Epilogue: You can sit here forever

 

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Day 13: You can sit here forever

Last day orientation trip 2016, an epilogue

 

By Zippora Elders

 

It’s Saturday morning 10 AM. Tehran. I worked late and now I almost miss breakfast. It takes me 15 minutes to dress. Headscarf, long vest. I run down to the restaurant. On my way I meet Jaap, James, Nathanja. They’re heading to the Film Museum. The rest of the group left this morning, to the Grand Bazaar. It’s the last day of our trip. I have breakfast alone. Bland electronic tunes in the Novotel. Decorations in purple, black and white. It’s been almost a month since I arrived in this warm country. I feel sentimental.

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Only half of the breakfast buffet is left. The waiters apologize and ask what I want. I ask for goat cheese, water melon, cardamom tea and pistachio pastries. The waiter kindly asks if I’m from Thailand. Questions like these are asked to me at least twice a day. I say I’m from Amsterdam. He doesn’t believe me, my parents live in Asia? No they live in the East of the Netherlands. He concludes: “That’s why your English is so good. You’re smart. You’re from Europe.”

Europe…

The past weeks I travelled through Iran and Armenia with a group of selected artists, curators, directors from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It felt like time travel. Not because any of our visits felt like going back or forth in time, but because many different cultures, histories and languages were together at the same time. It was as if we were constantly moving around the edges of our respective worlds. Nazareth, Lilith, Jacob, Balthazar, Samuel, Nathanja, James, Zippora… A group of Biblical pilgrims roaming the desert.

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With the Armenians we spoke French. Very old world, very old Europe. Going through their history it’s clear that the Armenians were and are everywhere, although they often weren’t allowed to be. Not so much is left of a realm that once was expansive, and there is a gap between the relative smallness of the cities we visited and the rich history of cultural exchange that we encountered. We saw amazing vintage photographs from Soviet times that reminded us of Moholy-Nagy and Outerbridge; we saw beautiful paintings of well to do ladies that travelled the world and made their own Beckmanss, Gauguins, Van Dongens; we watched an intriguing performance of a lady obsessively brushing her hairs, shot on 16mm film… Open and curious to everything that was presented to us, it was remarkable (and slightly annoying) how our European frame of reference lead us back to the canon of Western art a bit too often.

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Sergei Parajanov’s museum in Yerevan was a treat. The film director’s imagination is unbelievable. So was his drive to create. With the culture and history of the region always in the back of his mind, a fine eye for tension and suspense and a very crafty hand, he created his own, intriguing world. The museum almost bursted of his unique visual language, sense of time and place: signs and symbols that we can only half understand – but feel the more. He worked always and everywhere, to the point that he was in Soviet prison, making figures in metal coins with his nails.

In Tehran we encountered an artist with the same prolific creativity. Ali Akhbar Sadeghi works with assemblage, animation and painting. In his works a sense of decoration and abstraction comes forth that one might call characteristically Iranian, yet at the same time he combines his skills and knowledge to make striking, humorous and slightly absurd works that are very much his own. Precisely the works that I found a bit kitschy at first linger on in my mind one week later. I vividly remember Paulien telling me that his works made her hopeful, and I felt the same kind of thrill. It’s a joy to stumble onto art that simply jumps over the conventions you know and then takes you by surprise: those artists that blow us away with their otherworldly perspective on life and whose imagination is so strong that their works somehow transcend the borders and categories we’re used to – to such an extent that a group of trained curators can’t easily put in words why they find an oeuvre exciting.

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Painfully ironic, during a trip that is organized to introduce us to emerging networks of art in non-Western regions, one of the questions that bugged me most was: why is white male supremacy again on top of its game? It was in Yerevan where we followed the US elections. Watching Clinton’s defeat was depressing. In the morning I encountered Toke in front of the hotel with tears in his eyes, while Dirk, Eelco, Haco and Louise were sitting shocked in the lobby watching BBC.

That afternoon we all went to the Armenian Genocide Museum.

After this even more upsetting experience I stayed in my hotel room, despaired about the power of politics, the will to dominate, the history of terror, and wondered what Trump’s election will do for the regions we’re visiting. With (second) neighbors like Turkey, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan et cetera “a whole lot depends on Trump,” an Iranian told me when I asked about the political prognosis. That’s just way unsettling.

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When you think Armenia and Iran, you might think: Christianity and Islam. But what’s really everywhere is: capital and consumption. Also everywhere: environmental issues and scarcity. So much smog in Tehran that I feel trapped. To the north: dystopian clusters of huge apartment buildings where no one lives. In the middle of Gyumri: a post-apocalyptic village of containers with hundreds of families that can’t afford new homes after the big earthquake. In Yerevan: one after another newly constructed alienating, postmodern building design to house big companies. Running through the centre of Isfahan: a gorgeous, far-reaching river without a drop of water.

On visit from these small countries in Europe, I feel neither smart nor significant, rather: oblivious and overprivileged. Previously mentioned persisting focus in the arts on the West feels paradoxical – understandable, but paradoxical. And awkward, to say the least; Europe’s legacy has been a nasty thing, too. The overwhelming hospitality of the Armenians and Iranians as opposed to our semi-closed borders: it’s a far-fetched comparison, but living in a rather frugal country, I feel this tension all the time. What keeps me upright (in relation to our professional field) is the hope for art that has the power to surprise, to reflect on the status quo, to open our eyes to new perspectives, to close the gaps – to finally create awareness and a sense of responsibility.

