Bir Ikona : 2010, Kazim Taskent Galerisi, Istanbul, 02.09 – 20.10 (solo)

To the memory of Martin, the beloved father of my daughter Meena

From him to us

“My passion came from my father and my lack of fear from my mother.”

                                                                                  Sarkis, 2007

“A novel by Stendhal and a novel by Dostoevsky do not have the same relation of individuality as that between two novels belonging to Balzac’s cycle La Comédie humaine; and the relation between Balzac’s novels is not the same as that existing between Joyce’s Ulysses and the Odyssey. The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. And this network of references is not the same in the case of a mathematical treatise, a textual commentary, a historical account, and an episode in a novel cycle; the unity of the book, even in the sense of a group of relations, cannot be regarded as identical in each case. The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse.”

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969

Each summer, one of the essential visits of our stay in Istanbul was the one we paid to Sisli’s Armenian cemetery where my paternal grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles are resting. One has to get one’s bearing in the alleyways to find the tombstones, step over wild grass, take the time to attend to the rose bushes, clean the marble steles and look, with a strangely calm feeling, at the smiling faces of my grandmother Diruhi, whom we used to call Yaya, and my grandfather, Garabet Dede, at the time of their marriage. The photograph, which has been colourised, was chosen by my father to decorate the tomb of his parents. They are young and handsome; they look happy. My grandmother always wore bright lipstick, and it is visible on the printed picture, underlining the contour of her lips while fixing her smile for all eternity. In that same Armenian cemetery, a haven of peace as soon as one passes through its heavy doors, the Patriarchs of Constantinople are also resting. It is in the centre of the Sisli district that, following various often harsh urban policies which made a clean sweep of the historical monuments, the space of the cemetery became surrounded year after year, only protecting itself thanks to the involvement of the community which, lovingly looking after the trees, the flowers, the vaults, saved the memory of the dead from a second disappearance. One has to cross a busy and dusty street, almost running to avoid being knocked over by a car, before one can enter that garden of the souls. The visit to the Armenian cemetery was often followed on the same day by a visit to the Muslim cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I’ve always experienced intensely those moments when the dead are called upon. Those places for contemplation are also living spaces, if only for the speed and kindness with which the old men and young boys, who fill the plastic jugs and buckets with water used at the tombs, hasten to accomplish their task.

Seeing those ten year-old boys rushing down the slopes of the Muslim cemetery, almost hopping from tomb to tomb as if playing, running to-and-fro, sometimes up to ten times, to the fountain in order to satisfy those who want to see the plants on the tombs come back to life, the bird bath refilled, the marble shining after the water has been poured on it again and again, all that for a few coins or a modest banknote, are moments that have left their mark on me for ever. I turned my head towards the beauty of the landscape that opens onto the Bosphorus through the trees and watched in silence that cleaning activity. My parents stayed some time in serene contemplation, when we were younger. I also remember going there with my brother Dork, and then later with my eldest daughter Meena.

Visiting the Armenian cemetery also meant having access to the director’s offices so that my father could confirm the upkeep of his family tombs for the year to come. I had asked my father whom he got his name from, but he no longer knew for certain.

Who was the member of his family who bore it before him?

In summer 2008, with the desire to look more deeply into that genealogy, I asked the employee who managed the huge register in the office to try to find among the thousands of names written down, those of the dead with their ancestries, dating from the passing of my grandfather and my great-grandfather, and to note down their names. With a cramped Armenian writing, and ink of a different colour for each era, the listed names reflected a reality that made death at the same time both tangible and administrative, but was also related to a particular memory when it concerns preserving a history, which, in a way, remains open, remains to be written, remains to be told.

While I was observing the movement of the trees through the half-open window giving onto a sunny part of the cemetery, with that yellow light so characteristic of Istanbul at the beginning of the afternoon, the employee at the register found the name “Sarkis” in our family genealogy: my father bears the name of his great-grandfather. That information did not have real importance as such, but, paradoxically, without knowing why, I found it reassuring. I remember having, as early as my adolescence, a very strong connection to that question of origin and origins, probably because of the cultural plurality my parents were born into, and, by extension, the continuous links which were necessarily woven between a historical past and a family present. In the context of my upbringing in Paris at the beginning of the 1970s where, still a child, nothing escaped me that the world brought about as far as injustice, poverty, pollution, racism, sexism and crises of all sorts generally were concerned, I found resonance in the way my parents vehemently confronted us with those realities and the usual life of a child who goes to school, reads and plays. A strange period of my life where harsh political awareness and filial love were mixed.

The radical aspect of my father’s work, his artistic and intellectual commitment, his recurrent headaches, his concentration that never fails (he had and still has an extraordinary capacity for concentration by successfully abstracting himself from any activity around him), were met with a relaxed rhythm of life, Sundays always being devoted to an exhibition, a film or a walk, and dinners often ending in fits of giggles shared with my mother. It was also the time when, still sharing a room with my younger brother, we played in the dark at guessing the words we wrote with the tips of our fingers on each other’s back.

But the question of origin was still recurrent within me, and I used to talk about it each summer with my grandparents, asking them to tell me endless stories about their past, to recall memories, tastes, smells. My paternal grandmother was born in 1909, at least that’s what we assumed for we didn’t know for sure the month of her birth; I’ve always been troubled by that impossibility to confirm a date. It stayed with me as I work as an historian, always seeing how an event exists with regard to a date, how what happens at a certain time is temporarily connected to a given situation. Interestingly enough, that relation to the date is also very present in Sarkis’ work, both as a way to lay down, to state a beginning, and as a way to make temporality twirl, as was the case when, at the beginning of the 1990s, he started to push back the limits of a chronology by almost systematically adding a zero to the dates. We always celebrated my grandmother’s feast day on the 15th of August, the day of the Assumption, the day Mary rose “to heaven”, which is the same day the Armenians could start eating the blessed currants. We used to get them during the visit to the cemetery, where small packets of “Kus üzümü” were placed on folding tables at the entrance of the garden. As a child, I always ate them, trying to see if the fact that they were blessed changed their taste. I realised later, around the age of 11, that our upbringing hadn’t been religious at all. We had been raised in the awareness of belief, but that belief did not necessarily embrace one God in particular, it actually stemmed from an analysis linked to a political moment which was experienced in the 1970s everywhere in the world. Our religious education was done as we visited the places of worship. The hours spent in Venetian churches in front of paintings by the Masters, listening to my father describing the compositions, pointing out the use of colours, their place in the architectural space, were precious. Not only were the fascinating accounts related to a history of Christian representation where each Virgin was more beautiful than the next, or certain Christs had the splendour of their sufferings, but, as we listened, we withdrew from Venice’s summer heat and each went into our own world. I know my brother had always been quite fond of the little dog on Carpaccio’s paintings, while I was mad about the scenes of the Annunciation, especially the Archangel Gabriel. Besides, I know that it is thanks to those church visits, where paintings and frescos used to send me into a great emotional state, that later on I studied art history. I wanted to understand and to study more than I wanted to experience. At the same time I knew that even if there was this attraction and a genealogy, I didn’t feel I belonged to a particular religion, and I was experiencing similar feelings when I walked on the carpets in a mosque in Istanbul. The light, the silence, the writings on the whitewashed walls, the reflections provoked a paradoxical state in which my heartbeat was associated with a great serenity. I knew that my mother’s family was Muslim, but that my grandparents had never really followed the religious rites. My maternal grandfather, a self-taught polyglot (he spoke Arabic, Persian, French, English, German…) considered religion from a distance, and my mother studied at Notre Dame de Sion, which clearly shows the open-mindedness and adhesion to a cosmopolitan culture represented above all by French culture, whether literature or cinema, great classics my parents set out to learn thoroughly even before they came to Paris. That cultural in-between that I describe is obviously ours, I’m talking about my brother and I, but also my father’s within the Turkish and Armenian cultures he lived in and still lives in today. Nevertheless we knew that it didn’t concern religion, he has often repeated that at 16 he didn’t know if he was going to become “a priest” or “a painter”. The similarity of the terms in French (“prêtre” and “peintre”), that could lead to confusion with an inattentive ear, is interesting.

