BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 28 MAY 15
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Issue 172

Pavilions of Turkey & the Republic of Armenia

56th Venice Biennale, various venues, Italy

BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 28 MAY 15

Melik Ohanian, (Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial), 2010–15, installation view outside the Armenian pavilion

On 24 April, the presidents of France and Russia were in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, laying flowers. That evening, they attended a concert which, like hundreds of others taking place around the world this year, commemorated the centenary of what Armenians call Medz Yeghern, or the Great Calamity. Sometimes referred to as the Forgotten Genocide, it was the 20th century’s first systematic extermination of a people, three decades before the term ‘genocide’ was invented.

Perpetrated by Ottoman forces in eastern Anatolia amidst the final paroxysms of empire, the atrocities – torture, death marches, deportation, concentration camps, massacres – continued for several years and resulted in 1.5 million deaths. Yet, in a staggering example of political cowardice, these events have yet to be publicly denounced by the UK or US. Despicably, Turkey continues to issue denials. The morning after the concert in Yerevan, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was busy discrediting ‘claims constructed on Armenian lies’.

A little over a week after Erdoğan’s angry dismissal, the 56th Venice Biennale opened, where two striking presentations in the national pavilions of Turkey and Armenia take different approaches to vexed questions of commemoration and testimony. Representing Turkey is Sarkis, the Turkish-born Armenian artist who, since the 1960s, has been living in Paris. Theatrical yet restrained, his exhibition is curated by Witte de With director Defne Ayas, and titled ‘Respiro’ (Italian for ‘breath’). Interviewed earlier this year by the Turkish daily Hürriyet, Sarkis said: ‘We have been stuck and locked for a century; we need to get loose and breathe.’ Both pavilions have this Janus-faced wish: trying to look back without becoming too frozen to face the future. Both involve themselves with persistence and loss, displacement and national identity.

In the renovated Sale d’Armi building at the back of the Arsenale, Sarkis has divided the pavilion’s vaulted space with a two-way mirrored wall; around the edges of the gallery are dozens of stained-glass pieces and two warping, rainbow-like neons. The artist hopes that his installation will reach ‘beyond geopolitics to a more expansive context of a million-plus years, going back to the creation of the universe and the beginning of time’. The presentation also extends in space, well beyond Venice itself: complementary exhibitions can be found at six further locations in four countries, from museums in Rotterdam and Geneva to Istanbul’s Hrant Dink Foundation, which is named for the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in 2007 by a teenage nationalist.

Sarkis is also showing in the Armenian pavilion, a half-hour vaporetto ride from the Arsenale, as part of a group show that was rightfully awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Fittingly, the exhibition is installed on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, in and around the peaceful grounds of the Mekhitarist Monastery; it is named for an Armenian monk, Mekhitar, who arrived there in 1717, having fled persecution by the Ottoman Empire. The poet Hovannez Shiraz (1915–84) once called San Lazzaro ‘an Armenian land in foreign waters’.

The pavilion, which is curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, brings together artists from all over the world. The symbolism of the selection is loaded: whether born in Beirut or Buenos Aires, Los Angeles or Lyon, all of the participating artists are the children or grandchildren of survivors of the genocide; there are 18 participants, one for each of Mekhitar and his 17 disciples. The exhibition title, ‘Armenity’, is the curator’s own coinage and echoes Arménité, a French word which refers to the particular characteristics of the descendants of the survivors. This is about a national identity in flux, scattered and continually redefined, but it’s handled delicately. The exhibition is characterized by a sense of quietude, a world away from Okwui Enwezor’s often-hectoring main show, though it, too, is threaded through with collections of books, voices and musical instruments.

As well as Sarkis, ‘Armenity’ includes the work of revered senior figures such as Anna Boghiguians, that of artists who have emerged in the last decade or so, such as Nina Katchadourian and Melik Ohanian, and newcomers including Haig Aivazian and Hera Büyüktasciyan. A number of shared preoccupations connect these generations. Several artists have taken advantage of the monastery’s two-century history as an important printing house. Büyüktasciyan, for example, renders lines penned by Lord Byron, who once studied on the island, as mechanized letter-stamps, recalling the poet’s evocation of Armenian as ‘the language of Lost Paradise’. Forms of remembrance and memorialization take very different forms throughout the exhibition. From Boghiguian’s travelogue about the ancient city of Ani (Ani, 2015) to Ohanian’s spaghetti-like streetlights in the gardens, a delayed realization of a project that had originally been planned for Geneva (Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial, 2010–15). Family and collaboration are central, and not always sombre, as in Katchadourian’s video installation Accent Elimination (2010), in which she and her parents work with a speech coach to swap accents.

Sarkis’s own contribution comprises a series of stained-glass pieces hung high in the monastery’s chapel, building on his six-decade rumination on the spaces between memory and homeland. Records of the past mingle with visions of possible futures. Some years ago, Hrant Dink wrote that ‘diaspora is a huge village in Anatolia’. As Sarkis recently suggested, if this is the case, he lives there too.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.