A view of San Lazarro degli Armeni, the site of the Armenian Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale. (all photos Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

A view of the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, the site of the Armenian Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale. (all photos by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Editor’s note: The following essay was first published in the catalogue for Armenity, which accompanied the Armenian pavilion of the same name at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The Amenity exhibition won this year’s Golden Lion for best national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 

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But they will also be different — different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand.

—Rilke, in a lengthy love letter dated July 6, 1898


Since its inception a couple of decades ago following Armenia’s independence, the curatorial direction of the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale leaned predominantly towards showcasing artists who work/live in Yerevan. Except when sponsors were needed, the participation of the global diaspora was largely bypassed and limited to one or two expats and an occasional celebrity artist.

Mikayel Ohanjanyan, "Tasnerku" (2015) (click to enlarge)

Mikayel Ohanjanyan, “Tasnerku” (2015) (click to enlarge)

Logistical and material difficulties in organizing such international undertaking noted, the making of the events reflected the insular cultural policies/politics of the local powers that be, with a diaspora elite willing to support them mainly out of patriotism. Such approaches have to date proven to be insufficient to cultivating a sound culture of giving that recognizes artistic production as a necessary investment in a society’s growth.

Regardless, the pavilion has served as an important platform to introduce to international audiences the contributions of some remarkable local artists, as well as art professionals whose combined efforts imparted valuable insights about the post-soviet predicament, as well as the complexities and challenges of undoing official narratives, that facilitate the writing of new (art) histories.

The broader potential of such platforms, however, remained untapped particularly as it applies to bridging the existing socio-political gaps between inside/outside or homeland/diaspora. This preferential treatment of the “native as more authentic” at times intensified the “othering of the diaspora” that could be found amply elsewhere, especially across the severed borders of Armenia.

Armenity in many ways attempts to make up for the deficit created in the processes outlined above. As its title suggests, the undertaking proposes a transnational definition of a collective identity. With diasporan roots that span across time and geography, the exhibit highlights artists who are mostly the grandchildren of Armenian Genocide survivors, marking one of the worldwide centennial commemorations of the 1915 Catastrophe, even though it does not seek to re-present genocide.

The word “Armenity” is seldom used and rings as foreign or even invented, particularly to the ears of those not well-versed in the nuances of the Western Armenian language, which has been officially recognized as endangered. By choosing it the curator, Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg, opens a window to imagine a polity beyond the confines of geography, and the identity politics implied by the more commonly used label “Armenianness.” Armenity’s curatorial selection also transcends the political correctness of groups within the boundaries of diasporan communities that tend to instrumentalize artists for the sake of a given charitable cause, rather than caring about and supporting a broader understanding of cultural production as a driver of substantive change.

Detail of Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas's "When counting loses its sense" (2015) installation

Detail of Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas’s “When counting loses its sense” (2015), installation

Closer to the more philosophical and literary currency of the term aghet (catastrophe), Armenity reminds us that a polity may have parallel and not necessarily contradictory or oppositional self-namings that project a wealth of stances. As revealed by the overall concerns addressed in the exhibited works, the term Armenity delineates the less familiar, more complex and quieted perceptions of identification. Armenity then, like many of the participating artists, exists in the margins of collective consciousness, patiently and rigorously engaging the viewer with the contemporary realities of its constant making, unmaking, and remaking. It offers a cluster of universal visual languages that mediate, bridge and translate particular issues.

Marginalization is also evident in the selection of San Lazzaro island as a venue. Also born from exilic conditions of silencing and persecution, the monastery became a dynamic transnational site for the collection, maintenance, translation and dissemination of “great texts” to and from Armenia. A utopia built out of necessity to serve cultural exploration and renewal is at risk today. As discussed below, several of the artworks made specifically for Armenity respond to the diasporic predicament of this important site.