Between that epoch and the moment he began his military service in 1961, Sarkis says that he was very influenced by certain literatures and philosophies. He brought together simultaneously in his reading, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Fedor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, (he read the last two in French), evoking an opening into the world. The big gap between Russell’s analytical philosophy, the literary and political engagement of Tagore, Dostoevsky’s social as well as metaphysical writing, Kafka’s modernity, between Wales, Bengal, Russia and Austro-Hungarian Prague, shows one chooses to appropriate references which depend upon the resonance it generates in an artistic and intellectual personal work. So Sarkis’ interest in the end of the nineteenth century takes into account a voluntary cosmopolitan approach of world culture, making him ahead of his time if one refers to current research around the theories linked to the globalisation of colonial and post-colonial history, an artist who reflects on globality through literary forms and, consequently, books – shifting objects par excellence. If, in the continuity of a French education at Saint-Michel, the reading of French writers and philosophers whose books on existentialism are contemporary to his formative period makes sense, the connection to a country like India is akin, for Sarkis, to a form of love that has been transmitted to him by a passionate friend, and which has never left him. References to India are found even in his most recent work. For, parallel to Tagore, there are the figures represented in the Ajanta caves, that he discovered reproduced in a magazine, which have served him as a model for dozens of gouaches and that he waited more than forty years to see in real life, in November 2007, during a trip to India. It’s also the moment when he says he “had a fixation on the Abbé Pierre and Van Gogh”[1] “I knew the Abbé Pierre when I was studying with the Jesuits. At some point, I went every day to the Chapel Saint Michel”. While the religious question is put across directly, he tries to understand what drove him away from it. Two complementary elements, one related to his personal life, the other to a more theological reflection, cross paths. There was first his meeting with and subsequent love for my mother, Isil. When he realised that she would occupy an essential place in his life, he went to see his philosophy teacher at Saint-Michel. That religious teacher was considered a liberal in the school and my father needed his advise to know how to manage that question of religion, of religious difference, and of a relation with a “Muslim woman”. The advice of the teacher was unequivocal: for him, Isil must convert, an answer that didn’t satisfy my father. The second element that Sarkis mentioned in relation to doubts about Christianity which gradually filled him, concerned the figure of Judas. I remember we were always looking for him on the representations of the Last Supper we saw in the European museums we visited (Paris, Venice, Berlin, Brussels). He admits having a “fixation” on Judas, for he thinks that without his betrayal, Christianity, leaning on the Gospels, would not have existed the way it does now; “it’s the age when suspicions started to develop” he insists. To doubt a religion in which one has evolved from a cultural point of view while at the same time having been involved in it according to a philosophical and artistic approach accounts for the fact that disillusions necessarily lead to other historical and theoretical anchorings. When one studies the directions taken by his pictorial work from that time onwards, one can almost rejoice that those doubts befell him. While, for example, he was interested for a very short period in Georges Rouault, and especially in his religious stained-glass windows and paintings, it led him to Edvard Munch, and, as said earlier, to the frescos of the Ajanta caves. If one looks at the brushstrokes on the paintings Rouault devoted to the Passion of Christ, one notices that they are thick, revealing straight away the trail of the paintbrush, the paint’s flow. While the painter focuses on the life of the “poor” or the people excluded from society by affirming a religious commitment, he creates a visual language Sarkis understandingly could have been interested in at a time when the question of pictorial expression asserting itself in the gesture, in the manner that Jackson Pollock, who had just come into that history of 1950s Western art, could take credit for. How to find a “visual” orientation while making the material being felt, as well as the tools used to paint, the colours in their primal reality, but without being in a form of abstraction that will bring about losing one’s footing with historical and political contemporaneity. Sarkis was in that research in the years 1957-58 as he left Saint-Michel and was about to start at the Académie des Beaux-arts.[2] The cultural shifts are the elements that are important vectors for his artistic and intellectual work. He questions the to-and-fro with, in the manner of a boomerang, as starting point and arrival point, Istanbul. “To be in Istanbul and look at Munch,” he says, “to be in Istanbul and look at Ajanta.”

An education that goes through books and an apprenticeship of art history via reproductions belongs to every artist or intellectual who looks at practices of the “centre” from “a periphery”. The historical richness of a country like Turkey at the intersection of ancestral civilisations, founder of oriental and occidental cultures, can under no circumstances send it back to a peripheral status. Nevertheless in the field of some disciplines, notably contemporary art, well-defined artistic centres are listed. The knowledge of what is happening in those (predominantly in Western Europe and the United States) is consequently acquired logically through what is diffused, that is, books, magazines and exhibition catalogues. A culture of reproduced images leaves room for another form of imagination. My father sometimes spoke to us with a severe tone when he thought we were, my brother, our friends and myself, too spoiled because of our evolution within a Parisian culture with a privileged access to museums and other original works of art, and exclaimed a “I had to wait 30 years to see the original of that painting”, implying that we had to be conscious of our luck as we experienced seeing the genuine works of art. That relation to the reproduction and the artwork reproduced in photographs has been, beyond his formative artistic period, a questioning that one finds again in his use of images or recorded sounds. In his approach to try to think the authenticity without necessarily favouring the notion of originality, in his awareness of the shift from one medium to another, one grasps that what interests him is also the journey that allows the visual or sound recording to exist.

Before entering the Académie des Beaux-arts, he said he devoured books with reproductions of paintings that he bought with his pocket money and the tips he received when he delivered meat parcels to his father’s customers. He was buying them on credit, those luxurious books on Toulouse Lautrec, Cézanne, Van Gogh, or the Dictionaries of modern painting and abstract painting, books that I have now in my own library, and which I used when I was studying art history. I enjoyed referring to French publications bought in Istanbul as one could sometimes still see on some of them the name of the bookshop they came from, and the price in Turkish pounds. My father said in one of our conversations that he didn’t like to read them, and that he hadn’t read them either. On the other hand, he looked attentively at the images, even though the quality of the reproductions was not always perfect. “You make things up from a tiny thing,” he said. That “making things up” allows for the creation of mental images which, by extension, will further the realisation of one’s own pictorial fantasies. From very neutral elements or elements inscribed in a more traditional pictorial line, gouaches with a more expressionist character sometimes emerge. “I was looking at Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault also, because like Dufy, it was easy to draw.” From the attentive gaze on reproduction, he moved to the realisation of copies, the first being those of Van Gogh’s oeuvres, but which he definitely considered his own. Undoubtedly it was already a reflection which would help him to move towards that notion of interpretation that he was the first contemporary visual artist to put across. To re-do a painting by Van Gogh or any other artist when one is a painter is specifically a very personal way to interpret visually what one looks at, studies and analyses.

While, in a different register, he declares he knows Maurice Utrillo by heart, he admits to knowing nothing of German or American painting. If the specialist magazines he bought were in French, among them L’oeil, one understands then that reading in a language implies also learning an art history through what the culture of that language diffuses. In short, if, at the end of the 1950s, while Sarkis kept himself clearly informed of current events on the eve of joining an art school, his knowledge of German or American art was limited, it was also because the magazines he consulted omitted to put the emphasis on those geographical areas which nevertheless occupied a fortiori a hegemonic position in Western art. The three years he spent at the Guzel Sanatlar Akademisi (1957-1960) in the interior architecture section, whose entry was selective (he explains by default, confessing to a compromise with his father who wanted his artistic studies to imperatively lead to a proper “job”) were not satisfying. Even though he learnt to draw plans, he mainly fed on the books he had at his disposal at school and regretted that no teaching had allowed him to comprehend the notion of architectural space any other way than through reproductions. He mentioned once again French magazines like Architecture aujourd’hui in which he discovered, among other things, the work of André Bloch, one of the members of the editorial staff who had for a while worked on the emergency architectures and created organic shapes which are close to sculpture. He noticed that, at the time, he had still never seen the works of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Arp, whom he discovered later in the very well-stocked libraries of the German cultural centres of Istanbul and Ankara. “Until then I was in a world of dictionaries,” he said, reinforcing that will to reflect uniquely on the status of the oeuvres questioned through photographic reproduction or the necessarily simplistic note in the dictionary.

While, in spite of studies that didn’t nourish him, that curiosity for architecture remains vivid, he noticed years later while commenting on his interest in the buildings whose cultural functions had been altered (especially the Byzantine churches that have become mosques like Hagia Sophia), the total absence of pedagogical reflection on the importance of an architect like Sinan. “There were five buildings by Sinan 100 metres from the Académie, but not one of our teachers mentioned his name, nor organised a visit to those architectures,” he added, irritated. “I had seen his name in books, but it was later on, in the 1970s that I started to become interested in him more specifically.” Ironically, the school is now called Mimar Sinan Guzel Sanatlar Universitesi, but I couldn’t find out from when that new title dates.

The growing importance that Sinan occupies in Sarkis’ work, especially since the 1980s, goes hand in hand with a new artistic way of looking at Istanbul, a city in which he started to exhibit again in 1986. The visits to Sinan’s mosques, like that of Suleymaniye in Istanbul or Selimiye in Edirne, enlightened by the informed commentaries of friends, specialists in the architecture of the 16th century, made him aware of the strata in a history of the structure that subjugated him. What interested him was the way a monumental architecture possesses a human scale, the way a place of worship, even a huge one, suggests without illusion that it has foundations resting on firm ground, the way the acoustics beneath the heavenly domes makes the sound ricochet in a tangible intimacy. Sinan’s genius came from that proximity as spatial as it was temporal, and referred to an almost materialist use of the elements that were, however, of the order of the sacred. When he related the way he conceived his retrospective in Istanbul Modern in 2009, Sarkis referred directly to that analogy between the way Sinan invited the light into the centre of his edifice and his own way, when he placed his head made of crystal in the middle of the maquette which represented his exhibition. So, several centuries later, that contemporaneity of an architect born in 1489 was revealed by an artist of today through the evocation of elements which made possible the establishment of direct connections between eras. The idea was to call forth an achronological connection to history in Sarkis which constantly brought back to the present elements of the past whose experience is lived “here and now”. However, that commentary can be made because the artist claimed those references directly. And with Sinan, what interested him too was that he was an imperial architect in Ottoman times, builder of majestic mosques while being of Armenian origin. It does not concern here a form of identification but a cultural and political analysis of the architecture and its function when the identity mirrors at the same time a minority space and a majority space.

