The Power of Emptiness: Norayr Chahinian’s exhibition at ACCEA

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The Power of Emptiness

March 9, 2016 – March 26, 2016

The Power of Emptiness
Norair Chahinian
(Official press release)
The photographs taken in Turkey by Sao Paulo (Brazil) born photographer Norair Chahinian strike viewers in a number of different ways.

First through their witnessing of life in various regions of Anatolia ‘from the outside’, by someone who has come all the way from across the world, thousands of kilometers afar. But more importantly, through their depiction ‘from within’ of the return of an Armenian to his roots in Maraş, Urfa, İskenderun, as he visits the land of his family after a gigantic lapse of one hundred years.

“The Power of Emptiness” is an attempt to come to terms with the potentials and the impossibilities embodied at the heart of this return, this witnessing.

It is the story of a fourth-generation Armenian forcefully torn apart and banished from his lands showing the courage to look the past, present and future straight in the eye.

Norair Chahinian was born in Brazil as the child of a family that had fallen victim to the Committee of Union and Progress’ genocidal politics against Armenians during the final era of the Ottoman Empire.

His grandmothers and grandfathers had lost their families during those days of catastrophe, took refuge in Aleppo, Syria, under dire circumstances and had migrated to Brazil, South America from there, sharing the fate of Armenians who like themselves were dispersed to all corners of the world.

Chahinian was raised in an Armenian diaspora community and internalized all elements of this identity. Norair Chahinian, who knew his family history thoroughly, learned Armenian and believed that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not a matter of retribution but of justice, was familiar with Turkey and Turks through a narrative weaved with deaths and violence.

He experienced a turning point in his life the moment he decided to expand this narrative by personally coming into contact with Turks living today and the lands that once belonged to his own family. The photographs in “The Power of Emptiness” present us with the observations Chahinian made precisely at this turning point.

This quest brought the photographer to Turkey where he knew no one, did not speak the language; where he was familiar neither with the climate nor the ways of the people. But in no way as a tourist.

He came here determined to build a bridge between the past and present, as the last link of a family who was the victim and witness of the catastrophe experienced one hundred years ago but had managed to live, survive and build a new life on the other side of the ocean.

Ensuing from this past and determination, there is absence and emptiness as well as life and the perpetuity of living in the photographs Chahinian took in different cities of Turkey. The emptiness that remains from those who died, who were forced into exile and the power of this emptiness is undeniably reflected in each and every frame.

The rainbow over the derelict churches, children playing on deserted streets, slogans of the military coup era written across Armenian epigraphs, an aggrieved suitcase in an empty home waiting as though it was left there only yesterday. The power of emptiness, the emptiness of power…

These photographs, which were taken by a person rendered homeless and rootless; depicting the journey towards a land where his source lies in order to fully establish his coordinates on earth and to take roots again, also express a universal quest.

In going back to his roots, and towards the local, Chahinian treads on a more worldly ground and becomes universal.

Rober Koptaş

Shadows of Time: the photographic art of Gagik Harutyunyan, 1970-1995

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Gagik Harutyunyan. Untitled. From the series ‘Gharabagh’, 1992.

Soviet photography remains one of the least known and explored legacies in the history of the medium. Helping to address this lack, ‘Shadows of Time’ presents the first retrospective of Gagik Harutyunyan, one of the major Soviet photographers of 1970d-90s.

Despite an exceptional career that spans three decades, numerous exhibitions and countless reproductions in his native country, Harutyunyan’s work has been largely forgotten today. Partially due to indifference from official and critical establishments in Armenia towards photography, Harutyunyan stopped his practice in early 2000s, destroying most of his vintage prints.

After a long period of silence, the photographer has finally allowed for new prints to be made from his negatives under his direct supervision. Most of these works will be presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition ‘Shadows of Time’, organized collaboratively by ‘Lusadaran’ Armenian Photography Foundation and KulturDialog Armenien Foundation. Approximately 190 photographs have been assembled by curator Vigen Galstyan in what will be the first retrospective of the artist. A catalogue featuring an extensive new study about Harutyunyan will accompany the exhibition

‘Shadows of Time’ highlights Harutyunyan’s creative trajectory from epically inclined view of Armenia in the 1970s to the philosophically imbued and surreal vision that marked the end of his artistic career. Poetically dense and shaped by a rich expressionist aesthetic, Harutyunyan’s work captured a country and its people through a time of profound transformations and turmoil.

