Reflections in a Cracked Mirror

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

December 2021. Eric Zemmour visits Armenia on his right-wing presidential campaign, to pay homage to the crucible of Christianity. At the same time, a grandmother at the Vernissage—Yerevan’s largest outdoor flea market—passionately curses the “Velvet Revolution”, for which she thanked us, the “young” generation, exactly 42 months ago at that very same stall. She forces a 1950s Soviet fruit vase in green depression glass on me, calling it Czechoslovakian and antique in the same sentence, while her neighboring seller heatedly bargains in broken Farsi with an Iranian couple interested in gaudy Indian copper vases from the 1970s. Next to them, a German tourist unsuccessfully tries to haggle-down the price for a Meissen statuette from an up-to-date vendor with a virtual store on Etsy.

As a direct byproduct of the USSR’s collapse in 1991, the Vernissage acts as a micro–model for the country’s post-Soviet condition. The weekend exchanges here mirror the absurdly contradictory cross-currents that shape Armenia’s larger realities. Like a sink strainer holding the scraps of a massive feast, the market is a metaphorical manifestation of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “wreckage of history”. Armenians seem to have built an infallible immunity against such devastation as people born from within the fault-lines of a 3000 year-old history. Thus, instead of the German philosopher’s “angel” who stares back at the ruins in stunned silence, this particular “depot” for historical debris is teeming with undeterred souls who mine and repackage the remains of failed narratives in endless resolve for better and more stable possibilities. 

The resilience of Vernissage’s vendors could, in a sense, exemplify the spirit of the nation as a whole. Following the 2020 Artsakh War, Armenians faced a devastating defeat that tested their entire belief system. The war did not simply entail lost territories and lives, but uprooted the public’s confidence in the “revolutionary” government and blanketed the future of the state in a fog of skepticism. For a moment, it seemed that the smell of apathy would choke Yerevan like a toxic cloud. Which is why, when a visiting Swiss filmmaker came out at one of the full-house premieres during the 2021 Golden Apricot International Film Festival (GAIFF), he exclaimed in earnest surprise: “But didn’t you guys just lose a war?”

A Feast in the Time of a Plague?
Marking its 18th outing, Golden Apricot had returned to the public after a radically culled and almost canceled, war-themed edition that opened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020 – just a week before the crushing capitulation in Artsakh. By the end of that year, the future of Armenia’s premier international event—and the most renowned film festival in the region—hung in the balance, just as it did for many other cultural projects in the country. How does a fragmented and wobbly culture sphere survive a double-whammy of war-laced pandemonium, followed by an asphyxiating aura of collective disenchantment and grief? In fact, while the fate of the country itself was being put under question, the despondent buzz in the air simply echoed, “What’s the point anyway?” 

But when the film festival lit up the capital’s screens in October—sans apricots, priests and red carpets—it seemed like a jolt of lighting reaping through the thick air of gloom. The parade of car-humping go-go dancers, medieval feminist nuns, Romanian home-porn scandals and Iranian morality dramas about the evils of social networks were stark reminders that life was evolving at a frenzied pace and that we had to catch up. Having chosen to open the festival with an anti-nationalist Israeli drama about a self-hating filmmaker (the beguiling “Ahed’s Knee”), the organizers seemed to indicate that the festival itself was finally maturing into adulthood with a more politicized and engaged outlook, rather than squirreling itself away in the safer, “VIP” zone of artistic neutrality.

This turn to more engagée attitudes could be seen at a wider scale, across all the other smaller film and theater festivals that made come-backs after the Covid-induced hiatus in 2020. Indicating a shift in cultural politics, all these events were forced to redefine their relevance in the harsher and more demanding climate of post-war and post-pandemic realities. The writing on the wall bluntly asked what role artists and intellectuals, cultural institutions and the entertainment industry must continue to play in a society crippled by a lack of a unifying ideology and distrust towards governing orders. Few had any clear ideas, and in their search for ways out of this heart of darkness, most of the cultural players wandered about like “Hedgehog in the Fog”, from Yuri Norstein’s painfully apt animated film. 

One thing, however, is much clearer than the maddening tangents of our Prime Minister’s meandering interviews. In a country where a hug between two teenagers at Junior Eurovision becomes fodder for political speculation, one simply can’t afford to put on patrician airs of intellectual detachment, organize “Spring Salons” of overbearingly trite landscape paintings and continue to present stale “classical” performances of Tchaikovski’s Nutcracker, as if there were still any nuts left to crack. No, in a country where a win by a sexualized teenage singer at a pop song contest becomes the most notable (cameo) appearance on the international cultural stage, we must stop and ask: How the f…k did we get here in the first place?