In that whole period of art school education, my father said he only painted at home, without talking about it to anybody. Obviously he had friends in painting or sculpture studios but refrained from telling them that he himself was practicing that pictorial medium. I never really understood why he kept secret an activity that had been so much a part of his daily life since 1955. He had already been painting for five years when he obtained his diploma and then a few months later he exhibited his gouaches for the very first time in a local gallery in town, on Istiklal Caddesi. The selection was made by written application and it was for the exhibitor to deal with the transport, the hanging, the invitations and, generally, to take charge of all the costs. He was then 22, and it was at that moment the people around him discovered his painting. Though two or three of his friends were aware of his practice, none had seen his production. That exhibition which in reality took place quite early in his life, was the event that allowed him to anchor his status as an artist while also liberating himself from the patriarchal yoke. For, while claiming responsibility for intellectual and artistic autonomy, and reaching an adult maturity way before the official age of legal majority, my father had been raised with values encouraging feelings of respect for the family that he couldn’t allow himself to renounce without first asserting that his passion existed outside the semi-secrecy he had imposed on himself. To exhibit was to disclose what had been kept secret, and that, even though my father was still sometimes coming back from work checking that the house had not been stained by paint. What strikes without surprising was the insistence with which my father harks back on his solitude at the time. “I was completely alone. I was living alone, I did not belong to any artist group, I didn’t go for a drink with fellow artists. I was doing a very solitary work.” When one knows about his sense of camaraderie and his gift for listening, his leaning towards the collective, one understands that solitude was at that time almost a kind of shield allowing him to undertake a pictorial research without running the risk of being disturbed. He recognised his gouaches evolved in a very subjective space, as if it was a “painted journal”.

The journal here is what bears witness to a daily action made visible through the act of painting, for the series on which Sarkis worked had nothing intimate about them (the idea of journal and subjectivity could lead one to think otherwise). He painted the war, the two world conflicts being at different times in his life, the motive (in the double meaning of the word, the subject and the reason) of hundreds of gouaches. So, in that solitude that he evokes, he relates back directly from an inner space to an external political reality, to a historicity. It is his mode of operating as soon as he began to paint and settled into a two-metre square space in the attic of the Zabun Apt building that his parents had just built at no 63 Caylak sokak, where before there was an old Istanbul house, and facing no 54 where he was born. He was 17 and 1955 was the date of his first “studio”. The “studio” has always been a shelter for him, a space allowing him to harmonize in a simultaneous way, the mental and physical space in which the artist can merge. The studio is also by definition the place where one works with one’s hands. Since that tiny room Sarkis, wherever he is, will appropriate any space and transform it into a universe for work. He thus carries out an inversion of scale for, in the framework of his artistic practice, the studio becomes in turn space for exhibiting or object to exhibit. If he belongs to that generation of artists having launched the art of installation and the notion of in situ, presented, for example, in the exhibition Quand les attitudes deviennent forme in which he took part in 1969 and, by extension, an art “without studio or post-studio”, since the works are produced for a given context directly in the studio, he never questioned the idea of it. If the museum, the street, a maid’s room, a café, a train can allow one to work, they occupy the status of studio, for the tools of creation are mobile from the moment concentration is possible.

We evoked the difficulty in maintaining a chronological continuity in that biographical narrative and Sarkis is the first to try to throw off balance too-linear rhythms by making converse objects that can be separated by several centuries and/or thousands of kilometres. He created physical, historical and conceptual encounters between archaeological pieces and contemporary mythological statuettes, between an African mask and a neon, between an Indian sculpture from a collection and a salvaged object, between a watercolour and a press article. Those conversations, as he called them, are also those he applied to himself or that we can try applying when we study his work while relating it to past events which are, in various ways, updated. So without falling into the trap of the historian who hangs onto a date while trying to decipher the causes and effects, that of 1955, previously mentioned, unmistakably marks a turning point for my father. It is from that point that his interest in painting is formed and that he conjures up in a simultaneous way elements of his life while integrating them into his practice in a frontal manner, even though that frontality sometimes takes a few years to be expressed. 1955 saw the construction of the building that bears the family name, though amputated from the “yan”, with all the symbolics of the home linked to the anchorage in a street situated in the heart of the city. That same date also corresponds to the moment he discovered a certain image on the page of a magazine he used to wrap up the meat and whose crucial importance he mentioned several times. He was struck without knowing what it was, by that “head of a screaming foetus”. It was Edward Munch’s The Scream, which the Norwegian painter has made four versions of around 1893. My father was then 17 when a “very learned young student” and great lover of painting informed him of the origin of that reproduction. It is certain that if Sarkis had not himself talked about that painting with a clear absence of pathos, and that in spite of the emotional and symbolic charge held by that painting, undoubtedly the interpretations that follow the encounter with that “scream” would have been tinted with somewhat stereotypical psychological touches. For he links that representation to the years when, aged 10 or 11, he awoke in the night screaming in a phase of acute trauma following failed nasal surgery. “Munch’s Scream” is a world in itself. A link on the Internet retraces in an approximate manner the life of that oeuvre so often quoted, copied, interpreted, and gives us a chance to read the artist’s famous commentary: “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”[3] One can question the interpretation Sarkis gave when he suggested in a filmed interview that “it is not a child who screams but a child who puts his fingers in his ears so as not to hear the noises of the animals coming from a nearby slaughterhouse”. The analogy between the first vision of that reproduction on a paper used to wrap the meat in his father’s butcher’s shop and the slaughterhouse could also lead to a very simplified analysis which however exists. But it seems to me that each artist constructs in one way or another his personal mythology. One of the examples, moreover an important reference for Sarkis who has contributed to making him known in France, is the reference to Joseph Beuys. The latter explains his use of honey, fat or felt in his artistic work by linking them to the materials used by the Tatar nomads as they nursed him back to health when, as a pilot for the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, his plane crashed in Crimea. The function of the myth itself is to construct a belief on bases which are not necessarily true but whose questioning does not change the reality of the narrative. “Myth is a language,” Roland Barthes wrote in 1957[4]. And one could add, language is a form of interpretation and translation of real or fictitious ideas. So, when the art historian undertakes to retrace the various stages in an artist’s life, s/he is in a contradiction when s/he relies on the discourse of the artist with whom s/he converses while trying to verify the veracity of the discourse by pursuing, for example, research in archives or books. “What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth”, Roland Barthes says to conclude his introduction to Mythologies.[5] My idea here is obviously not to question what my father could have said about his encounter with Munch’s The Scream but rather to understand how, from that encounter, he articulates his production making manifest what could remain tacit. For, referring to so explicitly expressionist a painting is to decide to produce a work which will point towards a translation of what that representation implies. Sarkis has several times taken up that screaming shape in his works, we have seen it in watercolours, in photos, he has been invited to show an original version in an exhibition in Bonn, the virtual version of the Oslo museum has been presented via a webcam in the Louvre, a large scale digital print has been put up in Istanbul. Therefore the history of that reproduction punctuates decades of work to reinforce beyond the myth the intrinsic possibilities that the notion of interpretation suggests. Facing Barthes’ “myth is a mode”, one can place Walter Benjamin’s “a translation is a form”. In an ensemble of texts gathered in French under the title Mythe et violence, “The Task of the Translator” which is an introduction written by Benjamin in 1923, to the German translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens, offers the following analysis: “Translation is a mode. To comprehend it as mode one must go back to the original, for that contains the law governing the translation: its translatability. The question of whether a work is translatable has a dual meaning. Either: Will an adequate translator ever be found among the totality of its readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in view of the significance of the mode, call for it? In principle, the first question can be decided only contingently; the second, however, apodictically. Only superficial thinking will deny the independent meaning of the later and declare both questions to be of equal significance… It should be pointed out that certain correlative concepts retain their meaning, and possibly their foremost significance, if they are referred exclusively to man. One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it.”[6]

Obviously the connection that Sarkis established with the memory of a moment passed through that desire to translate it, and the recurrence of the reference to Munch was part of it. But 1955 was also the year of another trigger moment for the artist, a moment linked to “events” as violent as that which The Scream accompanied in terms of nocturnal nightmares, but this time on a bigger scale for it concerns the city of Istanbul, and the “minority” section of its inhabitants, and that in the twentieth century, barely ten years after the end of the Second World War. Of those “events” and their implication in his work, my father has spoken very little, in a family logic of camouflage, undoubtedly, but also because without speaking about them, the images that they bore have fed a very large part of his artistic work. As he knew I was going to write this biographical text, the story emerged, and it was therefore out of the question not to include it here.

