Following the attempts of three Azerbaijani officials to remove photographs from the Armenian Pavilion at the 6th Beijing International Art Biennale (BIAB) last month, the special exhibit, Dreamscapes, now stands edited from its original presentation by its curator and the biennale’s organizers, who took down one work and a number of wall labels. With just days left until the show’s closing at the National Art Museum of China, however, curator Anna Gargarian is still discussing with the fair’s organizers the current representation of the works, some of which they altered without her consent. Organizers also extracted pages from BIAB’s catalogue that featured five of the pavilion’s works by Karen Mirzoyan and listed the names of the majority of its participating artists, an “issue whose gravity the BIAB organizers seem to ignore,” Gargarian told Hyperallergic over email.
“Their response is that they had to act quickly in little time, and they believe that I had political motives for showing this artist,” she wrote. “Once again, they refuse to let me present my standpoint as a curator and collaborator, at the expense of external political pressures.”
The pressures Gargarian refers to began on BIAB’s opening day, September 24, when the three Azerbaijani men repeatedly demanded that she remove from the exhibition a series of photographs by the Tblisi-born, Yerevan-based Mirzoyan on the grounds that they were “pro-war propaganda images,” according to Gargarian. Titled “Karabagh War Series: The Future,” the portrait series shows in three parts Armenians who fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between 1991 and 1994. The offending works capture the children of fallen soldiers at the exact site of their fathers’ deaths, comprising the series’ final chapter that followed portraits of such victims as well as of veterans.
Video Gargarian provided (withheld here at her request) shows one man questioning the display of images of Nagorno-Karabagh — internationally recognized today by most countries as part of Azerbaijan — arguing that they depict Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenians. The man, Rovshan Huseynzad — who works for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and posted a public video of the incident to his Facebook profile — later waves a wall label he had removed, referring to the text as “international law violations.”
“Having sawn [sic] the works of armenian artists we once again convinced that armenians continue unashamedly and cynically proporandize [sic] its aggressive policy, while using cultural events,” Huseynzad wrote online in his video’s caption. “Their works were presented to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan by the Armenian soldiers who committed genocide in Khojaly, killed 300 thousand Azerbaijanis, million people were expelled from their homes.”
BIAB officials intervened as the discussion at the exhibition grew increasingly aggressive, and after asking everyone to clear the galleries, decided with Gargarian to close the gallery for the day. The men have not faced any charges, and Gargarian agreed to remove one of Mirzoyan’s images that portrayed Nelson Sargsyan, a youth dressed in his own army uniform.
“The BIAB organizers suggested that his uniform had a political message, and the artist and I were understanding of this possible mis-reading,” Gargarian told Hyperallergic. “We agreed to remove this work from the collection in order to keep the focus and message within the art platform.”
When Dreamscapes re-opened the following morning, however, none of the wall labels accompanying Mirzoyan’s works remained, having been removed by BIAB staff without prior consultation with Gargarian.
“I believe that this action confuses the message further,” Gargarian said. “The wall labels clarify the message of the works. We are still in discussion about the ‘appropriate’ content to exhibit.” Officials also prohibited her from speaking at the following day’s symposium although they had pre-approved her speech, which focused on how the Armenian exhibition addresses BIAB’s theme, “Memory and Dream,” through explorations of how metaphorical and physical landscapes shape national identity.
As Gargarian explained in her email:
The reference to the Karabagh War, was not so much a reference to the war itself but rather the trace it has left on the people in present-day Armenia. Many young Armenians from the diaspora who grew up far away, such as myself, have a more distanced relationship with the present situation between the two countries. There is a need to acknowledge that the after-effects of the conflict are still visible on the people of present-day Armenia. It was important to show and acknowledge not only the conception of Armenian identity from the Diasporan perspective, but also from the local perspective. And this is an important story to mention when reflecting on Armenian collective memory. Having said that, choosing to display these works was not a political act, but rather an act of reflection. Many people have suffered from this conflict on both sides. I think that this conflict has influenced the Azerbaijani collective memory and sense of identity, as much as it has on the Armenian side. Memory belongs to everyone and is borderless. The message of these artworks is one of empathy, which is fundamental to moving towards peace.
The act Gargarian found most extreme and shocking on the part of BIAB, however, was the complete, overnight removal of Mirzoyan’s photographs from the biennale’s catalogue without her consultation as well as the index page listing his name — thereby also an erasure of the names of six other Armenian artists that shared the same page. Dreamscapes features the works of eight contemporary local and diasporan Armenian artists and one Chinese artist who work across a variety of media, including Mikayel Ohanjanyan and Hrair Sarkissian. As Gargarian described, Mirzoyan’s images “were literally ripped from the catalogue overnight, and the flanking pages were glued at the seam in order to hide evidence of ripping.” The catalogue’s pages numbers now jump, plainly revealing the partial disappearance of the section dedicated to the Armenian exhibition.
This is not the first time Gargarian has experienced censorship from BIAB, although prior incidents involved her in their discussions. A week before BIAB opened, she edited at the request of officials the wall text of two works and the exhibition’s preface in the catalogue that referenced the Armenian genocide.
“They emphasized that China had not taken a stance on this issue and writing the word ‘genocide’ or ‘massacre’ would imply choosing a side, which they wanted to avoid completely,” Gargarian said. “I was upset at the changes, as they had already approved the works and content months before, but I was also understanding and respectful of China’s strict governmental laws. I tried to be compromising while also keeping the integrity of the works and their message.”
Gargarian is still not at peace with the aftermath, and it is unlikely BIAB’s organizers will re-edit the exhibition and its catalogue, with Thursday signaling the end of the biennale. (Hyperallergic has reached out to BIAB staff but has not received a response.) The series of incidents, however, is another notable example of individuals attacking art as part of political dialogue; just last October, another trio of individuals vandalized sections of a Chelsea photo exhibition depicting unrest in Ukraine and Syria and assaulted its curator, leaving behind neo-Nazi leaflets.
“For me, the curator’s challenge is to create a context in which artworks are placed in dialogue with one another in order to communicate a greater message to the public,” Gargarian said. “When works are singled out and stripped away of their context, the meaning of the exhibit becomes distorted.
“This is what happened at the Armenian pavilion at the 2015 BIAB. Individual political agendas were projected onto works that ultimately had a peaceful message, and that were placed within the context of Armenian collective memory and identity.”
h/t Armenian Weekly