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Back to breakfast in Tehran. By now the enormous room is empty. Only the waiter and me, the synthesizer tunes, pastries and laptop. Breakfast is over, but I need more time. I’m overwhelmed – by the news reaching and not reaching me from all over the world; by obscured histories and possible futures; by parallel experiences from colleagues in neighbouring European countries; by the feeling that I perhaps can’t change a thing, and at the same time that I should; by the uncomfortable realization that I, as opposed to billions of other people in the world, can travel almost anywhere I want (except, unfortunately, through time).

“Can I sit here?” I ask the waiter of the Novotel Tehran. “Yes, of course,” he smiles. “You can sit here forever.”

 

Thank you.

 

– ZE

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Armenia: Close to paradise – Observations during the orientation trip

If you enjoy improvised systems as much as I do, Armenia is close to paradise.
I believe that it stimulates your imagination if you encounter a lot of improvisations in your daily life. So Armenians must feel very stimulated. After visiting the house of the famous Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov and seeing his artistic oeuvre, I am quite sure my theory must be right (see blog from day 8, Yerevan).

In public space I discovered, for example, that Armenians like to hang their empty coffee cups on trees, on nails or twigs. I never saw it anywhere before, this particular but beautiful habit. I would suggest that the Armenians claim it as an integral part of their culture.

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Surprisingly, compared to Iran I felt less free to go wherever I wanted, here, be it for quite innocent reasons. For example, I wanted to take a picture of a piano in a park. I liked the way it was covered to protect it from rain or sunlight.

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With one foot on the grass I searched for the right angle. Suddenly I heard a police siren, followed by a male voice that spoke Armenian through a megaphone from the inside of the police car. I didn’t think it was meant for me. I continued my photographic operation. But the voice became louder, and only after I took my one foot off the grass it stopped and the car drove past. I had a similar experience the next morning: a gentle knock on my shoulder to inform me that I was not allowed to photograph a certain jacket.

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Later that week I was walking in a shopping mall. In a side street I suddenly heard that same police siren. Everyone around me jittered, a little scared, turning their heads in the direction the sound came from. It wasn’t a police car, but a guy who could imitate that sound perfectly. Everybody started laughing. I guess I was not the only one who had been haunted by the police.

Enough about police, back to improvised systems.

Look at these sculptures, made on the market! Sometimes they even become balancing acts.

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And their shoes! What beauty can be found in the lack of choice.

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In Yerevan I also met a group of people doing morning exercises. Armenian women, mostly retired, lead by a Russian instructor. In contrast to their Iranian colleagues, who were jumping and swinging, they performed slow and more controlled moves, eye exercises, skin massages. It looked all very sweet and tender.

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And I also discovered an Armenian follow-up of the Iranian bending frequency. Only this time it was not for reading a newspaper, but for drinking water. Luckily the Armenians still have plenty of that.

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And I added several Armenian contributions to my collection of men holding long objects.

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I’ve been collecting them for quite some time now, men carrying long objects.
Beams, bars, branches, broomsticks, plastic pipes, fluorescent light tubes.

Mostly men, odd enough.

I have read somewhere that a stick is the only object
that directly connects mankind with animals.
An animal with a stick becomes more human.
A human being with a stick makes him or her more primal.

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Morning sweepers in Gumri.
You can hear them from far away. The empty square amplifies the rhythmic sound of their broomsticks on the rough concrete. Later on, I spotted the broomsticks stored outside a hair salon.
I found the ladies inside, warming themselves by the stove.

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Suddenly, a hustle and bustle on one particular street. Children were walking fast, sometimes even running, alone or accompanied by their parents, so as not to be late for school.
In line, like a row of ants, they moved towards the school. After school had started the parents walked the same way back, a traffic flow in the opposite direction.

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Paulien Oltheten, Yerevan 2016

Day 11 and 12 Gyumri

Gyumri is actually the second city of Armenia and was for many decades Armenian’s cultural center. The bus trip from Yerevan to Gyumri, which beautifully leads between small villages, a hilly and treeless landscape and snow on the mountains, shows us also traces of different periods of economical crisis and political change. Abandonned houses, closed shops and manufactories, and half constructed houses. It seems migration is still going on in Armenia, from the countryside to cities (Yerevan grew in some decades from a small city to a 1,5 million capital) or to other countries abroad; Russian inhabitants leaving Armenia for Russia after independancy or Armenien citizens moving to Russia or the west to find better futures.

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Entering Gyumri felt like a shock because of it’s poor houses and quickly constructed apartment blocks and some people even living in caravans or even in containers. It all became clear when we arrived in the Berlin Art Hotel of Gyumri, a medical center which was build with gifts from government and inhabitants of Berlin after the earthquake in 1988, and later partly turned into an art hotel which actually finances the medical center and which occupies half of the prefab building. The hotel/medical center, with about 40 hotel rooms, has art works by artists from Gyumri in the rooms and corridors and can be purchased by guests. Berlin Art Hotel organizes artistic encounters and concerts in the small and cosy dining room. The Berlin Art Hotel invites also artists from Armenia and abroad by offering a room and has relations with residencies in other cities in Europe (The Hague), US and Asia (Taiwan, Japan,..) for the benefit of artists from Gyumri. Berlin Art Hotel has no financial support for it’s cultural activities nor for the residencies. It supports artists by offering space and connections.