The various events are those of the 6th and 7th September 1955, which left Istanbul devastated by the destruction of more than four thousand residences, places of worship and shops belonging to the non-Muslim community of the city.

“They broke the windows and threw everything there was into the street. The smell of olive oil, vinegar and other spices from the greengrocers were mixed with the materials and unrolled carpets in the street, the smell was a smell of the town that I can still smell today,” my father told me. In Istanbul, memories of a city, Orhan Pamuk also remembers those memorable events: “Nineteen-fifty-five was the year the British left Cyprus, and as Greece was preparing to take over the entire island, an agent of the Turkish secret service threw a bomb into the house where Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Salonika. After Istanbul’s newspapers had spread the news in a special edition exaggerating the incident, mobs hostile to the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants gathered in Taksim Square, and after they had burned, destroyed and plundered all those shops my mother and I had visited in Beyoglu, they spent the rest of the night doing the same in other parts of the city. (…)

So for that entire night, every non-Muslim who dared walk the streets of the city risked being lynched; the next morning the shops of Beyoglu stood in ruins, their windows smashed, their doors kicked in, their wares either plundered or gleefully destroyed. Strewn everywhere were clothes, carpets, bolts of cloth, overturned refrigerators, radios and washing machines; the streets were piled high with broken porcelain sets, toys (the best toy stores were all in Beyoglu), kitchenware, and fragments of the aquariums and chandeliers that were so fashionable at the time. Here and there, amongst the bicycles, overturned and burned cars, hacked-up pianos, broken mannequins gazing up at the sky from the cloth-covered streets, were the tanks that had come too late to quell the riots.

Because my family told stories about these riots for years afterwards, the details are as vivid as if I had seen them with my own eyes.”[7]

My father was at home at the end of the afternoon on Tuesday, the 6th September, and heard on the radio that the shops were going to be attacked, that groups had formed everywhere in the city and were starting to bang on the windows. He went out and stood in front of his father’s shop to defend it. The shop, by some miracle, was not destroyed, but an iron bar left a mark on the shop-front that remained visible until the butcher’s shop closed at the beginning of the 1980s. On the other hand, the shop of Siranus (Siranouche) Morakur, his great-aunt, widow for a few years at that time, who managed by herself the butcher’s shop opened by her beloved husband, was entirely demolished.

While Pamuk evokes those incidents by saying that they had been discussed at length at home, on the contrary my father gives no precise details on the exchanges with his parents that followed those extremely violent events. As for other questions linked to politics and the community, the unsaid or the implied must have been prevalent, for resignation more than for fear, those two mixed feelings being those against which my father showed the greatest resistance. But, stemming from the vision of those streets scattered with carpets and materials, over which a deadly silence hung, mental and concrete images echo various moments in his work and the history of the country, like the curfews experienced by Sarkis during the Second World War, or those I myself remembered during the conflict with Cyprus at the beginning of the 1970s. We rediscover them with the materials used as means for covering (rolls of tar, material, carpet, felt) which contribute to neutralise sounds and light, and the space rendered deaf also echoes what has not been openly said in the family context. “My parents kept themselves to themselves, they didn’t involve us in their decisions nor in their conversations,” my father specified during our conversations. “For me, silence really has a weight,” he confessed, “in the house we always spoke Armenian in a low voice and generally, we didn’t talk about anything, and we didn’t speak to each other. My brother Torkom suffered a lot from that, ‘my father never talked to me’, he complained.” As an antidote, Sarkis has made speech another manifestation of the form asserted as such, as an artist as well as a teacher. Without mentioning the space for speaking, which comes from his militant experience and that one encounters even in the family circle: to clear any misunderstanding, to clarify any word, to make sure one can talk, whatever happens, whatever it concerns. From the 1990s, that space for speaking ties up with his preoccupations with the question of interpretation of artworks and notions of improvisation and oral work he was able to integrate into his visual practice. In the same way as he is keen to explain his production as encounters or conversations, as was said earlier about the “face to face” between objects, he gets involved in his exhibitions through his physical presence and through a dialogue. To be there where his pieces are in order to speak about them to the audience, anticipates the contemporary and at times ill-advised questions on mediation as applied in art institutions. But Sarkis is into that requirement to speak to the other in an explicit way since the beginning of the 1970s.

An anonymous text he produced in the form of a biography conceived as an artistic act on the occasion of his exhibition Opération Organe in 1972 in the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle, offers in its conclusion: “I know very well that if he could speak German, Sarkis would prefer to spend all his time in that room in the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle and would have spoken to the people. For that purpose this little text, which replaces an artist biography, a list of exhibitions, a bibliography, will be slipped into the brochure. PS: this text has been sent by post to the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle with the reference ‘Opération Organe’.” The text is typed and retraces the various stages of his life from his birth on the 26th September 1938 in Istanbul’s German hospital. We are certainly here in the tradition of conceptual art, where the de-materialization of the object also passes through the use of words or language, only with Sarkis words don’t take the place of the object, they accompany it, precede or follow it; they walk together. Words play a part in freeing oneself from silence.

My father also made clear that it was the events of the 6th and 7th September that brought out in a radical way the question of the difference in scales, the scale of the city and the country. Before that, it was the family (and generally the families living in that awareness of being a minority – Armenian, Greek, Jewish) that bore that awareness of being different. “From those events in September, there was an individual awareness of the difference”.

When I was a child, I was always questioning my grandparents to obtain their first-hand accounts about moments of the past, but, in spite of the pleasure to narrate the stories (some stories), I felt that many things were not mentioned. There were those moments of silence which spoke loudly but which didn’t help me until I was older to capture the reality, except by going back on certain questions that I posed to my father. While my paternal grandmother, Yaya, was the one who carried in her, in the most visible way, that awareness (she was actually the one who told me the most stories linked to the past), she occupied and still occupies in a symbolic way a major place in my father’s life.

She was the guardian figure, the strong woman, a woman who carried her family. “There was always just that one person behind me: Yaya,” he said. His father was working long hours and was physically and mentally tired. He came home exhausted and “fell asleep.” That relation to work for my paternal grandfather who belonged to a generation where one was forced to earn a living as soon as adolescence had left its mark undoubtedly on the way life and the sacrifice it entails can be looked at. In 1924 Garabet Dede left for France – he was 14 – arriving in Marseilles, before going to Paris to work in a factory, in an assembly shop for motorcycles, where he had an accident that disabled his right arm for life. He was then employed at Olida’s (for years he asked us to bring back tins of meat from Olida’s when we went to Istanbul for the summer), and in the evening he worked at the entrance of bars distributing tickets. My grandfather came back from France and started to work at a greengrocer’s. He then met my grandmother who was working in a doctor’s practice, as well as doing some domestic cleaning. They became engaged and married in 1933 or 1934. My uncle Torkom was born in 1935. The relation between the two brothers suffered the consequences of the different way their parents looked at them. Torkom, the elder by three years, was encouraged to follow the family path without ever being given a real chance to express his choice. He then decided to leave Turkey and went to live with his wife and two children in Toronto, where there is an important Armenian community. My father, who was more independent, and was left to his own devices, began, and that despite a feeling of isolation, to think the notion of family in a wider manner, if not as a whole including wife, children, grandchildren, pupils, artworks… His individual relation to the collective changes, intellectual formation also plays a part in the sense of an experience which confirms the possibility to have coexisting in a critical manner, materialism and spirituality. That is what one finds in his visual and sculptural art, in a visible fashion, especially from the turning point in 1979 when colour arrived, when red and green harmonised, confronted one another, repelled each other, overlapped. The moment of CRISIS.

My grandfather opened his butcher’s shop after the birth of his elder son in 1935. Each morning at 3.30 a.m. he went to the slaughterhouse at the Corne d’Or to choose the meat and came back to his shop where he worked until 9 p.m. His right arm, Vasil, was of Albanian origin. After the birth of my father, my grandfather went back to the army for the war in 1940, initially at the border with Edirne, on the front line. At that time, he had been enrolled a few times and the Armenians and other members of the minorities were often on the front line. In 1940-1941, my grandmother took care of the butcher’s shop by herself. Between 1942 and 1944, a tax was imposed on wealth (varlik vergisi) destined to prepare the country for eventual participation in the Second World War. Even though that tax was supposed to target all the wealthy people in the country, it was especially on the members of the non-Muslim communities that a higher percentage was imposed, making them suffer and depriving them of most of their resources, if not pushing some to leave the country to escape threats of arrest, seizure and despoiling. At that time, many Armenians left for Argentina. That was the case of my father’s first cousins, whose parents were concierges in an apartment block in Kurtulus. Sarkis recalled the moments he paid them a visit on his way back from school, for Saint-Michel was not far away. He used to sleep there sometimes, and “escaped” to go to a neighbouring cinema, where he remembered seeing Wuthering Heights, that William Wyler made in 1939. In spite of their modest origin when they arrived in Istanbul (my grandfather was from Bilecik, my grandmother from Sivas) and their sustained work to earn a living, my grandparents, thanks to the butcher’s shop, gradually became established and came to be the upstanding people of the neighbourhood. My grandfather was then known as the “blond butcher” (“sari kasap”) and beyond the notions of class, they gradually acquired goods that integrated them into a wealthy social category thanks to their commerce. Party dinners, jewels, fine china, furs, French private school for my father and property with the construction of the building at Caylak Sokak, a street where my grandmother’s sisters also lived, established the patriarchal position of Garabet, who took care of the whole family with the approval and infallible support of Yaya. For Sarkis, the importance of that street was also built on that family bond that knitted the three sisters together for life (Uncle Zaven, the youngest, remains in my childhood memory, the temperamental younger brother). That way, the famous Caylak Sokak marked on all levels “the life and artwork” of my father but also, from 1986, a certain history of contemporary art in Turkey thanks to his first one-man exhibition there since his departure in 1964.

