Under Construction

On the work of Sophia Tabatadze


On returning to her home town of Tbilisi, Georgia in 2005 after living in the Netherlands for eight years, Sophia Tabatadze began to document the changes she observed, and published them in a newspaper titled ‘Much More’ Part One. The newspaper details rashes of new commercial businesses: “2003 is the year of casinos in Tbilisi; 2004 is the year of fashionable supermarkets, 2005 is the year of perfume shops”; cosmetic improvements to the urban environment – a newly painted housing block, a new civic fountain; as well as a stultifying 3 month record of the rickety street-side table outside her own house that runs in the face of the optimistic declaration “2006 is the year of big changes and developments in Georgia”: over 5 double page spreads, men and boys are seen sitting in groups at the table, playing dominos or backgammon, passing their time, waiting for change.

This two fold process, of a rapid, patchwork commercialization on a national level together with a despondent stasis on an individual level is a schism that fascinates Tabatadze, whose work revolves around a three point axis of body, architecture and national identity. An early work, made while living in Amsterdam, where she studied at the Rietveld Academy, was a wallpaper with a decorative pattern derived from human organs (Wallpaper, 2002/03) and used to cover both interior walls and the exterior wall of a half-demolished building, in a fusion of external and internal, where the physical feeling of interiority became manifest in architectural space. This conjunction was taken a step further in De Doorzonwoning (2003/04), the ‘look through’ or ‘light through’ house. Having been invited for a residency on the outskirts of Rotterdam, Tabatadze moved into an empty apartment there and developed a work that took this new living situation as an analytical starting point. Over the following months, she built a tunnel-like structure that began at the window at one end of the apartment, passed through the rooms, traversing furniture, turning corners and finally leading out of the window at the back. Through the use of periscopal mirrors, it allowed an unobstructed view through the apartment. For Tabatadze, this was a comment on the Dutch Calvinist ideal of transparency; while allowing a view right through her own living space, it conversely prevented anything from being seen. She also made a number of efficient-looking but ineffective mobile room structures, wooden structures on wheels, screened off with plastic, each with a different function (one, for instance, contained a writing table, table lamp and chair), with handles to push them around through the apartment. This channeling of vision and contorting of daily routines into cumbersome structures suggested some of the awkwardness inherent in adjusting physically to a thoroughly different cultural identity, and suggested a critical evaluation of that culture through her eyes.

The first work Tabatadze made on a returning visit to Georgia, House on Wheels (2003), again adopts this idea of living structures but effects an extreme change of environment, from a cosy Rotterdam suburban apartment, to the streets of Tbilisi. This shanty-house like structure was developed over a period of months to contain everything Tabatadze needed to live, to sleep in at night and use as a market stall during the day. An ad-hoc construction of wooden planks, palettes and plastic sheeting, supported on ridiculously small wheels which give it a nominal notion of mobility, it is like a cross between Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc’s favela-inspired sculptures and Californian Andrea Zittel’s self-sufficient living systems. Tabatadze actually inhabited the structure, adapting it over months to suit her changing needs, and reflecting the new economic situation in Georgia where, as she put it, “my country has become impoverished almost beyond recognition. Everyone seems to have become a small trader, offering a little of this and a little of that for sale.”

In representing her country in the Georgian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Tabatadze concentrated again on the home, and on the relation between architecture and the individual. Large translucent fabric panels printed with photographic images of metal shutters or housing blocks implied the fragility of the feeling of security architecture, or the home, can offer. The skeleton of a five story soviet style housing block amended with delicately embroidered bricked-in wall, or a half-derelict building decorated with dainty embroidered banisters, described the irrepressible human need to improve surroundings on an individual level, even if such detail-engrossed changes are entirely cosmetic, despite the desperate nature of the whole. Titled Humancon Undercon, it collapsed together the architectural with the individual, portraying the architectural landscape of Georgia in a state of constant construction as a reflection of the lives of those living there, struggling to adapt to a new social order. This telescoping of vision from the individual to the general provides an acute insight into the unsettled nature of Georgia in particular, as much as behavioral patterns and human needs that cross all national borders.

Kirsty Bell