But I digress. To go back to the reactions of the visiting Swiss filmmaker, who was confused about the lack of doom and gloom in Yerevan; Yes, we did have a war that has shaken every single citizen of this country to the core. But in the case of Armenia, the ever-tightening screws of the post-war socio-political outcomes always seems to turn on an innate survival switch that has manifested itself unexpectedly and innovatively throughout the ages. The fifth-century project of the Armenian alphabet, just to cite the most obvious example, came about as a strategy of resistance against the relentless attempts to rescind Armenian cultural and political sovereignty by the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires. In a similar vein, the decentralized Armenians of the 19th century quickly rushed to make use of all the trappings of European modernity as a way of addressing both the challenges of rampant globalization and the threats of imperialism. 

The post-war situation in 2021 has given rise to a cultural modality that harks back to the profoundly self-critical examinations during those, even more ambivalent times in the 19th century. A crisis of self-doubt is, of course, inevitable. While some of the more mercantile segments of the country’s economic, political and media echelons prefer to uphold the delusional business-as-usual game, the wider socio-cultural realm shows much healthier signs of critical self-regard. After months of dumbfounded grief over an entire generation of lost young men and women, the cultural scene in the country sprang back to life with unexpected vigor, as if awakened by the electrifying smell of spring tarragon. 

Contemporary Art to the Rescue
Always quickest to respond, the contemporary art scene set the tone and pace for the rest of the field with an unabating flow of exhibitions that fully displayed the befuddling  eclecticism of local art practices. The season had an appropriate kick-off with Aha Collective’s open-air exhibition of art posters titled “Re-Spring”, which aimed to dispel the lethargic mood of helplessness with boldly illustrated messages of spiritual reinforcement and resistance. Despite the uneven quality, the strong dose of self-irony in this project was a sign that the art scene was at least searching for a constructive direction, after years of either apolitical posturing or narcissistic flirtations with trendy theoretical discourses. 

The self-reflexive streak was also apparent in an unprecedented sleigh of large group exhibitions, such as NPAK’s Annual Alternative Art Festival, the Yerevan Artist’s Run Biennale in HayArt Center and, most recently, the exhibition “Tomorrow” at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. Lacking politically cohesive frameworks, these shows did share a unifying tendency in foregrounding the emergent voices in contemporary art, instead of showcasing the well-worn roster of established masters. And one could forgive the rough and naively grand expressions of youthful angst, because the raw perspectives of these young renegades often felt like a jab of sincerity we knew we needed, but were afraid to ask. 

Indeed, this change of guard has brought with itself a readiness to be explicit about issues and sentiments that were previously repressed by fear of controversy and ostracization. The patent confidence of the twentysomethings towards the conservatism of Armenian social mores is, undoubtedly, the most precious cultural achievement of the past year. More promisingly, it was a development that was not held at bay in underground clubs or drunken apartment gatherings, but was encouraged and brought into public’s view by a variety of platforms that gave young artists due exposure. In fact, 2021 was exceptionally rich in solo exhibitions that introduced us to exciting new names and The Dalan Art Gallery has to be singled-out for encouraging emergent voices, who otherwise face the soul-crushing indifference from perennially myopic government structures. 

What crystalized in the course of this relentlessly active year for visual arts is the readiness to go beyond local concerns and address questions that are pressing for humanity at large. War, imperialism, gender, sexuality, technological dystopias, violence and ecological catastrophes were subjects that came to fore. There was not just one, but two simultaneous shows on waste-related art (at NPAK and Latitude Art Space) and the newly-opened Two Arcs Gallery held the first exhibition of NFT art in Armenia, potentially heralding a conducive space where Armenian tech, business and artists can finally meet and copulate. The 2020 Artsakh War also figured prominently in photographic and mixed-media projects (by 4Plus Documentary Photography Centre, Edik Boghosian and Anahit Hayrapetyan) that contemplated the impossibility of representing the trauma of loss, while reiterating the importance of art as an act of witnessing. 

Of course, it would be far-fetched to make claims for any kind of defined transformations in the arts on the evidence from the past year alone. The post-war disquiet may have smashed-down certain barriers of decorum that the local art world has been so careful to maintain in the past, allowing for freer expressions of individual sensibilities and a return to more politicized forms of artistic production. But, despite the almost schizophrenic rush of new exhibitions, performances, lectures, festivals and biennales, the patent schism between the art world and the wider public continues to endure. Usually lasting one day to a month, these events are merely a blip on the social calendar, and largely remain ignored by ordinary citizens and mass media. The art scene itself still seems unable (or unwilling) to discard its entrenched elitism in order to bring its concerns to the masses on the street. 