My two families (paternal and maternal) have known each other for decades and were friends through my paternal great-grandmother and my maternal great-aunt, neighbours at the time. My paternal great-aunt Sirarpi, my grandmother’s younger sister, was a cheerful and eccentric woman who told dirty jokes (which often I didn’t understand at all) and stories of the past causing enormous mirth with her delighted audience. She also sang lullabies and the most poignant popular songs wonderfully well. My great-aunt Siranus (Siranouche), my grandmother and Sirarpi’s older sister, was a more severe and introverted woman whom I feared (she forced me, when I was only 7, to learn all the stitches to crochet and knit) but whose austerity concealed a kindness, dignity, solitude and sadness that I found very moving. I know my father grew up between the two, belonging as much to one as the other. Sirarpi was the wife of Uncle Simon, the cobbler for whom he started to work, aged 7 or 8, his task to straighten out one by one the bent nails, thus avoiding any wastage. That relation to work he invoked in a quasi-obsessive manner comes from that moment. Having always seen his close relatives, and especially his father, at work, it was as if there had been no other possibility to construct a living than by integrating beyond work (artistic, intellectual, alimentary) the concept of work itself in his creations.

In Istanbul’s very limited artistic context of the early 1960s that Sarkis described, the experience of work was a form of exclusive nourishment. The museum of painting and sculpture mainly offered art pieces created by Turkish artists, as well as many copies, for when the assistant professors of the Art school were sent to France to be trained, they had to bring back a copy made there. These copies were exhibited in the galleries of the museum. The only original painting Sarkis remembered was a small Bonnard. There were two galleries, the gallery of the city (Istiklahl Caddesi) and a gallery near the cinema. An exhibition of Yüksel Aslan in 1959 was one of the rare memories of an exhibition that he had. “Aslan was a painter who was doing a painting the opposite of what we were used to seeing then, a bit like Klee’s, a painting not academic at all, very free. I was quite captivated.”

Between 1961 and 1962, he entered Istanbul’s military school in Silahtara and stayed for six months. Then he became an officer at the Ministry for the Army in Ankara for a year. That period of military service was one of the few that Sarkis has evoked right from the beginning of the 1970s, when he made reference to his life. It introduced again that relation to uninterrupted work, making complex the management of his time when the will to not lose any by working unceasingly and the possibility to project himself into a more ethereal temporality are juxtaposed. It is also within that paradox that his creative space can be found: above all else to not give oneself any respite but to escape and get a breath of fresh air by producing free works. One finds that moment of military service described in the biographical note for Opération Organe in 1972: “one sees that notion of work in Sarkis’ life as early as 1960.[8] At that time, he was doing his military service as a lieutenant in the Turkish army in the Ministry of Defence: the day started at 9 a.m. and, until 5.30 p.m., he was working as an officer; from 6 p.m. till 1 a.m. he was a draughtsman in an architect’s office and after 1.30 a.m. he was an artist painter.”

My father explained to me that it was indeed impossible for him to go to bed without painting at least one gouache each day on a sheet of paper. More recently, during a conversation on TV, he retold the same episode of the military service while providing once again the detail of the timetable of his working days and nights. He emphasized then that it clearly was a discipline. But taken in the context of the biography destined for his exhibition in Dusseldorf, it contributed to feed the comings-and-goings between “life and work” by making sure they couldn’t be dissociated. The multiple roles he had assigned himself (military, draughtsman to earn a living, artist-painter) contributed to looking at the paintings produced by taking into account a strict organisation and an imposed rhythm while the compositions of those gouaches turn upside down rather radically the methodical organisation they could have taken on. They claim a certain “madness”, a word Sarkis uses frequently in very different contexts. “Madness” is not of the order of the insane, it is, on the opposite, what allows one to cut oneself from categories, from techniques. It allows one to gain a unique space for freedom, to push back the limits of the frame, of art, and is at the same time the vector of the idea and that towards which the idea aims. The hundred gouaches Sarkis produced then, first in the intimacy of his little Istanbul studio, then in Ankara in a night heavy from the fatigue of the day, are like the visual representations of mental images. They are barely connected to anything known in the history of art, so contemporary in their realisation, and if one finds in them a darkness, a depth, a brilliance that touches those literary, pictorial, philosophical references that are called forth and have been mentioned earlier, there is deliberately an ungraspable representation which has decided not to be abstract art.

At the end of 1962, when his military service ended, Sarkis left the architect’s office to go and work, still in Ankara, at the Ministry for Reconstruction (Homes for the people) where he drew all the plans. We talked about that relation to work, and one notices that even though he started rather early to sell his paintings, the idea of living solely from his art didn’t yet cross his mind. It’s obvious that it’s a question one could pose to many artists of his generation when the autonomy of an artistic production passed by the possibility of not depending on the trade system. But in Turkey at a time when the models for conceptual analysis were not present, the question was certainly posed differently. One had to find solutions to live and create. If the artists inscribed in a critical thinking process in the 1960s were involved in practices that analysed the place of the economic value in artworks by taking them away from the yoke of the market, their ethical and political position was nevertheless financially uncomfortable. Poor means of earning and precariousness were often the consequence of their integrity.

The transition between 1962 and 1963 is important for my father because it also marked the beginning of a career that, between Istanbul and Ankara, showed glimpses of new perspectives for his work. Among others he evoked an impromptu encounter with Werner Hofmann, the famous historian of German art, who was on a visit to Ankara for a conference that was held on the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), his speciality, at the Germano-Turkish cultural centre. Sarkis was contacted by an artist who thought highly of his work and offered to show some gouaches within a hanging that Hofmann was going to see. As there was no longer room on the walls, Sarkis placed his gouaches directly on the floor. The art historian questioned the people present on that purpose and no-one answered, but he concluded that it was what interested him most and greeted my father a few days later when he came to his conference. Following that episode, the director of the Germano-Turkish cultural centre offered Sarkis an exhibition in the gallery. Settled in Ankara where my mother joined my father a little while before their wedding on the 20th September 1963, they moved in a circle of artists and intellectuals and lived in the Turkish capital until the summer 1964, when they returned to live in Istanbul.

In the introduction to the book he co-edited with Süreyya Evren, User’s Manual: Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006, Halil Altindere evoked the personalities of Altan Gürman and Sarkis as the first artists to have, at the beginning of the 1960s, thought their work according to “conceptual tendencies”. “In a period,” he wrote, “when the academy had an intense influence over the art environment and art production, Gürman created difference in his personal production and staged a pioneering venture in contemporary art; whereas Sarkis, who moved to Paris in the early 60s, concentrated his artistic production mostly on conceptual art and thus enabled an artist with roots in Turkey to become one of the creators of a significant current in Western art history.”[9]

Altan Gürman and Sarkis met in Ankara during their military service and struck up a friendship. The artistic career of the two friends is interesting, same generation (Gürman is three years older than Sarkis), same desire to look in a totally different way at the notion of artistic creation, and, finally, departure a few months apart for Paris, where they would obtain, respectively, in 1966 and in 1965, the diploma from the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

The decision to leave for Paris was taken by my parents in accord with the logic of their education in French schools and the artistic and intellectual place occupied by the French capital in those days.

The administrative procedures to organise the departure were long and complicated. Sarkis negotiated with his father to obtain a “bursary” allowing them to settle. My grandfather accepted in view of a family move. “There was something close to ‘America America’,” remembered my father, quoting Elia Kazan’s film, “one of his sons left, made a career, took back the other son, then the rest of the family. That was certainly how your grandfather considered that journey, while your mother and I were in a construct which proved to be completely alien to my parents”. “In the idea of the departure for Paris, there was no clear decision as regards the duration of the stay. It was a bit one day to the next. It was the existence itself which decided things, we did not anticipate them.”

On the 18th September 1964, after a train journey lasting three days and three nights, with a hundred gouaches in their luggage, my parents arrived in Paris. That same evening they were at the Cinémathèque, watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence made by the Swedish director in 1963. From then on, adapting to life in Paris would mean hundreds of hours spent in cinemas, with hundreds of films seen thanks to the exceptional offer still made by the city today.