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The earthquake destroyed 70% of the houses and constructions: all recent buildings were demolished, about 80% of the early soviet buildings and 20 to 30% of the 19th century buildings. The city was slowly reconstructed with help of other countries but this process isn’t is finished today at all. Some attempts to build new suburbs with the help of Russia in1989 are left unfinished and others are reconstructed with poor materials (photos). Gyumri’s economy was heavily touched by the depression at the end of soviet times, the earthquake and the difficult situation after independence, although is was a very prosperous city during 19th century and during soviet times. It had high skilled technicians in manufactures, a flourishing textile industry (wool form Uzbekistan and workers from Moldova) and it was a centre for artistic expression in theatre, music, literature and fine arts.

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The historical museum of Gyumri which is called Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life witnesses this rich period of skills and manufactures in the 18th, 19th and beginning of the 20th century and documents the many poets, composers, writers, painters and actors which were living in the city, and were performing in houses of wealthy families. The museum is situated in a former house of a wealthy family. This is very much in line with the high level of Armenian culture, knowledge and skills for centuries and centuries.

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Another exemple of this rich past is the Aslamazyan Museum which is devoted to the lives and works of Mariam (1907-2006) and Yeranuhi (1910-1998) Aslamazyan, two sisters of a wealthy family which were both artists. On the 70th anniversary of Mariam Salamazyan, 620 their original works like paintings, graphic works and ceramics were offered to the city of Gyurmi and which opened a museum in a beautifull house with bright spaces and a courtyard on 7th of November 1987. Father Aslamazyan was a windmill engineer and devoted his career to the technical development which served humanity. The two daughters followed their education in Leningrad Institute of Arts and were traveling to different countries and continents like the Middle-East, Africa and America.

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Their paintings are radically modern and singular in form and colors and a real investigation in intercultural dialogue between different cultural references and differences in the context of daily life. They were feminist at that time and attention to women in their paintings. We were all moved by the beauty of the works which are not recognized as master pieces in the western canon but can compete with their peers like Gauguin. We all bought postcards and couldn’t stop taking pictures. Some works took our special attention: the sisters were interested in the Soviet ideology which proclaimed brotherhood and equality between different ethnic races. The painting shows soldiers, men and women, with Soviet uniforms with the references to their ethnic background, and arms ready to protect these values; a troubling image! Another painting shows an oriental looking courtyard with women weaving a piece of textile with the image of Stalin.

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Back to the contemporary!

The Gyumri Biennial of Contemporary Art, which was started one year after the earthquake in 1989 as a strong sign of moral and cultural resurrection (like Documenta after the destruction of second world war), showed during 6 editions the recent tendencies in contemporary art by inviting important contemporary artists from Armenia and abroad. It was supported by foreign cultural institutions and private foundations -often run by rich Armenians which migrated to Europe, Russia or Noth-America- and was the most important event for contenporary art in Caucasus region for during the 1990ies and the catalogues show the amazing diversity of artists showing work, making temporary interventions like performances or making work in public space, whivh are often still part of the public space of Gyumri. The latest editions were organised in a modest scale (‘zero budget’ in 2014) because lack of funding from the City and the Ministry, and the edition of 2016 couldn’t be organised anymore. Contemporary art is negative connotations for politicians (which is often not different in the west), although that seems to change at the moment. Artists keep hope in Gyumri. The biennale, as an important resource for international relations and inspiration from abroad, is missing now, since there are almost no institutions for contemporary art and ngo-like initiatives who can pick up that role. Artists in Gyumri keep the enthousiasm for creation and organise presentations themselves but in a fragmented way, like tiny islands in the city.

We met Cohar Martirosyan, one of the enthousiatic and talented artists from Gyumri. She finished the Art Academy of Gyumri three years ago, decided to stay in Gyumri because it’s her hometonw which inspiresher most. She calls her work abstract expressionism which invites the viewer in a journey of abstract form and light as road to deep feelings. She recently explored the limitations of the space and light of the canvas and explored working on plexi. She adds another layer of experimentation with light, time and space through video works which are based on camera work over the plexi, and a soundtrack of contemporary music which was composd for the video.

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The Academy of Arts of Gyumri is the only institution for the living contemporary art in the city. It has about 120 students in drawing, graphic art, painting, sculpture and design (including fashion and applied design). The resources are poor, there is no budget to invite guest professors and guest lecturers from aborad and contemporary forms of expression like photography, media, and installation art are not (yet) part of the educational program. But the school is a hub; the only place in the region which brings together established artists/teachers and students on a daily basis. The Academy is an active partner in cultural life: it was a partner in the Gyumri biennale, encourages projets and presentations and keeps relations with the art scene in Yerevan as far as possible. The school has relations with Vienna and recieves resources like books and dvd’s in the ‘Vienna Room’ of the school. The library, which is in the directors office and a reading room next to it, has some books on shelves. We were wondering how by means of books and DVD’s students could have access to historical and contemporary art from other countries like Europe and US? The catalogues of Documenta, Venice and other biennales in the America’s, Europe, Asia and Africa? We were also wondering how are visit could be more interactive in future visits? The artists with us could give presentations of their work and discuss with students. Curators of the group could give short presentations in smaller groups on a recent project or exhibition they worked on and discuss with teachers and students?

