A Review of the Armenian Pavilion at Venice Biennale
Pavilion of Armenia at the 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia June 3-November 24, 2011
Venue: Palazzo Zenobio, Former Collegio Armeno Moorat Raphael, Dorsoduro 2597
Artists : Mher Azatyan “It’s hard to lose a person: You’ll go to the United States, I’ll go to France”; Grigor Khachatryan “Official Meetings”; Astghik Melkonyan “How-to Manual, A Monthly Salary.”
Curators: Ruben Arevshatyan, Vardan Azatyan, Nazareth Karoyan
Exhibition: Manuals: Subjects of a New Universality
With the focus of this year’s 54th Biennale di Venezia being on the Giardini Pavilions with strong presentations by Denmark, Poland, Egypt, Switzerland and others, there may be less impetus to search out additional venues. This, of course, would be a mistake, as it is often in wandering the streets of Venice that we discover just exactly why this enormous endeavor is undertaken every two years (economics aside); that is, the creation of a dialogue among and between many artists of very particular localities.
Through the shared inner courtyard of the Palazzo Zenobio is an opportunity to compare and contrast the creative contributions from Armenia, Iceland, Russia, and ArtSway’s UK-based artists. Reflecting on the relations between the works, however coincidental, I begin to make sense of the Armenian contribution, entitled “Manuals, Subjects of New Universalities,” in the tension between intimate experience melded with public exigency that threads through the biennial experience this year.
The curators of “Manuals” – Ruben Arevshatyan, Vardan Azatyan, Nazareth Karoyan – speak of tension between the universal and the particular, global and local, and modern and singular practices. While they propose a kind of dialectical sublation as a means to transcend dichotomies, their suggestion of a universal position in response to the social, economic, and political turmoil of the post-Soviet Armenia appears ironic, if not cynical, rather than utopian.
For example, Grigor Khachatryan, a conceptual artist working since the early 1970s in photography, performance, and conceptual art practices, particularly the infiltration of art into mass media, presents images of the artist looking every bit the politician shaking hands with working-class individuals in a ubiquitous political ritual that intimates the pretense of access to positions of power. Photographs enlarged and placed high on the wall surround a large conference table with an abundant arrangement of flowering plants as its centerpiece, creating a repetitive emphasis of the vapid ritual of political hand-shaking literalizing the concept of “manual.” While the subjects of the portrait give their right hand in a universalizing gesture of solidarity, they are distinguished individually by tools of the trade in their left (much like an August Sanders portrait). In their distinction they all look alike, stand-ins for the class they represent.
Compare this with Anastasia Khoroshilova’s portraits of mothers who lost their children in a terrorist hostage-taking incident in the city of Beslan in the Northern Caucasus of the Russian Federation in September 2004. Here, across the courtyard from the Palazzo Zenobio in the Biblioteca Zenobiana del Temanza, in her work “Starie Novosti (Old News),” women who are comfortable only in the kind of portrait that features a large extended family are featured alone – that aloneness palpable of a tragic loss changing both the continuity of their lives and also their sense of individual identity, linked as it is to familial bonds now absent.
This pairing of privacy with collective conditions propels the work of Mher Azatyan in the next suite of rooms in the Armenian Pavilion entitled “It’s hard to lose a person: You’ll go to the United States, I’ll go to France.” Densely hung photographs in standard document frames crowd the walls of a passageway — its subjects ranging from cityscapes to baby carriages to birds, a random assembly reflecting chance more than point of view. Turning the corner, the viewer enters a large room. At the end is a projection of a cloud-like softness overprinted with Armenian text. Across the expanse of the three other walls are scattered phrases in English reflecting the optimism of hardship – how people shape their worldview as a tactic of survival.
Collected by the artist from conversations overheard in public places, in the homes of friends, or in bars and cafés, these phrases become existential aphorisms to the human condition: “Tomorrow everything will be o.k.,” the speaker shares with the listener. “You have a home but the soul is elsewhere,” says one who knows the state of exile. “It’s hard to lose a person” is about departure but it also reflects the economic conditions that destabilize existence and upend communities.
These thematic conditions of state and statelessness carry over to the Icelandic Pavilion in the former laundry house of Palazzo Zenobio. The Spanish-Icelandic duo Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson present new works, including “Your country doesn’t exist” (2004-present) and “Exorcising Ancient Ghosts” (2010). This latter sound installation on the rooftop of the laundry house is a bilingual reading of ancient Greek text fragments about the rights of citizens in relation to women and foreigners. Spoken by two couples having sex unsettles the connections these juridical rulings have over our most intimate exchanges.
The exercise of power by the state over our private lives is further implicated in the installation by Astghik Melkonyan “How-to Manual, A Monthly Salary.” This is the true “manual” in the Armenian exhibition: a day-by-day account of how to make ends meet when your means of production and those of survival do not match. In her meticulous accounting in the style of an instruction manual, Melkonyan acknowledges (if not advocates) the necessity to “beg, borrow, and steal.” It is a frank compendium of survival in a state of dwindling expectations for, while migration is sometimes a result of war or natural disasters, it is most often the condition of economics.
The Biennale has a very complicated flow of connecting themes this year, creating an intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical commitment in time, if not objectives! In an era of global economic downturn, the artists and curators of the Armenian Pavilion suggest that truly universalizing principles are economic – that, for once, the middle class that has lived in affluence through the last three decades in the West is now experiencing some of the same economic instability and decline that Eastern Bloc countries have known since the end of World War II. Manuals: Subjects of a New Universality, along with its neighboring exhibitions, reveal an experience of life as intimate expression conditioned by the instability of a worldwide public sphere. The exhibition runs as part of La Biennale di Venezia through November 24, 2011.
(1) The following links pertain to discussions, prior and after the exhibit opening, which were published in Armenia’s press.
(2) Grigor Khachatryan, head of the National Center for the Planning of Contingencies, received, among others, Mikhail Saakashvili, president of the Republic of Georgia, on June 3 in the Armenian national pavilion of the 54th International Art Biennale of Venice. Present at the meeting were Viktor Mnatsakanyan, commissioner of the Armenian National Pavilion, coordinators Armine Antikyan and Vardan Karapetyan, synthesizers Nazaret Karoyan and Ruben Arevshatyan, as well as artists. Saakashvili and Khachatryan noted the importance of planning for contingencies in art and in politics, as well as the successes achieved by the center in global political, and especially, various regional, developments.
Additional information can be found in: http://www.epress.am/en/2011/06/06/saakashvili-as-a-subject-of-armenian-contemporary-art-photos.html