There was the lustrous warm night…(and) Ah the Fountain, the splashing and plashing fountain, my base in Tbilisi. Neilma Sydney, Melbourne writer, from her short story ‘The Fountain of Tbilisi’
Georgian poet/artist Mayakovsky, speaks of art in the streets (paved “with radiant stars”), magic (the “wonder-makers”), and as for environmental responsibilities (“make honey-sweet the rivers”). He has a connection with Australia with major exhibitions at State Galleries, including the NGV.
Melbourne writer Neilma Sydney was an early cultural explorer to Tbilisi in the 1980’s. In her story she observes that unlike Russians – in Georgia “people laugh”; that Rustaveli Avenue “is named after a poet, not a general”!, and that this central street, rather than a “spine”, is referred to as the “soul” of the city; a place of artists, choreographers, poets, and stunning domestic architecture.
In January I was in Georgia for an exhibition. I knew little, but knew of Mayakovsky, the choreographer Balanchine, its painters, poets and, thanks to the ABC, that it’s the “Cradle of Wine” – oldest wine culture in the world.
All the above will play a role in an urban design project now in the planning stages. Between its “soul” and the Mtkvari River is a street of huge cultural significance. Facing it is the National Art Gallery, National History Museum, National Library, newly dedicated National Art Centre, and more. At one end is the beautiful Alexandrov Park – a place of grace and magical imagery – at the other the “Fountain of Tbilisi”, a meeting place like “the clocks, at Flinders Street”.
In need of rejuvenation, a consortium of the above institutions, the City of Tbilisi and developers – the forward looking GMT Group – is developing a strategy for this Arts District . Enlivened pedestrianisation, café culture, bookshops and retail outlets are planned. Adjacent to a block of land to be developed into a large, mixed retail, shopping and food (and drinking – this is where the wine comes in) complex, it will contribute to the street life and include a major art exhibition facility. Possibly these projects will be competition based. It is a golden opportunity for Georgians to highlight their culture (tracked by some to the book of Genesis and a direct descendant of Noah) on the world stage. Futurist and Dada “actions” have occurred here, and it was adjacent that major gatherings of the “Rose Revolution” took place in November, 2003 – a hugely successful series of non-violent civil disobedience actions where citizens came together singing, performing, and handing roses, as a gesture of good will, to the assembled soldiers of the Georgian and Russian military. Eduard Schevernadzes government was forced to resign. New elections saw amazing changes.
Georgian optimism is never far from the surface. In a gathering with many of the key figures, conversation included all topics that form part of the title of this article. The GMT Group spoke passionately of social responsibility. The head of the Museums spoke of culture as inclusive – that which occurred on the street and that which was housed in their great buildings. The Mayor, a former head of the NGO “Fair Elections” and key player in creating new elections, spoke of the great potential for social and economic change – while quoting Argentinean poet Jorge Luis Borges. The “Tamada”, speaker of this gathering organized as a dinner/discussion, himself a writer was, between toasts, creating performance poetry as we proceeded, and other informed, performed and enlightened as to the possibilities before them.
Historically, even in the midst of 100 years of Russian occupation, as Neilma Sydney’s story tells us – “people laughed”, indeed they have a remarkable sense of humour. In a recent international survey, Georgians and Australians were amongst the top ten most optimistic peoples in the world. Whatever happens in Tbilisi, it is certain to involve artists, be enlivening and engage people in an absolutely unique way. It will be good to watch Tbilisi, a remarkable city with a remarkable opportunity for innovation.