (1961) certainly creates an aural effect 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.

— Basak Senova, 2021.

space 3 — Elysium

Dimitri Shevardnadze National Gallery is one of the main exhibition venues of the Georgian National Museum representing modern and contemporary art. Georgian National Museum represents the biggest cultural complex of the country unifying 13 leading museums.

The National Gallery hosts both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The first floor is dedicated to Georgian, as well as international exhibitions and educational projects, whereas the second floor features permanent exhibition of renowned Georgian artists, such as Niko Pirosmanashvili, David Kakabadze.

The National Gallery has exhibited works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giorgio de Chirico, Ai Weiwei and more. Organized by the Embassy of Italy in Georgia and the Georgian National Museum in 2017-2019, the National Gallery hosted the significant authors of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, modernist and postmodernist stages: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sandro Botticelli, Titian Vecellio, Raphael Sanzio, Lorenzo Bernini and others.

In 2021, The Georgian National Museum presented Levan Songulashvili’s solo exhibition, Triptychos, at the National Gallery. The exhibition spanned three rooms in the museum, consisting of drawings, murals, installation works, sound, sculpture and a painting.

Dwelling in a Palatial Roman-style, the building was constructed in 1888 by the Tbilisi-based architect Alexander Salzman, with the order of Russian emperor Alexander III to represent the glory of the Russian Army. The so-called “Temple of Glory” existed until 1914. Afterwards and with the initiative of the Georgian based painter and public figure Dimitri Shevardnadze and many more Georgian artists, the National Art Gallery was founded in the same building in 1920 and was named after its main forefather in 2012. In 2007, the National Gallery merged with the Georgian National Museum institution requiring a large-scale remodeling to meet the international museum standards.