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99 Knives Cut a Surprisingly Comforting Message Out of Shadows

Azerbaijani shadow artist Rashad Alakbarov brings a sharp new work to the Venice Biennale.
Rashad Alakbarov, Do Not Fear, 2015, installation, various metal, plexiglass, light source. 250 X 150 X 130cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT Contemporary Art Centre.

Rashad Alakbarov paints with shadows, crafting sunny beaches, lifelike human bodies, and intricate typographies out of carefully-planned mixed media sculptures and a powerful spotlight. If you've ever spent a few hours on Imgur or r/pics, there's a good chance you've seen his work. And now, there's a good chance that visitors to this year's Venice Biennale will get to, too.

Alakbarov is one of two artists representing his home country, Azerbaijan, in a pavillion known as The Union of Fire and Water. His newest shadow sculpture, Do Not Fear, is made up of 99 traditional Eastern knives and swords arranged by hand in a seemingly haphazard plane. Mounted in front of a powerful spotlight, however, the sharp-edged installation reveals an order to its chaos: block letters spell out the installation's title. "I don't create my designs digitally," Alakbarov tells The Creators Project. "The process is more trial-and-error, like chess. You start with many options and work towards the optimal form."


Rashad Alakbarov, Untitled, 2015, installation, iron, watercolor on paper, light source. 380 x 260 x 284cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT Contemporary Art Centre.

Alakbarov explains that the installation's use of Eastern-style swords is, like much of his repertoire, a play on perception: "If a certain type of sword is associated with the East, it doesn’t have to have an aggressive undertone. It can be just part of an art installation," he says. He called the piece Do Not Fear to show that even dozens of weapons can be used to make peaceful art.

While double meanings frequently appear in the works of the Azerbaijani artist, his overall selection for the Biennale is a departure from his usual fare—aside from Do Not Fear and an illusory mirrored sculpture called I Was Here. "All of the other works are more sculptural, and have a very different presence," he says. His new 1001-brick sculpture called Lion of Fuzuli is not only a formal experiment, but a dive into a medium we should expect a lot more of in his future work.

Rashad Alakbarov, Detail from Lion of Fuzuli, 2015, bricks, engraved metal, iron base. 700 X 350 X 85cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT Contemporary Art Centre.

The Union of Fire and Watealso features work from Kazakhstani filmmaker Almagul Menlibayeva. The Venice Biennale opens on May 9 and runs through September 22, 2015. Click here to learn more.


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