Haig Aivazian's "Hastayim Yasiyorum (I am sick, but I am alive)" (2014)

Haig Aivazian’s “Hastayım Yaşıyorum (I Am Sick, But I Am Alive)” (2014) in the main library at San Lazzaro

With the exception of senior or more established artists like Sarkis, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, and Anna Boghiguian, the majority of the sixteen artists exhibiting in Armenity have gained prominence or entered the contemporary art scene in the last decade or so. Like the curator of the exhibition, they are better recognized in Europe and the Middle East, where many are based. While two are from Brazil and Argentina, three are from the United States, and a couple more collaborate with their partners, also artists, who are of Italian and Palestinian origin. Possessing historical links to the Ottoman Empire, all are multilingual and polycentric. Many come from immigrant families who experienced the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution, or Soviet rupture. Some are also back and forth-ers to Armenia, while others have just begun to discover their ­ancestral homeland in Turkey. The exhibit’s emphasis on artists from Europe and the Middle East reflects several factors including the emergence of new art-destinations and art-economies in places like Dubai, Sharjah and Istanbul; the support for more modest initiatives in cultural hubs like Beirut, Cairo and Jerusalem, and the push towards multiculturalism and integration, all of which mark a shift from New York’s dominance of the international (art) scene since World War II.

As global citizens, these artists grew up navigating through the precarious times of the last several decades caused by momentous developments including the fall of the ­Eastern Block, the formation of the European Union, man-made and natural disasters ­like Chernobyl, the end of Apartheid, accelerated globalization and migration, the technological revolution which provided greater access to Internet and social media, the murder of Hrant Dink, the resurgence of Cold War politics, and recent political upheavals in the Middle East and beyond.

Rosana Palazyan's "Por que Daninhas/Why Weeds?" (2006–15)

Rosana Palazyan’s “Por que Daninhas/Why Weeds?” (2006–15) in the courtyard of the monastery

Conscious of other kinds of ruptures, violence and displacement, and not simply historical or Armenian ones, the ensuing existential push-and-pull led these and other diaspora artists and intellectuals to question their prescribed/inherited collective identities, and to gain agency through translating their newly-found subjectivities into artistic practices which tend to reinscribe, revalue, renew, even disrupt fixed cultural identifications.

Inherent in this repositioning of former cultural signifiers is a shift from representing (i.e. the genocide) to investigating modes of (its) representations. By forging aesthetic strategies that intervene with the lingering effects of the continued denial of the Armenian catastrophe or aghet, these experimentations give new relevance to iconic historical artifacts, figures, places, and events. In doing so they resist the perpetuation of sentimental images of victims, ruins, etc. that unconsciously repeat the initial intent of the denier, rather than enabling new possibilities of being or becoming.

As tools of subtle criticism and persuasion, the exhibited works collectively offer us alternative histories and cultural mappings that bypass official narratives entrenched in preservation ideologies and exhausted nationalist rhetoric, that date back to the ­19th-century ethos of national awakenings which coincided with the advent of the technological revolution that gave us the printing press.

Artistic practice for these artists also transcend the commodification of art. Incorporating diverse media, particularly archival materials, performance, sound, and light, ­many of the works assembled here trigger a transformative experience. They help shed residues of displacement and loss by instigating new memories.

Encountering these works is like holding a mirror to internal states of conformity, inertia, and stagnation that repeat denial, negation and transference of trauma, as perpetuated by denialist regimes.

The worldliness of this post-1990s generation derives in part from an awareness of the contributions of their artistic precursors (such as the Conceptual, Minimalist, Situationist, Happenings, and protest artists of the 1960s), whose works marked formal and contextual departures from the aesthetic sensibilities of what came before (i.e. Abstract Expressionism exemplified by Arshile Gorky and the subsequent generation of modernist practices) and addressed the socio-political concerns of the time (i.e. the Vietnam war, civil rights, feminist and peace movements).

A 17th-century Armenian manuscript by Hakob Yerekts of Tiflis, left, at the San Lazzaro monastery, and on the right Sarkis and Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi's "Rotolo Armeno" (2012) watercolor on paper scroll

A 17th-century Armenian manuscript by Hakob Yerekts of Tiflis, left, on display in the manuscript library of the San Lazzaro monastery, and on the right, Sarkis and Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s “Rotolo Armeno” (2012), watercolor on paper scroll, which was on display in one of the painting corridors of the complex.

In this context, the inclusion of works by Sarkis and Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi — pioneers in their respective practices of early Conceptual and Installation Art, as well as in the innovative use of archival film footage — dot artistic lineages found with the younger generation. By exhibiting these works side by side for the first time, ­Armenity attests to continuities, despite discontinuities, that span across time and space.