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By Dirk De Wit

Day 10 – Yerevan

National art Gallery
The National Gallery of Armenia is the country’s major art gallery. Its collection is displayed in 56 galleries, which allow the Gallery to tell the story of national visual arts, decorative-applied arts as well as world culture from ancient times to our days. In the galleries of European, Russian, Armenian and Oriental art the visitors are introduced to the art of Aivazovsky, Sarian, Kandinsky, Donatello and other distinguished artists.

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The National Gallery of Armenia was founded in 1921 by the decision of the Soviet Armenian Government, as the Art Department, one of the five departments of the State Museum.

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Genocide Museum
9th of November. That morning we heard that Trump was elected to be next president of the U.S.A.
Everybody was disturbed by the news, angry, moody, sad, anxious. But life goes on, as does our visitors’ program. So at one ‘o clock we left the hotel by taxi’s that would bring us to the Genocide Museum. Our taxi driver, instead of the navigator, had Trump’s victory speech on his gps. He could still easily find his way. Soon we arrived at the top of a hill with great view over the city that even gave us a glimpse of Mount Ararat.
Quite painful actually as that mountain is now located in Turkey. We would hear all about this history soon in the museum.

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The entrance of the Museum is impressive. First you walk through a lane with left and right planted pine trees in different stages of growth, planted by important visitors to the museum; presidents, survivors, spiritual leaders, famous singers. It showed their recognition of this horrible event.

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It reminded me of a Facebook post of a friend earlier that day, a response to Trumps victory. “If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant apple trees today” ~ Martin Luther King. The tone was set. During the whole tour through the museum, seeing the images, hearing the stories, my thoughts were shifting from the Armenian genocide associatively connecting it with the recent refugee crisis, the important role of Turkey in this, the islamic state, the Jewish holocaust, Yugoslavian war to a future with Trump as American president and back. Christianity versus islam. History repeating? My thoughts became a mess, my mood even worse.

But first we still had to enter the museum.

After the pine tree lane you arrive at a plateau, all made out of grey flat stones. To enter the museum you have to go down into an entrance that easily could be seen as an bunker entrance or a gravestone…smart architecture.

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A woman of the museum guided us through all the different stages of the history of the genocide.
I knew about it, but that it was so carefully planned and cruelly carried out in at least 3 different stages, I had no clue! It made me realize that the media in the west is still extremely focused on what had happened during the holocaust that you easily miss out the details of terrible other historical and more recent massacres.

We learned about the Adana massacre of 1909, and that postcards were being made to show the ruined city to the world.

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We learned about the strategic deportations of the Armenians lead by the young turks during the Ottoman Empire.

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We learned that during that first stage of genocide, 1915- 1916,  the german soldier and photographer, Armin T. Wegner, happened to be there and shoot a lot of photo’s that he brought back to Germany after the war.

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We leaned about heroic stories of survivors of the massacres, for example the one of Aurora Mardiganian, the Armenian Jeanne d’arc, who’s dairy was first published in 1918 under its title Ravished Armenia, later under the beautiful title ‘The auctions of souls’. They even made a Hollywood production of it, with her in the main role. But because of diplomatic reasons between USA and Turkey it vanished from the radar. Only a couple of minutes are left of the film.

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We learned about 4000 Armenians on a defence mission near Mount Musa, placed in the former province of Aleppo, who were later rescued by french battleships and brought to safety in Egypt.

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We learned that other countries got sight of what was happening with the Armenians, among them the Dutch Limburgs Dagblad.

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We learned about the destruction of the national Armenian heritage.
We learned about the young turk criminals brought before the Court between 1919-1920, and about justice and retribution.

Arshavir Shirakian, an Armenian genocide survivor, for example had taken revenge by liquidating Djemal Azmi, a former governor of the Trebizond province who had fled to Berlin. First Ashavir was convicted for this act of killing, but not that much later released from prison.

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Luckily the museum tour had somehow a positive ending. In September 1915 the Armenian Relief Committee was established in the USA. In November 1915 it became the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, later named Near East Relief (NER). With help of NER humanitarian aid was given to thousands of destitute people in the near east region. The NER undertook the care and education of Armenian Orphans in the republic of Armenia.

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Especially seeing those orphans, the promising future generation, gave hope.

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An orphan boy was found in the desert. Being deprived of care and living with desert animals for two years, he lost his human identity and had become wild, Aleppo, 1920-1921.

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In the taxi, on our way back, the driver switched on the radio. A beautiful melody set in that corresponded perfectly with our mood. James asked the driver to put up the volume…sad alone…driving back into the city.