The country in which they arrived was governed by Charles de Gaulle. André Malraux, a major figure in literature and a politician, was minister of cultural affairs. Passionate about the arts, and a skilful diplomat, his charisma was visibly part of the importance of French culture on an international level, even though as far as contemporary art was concerned, Paris had been supplanted by New York since the 1950s. Determined to make cultural knowledge available to everyone, Malraux created the ‘Maisons de la culture’ where various artistic fields co-existed under a form that was non-hierarchical. The place occupied by French politics at that time was, however, marked by the war in Algeria, which had gained its independence in 1962 following a conflict whose violence left indelible marks on France. The country suppressed its colonial past for a long time afterwards. The other war that began in 1964 was the Vietnam war, in which the United States went into action by launching offensives first in the North of the country, then in the South. In the middle of the rise of the media, the Vietnam War was the first to be broadcast on television, provoking anti-military awareness and causing many uprisings and protests against American politics in various parts of the world. To quote those two conflicts helps us to understand, albeit indirectly, the way artists and intellectuals positioned themselves in the framework of a social and political commitment during one of the most dense periods of the twentieth century when the reality of the contemporary world was to invade artistic creation by sometimes moving directly into visual artworks. If Pop Art was, in the 1960s, characteristic of an art which borrowed from popular culture, press photography, current affairs and advertisement, without being the most politicised movement, other forms of commitment were visible in collective actions, performances and artistic projects undertaken in the urban space.

In France at the time, the dominant movement was New Realism, whose artists integrated within their creative process the analysis of society’s refuse and offered an art in which the notions of accumulation, salvaging and assembling were set out around the problematics put forward by the avant-garde and modernity. The other artists’ group which occupied at the same time a relatively predominant place on the French scene was Narrative Figuration. Without defining it as a movement, the artists who took part inscribed the various questionings of contemporary society onto their canvases. In July 1964, an exhibition entitled Mythologies quotidiennes was organised by Gérard Gassiot-Talabot, Bernard Rancillac and Hervé Télémaque at Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. Without directly appropriating pop aesthetics, there was in those artists a wish to borrow from popular culture as they responded with their figurative works to a political situation they deemed urgent to denounce, by referring frequently, for example, to the Vietnam War. It was within that group that my father began to evolve on his arrival in Paris. There is no concrete answer on the way one integrates a movement or not without it being one, nor how rather different aesthetic questioning can be established on associations based upon shared discussions. Sarkis speaks relatively little about that period, as it no longer really belongs to his artistic experience. One of the reasons he mentions on that subject, refers to the production of collages that he had at the time. Those collages using press cuttings, images of war, reporter’s photographs, functioned on the model of the strip, bringing to mind editing in cinematography or the photo strip, which would result in a sequence of images following a well-defined spatio-temporal rhythm. I don’t remember seeing more than one or two of those collages, remains of that period, and even wonder if one of them was not the reproduction of a 1966 work entitled Après Hiroshima, which opens the catalogue to his exhibition Sarkis 26.9.19380 in Bonn in 1995[10]. That period that could be qualified as transitional in my father’s artistic career combines a rapid involvement in the Parisian art scene and at the same time a desire to extract himself from it as early as 1967 at a time when an inadequacy appeared between the ethical and political thought process which underlies the visual creations and the economic reality which favours substantial purchases of those collages by collectors. He experienced a contradiction where the market success only reinforced the impossibility for him to produce “political” pieces (for they offer a criticism of the war, for example) whose first destiny would be to decorate the interiors of buildings. Therefore he decided at that particular moment to radically stop the production of those collages and slides without transition in 1967-1968 towards an artistic form which no longer was in the representation of the war but in the direct borrowing of a military vocabulary, materials, objects and images. It was also the moment my parents left the small studio in which they had been living since 1966 on the boulevard Arago in Paris to settle on the avenue de Choisy in the same district. While in the boulevard Arago they slept, ate and worked in a single room, in the avenue de Choisy they had at their disposal a cellar that my father began to use as a place for work and exhibition on the model of a hidden experimentation laboratory. Practical reasons also came with the necessity for him to leave the apartment for a few hours in order to isolate himself, for I was born on the 15th February 1968 and an interesting contradiction prevailed between looking after a new-born baby and creating hard, metallic, dark-coloured forms. At the same time, the use of such materials responded to a political function which dialogued with the period which preceded then faced the events of May 1968 that my father would closely follow and photograph. My mother said to me, much later, that she couldn’t go out because it was too dangerous with a three-month old baby on her arms. The radicalisation of Sarkis’ works followed too, it appears to me, the intellectual awareness which was his while he worked from autumn 1967 in one of the most important international art galleries in the world, the Sonnabend. That gallery was founded by Ileana Sonnabend, the ex-spouse of Leo Castelli, and directed with an iron fist by that powerful woman who, on top of her rue Mazarine Parisian space in the 6th district, would open her New York gallery at the beginning of the 1970s. She was the one who showed Andy Warhol and Robert Morris artworks for the first time in Paris, encouraging French critics and public alike to discover the most emblematic personalities of American contemporary art at a time when public opinion, influenced by de Gaulle’s anti-American politics and the violence of the Vietnam war at its fiercest, experienced a tormented relationship with the United States. Though my father initially worked in the gallery to earn a living as director of the exhibitions, he quickly came to be the one who thought through the space of hanging in relation to the works presented. I even wonder as I’m writing these lines if that function, which might appear insignificant, hasn’t been part of the awareness of the exhibition as an interpretation that he would apply some ten years later, to be precise, in that space of the Sonnabend Gallery when he began to exhibit his own work in April 1970 with an installation called Mekkano + Goudron. In 1971 we moved into the rue Vergniaud, where for the first time my father had his own studio within the house, and where he would be able to create most of his most emblematic pieces of the 1970 decade.

To have started that biographical account with those memories in the cemeteries was not without significance. The relation to death, to what’s left after someone’s passing away has always existed in our family (when I say family, I especially refer to our small tribe composed of my mother, my father, my brother, born on the 6th August 1973, and myself) not as a fate but as a reality for which one has to prepare oneself whatever happens and which above all one has to face up to with courage. I know that as far as I’m concerned, for years, and even today, that courage sometimes fails me completely. Very early on I was given a sense of responsibility by my parents, and especially by my father, at a time when his artistic production was articulated, as I’ve just said, around the questions of political commitment on an international scale. Following the direct consequences of the May 1968 protests in France and the Vietnam war, but also all kinds of conflicts, riots and protests which turned upside down the economic, social and cultural balance of our contemporary world, the daily test consisted in putting into place a logic for a visual art susceptible to accounting directly for those realities by wavering between normal family life and an ethical awareness of resistance. I spent hours in my father’s studio in the rue Vergniaud, where we moved the year of my third birthday. I looked closely at those military objects, tarpaulin, canvas and leather bags found in the flea market. I played hide-and-seek behind those minimalist shapes created with wide strips of black adhesive tape and laid on constructions in Meccano which, on a child’s scale, intrigued me in the day and terrorized me at night when those same shapes stood out menacingly in the darkness of the studio. But when I think about it today, it appears to me that the fear linked to those artworks was in line with the works. Sarkis didn’t make those pieces with Meccano, tar, camouflage print materials, direct references to the war, life on military camps, the cold and the forest in order to create convivial feelings. The visual and formal hardness of the pieces went hand in hand with what they meant from a political point of view. In spite of that, none of his works perplexed me, even though I tried to connect to some series which called forth, for example, more childish imagery, like those chubby children on the engravings Sarkis had found in New York. Made in 1973, that series was composed of several lithographs representing bucolic scenes where tiny characters were lost in a nature background. My father had isolated in a methodical way one of the children dressed in pastel colours, covering all the others and the rest of the image in its entirety with a thick black soft pencil. For me the violence of the erasing left room for the fragility of those small characters dressed in pink and blue whose blond ingenuousness was so light, childlike and enchanting, images reduced to an emptiness by the black that surrounded and encircled them. That series was entitled “classified” and a stamp similar to the one used in the secret files of the police security services appeared with the word “classified” at the back of each engraving. I don’t know if that work by Sarkis has been exhibited but I know that I spent long hours looking at the blackness of the pencil strokes without imagining that everything in the characters’ disappearance was referring to a questioning on the way beings fit into an dark space from the moment their figure is concealed. It seems to me that from the time of the rue Vergniaud studio, a vast and airy space, the relation to the work space slightly changed for my father.  While the other “studios” had always been by necessity more ephemeral places in regard to their size or their multiple functions, here, the possibility for pieces to blossom upwards in volume under the ceiling, but also the possibility to exist in a looser temporality, less bound to an urgency, created in Sarkis a new analysis of his work. If he still kept a close connection with the notion of scale and resistance (in the physical sense of the word too), he moved towards another “breathing”, to use one of his own terms. So, if an analogy was possible, we could say that between 1968 and 1973 his work resembled a fast heartbeat. The productions were organized within a mental and spatial network which depended upon a sound cadence (for example the use of material for recording or broadcasting is frequent, as in the installations Drama of the Tempest, or Gun Metal, or the one with the dogs that bark on the Pont des Arts). And, from 1974, he began to hold his breath. The installations and exhibitions were conceived by drawing on the idea of Blackout, they were in a state of expectation, if not, in apnoea. It was in that optic of expectation, whose synonyms go from a terminology resembling situations of danger and protection (lying in wait, on the lookout) to feelings of anxiety and dread, that Sarkis began to respond to a political and artistic context he interpreted in a quasi-instinctive way. That instinct was of course properly considered, but he asserted that shift where intuition, strategy, anticipation and balance of power were organised in the way the artworks exist in the space. In the studio of the rue Vergniaud where my parents have lived for almost forty years now and my brother and I grew up, the artworks, until they bought the splendid studio in Villejuif ten years ago, co-habited while waiting to be exhibited, waiting to be interpreted, waiting to be photographed, waiting to be activated. However, as I suggested earlier, those same artworks seemed to have their autonomy and that notion of waiting didn’t correspond in Sarkis to a form of passivity. One could use here the metaphor of the big cat waiting silently, its body stiff, for the opportunity to jump on its prey. That studio in which, as children we set up our own play references, was almost like a forest, so much did the objects present exist in a density. What comes back to me as I’m writing was that my father never forbade us from playing in his studio. We could settle wherever we wanted; we could bring our toys, our books, our drawing pads; we could even sometimes use his materials for drawing, his chalks and pastels. There is an interesting link too, as I think about it, in the way he always involved us in his work, as if to make us responsible as early as possible for the reality of creation and the necessity of being aware of it. But his approach was always connected to our status as children. For example, he asked me to respond in my own way to an invite he had received from a collector who was the owner of the famous restaurant La Cafetière, which was in the same street as the Sonnabend Gallery. I was seven then and he wanted me to draw a coffee pot in the hollow of my palm with a felt tip. Which I did, in blue. He photographed the drawing and my hand, made a print of it, and that was his participation in the collection of La Cafetière. Extremely happy with the result, the owner of the restaurant invited me to lunch. I still remember that moment when, alone at a table in that chic restaurant, my feet not even touching the ground, my neighbours looking at me bemused and amused, I ate an avocado for the very first time in my life. I had lunch looking all about me, stupefied that I had accepted such an invite when I was undoubtedly at my most timid. My father joined me for dessert, and I was mightily relieved at his presence. Through that very simple situation, the first steps of my future independence were laid thanks to him. And then, that drawing in the hand is found again in his own practice thirty years later in his short films where the watercolour and the hand are the main actors. There are a few sequences where my father paints directly in the hollow of his hand, holding the object represented and letting it “flow” or “burn”.