The exhibition reveals the breath of Harutyunyan’s oeuvre and his undeniable influence on younger Armenian photographers. It also fundamentally challenges ideas about the history of modern and contemporary Armenian art, from which photography has so far been written out.

‘Shadows of Time’ will take place from October 18 to November 7 at the House of Artists’ Union, Yerevan, Armenia.

Samvel Saghatelyan’s ‘Transromance’

A BUTTERFLY DREAM

Can porn be innocent? Or sexual desire in general? And why do perverts dream of flowers? These are some of the questions that one encounters in Samvel Saghatelyan’s 2010-13 series Transromance. Each of the eleven mixed media ‘tableaux’ that make up the series, feature the artist clad in sadomasochistic leather gear and stockings, accompanied by a transgender person. The photographic image of this couple is printed, photocopied, collaged, drawn over by hand, pasted onto a cheap cardboard and then rubbed over for a patina effect.

Samvel Saghatelyan. From the series 'Transromance' 2012. Photocollage and mixed media

The sequence unfolds like a dream. The trans woman initially appears as a projection rising from the artist’s slumbering body. She then materialises as a more concrete being, posing alongside Saghatelyan as if in a family photo and finally helping him reach a firework-like climax. It’s a quasi-biblical narrative (which at one point takes place on the foot of Mount Ararat) seen through the unashamedly pornographic prism of phalocentric male narcissism. But the narrative here is problematised by its representation. Awkward and cartoonish, the childish execution undermines the troubling nature of sexuality which lies at the core of Transromance. Aggression dissipates under the layers of genteel flowers, rainbows, mountains, purple glitter and hearts. Taken as a whole, Transromance appears like pages from a middle-aged man’s wet dream in the form of a teenage girl’s personal diary.

This bawdy tone is typical of Saghatelyan’s practice since the mid 1990s and has become more prominent since his move to Los Angeles in 2002. One of the works from the 1996-2013 series Body, for example, depicts ghost-like phalluses rising out of the windows and doors of the Ejmiatsin Cathedral – the holiest of Armenian religious sites. Such brazen attacks on institutionalised value systems are representative of an artist who emerged during the period of Armenia’s transition from a Soviet to an independent state between 1988 and 1991

Chief amongst the many things placed on the operating table in Transromance is male sexuality and desire. Its grotesque space of power and domination is lampooned as a kitsch, masturbatory act. Literally so in two of the last images, where the male figure, named ‘Armenian King’ urinates and then jerks off over his submissive fantasy mistress. However, despite their open sarcasm, Saghatelyan’s images rethink the post-modernist arsenal of pastiche and parody. The artist complicates the use of such devices through the emotive, tender tone that floods the works. ‘I was thinking of Sayat-Nova while working on the series. It related to the kind of trance-like state where the simultaneous presence of the opposites creates a vague space of in-betweenness in which sexuality, images, feelings and perception are all ‘trans’.’(1)

 

Samvel Saghatelyan. From the series 'Transromance' 2012. Photocollage and mixed media

The reference to the 18th century Armenian bard Sayat-Nova is telling as Transromance clearly gestures towards Sergey Paradjanov’s 1969 film Colour of the Pomegranates. In the film, the poet was played by an actress (Sofiko Tchaureli) who also personified his love interest and muse. This duality is shared by Saghatelyan’s hero. The trans-woman and the male figure are clearly a part of the same body, shown at times like Siamese twins.

Their liaison is further complicated as the transgender character is represented by different persons of South-East Asian origin. In this ambiguous body of desire, sexuality is made fluid and paradoxical. Hyper-masculinity, hyper-femininity as well as ethnic stereotypes can be provocatively indulged in, because ultimately they are shown to be nothing more than ridiculously sentimental and co-dependent garbs. Like in a 19th century photography studio, the fun lies in the exchange and the performance during which new poetics of identity can be developed. This aspect is yet again reinforced by the aesthetic of the works where the compositions are constantly repeated and only their painted surfaces change, like skins or costumes. What the artist seeks in this liminal, transitory condition is the possibility for guiltless enjoyment and exploration.

