Industrial Symphony: photography and the post-industrial age (exhibition brochure essay)

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe” – Walter Benjamin, 1939

Encompassing various disciplines, approaches and aesthetics, ‘Industrial symphony: photography and the post-industrial era’ looks at how perceptions about the industrial epoch have transformed in Armenia since the cataclysmic historical changes in the early 1990s.

The emphasis on the connection between photography and industry is deliberate. Born in 1839 as a product of the industrial revolution, photography became the paramount visual means in delineating the relationship between humanity and industrial progress throughout the 20th century – a process that continues to our days.[i] ‘Industrial symphony’ overviews this connection in the 21st century through over 70 works by 19 contemporary Armenian photographers, which range from latest photojournalistic series to conceptually informed installations.


The ruins of Leninist, Stalinist and Khruschevian utopias populate the landscape of Armenia (both physical and spiritual) like so many scars. Their disastrous effects on the environment and people are still deeply felt in numerous regions and cities like Alaverdi, Charentsavan, Akhtala and Kajaran, built on the cusp of the industrial boom between 1930 and 1950. For many, the devastation of the industrial progress is a very real and continuing problem. Yet, nostalgia for collective labour that made these enormous machines of modernity possible is also quite palpable. Some of the factories, power stations, bridges and other insignia of industrial might are also remarkable feats of architectural and engineering ingenuity and talent – as much as they are ecological death camps. They stand as awe- inspiring, mysterious yet anxiety-inducing monuments to lost ideals. The productive/destructive duality of the industrial context is typical not only of Soviet Armenia but is its most common characteristic in general. Western analogies have found successful ways of metamorphosing the ‘legacy’ of industrial age – most notably in Europe, where derelict industrial sites become housing complexes, cultural centres or even museums. In Armenia this process of transformation is only beginning.


Photography, once crucial in promoting the unstoppable march of technology through works by the likes of Margaret Burke-White, Yousuf Karsh, Willi Moegle and Boris Ignatovich again became imperative when it came to re-imagining and analysing the place of industry in the post-modern age. Both conceptual and documentary photographers, from Bernd and Hilla Becher to Jan Saudek, Allan Sekula and Mary Ellen Mark among others, have influenced current paradigms about labour relations, the technological sublime and the complex legacy of industrial modernities.

Alexander Rodchenko had famously rejected the role of traditional art in the process of modernisation, stating that “every contemporary, cultured person should wage a war against art, as if it was opium” and proposed instead that people should “photograph and be photographed!”[ii] It is a dictum that was also embraced by Soviet Armenian photographers and their industrial images were readily supplied to the communist propaganda apparatus. The material ranged from carefully edited documentation of Hakob Hekekyan and Martin Shahbazyan to almost euphoric celebration in works by Gagik Harutyunyan. These images have today become surreal, as the sites and contexts they once conveyed are no longer conceivable. One might even ask… did they ever exist? Writer Julia Hell perceptively noted that “photography, as Rodchenko hoped it would, has transformed itself into a real archive, but it is the archive of a failure.”[iii]


Contemporary photographers continue to add to this archive, although more cautiously than their predecessors. The advent of post-modern consciousness about the fallibility of photographic representation has not necessarily dampened their enthusiasm towards the medium. Looking at labour conditions today, Anahit Hayrapetyan, Inna Mkhitaryan, Nazik Armenakyan and Jacob Majaryan build on traditions of documentary photo-reportage insisting on the social significance and responsibility of photography. But as exposure to multifarious, disordered trends evident on the international scene has increased, so have the number of approaches and attitudes. Collectively, these diverse tendencies take a questioning position not so much towards the recent history but rather our own ideological preconceptions and certainties at any given time. The mood in many of the works is one of dispassionate observation as seen in minimalist objectivism of Tigran Hayrapetyan, Arthur Sakhkalyan, Lilit Umedyan and Garik Avanessyan as well as the distancing effect of Arthur Gevorgyan’s and Hayk Barseghyan’s architectural studies. Issues to do with ‘truth’, memory and the problematics of so-called collective consciousness find their reflection in neo-expressionist and performative modes of photography by David Galstyan, Mariam Chanchanyan, Tatevik Vardanyan, Suren Manvelyan and Irina Grigoryan. They, just as the boldly formalist inclinations of Anna Avetisyan and Hayk Bianjyan, gesture towards the malign explorations of earlier modernisms.


Within the ruins of industrial past the photographers find the slow, ‘decay time’ described by Walter Benjamin,[iv] where meditation and analysis replace the knee-jerk reactions of their more polemical predecessors of the 1970-90s. Even the conceptually rigorous installation by Taguhi Torosyan or the Rauschenbergian photo-series of Levon Fljyan are ambivalent hybrids that draw inspiration from varied sources.


The primary issue that comes through these recent surveys of industrial sites/symbols in Armenia and elsewhere is whether the vacuum left after the industrial collapse can be filled at all. Is this emptiness significant in itself, like a painful document, a metaphor… or can the memorials to the ‘proletariat’ be transformed in our post-utopian age? Perhaps these intimidating, overwhelming but often magnificent spaces can attain a new, equally useful function as sites for imagination: as factories for dreams.


[i] See Kate Davidson, the changing face of work: photography & the industrial age, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1995, p 1

[ii] Alexander Rodchenko, ‘Against the Synthetic Portrait, for the Snapshot’ (1928) in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902-1934, ed. John E. Bowlt, New York, The Viking Press, 1976, p. 167.

[iii]Julia Hell; Andreas Schölne, Ruins of modernity, Duke University press, 2010, p. 453

[iv] See Walter Benjamin, ‘The Ruin’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproductibility and other Writings on Media, London, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp 180-186