Borders, Politics and the Body: Open Space @ Armenia Art Fair

During the opening of the very first Armenia Art Fair in Yerevan a group of three men walked around the exhibition centre holding cut out masks of a host of Armenian politicians including Nikol Pashinyan and Serzh Sargysyan. Together they paraded around the private view with their covered faced posing for selfies with bemused collectors, dealers and buyers, taking it in turns to carry a red suitcase with the word ‘government’ printed in Armenian on its surface. In a daring routine that took place mere weeks after the former Prime Minister Serzh Sargysyan resigned following protests calling for his resignation, and days after newly elected Nikol Pashinyan came into office, this performance gave the viewers a taste of what was to continue in the Open Space section of the fair – an exhibition zone completely devoted to artworks fabricated by millennial Armenians.

Below the commercial atmosphere of the international booths that presented artists from the UK, Middle East, Caucasus, Black Sea region and Russia, Open Space provided an alternative-viewing arena that educated international viewers in Armenian art made within the last 30 years. Brought together by Eva Khachatryan, Open Space consisted of a handful of individually curated shows that succeeded in showing Armenia as a country that is innovative, modern and daring when it comes to its young artists. As an extension of their opening night escapades, the red suitcase from the inauguration performance spearheaded by Samvel Saghatelian rested in a display titled Presidential Suite in the corner of the Open Space beside Vigen Galstyan’s Body Code exhibition. Comprising the work of four photography-artists and presented by Lusadaran Armenian Photography Foundation, Body Code commented not on government, but on body politics. In his accompanying text Galstyan asks ‘what is the condition of the abject body…body as a landscape of shifting and cultural codes…we are presented with a perpetual movement towards new corporeal and emotional conditions.’ Exhibiting political images besides half-nude photographs of the human body, the display put tongue-in-cheek images of ministers next to black and white photographs of the human figure. One such memorable image was Liana Mkrtchyan’s Put Your Finger and Throw It Out, 2016, where three images of a woman putting her hands in her mouth with her eyes closed were hung next to one another. In other images on display, like Mika Vatinyan’s Four Corners, 1972, a man is photographed from the neck up, while his face is blurred. The whole section is black and white and the subjects who are pictured seem disturbed. The body is in a state of distress, it has been pushed, and distorted, the display seeks to contemplate the ‘abject’ body, and under multiple guises, the representation of the human form is dark and at times perverse, causing the viewer to question the way they understand their own body.

‘Body is border…Body is a wall…Just like those walls on the street we give ourselves permission to scratch on – tell who we love, what we hate and show which leaders do not satisfy our expectation. Our bodies carry all the information floating nearby and absorbed with years – fears, desires misbalance…the walls never belong, they just exist.’ – Ella Kanegarian

Narnur, 2018, Narine Vardanyan
Beside Body Code, Ella Kanegarian’s Body is Border exhibition also politicized the figure. The focal point was Narine Vardanyan’s Narnur, 2018. Calling herself an ‘urban non-artist’, Vardanyan’s work at Armenia Art Fair consisted of a spray-painted female figure reminiscent of a matryoshka doll. A black and white face – taken from the artist’s own selfie – appears where the female doll’s head would normally be, but instead of a red or blue scarf, Narnur emerges from a cloak of blackness. Despite the darkness, she wears a gold crown. On the brown wall on top of which Narnur is displayed is graffiti in both English and Armenian. One of which reads ‘#blackmadonna.’ While the Madonna is typically understood to have been a virtuous and beautiful woman, in the context of Body Code, Vardanyan’s female appears as a darker version of the icon, with thick mascara and heavy jewelry. While she is portrayed wrapped in clothes and jewelry, the stare that emerges from beneath suggests that Narnur is focused and determined on something. Some of the Armenian text reads ‘aysor yes em’, which translates as ‘today I am’ – she is taking control of the borders placed around her.

On the opposite side of the room to Narnur, Grigor Khachtryan’s Those who love me have power over me, greater power have those whom I love moves across a black horizontal screen in neon green text. Just like politics – something that is a constant item of investigation across the exhibition space – love is powerful, and it can be a border separating us from and allowing us access to people and places that are at times difficult to reach. In the text that accompanies Khachtryan’s work, Nazareth Karoyan – the director of Armenia’s Institute of Contemporary Art – explains that it is impossible to separate power from love.

Next to the ticking screen, Vahram Aghasyan’s Mush, 2005-2007, and Astghik Melkonyan’s Storage, 2014-2015, explore the physical borders of buildings and construction. Through a set of empty, snow-filled photographs, Mush is a comment on a residential area of the same name that was built in reaction to the devastation of the 1988 earthquake in Gyumri, Armenia’s second city. The construction was never finished and today Mush is home to dead buildings. Aghasyan’s work is an observation of ‘buildings that have failed to fulfill their function.’ In other words, the borders have failed. In Storage, Melkonyan looks at the storage rooms illegally added to post-Soviet buildings through architectural drawings. It is a comment on the self-organisation and appropriation of state-owned spaced – looking at borders that have been broken, and expanded. The work personalizes these objects by making them into individual objects by using different colours and materials.

2. Diana Hakobyan
What Is Going On, 2002, Diana Hakobyan

In the centre of the Open Space, half-a-dozen or so 1990s style box television sets played a number of films on repeat. Among them, Sona Abgaryan’s South-Western B1 District, 2009, looks at the relationships between women. In the clip Abgaryan and fellow artist Manan Torosyan appear on screen in cowboy hats and singing karaoke. The work is a comment on the contradictions and cliches taught to girls during education. Also exploring the relationship between women, Diana Hakobyan puts herself and her daughter side by side in What Is Going On, 2002. A split screen acts as a border between mother and daughter. On the left, Hakobyan’s daughter is digging sand outside, while on the right of the screen Hakobyan herself digs a hole in the floor with a knife. Both women are ‘playing’, yet the older female’s actions appear more severe, especially with the blade of the knife is being projected across the same monitor as the plastic spade.

The moving image continued behind a black curtain in a corner of the exhibition space where the avant-garde art films of Hamlet Hovsepian were played on a loop together with Tigran Khachatryan’s films from 2016 and 2017. In Head, 1975, we see a man washing his hair, before the film switching to focus on a completely shaved head, while in Yawning, 1975, another man with a full head of hair yawns on screen. Next we see a woman playing with her mouth. She looks so alike the man we’ve just seen that she could easily be his sister. Focusing on small everyday gestures, the films are statements on the human condition. Like much of the work on display in the Open Space, Austrian curator Georg Schöllhammer has described the clips as ‘political commentaries’, turning to the concept of borders, he adds that ‘the reduction it carries out, its silence, gives a universal turn to the meaning of emptiness.’ While Hovsepian’s films are silent, Khachatryan uses a voiceover on top of his. Like It or Not: the Armenian Communist Party Should Be Given to This Young People, 2016, is a comment on demonstrations that took place in 2015 in Yerevan. While in Salyut from me and America, Khachatryan explains ‘I exist as I am, that is enough.’ The film seems matter of fact in its black and white depictions of the world; the artist even explains ‘the smallest sprout shows that there is really not death…nothing collapses’.

The Open Space provided a platform that illustrated the concerns of a young generation of contemporary Armenian artists. Tied together by a subtle, nuanced curatorial thread, the work projected a united investigation into borders, politics and the body.

Armenia Art Fair took place between 11th and 14th May 2018 at Yerevan Expo Center, 3. Hakob Hakobyan Street

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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