Koop – Island Blues

hello my love

it’s getting cold on this island

i’m sad alone

i’m so sad on my own

the truth is

that we were much too young

and now I’m looking for you

or anyone like you

we said goodbye

with a smile on our faces

now you’re alone

you’re so sad on your own

the truth is

that we run out of time

and now you’re looking for me

or anyone like me

By Paulien Oltheten

 

Modern Art Museum
We are received by the director of the museum Mrs. Noune Avetisyan. The museum is packed with works because they want to show as much as possible to the visitors she explains.

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The director tells us how the Modern Art Museum in Yerevan was established in 1972 by the art critic Henrik Igityan, who was the director of the museum for 37 years. H. Igityan received a great support from the mayor of Yerevan of those years Grigor Hasratyan, as well as from the best Armenian artists of 1960s. As a specialized museum of contemporary and modern art it became the first in the Soviet Union. The first exposition was compiled of the works of the artists of 1960s both from Armenia and Diaspora, who have kindly donated their works to the museum.

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The existence of the monopoly of the socialist realism in the Soviet Union prohibited modern art in all its expressions. Therefore, no financial assistance was provided by the Government of Armenia and museum was opened thanks to the artists’ donations.
The works of the generation of 1960s, in particular, Minas Avetisian, Ashot Hovhannisian, Martin Petrosian, Hakob Hakobian, Gayane Khachaturian, Vruyr Galstian, Henry and Robert Elibekyans, Harutyun Galents, Rudolf Khachatrian, Ashot Bayandour today also are the main axis of the museum exhibit.

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Later on the exposition was fulfilled with the works of the younger generation, the generation of 1980s: Sargis Hamalbashian, Arthur and Ararat Sargsians, Marine Dilanian, Albert Hakobian, Samvel Baghdasarian, Arevik Arevshatian, Ruben Grigorian, Kamo Nigarian, Armen Gevorgian, Tigran Matulian, Teni Vardanian, Gabriel Manoukian, Nina Kchemchyan, Ayvaz Avoyan etc.
The importance of the existence of the Museum was mentioned by a famous Russian art critic Alexander Kamenski in 1979: “… From the very beginning, the museum was a utopian idea. The initiators had neither a building for their exposition, nor the resources to buy art-works. They had, however, something more important and valuable. They believe that it is indispensable for Armenia to see and understand the new image of its contemporary art…”
Recently the collection of the Museum was enriched with the works of both Armenian and foreign masters, such as: Taline Zabounian (France), Sam Grigoryan (Germany), Harutyun Jinanyan (Jino) (Russia), Vatche Demirdjian (France), Lorent Nissou Soon (France), SYB (France), Christine Hagopian (France), Dibasar (France), Sharis Garabedian (France), Sebastiano (USA), Ziba Afshar (USA), Michael Gorman (USA), Garry John (USA), Karen Bistedt and Chris Brown (USA),  Haik Mesropian (Switzerland), Onik Atamyan (England) etc.

Today we are lucky as we can also attend the opening of the exhibition at the museum called ´A Clay’s Way: Event in a long shot´by artist Vahram Galstyan. Curated by Nazareth Karoyan and Harutyun Zulumyan.

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Diner with guests at the Club
The evening ends with a network diner at the Club in Yerevan.

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Day 9 – Yerevan

‘Jesus’s Swollen Armpits’, or ‘Stop Your Horsing Around’ –
a Dominatrix Guide to Manuscript History.

If one is to review an ancient, distant history, one cannot help but do so through the lens of the current, through a kind of parallel contemporary – the result of an evolution, or a lack there-of.

This blog entry is focussed on a visit to The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, or the ‘Matenadaran’. It is a repository of ancient manuscripts, a research institute and museum in Yerevan, Armenia. As is to be expected, it is a museum with its own turbulent history, and with it a whirlpool of confusing subjectmatter. Here are but a few, extracted and paired in an associative mess, in order to explore how objects live, and indeed how they come to represent their time.

First off, I am reprimanded by our guide for making a video. This is in fact not espionage on my part, but a peripheral hobby developed in order to document the behaviour of our captivating  “curator, critic and consultant” Toke Lykkeberg. As sad as it is, I sort of comply to media restrictions- willingly confronted by the attributes of what becomes clear as a dominatrix museum figure. Commanding with a pointer-stick, worn flat through years of use, she taps a kind of morse upon the museum glass of each display case. Wonderfully enlightened and commanding, she navigates a path through history, keeping us all glued to the artefacts at hand. Did I mention she clasps this stick kind of how one would a horse-whip?

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Our wonderful guide, Matenadaran, Armenia

First item of interest, a gouache-like painting by Grigor Khlatetsi 1417 (complete with shoes, belt, hat and blush rendered in cochineal, a pigment made of crushed insects).

The image shows a child and his friend, ready to receive a form of corporal punishment, administered by a man with a curiously bent stick. Our guide elaborates (from what I recall) “If a child will not learn through their ears, they shall then learn through their neck and back”. Nice job. Setting an appropriate tone for both the day and our trip as a whole, the flow is a consistent line through a series of violences experienced by Armenia. From elaborate tortures administered by the Turks (see “Turkish Cruelties upon the Armenian Christians” from the genocide museum) to the interventions of Russia, the Armenians clearly come to light as a victim nation, one with inconveniently ambitious and ensuing neighbours, somehow only saved by their geographic boundaries, consisting of large fortressing mountains.

