BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 16 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

Melik Ohanian

BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 16 MAR 15

Melik Ohanian, Red Memory – Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1958/67) (I), 2014, inkjet print on transparent film, glass and brass frame, 40 × 28 cm

The title of ‘Stutttering’, Melik Ohanian’s fifth solo show with Galerie Chantal Crousel, adds a ‘t’ to the word’s traditional spelling (which was also the title of his 2013 exhibition at CRAC in Sète). The artist’s typographical works often use a single character to tip a word’s meaning; here, the additional ‘t’ produces an echo, a stutter within a stutter. Stuttering (2014) is also the title of a series of photographs of Palermo’s botanical gardens, in which four dense compositions are shot twice, each time with a different focal point, and run in throbbing sequence on four plasma screens, so one image morphs into the other and back again. It’s as if a single moment separates out – not just into fields of visual information, but to expose past and future stitched into the present.

Return from Memory (2014) comprises four photographs, displayed on light-boxes, of a miner walking across a bridge from a Mexican goldmine, which Ohanian visited, believing it to be abandoned. In both Stuttering and Return from Memory, the images light up in a looped sequence, like a spinning zoetrope, suggesting 'stuttering' as ‘proto-cinema’. History is subject to both urgency and endless deferral. ‘The past is never dead’, the oft-cited quotation from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1950) declares. ‘It isn’t even past.’ So why attend to it at all? Remembrance maintains a central place in Ohanian’s art, but it’s not untroubled by the spectre of its own inefficacy. Three life-sized, white plaster sculptures entitled Girls of Chilwell – Suspended Acting (2014) – based on an archival photograph of women packing explosives in the titular British munitions factory – stood in the gallery at Le Douane. It’s an ambiguous reconstructive effort – the photograph (not displayed) apparently showed the figures’ faces but obscured their bodies, requiring the sculptures to be partially imagined – which produces an equally ambiguous outcome: caught mid-action, the figures resemble mannequins from a stylish museum display, but are utterly inscrutable, props come adrift from their own institutional backstories.

I thought of the great blank planes of these figures when faced with one element of Pulp Off (2014), a touch-screen, installed on the wall, displaying the pages of a digital book containing Vahram Altounian’s account of the Armenian genocide (Ohanian’s own grandparents left Armenia in the 1920s), the shredded remnants of ‘120 torn books’ heaped beside it on the floor. Swipe the screen and the pages turn: but, during my visit, I didn’t see another visitor do so, perhaps as no instructions were provided. I wondered how many visitors in fact would, and whether the artist would regret this lack of interaction or appreciate it as evidence of how easily these narratives go unread.

‘To think what you not see / To see what you not say’, read two of the lines engraved on the brass disc of Yellow Memory – Learn (2014). The order of ‘think’, ‘say’ and ‘see’ shift within the sentence to produce a dizzying whirl of Zen-like instruction. Ohanian’s insistence on the unseen and unsaid means a mood of mute resignation prevails. The main space of the gallery on Rue Charlot was scattered with grey concrete casts of oversized cowry shells, once used as currency, which were framed at either end of the space by glittering, light-based installations. One was derived from the weather data from the first Arctic observations in 1882–83 (Transvariation, 2014), while the other predicts the collision of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy (Modelling Poetry – An Algorithm as a Screenplay, 2012/14) in about four billion years.

Never mind forgotten: in ‘Stutttering’ Ohanian imagines civilization in a state of apocalyptic desertion. But, just as ruins are easily ornamentalized, these works seemed too alluring, their air of tasteful desolation carrying the slight whiff of kitsch. Ohanian has never been afraid to court sentimentality (a 2006 sculpture was unabashedly entitled Concrete Tears) but, in his earlier work, it coexisted with a more lively social interventionism – commemorating Rosa Parks at a secondary school that bears her name in Gentilly, for example, or constructing pitches for the artist’s own sport, Cosmoball – of which there were few traces here. In her 1967 essay, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, Susan Sontag voiced scepticism about the potential for an art of infinite negation, which would not be ‘eventually checked by despair, or by a laugh that leaves one without any breath at all.’ However rarely, and with however much special effort, the stutter eventually has to produce a word.

Matthew McLean is Creative Lead, Frieze Studios, based in London, UK.