LONDON — “Nagorno” is a Russian word for “mountain,” while “Karabakh” is a word of Turkic and Persian origin meaning “black garden.” When joined by a hyphen, the two words denote the boiling point of the Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave — one of post-Soviet Europe’s “frozen conflicts” — that doubles as a mountainous graveyard. A de facto independent but unrecognized state, Nagorno-Karabakh is ethnically Christian Armenian but was given to Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan by the Soviets in 1922. To say that the region has been a “standing dispute” since then, and even to an extent beforehand, would be a serious understatement. In a six-year war over the territory, begun in 1988 as Soviet rule tapered off and waged by Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists, about 30,000 people died and over a million were displaced (and remain so to this day). A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, but it has been frequently violated.
Imagined Futures, a solo show of Syrian-Armenian, London-based artist Hrair Sarkissian’s previously unseen photography and new video work at The Mosaic Rooms in London gives a potent sense of a mountainous region that has become afflicted, estranged, and dark with blood. Sarkissian’s images are so acutely sad they puncture.
Front Line (2007) is a series of images — 12 landscape photos and a photo installation of 17 portraits — exploring the 1988–1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and its consequences. The substantial photographs of the mountainous region are eerily devoid of human life. They depict flimsy shanties; outmoded war machinery, like rusted tanks (in a stray sign of life, a small square of space on one of the tanks has been painted a bright blue and yellow); and piles upon piles of rubble. As the only icons of permanence, the rubble and the mountains seem to apathetically swallow buildings, life, everything.
The landscape photos are most compelling when they allude to the human casualties of the crushing conflict, as in the depiction of quiet gravestones and ravaged buildings. But the photographs in the bunch that focus primarily on light warring with shadow seem to strive for a frustratingly predictable symbolism; my skepticism was only reinforced by the wall text, which described a spot of light in a photograph as “pending hope.”
In the room over, a wall-size photographic backdrop of mountains lays witness to 17 portraits — stark, frontal, and neat — of men who fought during the six-year conflict. In a visual echo of the photograph of grave markers, each portrait is individually elevated on a narrow, elongated plinth: the overall sense is that of a solemn memorial. Contained within compressed glass cubes, the men’s faces can be variously distorted depending on the angle of viewing. Yet somehow, their eyes — carved by a combination of warfare, grief, and dry air — are always staring right at you. The frank faces and the straightforward spatial arrangement of the installation accord the piece not only solemnity but also visual coherence.
Downstairs, a two-screen video installation “Homesick” (2014) considers destruction and displacement in Syria, the artist’s birthplace and the site of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, a bloody civil war that has just entered its fifth year. For the piece, Sarkissian produced an architecturally precise, scaled model of the Damascus-based apartment building in which he grew up, and where his parents are still living today. The two screens show the unforgiving demolishment of his home. In one screen, Sarkissian repeatedly swings a hammer at a wall just out of sight. He coughs sometimes in the gathering debris, occasionally leaning over to pick up a fallen brick and hurl it aside to make way for more destruction. In the other screen, a stop-motion sequence shows the miniature replica of the home, lovingly made with tiny balconies and windows, collapsing into cement fragments and gradually being reduced to rubble. The two videos aren’t precisely coordinated, so even when Sarkissian pauses in whacking his hammer, the replica across the room still falls.
The imagined narrative at hand in “Homesick” expresses a real fear: inherent in the artist’s Damascus childhood home — its structure, its geography — is the inevitability of it becoming uninhabitable, more tomb than shelter. Sarkissian emigrated from Syria in 2008, and has been unable to return home since due to the civil war. At once clever and deeply felt, “Homesick” hits a sweet spot of conceptual and personal; it easily surpasses Front Line as the best work in the show, perhaps in testament to Sarkissian’s maturation as an artist in the years between the pieces.
In the Western world, Sarkissian’s work is probably best known from its inclusion in a major survey show of contemporary Arab art, Here and Elsewhere, at the New Museum in 2014. The survey included Execution Squares (2008), his photographs of empty plazas in Syrian cities where public executions have taken place. The incorporation of Sarkissian’s work into the survey show undoubtedly increased his visibility, not to mention the visibility of art that isn’t predominantly Eurocentric and white. Yet, what Imagined Futures makes clear is that, to be deeply felt, the various narratives of the Arab world must be considered in their specific strains, not as a monolith. Grouping sociopolitical realities together, and particularly atrocities — violations of human life anchored in space and time — dilutes the powerful specificity of the regional narratives like the ones Sarkissian presents here, and perhaps relieves us of the necessary pain and pressure of acute empathy.
Imagined Futures continues at The Mosaic Rooms (Tower House, 226 Cromwell Road, London, SW5 0SW) through April 26, when there will be an extended Sunday opening (12–5pm).