Some of the works reference the rich threads and textures of ancient Armenian traditions (i.e. folklore, mythology, manuscript illumination, engraving, embroidery), not to replicate but to free their contextual stasis by infusing them with contemporary meaning and relevance. The commitment of these artists recalls medieval monks whose experimentations contributed to cultural rebirths (i.e. the invention of an alphabet in 405 AD and distinct architectural styles of the 5th–7th and 10th–12th centuries) which in turn ­were influenced by the flow of capital, ideas and trends (in art, literature, design, fashion) made possible through older global networks of trade and patronage systems.

The hybridity of their inspirational sources motivate these artists to investigate a multiplex of particularities and to translate them into singular aesthetic languages. But these are not narratives of proof and externality; rather they are intimate expressions of the silences that give us pause from the weight of the unspeakable. They are like a collection of love poems that no longer long to belong — they belong.

Mekhitar Garabedian's almost invisible embossed piece placed in the library for people to take. It features a poem by Taniel Varoujan.

Mekhitar Garabedian’s almost invisible embossed piece placed in the library for people to take. It features a poem by Taniel Varoujan.


Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.


My Ani do not cry
Please do not cry
But we can collect your ashes
Your past in a vase that is part of our history, there you can meet the eternal

In a recent email this is how Anna Boghiguian describes the photo and drawing installation that she is preparing for Armenity, which deals with her visit to the ancient city of Ani that lies on the border of Armenia, in Turkey. Her statement refers to a popular early modern image produced by the Mekhitarist monks, which has been reproduced for over a century in Armenian language and history textbooks, as well as in calendars, key chains and other such souvenirs. Rendered in a neoclassical style, Ani has been personified as a larger than life female figure, stoically sitting on the ruins of the many churches that the city is known for, mourning her (self?) destruction. The poet in Boghiguian finds no comfort in what’s become a banal portrayal, and is in the process of inscribing a more fitting identity to the city’s past greatness where “ … caravans from Asia came to deposit their wares and to receive more wares and silk to continue their way towards Arabia.” For her project, Boghiguian has chosen a small room in the monastic complex where sparse furnishings like a desk, a chair and some books invite the visitor to sit and contemplate “the traveler as a monk,” which also alludes to Boghiguian’s own nomadic life. She considers the entire world her country. This is reflected in the small-scale drawings done in different media, which she carried by hand in a boghcha from place to place, visually chronicling an intuitively perceived universe, be it Ethiopia, India, Turkey, Egypt or Canada. The drawings and photos presented here, as a rare book if you will, are inspired by her sojourn to Ani, and incorporate her lyrical writings, particles of wisdom. Like the beeswax that channels prayers through candles, the artist applies the medium to erase separation and pay equal importance to the written word and the visual image. Touched by the roses she encountered during her travels in Armenia, Boghiguian envisions her room filled with roses (can you smell the perfume?), just as several free birds, like the ones that hover over Ani’s spectacular natural landscape (do you feel their freedom?), transcend the geopolitical entanglement of Ani, while a rainbow lights this wandering monk’s room, where new narratives are conjured.

Anna Boguian's room installation

Anna Boghiguian’s installation

Artists Silvina Der-Meguerditchian and Rosana Palazyan pay homage to the memory of their grandmothers by piecing together their respective life-journeys as genocide survivors, immigrants and mothers. Their memories are resurrected by revisiting the nearly muted legacies that each woman left behind — a lace handkerchief made in a Greek orphanage that traveled to Brazil, and a booklet on the folk medicine of Aintab printed in Argentina. Der-Meguerditchian does her re-member-ing through a mixed-media installation that uses the old bookcases and cabinets of the monastery’s library to display samples of the rich and colorful herbs, flora and fauna associated with the book’s content.

Palazyan, on the other hand, combines animation and embroidery techniques to weave a video tapestry that follows her subject’s journey which starts from a turbulent Anatolia, passes through the calm of the Aegean, before settling on another distant shore to build a family. The strength and resilience of these women sip through both works without resorting to the violence and nostalgia commonly found in the objectified representations of female genocide survivors. Such modernist traditions of illustrating misery (of death marches and starving women and children) has been the preoccupation of several Armenian male artists since the 1940s and 1950s (i.e. Jansaim) who were influenced by the French Miserablist aesthetics (with roots in medieval Europe) and aimed for mass appeal and consumption. By breaking away from such habitual and unchecked transferences of trauma, pity and guilt, Der-Meguerditchian and Palazyan free the imagining of female bodies of genocide survivors from the patriarchal gaze.