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Teaching in Armenian Medieval School, Grigor Khlatetsi, Ms. of 1417 

Enter the next manuscript painting, marked: “Gospel, Ms. of 1453, scribe Stepanos”.
This is Jesus on the cross, complete with bloated arm-pits, a kind of equivalent upside down set of water-wing arm bands, ready for a swim. I cannot help but couple this with ol’ Vladimir, from the nature exploration series cir. 2006. From this image, you can see an elevated Vladimir Putin – in attack mode, a powerful butterfly stance. Jesus be like, what-ev’a. This is somehow how Armenia postures, it shrugs and gets on with life in general. Caucasus for sure, yet ever so Balkan. I’m still learning.

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Jesus, on the cross: “Gospel, Ms. of 1453, scribe Stepanos”
Vladimir, in the pond.

On our first day in Armenia, we were greeted by a group of artists, one of whom gave me a short history lesson on Armenian war-times whilst puffing away a chain-series of fags. He was basically laying out the double-standards of Russian weapons sales to both Armenia and Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh War (late 1980s to May 1994), an action which fanned the flames of war, creating simultaneous wealth (for the Russians) and poverty (for both Armenia and Azerbaijan) from the resulting conflict. One is reminded of former possessiveness of the Soviet Union, and indeed the continued volatility of the region as a whole.

At the outbreak of World War I, the majority of manuscripts from Armenia were sent to Moscow for safekeeping and were kept there for the duration of the war. This make me wonder just what happened during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Were they moved again, or were the vaults secure? Just how does one layout a chronology as an imperial weapons supplier and subsequent manuscript safe-keeper?

1) flame escalation
2) remove manuscripts
3) arm both sides to the teeth.

or:

1) remove manuscripts
2) flame escalation
3) arm both sides to the teeth.

or probably the most risky of versions:

1) arm both sides to the teeth.
2) flame escalation
3) remove manuscripts

Stop your horsing around schmucks. A healthy horse has a healthy brain, not to mention a sense of decency – read about it here, in the book of horse physiology, our next fine example from the halls of manuscript excellence:

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Faraj (13th c.) Horses medical book, Sis, Ms. of 1296-1298.

If it is animal health you are interested in, I can but only mention the Homilies of Mush. But of course, the Homilies of Mush. This is a manuscript consisting of 605 lambs skins, supposedly a preference of the time, over papyrus or the like, for austerity measures – you understand? Homilies of Mush. Much Mush Mush. Mush Mush Mush Mush. Much more Mush than one would expect of Mush.

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Central spine of the Homilies of Mush.
Ms. of 1200-1202, Yerzynka, scribe Vardan, painter Hovhannes.

It is around this time that attentive (and very handsome) curator Samuel Leuenberger draws our attention to a typical drinking glass, hidden away in the back of a display case. It is clear it was once holding water, as it shows incremental mineral deposits, clearly seen as rings along its length. Our dominatrix guide describes this as the humidity control system, and swivel pivots, raising her stick towards a thermometer panel on the wall behind her. This panel has no apparent historical reading, it is merely a common outdoor thermometer, the kind you would buy in a Chinese store. Due to the primitive nature of this climate control, it at once becomes evident, we are in fact viewing a very elaborate series of copies of manuscripts whilst the originals are remotely under lock and key! Way to go!

The cup, the horse. The cup the horse. Oh yes, the sculpture on the public square in Yerevan. But of course!! The cup and horse sculpture. Quick interjection here: the museum we visited just after the Matenadaran is the private biographical museum of Yervand Kochar, the artist who realised a large horse sculpture, complete with a symbolic cup originally intended to be holding a body of water. This cup is however tilted, and the water continually spilling, hence illustrating the upset of the nation and a call to arms. The horse is alert, ready to carry the soldier forward to strike. Then there is the dried up cup in the museum, not-at-all balancing the humidity of a copy of an ancient manuscript. It’s all quite mysterious. Its all a copy and a farce, but with real gravity, like the real water which has created a kind of rust stain down the pedestal of Kochar’s horse sculpture.

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Sasuntsi Davit Statue, Yervand Kochar, 1959

Being able to video in the Kochar Museum, I was lucky enough to capture the engaging conversation between curator, critic and consultant Toke Lykkeberg and the museum staff, together with the grandchild of the artist himself. Lykkeberg draws comparisons to the work of Picasso, and of course the war-scene of Geurnica. Is Kochar perhaps a plagiarist of Picasso, is Geurnica doomed to be repeated in the Armenian context? Which ever way you turn, the role of the horse in warfare is pertinent, a recurring vehicle throughout history, as is the copy. This rounds up my report, all events which basically took place before lunch. Granted Lykkeberg permission, the video extract can be seen here.

Toke Lykkeberg in conversation with museum staff and grandchild of artist Yervand Kochar.

By James Beckett


Kochar Museum
On our third day in Yerevan and after just visiting the city’s main jewel, the museum of manuscript we made ourselves over to the Kochar Museum, a private collection of painter and sculptor Yervand Kochar, one of the country’s most export hit. As a young artist he was in Paris in the early 20th century and together with Picasso, Leger and co mingled in the Paris avant-garde where often he was also shown in good company.

