Art Seen: International

ARMENIAN PAVILION, VENICE BIENNALE // INTERVIEW WITH AIKATERINI GEGISIAN

In Coversation with Kostas Prapoglou

The National Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia is this year’s Golden Lion award winner of the 56th Venice Biennale. Entitled Armenity—a term inspired by the diaspora of Armenian artists and intellectuals around the world—the pavilion embraces the work of eighteen contemporary artists, all of which are descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors.

Coinciding with the centenary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the selection of this year’s venue is deeply symbolic. The Mekhitarist Monastery on the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni has been the epicenter of Armenian cultural heritage and continuation of its spirit throughout the centuries.

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Haig Aivazian, Hastayim Yaşiyorum (I am sick but I am alive), 2014, courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semier Gallery, Hamburg.

The exhibition investigates and responds to Armenity through the eyes of the creative and visual vocabulary of the participating artists and the pavilion’s curator, Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg. Embracing a wide range of media and spanning the monastery’s spaces (library, cloisters, museum, gardens), the works on view are permeated with notions of displacement, exile, struggle and cultural collisions. Concurrently, a translational identity is presented, rendering the concept of mutual departure, common national congruence, and uniformity.

Aikaterini Gegisian is one of the young participating artists, whose body of work (A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas, 2015) is inspired by photographic albums of Soviet Armenia, Turkey, and Greece from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I invited her to discuss the Armenian participation and how her work engages with the pavilion’s narrative, our transcription is below.

Melik Ohanian, Presence – Belongingness to Present – Part I. Streetlights of Memory, A stand-by Memorial, 2010–15, courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Melik Ohanian, Presence – Belongingness to Present – Part I. Streetlights of Memory, A stand-by Memorial, 2010–15, courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Kostas Prapoglou: I would like to start first with the concept of Armenity, and how do you see yourself engaging with it.

Aikaterini Gegisian: Armenity is a concept put forward by Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg, the curator of the National Pavilion of Armenia at this year’s Venice Biennale, in order to describe a certain quality of in-between-ness, characteristic of the Armenian diaspora. Derived from the French word Arménité, the concept functions as the connecting device, bringing together contemporary artists of the Armenian Diaspora in the symbolic year that marks the 100 years of the Armenian genocide. The memory of the catastrophe and the history of loss combined with the call to participate in a national pavilion located in the historic monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni underlined in mind the danger of reverting into particular national stereotypes.

However, I believe the concept of Armenity addressing subjectivity in constant flux, precisely acts as a destabilizing mechanism. From my perspective, I read the term as enabling the development of a global viewpoint that a fragmentary, diasporic identity could bring to the forefront; a viewpoint that it is also instrumental in creating a transnational subjectivity that permits us to question global movements as well as the uniqueness and connections between cultures. With my participation in the Armenian Pavilion, instead of delineating borders around national identities and geographies, I opened up to a multiplicity of symbolic layers, to transitional and porous borders, addressing what I describe as an ‘utopic potential’ reacting against a postmodern cynicism and founded upon actual lived experiences.

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Waves, 1), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries.

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Waves, 1), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries.

KP: You are one of eighteen artists participating in the Armenian Pavilion. Which area of the venue were you allocated to show your work and how does this interconnect with the work of your fellow artists?

AG: Armenity takes place in the historic island of San Lazzaro, where in 1717 the Armenian monk Mekhitar established the Mekhitarist Order. The monastery operating one of the first polyglot printing presses has been central in translating important literary and religious texts in Armenian and preserving Armenian cultural heritage. The monastery has also acted as an ark in which diasporic Armenians have placed a diversity of cultural artefacts and objects, ranging from a rare example of Ethiopian Christian painting to a fully preserved Egyptian mummy. The exhibition takes place in the grounds of the island and extends as a journey through the gardens, the former print shop, the cloisters, the museum and library of the monastery. My work is located in the second floor, in the corridor that links the library and museum of the monastery with the private residences of the monks, forming in a sense a border between public and private space. The walls of the corridor are filled with paintings, mainly portraits of men in Ottoman times, with the rare exception of few women. Placing my collages formed of 60s popular imaginary in vitrines in this corridor and in relation to a literal sea of paintings brings into contention histories of popular culture (the paintings being the popular form of their time) and questions the process of looking and the construction of archival knowledge. The exhibition as I have mentioned is curated as a journey through this historic site, with projects carefully placed in the entirety of the monastery in a manner that makes the works feel like they were always there. I think the jury that awarded the Golden Lion to the pavilion for best national participation very sensitively described the relations between the works of the eighteen artists and the historic ground of the monastery as taking the ‘the form of a palimpsest, with contemporary positions inserted into a site of historic preservation’.