One of the early examples in history during which Armenians experienced a diaspora (= dispersion of sperm) came with their forced conversion to Christianity – which resulted in the destruction of pagan temples, goddesses and songs that had existed for centuries. Mikayel Ohanjanyan’s “Tasnerku” sculptural installation revisits the megaliths at Carahunge — one of the few remaining pagan sites in Armenia — to invoke an ancient belief system based on cosmology and the twelve tenets of observational astronomy. The artist, who is Yerevan-born and Florence-based, resorts to architectural floor plans, mixed size basalt blocks and steel discs to recreate the site on one of the island’s terraces. His recharting also correspond to the twelve provinces of classical or Greater Armenia to resonate the belonging / not belonging of a myriad of civilizations that have crossed it. Similarly, the theatricality of Ohanjanyan’s geometric abstractions indicate affinities filtered through post-World War I artistic movements such as Constructivism – i.e. Tatlin’s “counter reliefs” and Malevich’s Suprematism – as well as Arte Povera’s use of common objects, which were then displaced by Soviet Social Realism.

How does one portray silence, its deep roots and deafening ring, without violating its identity? That is the challenge that the Damascus-born and London-based photographer Hrair Sarkissian tackles. His emotionally charged “portraits” deal with Muslim Turkish citizens who have in recent years been coming out or attempting to reclaim their Christian Armenian lineages. These bare photographs contain no people, just the interiors of their subject’s private environments, enhanced by dramatic lighting and sharp contrasts that highlight the mundane. Yet Sarkissian craft-fully captures the psychological intensity involved in coming out, as they convey (not document) the fears, the shame, the burden and the alienation experienced in this process.

Hera B's "Letters from Lost Paradise" (2015)

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s “Letters from Lost Paradise” (2015)

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s appreciation of her heritage gets rekindled when she reads Lord Byron’s letters related to his sojourns at San Lazzaro to learn Armenian. The British poet’s fascination with the culture and the “language of the other” causes the artist to question her own ambivalence about most things Armenian while a young student at the Mekhitarist school in Istanbul. Her use of oversized Armenian letter-stamps that excerpt a selection of the poet’s writings (i.e. Lost Paradise) augment the customary setting, and use, of Lord Byron’s room at the monastery by giving voice to and making visible the forgotten memories of the island that once stood as a beacon of spirituality and knowledge.

Photographs by Aram Jibilian

Photographs by Aram Jibilian

Aram Jibilian’s photographs activate memories of a very different place in another corner of the world. They deal with his sojourn to Arshile Gorky’s studio-home in Connecticut and the town’s cemetery where the renowned painter – a survivor of the Genocide who hung himself at the age of forty-four – is buried. Taking clues from ghost stories recounted by Gorky’s neighbors, Jibilian channels the un-dead-ness of the late painter in ways that make us question what is remembered or forgotten about Gorky. The unassuming photographs of a tree, a white sheet, and a sparse tombstone pose as mere clues to the unknowable.  Even with the haunting gaze of one of Gorky’s masks based on the iconic self-portrait of the late artist and his mother, Jibilian seems to remind us that to comprehend the truth about Gorky’s predicament, and the experience of the Catastrophe, requires more than facts as evidence.

Another view of Gabri and Anastas's "When counting loses its sense" (2015) installation

Another view of Gabri and Anastas’s “When counting loses its sense” (2015), installation

Rene Gabri & Ayreen Anastas’s participation involves taking photographs from books housed at the Mekhitarist library which trace Near Eastern histories and physically intervening on them — by cutting, cropping, writing, coloring, manipulating and typing over them to create poetic collages, as a form of research that enables one to overcome the inertness of the historical artifacts. As the artists are interested in the notion of parody, another aspect of their project manifests as a walk through the grounds of the monastery where traces of their work were left for surprise encounters. Known for applying similar approaches at other art destinations, the couple’s alternative “survey” of the Near East extends a palimpsest of historical lines to reconsider: the relation of early Christianity to certain philosophies and practices of late Antiquity, the Mekhitarist community and history of the island, the European imagination of the Orient, the crusades, the massacres of the 1800’s, the Armenian Genocide, the Russian Revolution, the World War I and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the question of language in the context of these histories, narration, storytelling, testimony, truth-telling, the contemporary struggles in the region, forgiveness, mourning, and ethics.

