Armenian diaspora artist Hrair Sarkissian on view at Fondazione Carispezia

Syrian-Armenian artist Hair Sarkissian’s photographs are presented for the first time in a solo show in Italy at Fondazione Carispezia in La Spezia.

The exhibition “Hrair Sarkissian. Back to the Future”, running until 21 February 2016 at the La Spezia-based nonprofit bank foundation, exhibits his photographic work exploring the modes of displaying memory, displacement and identity.

Left to right: Curator Filippo Maggia, Chairman of Fondazione Carispezia Matteo Melly, artist Hrair Sarkissian. On the back: installation view of 'Zebiba', 2007, Archival inkjet print, 60 x 60 cm each. Image from Primocanale.it.

Left to right: curator Filippo Maggia, chairman of Fondazione Carispezia Matteo Melly, artist Hrair Sarkissian. On the back: installation view of ‘Zebiba’, 2007, archival inkjet print, 60 x 60 cm each. Image from Primocanale.it.

Inaugurated in November 2015, the exhibition “Hrair Sarkissian. Back to the Future” curated by Filippo Maggia, Director of Fondazione Fotografia Modena and Curator of Photography Department at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, extends the presence of the Syrian-Armenian UK-based artist in Italy after his participation at the 56th Venice Biennale

Hrair Sarkissian (Damascus, 1973) was awarded the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale as participating artist in the group show “Armenity / Hayoutioun. Contemporary Artists from the Armenian Diaspora” curated by Armenian, naturalised Swiss curator Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg for the Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia. 

Though the Italian solo exhibition draws its barely imaginative title from the mid-1980s Hollywood comedy film Back to the Future, feebly evoking the artist’s interest in the past, Sarkissian’s work is more than just a journey across decades. It goes much farther, as it investigates the notions of borders and territory alongside identity and the feeling of displacement.

A son of the Armenian diaspora that saw his parents flee the Republic of Armenia threatened by genocide to find a calmer place to live in Damascus, Hrair Sarkissian has faced the chronic condition of exile since civil conflict engulfed Syria in 2011.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Churches', 2009, Archival inkjet print, 111 x 138 cm, 111 x 211 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Churches’, 2009, archival inkjet print, 111 x 138 cm, 111 x 211 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

His reflection on geopolitical issues and the consequences of migration rely upon the relationship between the visible and the invisible, presence and absence – elements that deeply impact the lives of those witnessing exodus, trying to rebuild their new identity and a collective memory in foreign territories.

The series Churches (2009) was realised in Amsterdam and photographed in churches that no longer have religious function and have been turned into spaces for social entertainment. By only using natural light, Sarkissian recreates the atmosphere of sacred places and reflects on displaced people’s relation to new environments and a diverse cultural coding. 

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Zebiba', 2007, Archival inkjet print, 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Zebiba’, 2007, archival inkjet print, 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

The theme of absence is further investigated in relation to religion, for which the identity of one merges in that of an entire community of prayers aspiring to elevate their souls to God. The series Zebiba (2007) consists of 45 portraits of devoted Egyptian worshippers. Their forehead appears marked by the scar caused by kneeling on the Mussallah or “Stone of God” (the prayer rug) and touching the ground with the forehead.

In the show, visitors feel intimidated by the whole composition of severe faces staring at them, as one does not see 45 individuals but a unanimous religious entity, for which,

the desire to become invisible when facing God renders [it] more visible within his social environment.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Stand Still', 2008, Archival inkjet prints, 125 x 155 cm, 125 x 185 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Stand Still’, 2008, archival inkjet prints, 125 x 155 cm, 125 x 185 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Background', 2013, C-Print, backlight paper, 180 x 230 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Background’, 2013, C-Print, backlight paper, 180 x 230 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

According to Sarkissian, what makes individuals belong to a community is not just the place of birth, but the social and cultural relations people are able to establish within their surroundings. In this regard, the series Background (2013), Execution Squares (2008), the exhibited Sarkissian Photo Centre (2010) and Stand Still (2008) depict empty landscapes at dawn, with backdrops and building frames so as to allow the observer to thoroughly understand what the place is, who the people living there are, and which stories and what history have contributed to defining the scene.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Homesick', 2014, Two channel video, 11 min, 7min, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Homesick’, 2014, two-channel video, 11m:00s, 7m:00s, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Homesick (2014) is the most eloquent work in the show at Fondazione Carispezia. It consists of a two-channel video and five large-scale inkjet prints depicting a scale model of typical Middle Eastern dwellings. The meticulousness of such reproduction – from the styles and colours of the balcony curtains to the small water tank on the rooftop, from the wallpapers of certain apartments on the second floor to the ventilation – opposes the abundant presence of details to the absence of the artist from his parents’ home and his country as a whole.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Homesick', 2014, Two channel video, 11 min, 7min, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Homesick’, 2014, two-channel video, 11m:00s, 7m:00s, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Brooklyn-based art historian and curator Murtaza Vali writes about this work in his essay Beyond Exile: Hrair Sarkissian’s Homesick” published in January 2015 on Nafas Art Magazine:

Laboriously constructed over a month, [the work] was promptly demolished upon completion —by hand, through the better part of a day— a process documented in both still and moving images. Each of the other four large- scale photographs in the series mark the razing of a floor and by the final image the edifice has been largely leveled. This photograph, essentially a studio still life of a large pile of concrete rubble, resembles journalistic images of the aftermath of bombings, eerily evoking the everyday carnage experienced not just in Sarkissian’s native Syria but also in places like Iraq and Gaza. Sarkissian’s boyhood home serves as a proxy of sorts, for the countless others destroyed across the region.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Homesick', 2014, Two channel video, 11 min, 7min, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Homesick’, 2014, two-channel video, 11m:00s, 7m:00s, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'Homesick', 2014, Two channel video, 11 min, 7min, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘Homesick’, 2014, two-channel video, 11m:00s, 7m:00s, Inkjet prints (5 images), 150 x 190cm. Image courtesy the artist and Fondazione Carispezia.

Vali further explains the geopolitical framework to which Sarkissian’s work belongs thus:

Though Sarkissian emigrated in 2008, the civil conflict that has engulfed and devastated Syria since 2011 has made his return impossible, turning him into an unwitting and reluctant exile. As a Syrian-Armenian, whose grandparents were forced to abandon their homes in Anatolia under the threat of genocide, Sarkissian inherited the melancholy of exile and its elegiac poetics permeate much of his earlier work. On one level, Sarkissian’s replica can be understood as a nostalgic monument to a lost home, its photograph-like veracity providing a wealth of mnemonic anchors through which to desperately cling onto a fading past, while its eventual destruction serves as an allegory for its inevitable disappearance from memory.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: West Asian artists, museum shows, identity in art, art and memory, art and migration, photography, events in Italy

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