Transromance is symptomatic of the kind of contemporary art, exemplified by international artists such as Catherine Opie, Jeff Koons and Patt Brassington, that has digested the lessons of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and queer theory to go beyond critique. With impressive effortlessness, the series weaves through these terrains to reach back to a point of pleasure and emotion. As theorist Judith Butler has noted ‘to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.’ (2) It is this ‘knowingness’ that allows Saghatelyan to fearlessly play with problematic symbols, clichés and meta-narratives.

What we see in Transromance is a self-aware theatre of appearances in which art, body and desire shift-shape and morph by assuming a variety of interchangeable masks. By synthesising the aesthetics of family photographs, folk and naïf art, Saghatelyan makes evident the nature of images, identity and gender as a socio-cultural construct. But rather than negate these confines, Saghatelyan unfolds his game within them normalising and domesticating that which is repressed and derided. Rather than being merely clever, the images acquire their strength on the basis of their honesty. Recalling critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ (3), Transromance utilises humour, confession and burlesque to create a productive space in which homogeneity, power and ideology are dissolved to give way to the romance of transformation.

Transromance was presented as a one day happening-event, which took place at the private apartment of film historian Shahane Yuzbachyan in Yerevan, Armenia on September 12, 2013. The show was organised with the assistance of ‘Lusadaran’ Armenian Photography Foundation.

Vigen Galstyan
curator, 2013

i) Conversation with the artist, Yerevan, 09.09.2013
ii) Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, Routledge, New York, London, 1990, p 40
iii) See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rebelais and his world (1940), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2009

This essay originally appeared in the booklet accompanying the exhibition.

Anna Khachatryan’s exhibition-event at ACCEA (NPAK), Yerevan

‘Find Yourself’ is a new exhibition/event held at the Armenian Centre of Contemporary and Experimental Arts (ACCEA) in Yerevan, which presents over 70 photographic works by the cross-disciplinary practitioner Anna Khachatryan (b. 1994). An emerging talent, Khachatryan is representative of a new generation of young Armenian artists that work between mediums, never firmly locating themselves within any specific framework. A graduate of the media, advertising and film department of the Slavonic University in Yerevan, Khachatryan often terms herself as a ‘stylist’. Her work blends in both fashion and performance art, often rendered through the aesthetics of advertising art, contemporary dance and punk fashion of the 1980s.

In her exhibition manifesto Khachatryan cites the surrealists and particularly Breton among her influences. In certain respects her images of figures clad in blackly comic make-up and costumes dwell on the fragmentation of identity and the fluidity of the subconscious that recall the poetic randomness and accidentality of the ‘Exquisite corpse’ method. However, the theoretical profundities of the early modernists are replaced here by Khachatryan’s more instinctive, purposefully superficial modus operandi that points as much to Leigh Bowery as it does to Sergei Paradjanov.

Khachatryan’s primary thematic concern seems to be the subject of the mask. And while her photographs lack fully developed or particularly interesting conceptual ideas, the images attract by their sincerity, kaleidoscopic eclecticism and willingness to indulge in the absurdity of meaningless play. As such, the tropes of her creativity parallel those of children’s dress up games, where identity and psychology are not given but are in the process of construction and transmutation – a point made clear by the title of the exhibition.

The artist’s involvement with photography is notable for its directorial, distanced approach. Khachatryan styles her performers, creates the mise en scene, establishes the frame but uses a professional photographer to light and take the image. In this way, Khachatryan positions herself alongside conceptual photographers such as Tracy Moffatt, Cindy Sherman and Sharon Lockhart, whose oeuvre blurs the line between cinema, theatre, documentation and photography. The images themselves were not printed, but projected within the space and in some cases are ‘enacted’ by performers.

‘Find Yourself’ was held at ACCEA, Yerevan on February 23rd. Khachatryan also plans a sequel to this event in April.

VG