A work by Aikaterini Gegisian of Greece in the foreground

A work by Aikaterini Gegisian of Greece in the foreground (click to enlarge)

Aikaterini Gegisian’s collages and artist’s book project recycled reproductions found in various publications from Greece, Armenia and Turkey. Produced in the 1960s and 1980s, they functioned as instruments of nation building to lure tourists, and commerce.  The artist’s canny and visually layered regroupings of these easily consumable ideological “ready-mades” bring forth, despite their particular differences, the commonalities between the failures of these nation-states. As each nation’s construction/branding of an aura of uniqueness dissolves into Gegisian’s inventive reconstructions we are left belonging to a utopia, a non existent country.

For several decades, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi have been making use of early 20th-century archival film to produce new work that alters the meaning or intent of the originary footage. Without spoken words or voice-over narration, and with minimal interjections of color and original sound compositions, their experimental documentaries stand as poignant commentaries against world wars, fascism, and colonialism.

One of the two works included in Armenity is an exception to their mostly silent film approach. Made in 1986, “Ritorno a Khodorciur” is about Gianikian’s father Raphael — a genocide survivor — who in 1976, after months of preparation, returned to Turkey. The film shows Raphael reading from his unpublished diaries which he kept throughout his life but refused to talk about its content. He travels alone on foot in hiking boots and a super 8 camera and records with great detail what remains of his lost childhood town, including abandoned villages, houses in ruins, mountains, rocks and vegetation. With photos of the old country at hand his “pilgrimage” — a promise made to his brother in Georgia — also makes him a guest in places where he once belonged. As people begin to remember his family, Raphael’s knowledge of the Turkish and Kurdish languages is regained, and conversations about what happened to the Armenians unfold with him appearing like a ghost to his hosts. The film interweaves past and present as the father organizes the traces that document his childhood, while his son, the filmmaker, learns about his family’s tragedy for the first time.

To remedy irrecoverable loss, rectify wrongs, and give absences a presence sometimes requires the gifts of an alchemist. These are the types of philosophical speculations involved in conceptual artist Sarkis’s practice.Take his “Atlas de Mammuthus Intermedius,” for instance. This sculpture made of what looks like the remains of an ancient colossal structure, perhaps even a perished creature, also carries traces of a recent intervention made visible through a belt-like ribbon of gold that holds the fragile fragments of the piece together. To restore the dignity of this mammoth bone, the artist turns to the Japanese art of Kintsugi used to repair broken pottery, with seams of gold, in a way that makes the broken vessel even more beautiful and valuable than it was before. One website describes the technique as an appropriate metaphor for ways of dealing with the broken places that life gives all of us, or finding treasures in life’s scars.

Hrair Sarkissian's hidden Armenians series

Hrair Sarkissian’s ‘Unexposed’ series that portrays the “hidden Armenians” of Turkey

What if what’s broken is a country, as the juxtaposition of one of the other works included in Armenity suggests? Photographed in Armenia, “Croix de brique” depicts two bricks marked by burn marks, otherwise resting intact in a pile of stones and mud, side by side and forming a cross. Despite the image’s ambiguity, the comparison of the crosses’ discarded state with the dire socio-political and economic state of Armenia is unavoidable. And while it conjures many reasons for its condition — including the country’s fragile geopolitical position and the closed borders with its wealthy and mighty neighbor(s) — the juxtaposition implies that a Kintsugi-like performance for Armenia in the foreseeable future seems improbable.

This modest proposition gains further gravity given the fact that this year Sarkis has also been selected to represent the national pavilion of his country of birth Turkey, at the Venice Biennale. It might be worth noting that Sarkis exiled himself to Paris in the 1960s, which has been his adopted country since. Recent developments surrounding “dialogue and reconciliation” — aside from his acceptance of the invitation to this significant moment of “return” — is a prime example of how the artist lives, acts upon, what his works have stood for many years.