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Today we are seeing his legacy which is overseen by his grand-daughter, in a building with classical marble columns and gallery rooms, there is a team of 5-6 women art historians welcoming us to get to know the work better. First we were sat before a TV to watch a documentary on the artist’s early part of his life, his years spent in France before looking at his individual works which had the air of an impressionist, postimpressionist, post-cubic Era. A painter with a visible knowledge of his medium, his most impressive works where his paintings in space. Metal bend sculptures, painted on all sides he liked to portray the two sides of the coin or what he observed in-between. Androgynous figures, between man and woman, between David and Goliath, or other symbolic characters he took quite a classical stance at historical figures.

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Despite the city’s support of Kochar and his art, we also saw a huge public art sculpture by him nearby, the foundation realised that history has been re-written without him in it, so the first mission statement of the museum was to show the breath and talent he brought to Paris and the legacy he was part of. Again we were saturated by sweets and coffee and shown around the gift shop, which in part was a re-construction of the artist’s studio at home. There was a clear sense that an international collaboration with the curators in the group was wished for, to reconnect to an international reading of the oeuvre.

One of most crucial figure of Armenian Modern art, Kochar is sculptor and painter who has been a member of International Paris School at 20-30, signed or wrote some manifests with surrealists.

By Samuel Leuenberger


Cafesjian center of Arts / Crystal Palace Heaven
We meet at the impressive entrance of The Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The museum opened in November 2009 and has since had 1 million visitors – everybody that enters the premises are counted – and 90% of the institution’s spaces are free to the public.

The very kind Mr. Astghik Marabyan (chef curator) welcomes us all. The building looks promising, it is built into the hill and has a slight resemblance to pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It looks promising.

The kind Mr. Astghik Marabyan starts his guided tour of The Cafesjian Center for the Arts in the gift shop. We are told it is not just a gift shop, not just a museum store, but also an exhibition space. We experience their unique teapot exhibition! The teapots are not for sale we are informed. The shopkeeper explains how they sell objects and merchandise from all over the world, including the most known Armenian glass artist. Through collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum they sell Van Gogh silk scarfs. They also have umbrellas with images by Monet and Klimt.

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The museum is inspired by the vision of its founder, Gerard L. Cafesjian, the Center offers a wide variety of exhibitions, including a selection of important work from the Gerard L. Cafesjian Collection of contemporary art.
The following images present the collection, institution and exhibitions like Yerevan Collectors’ Choice series 3, In the Mind of the Collector and Cafesjian Sculpture Garden.

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The last part of the tour is the Swarovski Crystal Palace Exhibition, where hundreds of Swarovski crystals are displayed as sculpture-like objects and installations.

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The official statement on the museum website states: “The Cafesjian Center for the Arts is dedicated to bringing the best of contemporary art to Armenia and presenting the best of Armenian culture to the world.” Some might say.

Outside the museum:

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Jacob Fabricius


KultuurDialog Armanien presentation and diner
Later that evening we had a meeting with KultuurDialog Armanien and had diner with the team of KultuurDialog Armanien.
KulturDialog Armenien is a non-governmental and non-profit foundation with cultural orientation. It was founded and registered by the art historian Sona Harutyunyan in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, on June 15th, 2012.

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The objective of Foundation KulturDialog Armenien is to support cultural exchange and to establish a dialogue between Armenian and non-Armenian artists. Our aim is to strengthen this exchange and make it accessible to a national and international audience. Our highest priority is to make Armenian artists and their art better known – in Armenia but also abroad. Ideally, this is the beginning of a constant and constructive dialogue all participants will benefit from and which will open new perspectives for all aspects of the art business. For more information have a look at there website.

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We ended with a great diner.

Day 8 – Yerevan

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A visit to the Paradjanov museum in Yerevan is a real pleasure, not only because of the works this museum has on display, but even more because Paradjanov is a key figure in the Armenian cultural heritage and one of most interesting filmmakers of the Eastern Europe during the sixties and seventies. His life includes the history of the Soviet Union after World War II: born in 1924 in Georgian Tiblisi, as a son of Armenian parents, studied at the Film Academy of Moscou, making his first ‘essential’ movie in the Ukraine in 1965 (Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors), made another film in 1968 The Colour of the Pomegrenades – based on the folklores, legends, fables of Armenia – for which he got an enormous international response – the film is still considered as one of the best films of this period worldwide –  been put in jail in 1973 for five years because of his controversial lifestyle and his totally different style of filmmaking far away from the official Soviet cinema, and  being released a year earlier after a special request of French Surrealist poet and communist Louis Aragon in 1977 after four years of hard labour in Siberia. In 1985 Paradjanov was finally able to make his ‘third’ film: The Legend of the Suram Fortress based on Georgian history and legends, and just before he died another film, Ashik Kerib, in 1988.

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Paradjanov films are poetic ‘narratives’ in which he tells, like Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s animation films in Teheran, fables, legends and folkloristic tales deeply based on ancient storytelling, but transferred to weird poetic films that sometimes come close to the work of his friend and supporter Andrei Tarkovski, but definitely have their own style.

