Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Editor’s note: This text was written to accompany artist Hrair Sarkissian’s 2015 exhibition at Mosaic Rooms in London titled Imagined Futures, which included his Front Line series. As this text is being published posthumously, we have made only minor edits for style.
The self-proclaimed independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is a war-torn, disputed enclave squeezed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran. Throughout centuries the borders and claims over this territory have shifted, mapped and remapped, countless times by regional powers: Russia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. Except for brief moments during their medieval Melikdom (Principality) the repression of the region’s Indigenous minority Armenian population was persistent. The latter was reinforced by Stalin’s arbitrary annexation of the enclave to oil-rich Azerbaijan. With the fall of the Soviet regime, a bloody war broke out between the two former neighbors that lasted six years and led the Russian-backed Armenian forces to claim independence and occupy extra territory as a bargaining chip. Since 1995 the status of Karabakh has been in limbo and the desire to reunite with its “Twin Homeland” Armenia remains unfulfilled. Though a fragile cease-fire is maintained, over a million of the region’s Azeri and Armenian inhabitants remain displaced to this day. While Armenia is subjected to an economic blockade by its neighbor Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, the enclave’s sustenance depends heavily on external mechanisms. As arbiters from Western powers attempt to negotiate a long-term solution, with no representation from Karabakh itself, the geopolitics of oil and the politics of Armenian Genocide recognition/denial get played out, intermittently, in the international arena.
Through his photographs Hrair Sarkissian portrays a quiet, depopulated and somewhat eerie landscape of Karabakh. Our access to these estranged places are suspended, not unlike the enclave’s experience of isolation. These images make us question the heavy price or the ambivalence of war, and the contradiction inherent within national independence struggles. Despite the erasure of traces of war, the newly-built and orderly streets of Karabakh do not exude a sense of comfort or stability. The abandoned or outmoded war machinery hint at the nature of the war fought and fail to project confidence or future victory. A minimal grouping of tombstones speak of the thousands that are not represented. On a country road, a spot of natural light (pending hope?) feels overwhelmed by the darkness surrounding it. Visible signs that mark distinct territorial borders are nowhere to be found either. A chain of majestic mountains seem to be the only mark of permanence in this territory. By keeping us in limbo, the artist leads us to contemplate the uneasy predicament of a place with an unknown political destiny.
Despite their smaller scale Sarkissian’s sobering portraits of freedom fighters, displayed on plinths, direct our attention to the reality of what came after their struggle for independence – destinies caught in a geopolitical entanglement created by what Giorgio Agamben has referred to as a state of exceptionalism.
Like his earlier works devoted to similar subjects, the artist once more transforms somber absences into dignified presences: portraits that are almost expressionless but full of buried stories with clues that hint at the human cartography of the region dating back centuries. In this case the absences point to the invisible walls of legal mechanisms and to the power of states / states with power who continue to deny sovereignty to those under their control (spheres of influence). These men and their enclave survive without the protection of international law. Imposed by authorities that ignore their universal rights as citizens they are exiled into a space outside of history – an existence condemned to what the Italian philosopher has called ‘bare life.’
Yet clearly the features of these men also attest to the cultural diversity of this ancient landscape. Collectively these images portray a non-essentialized ‘form’ of being that looks to the past to project a future of the ‘coming of a community.’ Imperfect and radiant at once, these photographs part with signs of hope, as if carrying memories of co-existence. The frankness and patience of Sarkissian’s gaze speak of love as a place, a different kind of a front line, one where the deprived begin to gain agency.