Sarkis's installation in the front room of the church at San Lazzaro

Sarkis’s installation in the front room of the church at San Lazzaro

As part of his large-scale, multimedia installation for this momentous occasion, the artist has chosen to hang from the cathedral-like ceilings of the lush Turkish Pavilion at the Giardini, the monumental portraits of Paradjanov, Hrant Dink and Gezi Park. A grouping that clearly draws parallels between several disparate yet similar oppressive pasts and presents, pasts that do not pass, but rather reincarnate.

Another segment of his project involves a young Venetian girl carrying an antique silver belt from Van back and forth between the Armenian and Turkish Pavilions — two neighboring nations that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire but have existed with severed diplomatic relations for a century. While the context of the portraits in the main pavilion compels us to contemplate the transnational nature of internal and external exile, this smaller, quieter, gesture points to the fragility and uncertainty of reconciliatory measures. Like the rainbow that radiates on and off of the installation site — a transnational home away from home — the wandering belt also promises a glimmer of hope in undoing wrongs, mending a century of disconnects, letting go of exhausted means, experimenting, starting afresh. Just as the sheer weight of the silver belt makes an improbable fit on a tiny waist, the artist’s proposal may at first seem merely ceremonial. But his staging involves a repositioning as well, not via a return to old “customs and costumes” but by instigating a process of transformation, whereby the reversal of the effects of denial and the redefinition of kinships and neighborliness begin with the recognition of the “other” as equal.

The demanding process of undoing “otherness” travels through a different path in Nigol Bezjian’s five-channel video projection Witness.ed. Here the task is internal and relies on the incremental yet steady efforts of an assembly of colorful “actors” in a vast and disjointed transnational space of Armenity. The piece deals with a series of readings, or takes on the life and work of Daniel Varoujan, one of the poets of the late Ottoman Armenian literary Renaissance (Zartonk) who in 1915, at the age of thirty-one, was among several other prominent Armenian intellectuals arrested and killed not far from Istanbul. This work is excerpted from Bezjian’s longer documentary on the same subject that excavates the past-present importance of the poet whose dissident voice was marginalized within both Turkish and Armenian intellectual circles, ultimately leading to his tragic death. Through the film we travel to places like Venice and Ghent (Varoujan was educated at the Mekhitarist school and the university of Ghent before returning to Turkey to teach), as well as Aleppo, Beirut, Yerevan, Paris, Milan and New Jersey: the poet’s imprints are gradually retraced in the filmic clustering of cross-disciplinary and multilingual interpretations. As their passionate performances filter, each with distinct intonation, the poet’s stances on love, lust, paganism, metaphysics and spirituality that critiqued oppression, slavery, corruption and gender inequality in the Ottoman Empire, we better understand not only the mystery surrounding his historic death but its perpetuation. As viewers we become witnesses to the poet’s betrayal particularly in the segment of the video projection where contemporary French-Armenian philosopher and literary critic Marc Nichanian, sitting in an Istanbul high-rise (with the Bosphorous dotted by minarets and the Turkish flags as background), eloquently reframes Varoujan. As Nichanian states, Varoujan was aware of the pending catastrophe and used his poetry to part with a testimony which, among other things, cautioned that total annihilation occurs when a society is not allowed to mourn, or if a society forgets how to mourn, and that artistic practice is the only way to reverse that (self) denial. Varoujan, who had once observed that thought becomes color in Venice, was also at odds with the transcendental teachings of the Mekhitarist. It is fitting indeed that Witness.ed is being shown in the 300-year-old printing facility of the monastic complex that has been turned into a museum.