As with me, he also involved my brother several times in his work, once when he made him do an interpretation of a German-shepherd barking. It’s my brother who drew the dogs with coloured pastels. Another time, it was him too who painted part of the boat on the piece Le Voyage du Capt Sarkis. Finally, at the age of 12, as I started learning the violin, my father recorded me playing the lowest and the highest note, a difficult moment for me who hadn’t mastered yet that unrewarding instrument. He integrated that sound in the installation Rêve du jour et de la Nuit du Peintre en Bâtiment presented at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1980. I have the feeling that having become a father, then a grandfather, his first grand-daughter Meena was born on the 24th February 1995, his second, Lily, on the 29th October 2003, (and they each have a catalogue dedicated, respectively the one in Bonn and the one in Montreal), Sarkis has expanded his love of children in order to integrate them differently in his work of the last fifteen years. That is reflected in the use of certain colours, certain materials, works that are based on clothes created or worn by the children or by the watercolour in the water. That technique he invented and which generated hundred of films of great poetry, initiated mainly during his residency in Calder’s studio in Saché in 1997, also encouraged (and still does) within workshops, hundreds of children to express themselves through an art form all the more memorable for being ephemeral. We evoked that link between the artworks that are waiting and the way we can make them live. One of Sarkis’ major exhibitions which provided for the link between a tutelary figure of contemporary art and his work with children is the one he realised in 2002 in the Museum of Darmstadt[11]. There one could find the Block Beuys (dating from 1969), one of the only installations Joseph Beuys realised himself and which was still in place in a collection with the configuration set up by the artist. Sarkis emphasized “the expressiveness of the oeuvre [which] comes from the space created by a waiting. The visitor who experiences a Beuys’ artwork lives in a space which echoes a past and a present at the same moment. The past is painful? What about the present? After having experienced the Block Beuys, I started to feel that present was moving further away towards the past. I had the impression that the space born from the interval between past and present was shrinking. It is probably from the (mental) space that has shrunk that my project was born to have eleven children dressed in fluorescent colours visit the seven rooms of the Block Beuys.”[12]

It would be possible to establish historical and artistic links ad infinitum by referring to the history that runs from the 1970s till today. The involvement of the artists who have reflected on the means to transform the parameters of visual creation by questioning, in a fundamental way, the forms of traditional expressions has generated practices that integrate in depth the artistic disciplines other than the visual arts and the field of human and social sciences.

To give, for the first time, all those biographical informations on Sarkis helps us to comprehend the elements of his personal life without really contributing to an extended understanding of the work created by the artist over fifty years. That is the paradox stressed in the foreword. To offer, in the form of a cross narrative, “the life and oeuvre of Sarkis” goes along a multitude of paths which meet without really enabling us, in spite of perfectly easy to spot chronological marks, to put in place, for example, categories of works which would necessarily follow real-life moments. For those moments can sometimes take several years, if not decades, before appearing or disappearing in one way or another in visual or sculptural creations. In a recurrent fashion, when Sarkis thinks about the production of a work, he evokes several parameters for him indivisible: the context, the concept and the form. It is clear that these are the starting points of many artists having begun to exhibit in the 1960s, particularly in the United States and in Europe, in line with what is called conceptual art, contextual art, installation art, anti-art etc…, many approaches that became established and anchored in an exhibition that has made history, Quand les attitudes deviennent forme, organized in 1969 by Harald Szeemann in Berne’s Kunsthalle. But those notions, peculiar to the art produced at the time, function differently in his work. The context corresponds to being part of a contemporary reality including the relation to economy, politics, society, history, the architecture of the place which will receive his work; as for the concept, beyond a position that was eventually that of conceptual artists willingly deciding to move away from the form, it leads, for Sarkis, to the later. For him, the concept is not an abstraction and while taking into account the possibility of a de-materialisation of the object (especially from a perversion of the prime functions of a material, as for example the recorded magnetic tape that cannot be heard except mentally), he decides to define the notion of form as being the possibility to comprehend the train of thought whatever the starting point mentioned. The creation of a form, the elaboration of a form, the form that becomes concept, the form that mirrors a situation are as many references to the way Sarkis, as early as his first creations, analyses both the way he organizes his work and the way that work will be able to carry on existing with or without the artist. That forced independence of the oeuvre – it must at all costs be able to survive alone – and the frequent metaphors linked to a wound one dresses, a death one keeps at distance, a separation one prepares oneself for, turn to the paradigms which are based on childhood and the independence one acquires sooner or later, but also on the references Sarkis calls forth in a direct manner in the domain of art, literature, music and cinema. So Joseph Beuys, Thomas Bernhard, Arnold Schoenberg, Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Kramer all question a form of recollection at the same time subjective and collective. That swinging between the “self” and the “we” in the historical construction concerns moments of rupture (war in particular) that one is not going to fill but with which one has to carry on living and thinking. The fault that occurs in its almost geological sense is that which precisely directs the form, that which Sarkis talks about while linking it to the context and making it emanate from a concept. If one had to find a method allowing for the understanding of the process which the artist is part of, one realises quite quickly that that of the historian is limited if it maintains itself in the chronological linear progression, but the logic of micro-events punctuating “the life and oeuvre” of Sarkis avoids that by creating a complex network where past eras, present and moments to come, are connected to his personal life without falling into some kind of private narrative. On the contrary, that of archaeology understood in its Foucaultian reference would better mirror that methodology of analysis. “Archaeology,” writes Michel Foucault, “does not set out to treat as simultaneous what is given as successive; it does not try to freeze time and to substitute for its flux of events correlations that outline a motionless figure. What it suspends is the theme that succession is an absolute: a primary, indissociable sequence to which discourse is subjected by the law of its finitude; it is also the theme that there is in discourse only one form and only one level of succession. For these themes, it substitutes analyses that reveal both the various forms of succession that are superposed in discourse (and by forms I do not simply mean the rhythms or causes, but the series themselves), and the way in which the successions thus specified are articulated.”[13]

It seems impossible to favour a unique theme to qualify or define Sarkis’ artistic practice. To find a thread to render tangible the various stages within which the forms he created follow one other, would therefore consist in distinguishing spatio-temporal successions that even worked out, would elude a continuous genealogical sense.

