Armenity

Golden Lion at the 56. Venice Art Biennale, the Armenian Pavilion is given over to a population scattered worldwide that epitomised the concept and spirit of internationalism long before the word global came into use.

Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
The island of San Lazzaro is only a few minutes by waterbus from San Zaccaria but the difference between the bustling atmosphere of the Venice Biennale and the rarefied one of the Mkhitarist monastery that occupies the whole island could not be any greater.
Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Top : Anna Boghiguian, ANI , 2013. Site-specific installation. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg / Beirut. Photo © Piero Demo. Above : Hera Büyüktaşcıyan, Letters from Lost Paradise , 2015. Mechanism, bronze, wood. 64 x 100 x 85-90 cm (front), 110-115 cm (back). Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist. Photo © Piero Demo

Since it was built in the early 18th century, this microcosm has throbbed with Armenian culture. After 1915, it took in many children who had survived deportation and offered them an education.

Today, in conjunction with the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, San Lazzaro is home to the Armenian Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale. A pavilion given over not so much to an actual country but more to a population scattered worldwide that epitomised the concept and spirit of internationalism long before the word global came into use. Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg is its curator and has dedicated it to Arménité, the sense of being Armenian in the diaspora.

Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Hrair Sarkissian, Unexposed , 2012. Archival inkjet print, 137,5 x 110 cm. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki. Photo © Piero Demo
It is a complex exhibition but on a human scale and, despite the presence of numerous artists, it is a discreet presence in the monastery, poetic and with great respect for its intimate location. The works displayed are all different but share a soft tone, far removed from that typical of much of the central Biennale exhibition. This tone also characterises the large and more public installations such as Melik Ohanian’s sculpture Les Réverbères de la mémoire . The work is formed of the parts of a monument in remembrance of the Genocide which was to look like nine street lamps bent over as if with their heads bowed low. The project won a competition years ago and was destined for the city of Geneva but fierce opposition has made it so far impossible to install. For this reason, on San Lazzaro, between the waterbus stop and the monastery entrance, the artist presents the components of the work dismantled and piled up, as if narrating a memory that has not yet found its true form.
Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Mikayel Ohanjanyan, Tasnerku , 2015. Mixed size basalt blocks and discs of corten steel, variable dimensions, Ø 120 cm each disc. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist and Tornabuoni Arte Gallery, Florence. Photo © Piero Demo
Not far from Ohanian’s heap, on the island’s magnificent belvedere, stands an installation by Mikayel Ohanjanyan, a number of geometric sculptures forming a circle. As well as containing symbolic references, the work evokes an archaeological site of megalithic times, an astronomical observatory perhaps, in Armenia. The rest of the works are scattered around the monastery, with each artist adopting a personal approach.
Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Mekhitar Garabedian, Agheg , 2003–2015. Sound installation, 9 minutes, voice by Agheg Garabedian. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist and Albert Baronian Gallery, Brussels. Photo © Piero Demo
In some cases, the installations are based on local impressions or historic material in the library; this is the case of the letters of the Armenian alphabet clutched in the palms of wax hands created by Hera Büyüktaşçıyan and set on the library shelves amidst ancient volumes, as if conveying a desire to immortalise words. Rene Gabri & Ayreen Anastas have drawn a number of documents from the archives and placed them in glass cases in the library, after re-working texts and images in what they call “a battle between life and archive”. Anna Boghiguian has occupied a room with a composite installation comprising a number of emotional and expressive drawings of cities and architecture in gouache and watercolour, plus many large birds that seem to be flying overhead with open wings and multicoloured roses planted in heaps of earth soon to flower in memory of those who left and those who fell.
Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Melik Ohanian, Presence – Belongingness to Present – Part I. Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial , 2010–15. Site-specific installation. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo © Piero Demo
Rosana Palazyan’s A history I never forgot is a video collection of stories and fragmentary tales heard by the artist since her infancy. In the Accent Elimination videos, Nina Katchadourian highlights the diversity of diction and accents among members of the same family, thus revealing countless individual stories and the deep-rooted impact of the diaspora. It is to these voices – so different yet crucial attestations to the present vitality of a dispersed people and implicitly the common motifs of its diaspora – that the Armenian Pavilion gives space.
The roots of the Metz Yeghérn , or Great Calamity, that befell the Armenian people in 1915 can be linked to several causes but it is no chance that its beginning is linked to the elimination of hundreds of intellectuals in Constantinople – today’s Istanbul – on 24 April 1915. If culture is the means of expression and possibility of projecting one’s identity outwards then striking the cultural class was equal to reducing a people to silence, removing in advance its chance to represent itself and raise a voice on the massacre to come. Indeed, the subject of the Armenian Genocide only appeared on the international agenda a few decades ago and, despite widespread awareness in today’s international community, Armenians still find themselves having to plead their case.
Padiglione Armenia 56. Biennale d'Arte di Venezia
Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Treasures , 2015. Manuscript, collages, digital images and small glass bottles. Variable dimensions. Installation view, Mekhitarist Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice. Courtesy the artist. Photo © Piero Demo
Armenia is alive today. Yerevan, in particular, is home to an engaging art scene comprising artists, galleries and cultural spaces such as the Cafesjian Center for the Arts , the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art and the Institute for Contemporary Art  directed by Nazareth Karoyan, also president of the Art Criticism and Curatorial Training School of Armenia. But the work of many Armenian visual artists, poets, writers and film-makers born during the diaspora in Europe, America, the Middle East, Aleppo and Los Angeles remains crucial. Fully fledged members of an international circuit, these figures have successfully passed down a cultural heritage that was at risk of being wiped out. They revitalised it by means of interpretation and hybrid, and continue to do so.

Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi have worked for decades to remove the filters and rhetoric structures that condition our reading of history and images. Their work is fundamentally filmic but it also contains tiny sketched drawings, created with watercolour and for the most part monochrome but brought alive by splashes of vibrant colour. In one room in the Monastery, Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi exhibit a long white roll on which Ricci Lucchi has drawn the Armenian fairytales Yervant’s father, Raphael Gianikian, used to tell her. Another room exhibits the Ritorno a Khodorciur video, a full-length film based on a single take in which Raphael Gianikian narrated his experience as a survivor: memories stripped bare via which the 80-year-old man bears witness also for those who never could. Having as a child survived the death marches, then slavery and saved after seeing his community fall, Raphael studied in Italy with the Mkhitarist brothers. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi felt that showing the video on the island was a little like bringing him home.

For them as too for the other artists exhibiting in the Armenian Pavilion, the memory of the Genocide is personal baggage and a founding element; facing up to it is sharing the history and also the responsibility for the future.

In the year of the Centenary of the Genocide, this gives Arménité a significance and intensity that won the Pavilion an important Golden Lion for the best national participation at the Venice Biennale.

Artists in the exhibition: Haig Aivazian, Nigol Bezjian, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Rene Gabri & Ayreen Anastas, Mekhitar Garabedian, Aikaterini Gegisian, Yervant Gianikian e Angela Ricci Lucchi, Aram Jibilian, Melik Ohanian, Mikayel Ohanjanyan, Sarkis, Hrair Sarkissian.
© all rights reserved

until 22 November 2015
Padiglione nazionale della Repubblica di Armenia
56. Venice Art Biennale
Isola di San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice

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