Mekhitar Garabedian who has lived in Ghent most of his life, also has a piece on Varoujan that consists of a stack of posters which visitors can take away as souvenirs. Embossed on this white-on-white minimalist composition are phrases in Armenian lifted from a memorial plaque dedicated to Varoujan that hangs at the university of Ghent’s ­library. Unnoticeable at first, the poster through its infinite numbers intentionally reproduces the unintelligibility of the plaque as encountered by most library visitors. In addition to posing as a commentary on the consequences of the displacement of the Western Armenian language, this piece also makes us think about how a foreign script in a host country risks becoming an artifact, a decoration stripped of meaning and of the possibility of becoming a functioning language. Another piece by Garabedian duplicates the table of contents of a textbook in French called “Histoire de mes ancêtres (History of my Ancestors)” which was produced by the Mekhitarists in 1977, the same year that the artist was born in Aleppo, once a dynamic cultural hub. The worn out dark ink against the white page echoes the fading currency of its content. As outlined in the taxonomy of the table of contents, history here limits the imagining of a collective identity to a long sequence of oppositional paradigms (good/evil, hero/villain) and the collapsing of mythical and actual figures or events, framed mostly as tragedies turned into miraculous victories, whereby any contextual or critical reflection is obstructed. And the World Is Alive. “And Van Is Alive” is a neon light piece that quotes from Burning Orchards — a novel by Kurken Mahari who as a child lived through the uprising and subsequent seizure of his native town of Van near Ani, before arriving in the newly-formed Republic of Armenia which, like the establishment of modern Turkey, was created artificially. Written after being exiled ten years in Siberia for his earlier writings, Mahari’s novel was banned in Soviet Armenia upon its first publication in 1966, a period of national reawakening marked by massive demonstrations and the building of the first genocide memorial complex. Censors banned the book, even forced him to rewrite it, because Mahari had depicted Van not as a glorified historical place frozen in time but a world that’s very much alive, breathing through his subjective recollections of ordinary people and life, and often speaking in conflicting tenses: present, past and future. In an unexpected yet intimate setting on the island, Garabedian’s piece waits to be discovered, creating a sense of awkwardness that comes from not belonging to a place, and from being outside history.

Nina Katchadourian’s "Accent Elimination" installation in one of the monastery's treasure rooms

Nina Katchadourian’s “Accent Elimination” installation in one of the monastery’s treasure rooms

Nina Katchadourian’s “Accent Elimination” offers an ironic account of what happens when one attempts to eradicate strangeness. For her multiple-screen video installation the artist employed a renowned speech specialist to standardize her parents’ distinct yet difficult to trace accents and then teach her theirs. Scripted by the parents, the video’s simple narrative is based on questions asked from strangers dealing with where they each come from. As the intensive coaching and rehearsals unfold, we learn that the accent of the father, Herant, is a mixture of Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, and French, with a touch of Swedish, which is his wife’s mother tongue. When attempting to place his accent, Herant discloses that most people mistake him for a Hungarian. Then we learn that the ­mother’s accent is actually Finnish-Swedish, because Stina comes from a Swedish-speaking minority living in Finland. Stina also learned Armenian after marrying Herant in order to communicate with his family. The couple met in Beirut and have been living for decades in the United States, where the artist was born. At a frustrating yet comical moment the video captures Nina practicing how to say the word “Armenian” with a typical forced “R,” and the sounds “AR – ARM – ARMY” are repeated with varying pauses and emphasis till she gets the right pronunciation. Since AR means “take” in Armenian, this unscripted sequence of utterances transform the scene, as well as the work, into a symbol of defiance and survival.

Melik Ohanian’s "Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial"

Melik Ohanian’s “Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial”

Resistance takes on another form in Melik Ohanian’s “Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial” which is part of two related projects called “Presence.” This large-scale public sculpture that sits in the garden of the monastic complex consists of close to two hundred pieces that are individually cast in aluminum and then reassembled to expose, if you like, the “guts” of its former existence. Collapsed ruins that cannot be ruins because they have been resurrected, not to replicate its previous identity but to forge a new one that embodies entangled fragments of its past. The story of this piece begins in 2010 when Ohanian’s design for a memorial in Geneva unanimously won the competition for the city’s public art project. Submitted by representatives of the Armenian community in partnership with the city as a gift to Geneva, Ohanian’s proposal was/is based on a streetlight from 1920s New York – an ordinary but forgotten object of an urban landscape, now remembered by assigning it a new function. To be multiplied in numbers and dispersed throughout a public park in Geneva, each eight-meter-tall streetlight’s source of light is replaced by a chrome tear, while its pole becomes the support for engraved texts.