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Passions, 4), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries.

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Passions, 4), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries.

KP: A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas is a series of 65 collages on paper and an artist’s book, all encompassing an extensive photographic material from Soviet Armenia, Greece, and Turkey. What made you choose this medium for your visual and artistic language?

AG: A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas is based on a wide collection of photographic albums of Soviet Armenia, Turkey and Greece dating from the 1960s to the early 1980s, which I collected over the period of 4 years. I was drawn to the albums since I could detect that in this expression of photography the medium of the album functioned at a certain historical moment as a nation building mechanism: the albums narrating through photography an image of each nation. Rather than excavating institutional archives, the project was built on material found in flea markets and second hand bookshops, because of my interest in mapping the remnants of particular popular cultures, as opposed to the knowledge constructed by official archives.

A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas assembles these heterogeneous images produced in diverse geographical, ideological and historical contexts into a series of collages and an artist’s book that together construct a new landscape unearthing an invisible topography. The project offers a metaphysical and gendered reading of the nation’s building forces shaping the original material, a reading that both mimics narratives of cosmic inception (the birth of the nation) and echoes feminine and masculine metaphors (mother Armenia, the father of the nation). Divided into seven chapters that follow the logic of the seven seas (an idea used over centuries to describe a diverse set of geographical settings), the guide translates the narrative of genesis not as an evolutionary progression but as a circular and synchronous connection between bodies of water.

These seven seas (of echoes, reflections, gestures, departures, actions, waves and images) also reflect on a particular moment in the history of photography, when printed images became a marker of modernity, aiding the development of a visual culture that turned the world into an image to be consumed. A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas is not the enactment of a type of visual archaeology were a series of comparisons unveils the connections between different sets of commodity images, but challenges the documentary value of images of the past through the layering of inappropriate symbolic references. Like the interlinking of the seven seas that forms the new invisible landscape, the images are collaged as if interweaving bodies, inscribed by symbolic forces and multiple codes.

Mekhitar Garabedian_Untitled (Gurgen Mahari, The World is alive, Venice), 2015. 

Mekhitar Garabedian_Untitled (Gurgen Mahari, The World is alive, Venice), 2015.

KP: To what extent do you feel that the Armenian Pavilion fits with Okwui Enwezor’s chosen theme, All the World’s Futures?

AG: With the danger of sounding controversial, I will begin by stating that I feel that the concept of national participation does not fit in Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial and theoretical perspective. As he states in his curatorial text, All the World’s Futures attempts to map the relationship of artistic practices and the current state of crisis in relation to the very history of the Venice Biennale and ‘the unquestionable allure of this most anachronistic of exhibition models dedicated to national representation’. However, one might point to certain overlapping constellations between the Armenian Pavilion and Enwezor’s theme, beginning with the global perspective; that is the multiplicity of global artistic positions reflected in the Armenian diasporic artistic sites. Secondly, the marking of histories, expressed in Enwezor’s exhibition making as the relationship with the very history of the Venice Biennale and reflected in the Armenian Pavilion as the relation to the historic site of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. And finally, the calling to a thunderous past that could propel us towards many conflicting and contradictory world futures. Although ‘All the World’s Futures’ scope has the expansive ambition of mapping contemporary forms, I feel that in both exhibitions, one might sense a will to restore a certain type of value to the possibility of utopia as a realizable potential.

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Images, 2), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries,

Aikaterini Gegisian, A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (The Sea of Images, 2), 2015, courtesy the artist & Kalfayan Galleries,

KP: What was the response of the audiences visiting the Armenian Pavilion and do you envisage this show travelling internationally?

GP: Long before the announcement of the awards, there was a great interest in the Armenian Pavilion despite being located in the offsite of the San Lazzaro island, which required an extra element of planning for the Giardini crowds. The response of the audience was a relief in experiencing a quiet and unspectacular show in a historical site that counteracted the hecticness of the main Biennale venues. For many, the reaction was also emotional and introspective. After the announcement of the Golden Lion award the biennale visitors dissented into the island, a journey marked by a profound curiosity and excitement in discovering the little gem of Armenity. Although as an artist I am not the best to contemplate the separation of the exhibition from the historical site, I believe that the contemporary positions and complexity of forms presented in the group show that is Armenity, constructs a compelling exhibition that could certainly travel internationally, especially to locations that receive less exposure than the Venice Biennale.



Armenity at the National Pavilion of Armenia will run through November 22, 2015.

Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect, art writer, critic and curator based in London, UK.

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