That divide was ostensible in the dismal tranquility of the literary and architectural realms, which failed to make any significant critical propositions to the reigning condition of political instability and cultural ambivalence. A notable exception in this regard was another art-related project designed by architect Arsen Karapetyan in the village of Dzoraghbyur. Composed of starkly monochromatic concrete cubes, this home-studio/private gallery of internationally-renowned painter Tigran Tsitoghdzyan is a brutalist labyrinth that gave us a masterclass in adaptational design, which synthesizes contemporary neo-modernist trends with the tenets of local vernacular architecture. But the great achievement of this project was in demonstrating how Armenia’s chaotic urban sprawl could be successfully recalibrated into innovative spaces of living and interaction by untangling the borders between private and public, the center and the periphery, aesthetics and functionality. 

Instantly popular with the masses, the Dzoraghbyur house has, so far, remained a rare conceptual rejoinder to the sea of indifferent, destructive and unrestrained real estate developments in Armenia. Admittedly, architecture and publishing—unlike the visual arts—are too dependent on the whims of the market and the capital to be able to quickly react to urgent dilemmas. Yet, the persistent obliviousness of both these fields to long-apparent problems (climate change or the rise of technological fascism for one) cannot be denied. Alas, that state of indifference is a condition that typifies public consciousness in general. 

Where Do Sleeping Dogs Lie?
Part of the problem is that Armenia’s mainstream theater, music, television and cinema doggedly avoid addressing anything that may go beyond the demands of easy entertainment. Attracting and shaping the largest audiences, these platforms tend to feed the masses the kind of safe and conservative content that encourages pacifying, mind-numbing consumption. Why touch problematic issues like multiculturalism, violence against women, non-heteronormative relations or the shitstorm of climate change, if people just want a little disconnect after a daily barrage of stressful experiences that they are afraid to understand, let alone come to terms with? 

Unlike the Euro-American streaming platforms and the music industry, which have quickly refashioned their content in order to spearhead cutting-edge discourses into ordinary homes, Armenian mass culture continues to treat us like high-strung children that must be silenced at all cost. Cue-in melodramatic tales about obnoxious couples interminably ranting over their smartphones and excruciating attempts to “nationalize” pop music with overdoses of duduk. So, no. Don’t be expecting a #metoo movie starring Nazeni Hovhannisyan at a cinema near you. 

And yet, the peculiar pulse of the Armenian cultural scene also forces us to ask: do we all have to follow the same universal script? In a year when all the major film festivals and awards around the world feted women filmmakers as a pointedly politicized gesture, the miniscule Armenian film industry achieved gender parity without any enforced union policies, media scandals, or emotional speeches by mega stars. This was all the more remarkable because just a couple of decades ago women in Armenia were all but absent as directors or decision-makers behind the camera. In 2020, they brought us back to the Cannes film festival after a 55-year hiatus and continued to tell the kind of stories that have seldom (if ever) been represented in Armenian cinema. This year we saw short and feature-length films (by women and men) that put focus on police corruption, domestic and communal violence, disability, women’s sexuality and post-war trauma. Hell, even the most trivial, yet popular success in Armenian movie history – the farcical Our Yard franchise – featured an inter-ethnic marriage as its main plot thread. Regardless of their quality and reach, these cinema narratives prove that there’s been a quiet shift of gears in Armenian society without anyone making a big fuss. 

Transitions in Armenia have their own, unpredictable logic. When change occurs, we can be sure that it has evolved directly out of an inherent need to adapt to overpowering forces, rather than schemes based on abstract theoretical projections about a “better humanity”. After all, the innate distrust of Armenians towards governing systems and their unwillingness to abandon tried and tested atavisms for the vague new paradigms seems more than apt in our post-truth age. This cautiousness is especially understandable in the realm of culture, which plays such a pivotal role in shaping the identity of small nations like ours. Pull apart one node and the whole structure may collapse. 

Cleaning-up the House
Reinforcing that structure is the call of the day. And in today’s world that means, first of all, a resilient flexibility, instead of rigid armoring that has no chance against the corrosive forces of tech-driven futures. At a time when Armenian selfhood is under an existential attack from considerably more formidable and hostile powers, we can no longer afford to sweep long-ignored predicaments and faults under the carpet. The 2020 Artsakh War has already exposed these potholes, putting us in front of a cracked mirror to begin a torturous, but long overdue process of self-reflection.  

This self-analysis is vital for any reconstruction efforts. What is less clear is who exactly should be the “foreman” here. In developed democracies the task of cultural overhaul is usually instigated by renegade “outsiders”, but actual transition is always instituted through complex institutional frameworks – universities, academies, schools, museums, the critical media. In Armenia, these structures have traditionally been allergic to change or, as in the case of the critical media, hardly exist at all. The inability of the “revolutionary” government to realize any tangible reforms in our educational system over the past three years is a case in point. As a result, the ossified and corruption-prone higher-educational system does not produce cadres who could enable lasting reforms in culture or politics. The recent news of increased government funding for research and science is an indicator that there is, at least, an awareness of the problem, but this may not prove to have any actual effect without the radical revision of existing institutional structures and cultural policies.