Contextually particular and universal at the same time, the implementation of this sensitive and poetic memorial, after going through lengthy processes of approvals by engineers as well as a number of authorities (including location changes and topographical revisions) is currently stalled due to pressure from the Turkish community, involving politicians and the UN. The San Lazzaro version, then, gives us a glimpse of the memorial’s ongoing life while also addressing a broader condition. As Ohanian states, what would existence be like if seen from a distance… as archetypes appear and converge, between origin and destination, in perpetual constructions? Belonging to the present for the artist means to belong to several places, several times, at the same time.The second installment of “Presence” involves a detailed publication that chronicles the life of Streelights of Memory and a series of related workshops held at off-site venues by Ohanian in Venice.

“Hastayım Yaşıyorum (I Am Sick, But I Am Alive)” is Haig Aivazian’s inaugural piece, related to his ongoing and extensively researched project on Turkish-Armenian oud master Udi Hrant Kenkulian (1901–1978). In order to “cure” his blindness, Udi Hrant, as he was known, traveled the world to perform and teach. Here, this exquisitely-crafted sculpture in the shape of a larger-than-life, stringless, oud which is turned upside down rests disquietly on two stools. Aivazian’s larger project involves the untangling of a complex modernist construct that resulted in the standardization of art, music, literatures, and folklore at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Based on European models, this drive towards ethnography arrived to the Armenian milieu in the 1890s through polyphonization and Western musical notation and spread by the 1920s with the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

One of the central staircases of San Lazzaro with a partially hidden work by Sarkis at the center by the foot of the stairs.

One of the central staircases of San Lazzaro with a partially hidden work by Sarkis at the center by the foot of the stairs (click to enlarge)

Taking cues from how the instrument is actually played through Makams and Taksims as well as the etymological nuances of both terms, Aivazian helps us understand how this process of Turkification or “purification” implies a coming together and parting of altered or silenced Ottoman and post-Ottoman music. (Taksims are improvisations of the Makams, initial and resident modes, which migrate throughout a performance then slowly return to the original to conclude.) Classical Turkish art and music were very much a part of the Turkification process that pitted one set of claims of “purity” against the other.

The title of the piece comes from a song, which aside from the easy association with the “Sick Man of Europe” used to describe the late Ottoman Empire, alludes to Hrant who was also lovesick, longing or melancholically waiting, not only for his ghostly love but for his sight to return.

In addition, as Aivazian has pointed out, the title refers to an overall malaise present in Turkish culture and cosmopolitan discourses related to survival and to the persistent memories of “minority others.” These are in reality deeply bruised and diminished historical absences/presences that resonate in the physicality of the stringless oud, as if it were a conversation that turned inward, yet still wishes to be heard.

The stools that are part of the composition denote the master-pupil lineage in transmitting via repetition and practice, while the knowledge is never entirely passed on or at least remains partly a secret for the student to explore over time. This is similar to the manner in which the making of the instrument itself is taught, a trade in which Armenians and Greeks were among the most prominent and respected practitioners. Aivazian’s oud, which poses as a mystery since it also looks like a boat or a tomb, serves as a key motif to inspire further reflections on the migratory patterns of Udi Hrant, and the manner in which those intertwined patterns that are often perceived as “Armenian” culture are transmitted, spread and preserved.

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Author’s note: As one colleague observed, I have tried to highlight the connections within the diversity of works presented in Armenity through a décalage of fits and stops, articulations and disarticulations, claims and challenges. Mostly, all the pieces appear as “dropouts” from the hegemons against which we are in common struggle. Even though some of the pieces were still in their planning stages, this writing was facilitated by my familiarity with many of the artists’ past works as well as by our recent correspondences. Any misreadings of their intent or work is mine alone.

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Neery Melkonian

Art historian be education, Melkonian is an independent researcher, writer, and curator based in New York City.

One reply on “Undoing Denials at the Venice Biennale’s Armenian Pavilion”

  1. And in the meantime, Turkey has again begun attacking the Kurds, who they have been trying and failing to eliminate for decades. This comes at a time when the Kurds have proven to be among the most effective fighters against ISIS. Turkey, home to many U.S. military bases, seems to have a similar need to cover up the embarrassing ugly parts of its past, and perhaps a similar need to develop and preserve enemies to use in maintaining its control and oppression of its own people.

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