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The history of former Soviet Union comes in again after 1989, when both the Ukraine, as Georgia as Armenia claim Paradjanov as their most important filmmaker. All these former Soviet Republics are urgently searching for their own identity, often based on the same ancient storytelling, fables and legends. Half year ago I happened to be present at the opening of a huge exhibition on Paradjanov’s Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors – the film that he shot in the Ukraine based on the Ukrainian legends – in Kiev where major politicians and the Ukrainian elite were present to celebrate not only the opening, but mainly the national identity and uniqueness of their country.

But in Yerevan there is this really nice Paradjanov museum full of artworks that Paradjanov also made in between the spare films that he was able to make. Fantastic assemblages, collages, objects, drawings, and all different kind of stuff, which was stored in Tiblisi in Georgia, but that the Armenians managed to ‘move’ to Yerevan after Paradjanov’s dead in 1990 with the help of some Georgian – Armenian ‘criminal’ connections! Times change: being put in jail several times, but now being fighted, contested as a national hero.

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Revitalized by the endless energy that sparks from Paradjanov’s playful and wondrous works, we individually roamed the streets of Armenia’s capital city. Some impressions:

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Later that day we re-group at Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the secular counterpart of the Church Social Union. AGBU is devoted to upholding the Armenian heritage through educational, cultural and humanitarian program and is one of the few private organizations that support Armenian arts and culture within the Diaspora and since 2015 in the country itself. As such the philanthropic organizations is an exception to Armenia’s local art scene that is fueled by grassroots movements, which survive on the energy and input of passionate and determined individuals.

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A presentation of paintings by Leo Leo-Vardanyan in the lobby of AGBU’s office forms a prelude to the opening-event of his show next door at Karoyan Gallery.

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We join the crowd outside the gallery (many familiar faces from ICA’s party last night) and wait in anticipation of what is to come: life action painting, accompanied by Alexis Paul Saudaa, who plays his small organ. The audience is spellbound. We are vaguely reminded of the underground scene in NYC’s lower eastside in the 70’ies: the act of coming together anticipating ‘the event’ gives a special feel to the evening.

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After the performance Karen Mirzoyan welcomes us to Mirzoyan Library that is all at once a photo-book library, photo-gallery, workshop-space, classroom, a charming café and the living room of the city’s art community. An absolute must visit in Yerevan! After enjoying a delicious meal, Mirzoyan further introduces us to his foundation that aims to engage the local audience with the arts and support art-professionals teaching them about the production and printing processes within photography: an much needed mission to boost Yerevan’s art scene. Besides running the library Mirzoyan also works as an artists (we start to wander when he sleeps, what a dynamo! ) and has invite two of his artists friends to introduce their work to us. Samvel Saghatelian (aka Sam Saga), Anush Babajanyan and of above all Karen Mirzoyan, thank you for this wonderful evening!

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Jaap Guldemond & Nathanja van Dijk

Day 7 – Yerevan

After a short 90 minute flight our group arrives in Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia and home to over a million people. While a taxi is driving us to our first stop, we get our first impressions of Yerevan and immediately notice its situation in a totally different climate and cultural context. Beneath a clear blue sky the temperatures have fallen to around 10°C (as opposed to 20°C in Teheran) and girls changed their headscarves for warm gloves.

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After a short drive, we arrived at Kochar Str. 13, an impressive Soviet era building which houses a large amount of artist studios in quite basic conditions, in which I can imagine it must be tough to work during cold winters. The building hosts organisations such as Studio 20 where like-minded art professionals join forces. Studio 20 – a project of the ArtBasis Organization – serves as a communal space for discussion and creativity.

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It’s goal is to provide a collaborative and informal platform for intimate gatherings, discussions, reflection, information exchange and production. During a 3-hour session, a core group of Armenian artists, curators and activists from different generations informs our group about the contemporary art scene in Yerevan. Due to the lack of presentation platforms, a dominant art market, the absence of support by the government, the insufficient quality of Modern Art Museum and a conservative Academy of Fine Arts, the local art scene is operating in a melting pot of self founded, bottom-up initiatives. Art Schema, for example, is an online platform for visual arts professionals to create structured data, manage their own websites and present their works online. A second example is Video Art Archive Armenia, an online presentation platform for video art / performances and a starting point for various discursive paths. Unlike in Iran, where nearly no artist had a proper website or portfolio, these artists in Yerevan are obsessed by creating professional and semi professional websites, online archives and Facebook pages to make their work accessible for local and international public.

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Later that evening our delegation was invited for a bbq & vodka party in the Epicurean garden of ICA: the Institute for Contemporary Art. This organization was established in 2006 by Nazareth Karoyan – to this day the driving force of this alternative school – and gradually transformed from a short term curatorial workshop into a four semester long comprehensive study program. Where the more traditional Academy of Fine Arts of Yerevan refuses to treat contemporary art and experimental topics, ICA confronts its students with what is necessary to fully understand current artistic movements. The garden was packed with people ranging from 17 to 90 years old. Once again we witnessed that the contemporary art scene in Yerevan is not only led by a group of young, upcoming people but is founded on a generation of artists from the sixties and seventies. This older generation is still passionate, present and engaged and therefore a ‘maître à penser’ for the following generations. There is no doubt in the absoluteness of this institution’s social role in the local art scene and as a breading ground for future projects. Both online and offline.

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By Louise Osieka