Which brings us to another crucial hinge in the country’s institutional mechanism – the museums. A giant percolating machine, the museum digests history to articulate the cultural-political agenda that defines the past and can envision the future. All revolutionary modes of social exchange and cultural expression, including Facebook and TikTok, will eventually find their resting place in the bowels of this seemingly infallible organism. In this sense, we look to the museum, more than any other communal platform, for the attestation and endorsement of new historical realities and cultural propositions. 

For much of their existence, Armenian museums have remained all-too insusceptible to outside pressures. Unflinchingly dodging many twists of history, they’ve enshrined a rigidly linear, deterministic and patriarchal perspective of the Armenian trajectory—a reflection of the ideological parochialism that has dominated this country up until now. The biggest event to have taken place since 1991 in Armenia’s “mother” institutions—the History Museum and the National Gallery—was that they were finally given central air-conditioning last year, on the centenary of their establishment. 

But 2021 saw these museums in real flux. Eerily reflecting the condition of the country itself, they have remained shut for much of the past two years, which has instigated a belated process of reconstruction and self-examination. The recently-appointed directors Davit Poghosyan (History Museum) and Marina Hakobyan (National Gallery) have initiated an ambitious plan for restructuring the permanent expositions of their museums, both of which have a key role in defining the meta-narratives of Armenian identity. It remains to be seen what new voices and views these reforms will bring, and how they will satisfy the demand for more layered and inclusive representations of the Armenian experience. 

The few developments that I have witnessed in the museum sphere (and in some instances, have taken part in), cautiously allow me to hope that these institutional ecosystems are undergoing an actual, rather than cosmetic metamorphosis. The National Gallery’s decision to establish departments of photography and contemporary art in 2021, was a major milestone that indicates the onset of a new era. Other state organizations, such as The Aslamazyan Sisters Gallery in Gyumri, The Museum of Russian Art and HayArt Cultural Centre are also undergoing or planning major revamps of their displays and programs. 

Lack of public funds and professional resources often means that it is nearly impossible to execute such overhauls fully, or on a nation-wide scale. In addition, draconian government policies constrain many state institutions in developing more fluid, independent and self-sustainable models of management, which would enable local museums to be more socially-responsive and consolidate their function as ambassadors of the nation and facilitators of change. The steps taken in this direction are at an exasperatingly micro pace, but fortunately, 2021 saw a trend for alternative, non-governmental platforms for art and culture that may just help push our rusty “ErAZ” into the 21st century. 

The trend for new cultural businesses and nonprofit initiatives is perhaps a natural outcome of post-war impulses to rebound. It has happened after deadly conflicts in Lebanon and Georgia, so why not here? But as the Georgian example pointedly illustrates, the “rebound” period is, first of all, a fragile opportunity to chart new directions, amend mistakes and turn the tide where it should go. Fortunately, the players who entered the art scene in 2021 seem to be game. The Two Arcs Gallery on Sayat-Nova Avenue, for example, is a new, flashy commercial outfit for contemporary art in Yerevan that fills a huge hole in the local market by providing a welcome focus on media like photography and digital art. It makes an extravagant pair with Tigran Tsitoghdzyan’s New-York-inspired, high-end studio gallery, which I’ve already discussed above. Operating on a more low-key, but no less interesting level, is the artist-run outfit Vajrapar that stands out with its quirky programming featuring an intriguing mixture of contemporary photography, fashion and design. 

Another newcomer is the alternative Open Platform space, which serves as a much-needed outlet for experimental theater and performance art. Operating somewhere in-between is the Rambalkoshe venue on the northern outskirts of Yerevan. While it’s been a fixture of the electronic music and graphic design scene for a while now, this invite-only club made a switch to a public and multimedia format in 2021 with a string of inventive one-day exhibitions of modern Armenian art and curated archives. These and other private initiatives are increasingly growing in stature as counterpoints to official channels of artistic production and distribution, which is vital for developing a more robust cultural apparatus in Armenia.

It is difficult to arrange the mixed signals of these developments into a cohesive outline of Armenia’s future cultural trajectory, and this rambling attempt does not aspire to any conclusiveness. We are still picking up the pieces after a destructive blast, and the jury is out on how and what should be rebuilt out of these fragments. It’s a frustrating fact that for every constructive and forward-looking turn in Armenia, there is inevitably an Eric Zemmour or some other counterforce standing around the corner. But as I watched my colleagues throughout the past year, dashing about in a maniacal frenzy from one project to the next, I was reassured that the creative will of the people is far from broken. Like the wily vendors of the Vernissage, the stoically committed individuals who drive Armenia’s cultural sector continuously seek and find ingenious ways to reconstitute the wreckage of the past into the building-blocks for the times to come.

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