Choosing his sources in a multitude of references, he echoes historical periods which make the styles clash, structuring with the same importance cinema, music, architecture and painting, appropriating Eastern, Western, African or popular cultures. Conceiving his work like a political response to the state of the contemporary world, refusing all institutional compromise and adapting to the economy he has at his disposal, Sarkis occupies an atypical place in the field of contemporary art since the 1960s while participating, through his radical attitude and his experience, in a conceptual way of thinking that endures, formed by philosophical, social and critical approaches established since the end of the 19th century.

The rigour with which he constructs his own work while creating a moment of reflection permanently pushing towards a re-adjustment of the disciplines and methodological approaches takes him away from the trap of transdisciplinary, a vague notion which, instead of reinforcing the thorough analysis of the fields considered, dilutes the specificity of the artistic and theoretical perspectives. That transdisciplinarity, whose use has become generalised today to the detriment of a specialised examination of the production of arts, should rather be shifted towards a possibility to create new configurations between disciplines, to accept without hesitation that art history necessarily feeds on humanities as a whole and that reciprocally, those owe a lot to visual, musical, theatrical or cinematographic creation.

By way of conclusion I would like to make a special point of Sarkis’ artistic innovations which have nourished the theory and history of art by being ahead, sometimes by several decades, of some essential problematics dealt by critics and intellectuals working in those fields, without them knowing (or pretending not to know) that an artist had already presented them in his sculptural, visual, spatial and critical work. The first element I wish to put across is the link between the works created around the notion of “war treasure” (Kriegsschatz) and the postcolonial theories by making a detour via the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre. That event, organised in 1989 by Jean-Hubert Martin, then director of the Musée national d’art moderne at the Pompidou Centre, presented for the first time in a major art institution, a contemporary art exhibition of considerable stature with a selection which was no longer just “international” (composed of works by artists coming from western countries – Europe, United States) but “on a worldwide scale”, which means including artists coming from all the five continents. Magiciens de la Terre, from its note of intention already, provoked many controversies and was, among other things, accused of being a “neo-colonialist” exhibition. One of the reasons mentioned was that the commissioners, who travelled all over the world to select the artists, were all from the western world. The criticism was however not entirely justified. Indeed, beyond the definite mistakes of the exhibition as exhibition per se (partitioning of the space, formalist connections, choice of works by non-western artists sometimes too folkloric, non-justified geographical and cultural juxtapositions, etc…), that repetition of a hegemonic cultural pattern the event was blamed for can be explained by the lack of knowledge of those non-western art practices on the part of the contemporary art critics and historians of the time and by an incapacity to read these practices from the theoretical elements existing in the framework of their research. Until then, reflecting about the arts produced outside the western world was akin to a mainly ethnographic study of what was still called then the “primitive arts” or to a historical approach based on the influence those practices could have had on the founding artists of modernity at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, with Magiciens de la Terre, a new stage was reached in the history of contemporary art and that is why that exhibition was so important. Because of its concept, the exhibition allowed the filling of a theoretical gap thanks to the invention of new methodologies. Though the latter originally rely on disciplines like anthropology or ethnology, commonly anchored in the analysis of “other” cultures, a transformation proved to be necessary by adapting to the context of a production of contemporary non-western artworks which suffer the absence of a proper discursive space. How indeed to take into consideration the processes of visual creation of those contemporary artists without systematically falling into a reading that relates those pieces back to the past or towards what one thinks one knows about the ancestral rites and traditions, while, on the contrary, they are anchored in a very contemporary reality? It is in that historical context that the emergence of post-colonial theories takes its meaning at the turn of the 1990s, becoming thus a true intellectual support for contemporary art created as much by the artists of foreign origin living in the West as by those continuing to work in their country of birth, whether situated in Africa, Asia or South America.

For my father, those questions of “centres” and “peripheries” had been central since 1976, a time when he integrated into his artistic practice the idea of “war treasure”, by offering a very sharp analysis which criticised at the same time colonial history and the plunders that followed, and the politic of conservation and showing of the ethnographic objects in the museum institutions. From that was born the whole reflection around the word Kriegsschatz, that he decided to use in German for it was while in residence in Berlin thanks to the DAAD that he made the intrinsic connection to those values of western art which continued, according to him, because of the way a collection is conceived and exhibited in a museum, to apply to a colonialist ideology. It was from that moment he began to integrate into his sculptures and installations images or even straightforward objects which originate from those non-western countries. In 1982, Sarkis was invited by Jean-Hubert Martin to Sydney’s Biennial. There they engaged in a heated conversation on the question of knowing if, yes or no, the Aboriginal artists must, or even could, take part as artists in their own right in a Biennial of contemporary art in their own country. Those discussions during which my father confirmed that he was absolutely in favour of the Aborigines’ participation were certainly the theoretical preliminary drafts that would help to put into place the concept of Magiciens de la Terre a few years later. Still in 1982, he took part in Documenta 7 in Kassel where he presented an installation in which criticism of the art institution was reinforced through a staging/setting of objects which referred to the “war treasures” and announced the first encounters mentioned earlier, encounters which were here both duels and conversations. Aware of belonging to the moment of the dominant eurocentric art while coming from a country where contemporary art does not possess a hegemonic place, he decided to take part in Magiciens de la Terre by moving, in the proper sense of the word, his exhibition Caylak Sokak, which was, let me remind you, his first in Istanbul in 1986, more than twenty years after his departure. The space of the Maçka gallery was entirely recreated in the form of simple wooden platforms around which the spectator could walk, the familiar objects having become sculptures, and the watercolours as well as the only gouache dating from the 1960s occupying the place they had once occupied in Istanbul but occupying it this time in Paris for an exhibition that symbolically opened the era of globalization of the contemporary art world. That physical move, that journey also meant that the place one occupies in a huge event is ephemeral, and that those same artworks were going back to Istanbul. With that action, Sarkis interpreted at the same time his own Istanbul exhibition by bringing his “street” and his memory to Paris, his city of residence since 1964, but also provoked a reversal of those notions of centre and peripheries for, going back to Turkey, the works returned to their own centre. Therefore, through the form of his project and in a space still unoccupied in the field of art, he took part exactly in what the postcolonial theoreticians posed in their studies by taking into account the shift/change of territories, the cultural readjustments, the otherness and the encounters around identities complementary even though different.

That question of interpretation on which I have come back several times is the other central concept established by my father, a concept he began to integrate into his practice in 1980, when he returned the Sonnabend Gallery to the memory of the place that had been Molière’s first theatre. The invitation card read: “The Sonnabend Gallery and the former Théâtre de Molière invite you to a staging by Sarkis”. The appropriation of terminology reserved first and foremost for the theatre, opera or cinema, allowed him to compare his installation work with the original function of the building, and to open for the first time the questioning on that connection he would not cease to establish with the interpretation from then on. Following the displacement of that concept of artistic territory, the spatial representation was no longer only connected to the actor, the musician, the director or conductor, but was now also close to installation art, inscribed in the field of visual arts. To interpret one’s own works also reconnected them with a temporal duality that refused the static or permanent character of the artwork and claimed a relation to memory and history. That same concept was put forward as a critique of the museal institution which, lacking imagination, does not work in interpretation, but in conservation and reconstitution. The relation to memory is also considered as a possibility to go beyond the future of the artists who create installations and to anticipate what will become of their work once they are no longer there. There is therefore a true ethical and political question that is posed by wanting to give, thanks to the interpretation, some kind of solution in order to avoid that an oeuvre thought with one’s freedom, ends up trapped in some kind of misinterpretation by the power machine that a museum is by necessity. Sarkis who was very close to artists like Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Beuys, with whom he had forged strong friendships, couldn’t bear to see what became of their installations on the occasion of their posthumous retrospectives.

It would be impossible here to revisit the whole of my father’s innumerable exhibitions that rely on that notion of interpretation in so far as most of them, with regard to a list which encompasses almost thirty years of creation, lean on that principle. It is however appropriate to quote several examples that offer a critical dialogue where the space of an artwork becomes the place of the setting. The first refers to that exhibition called Le décalage entre la lumière et le bruit du tonnerre that he created in 1993 in the museum configuration of the installation Plight by Joseph Beuys, purchased by the Pompidou Centre in 1989, at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, where the German artist produced one of his last exhibitions in 1985, a few months before his death in January 1986. The reconstitution of that installation took up the exact space of the London gallery, even to the extent of constructing the floor in the original parquet. For Sarkis, the configuration of Plight in the museum rooms devoted to his collection confirmed all the limits of the institution in which the work exists, removed from its initial context to find itself fixed, even imprisoned. In a period of transition between two hangings of the collection, the National museum of modern art offered my father to invest the space of Beuys’ installation and install his own exhibition. The interpretation he proposed took into account, with his own artworks, a new analysis of the space thought by Beuys. That way, he asserted that the reconstitution of an art piece was not the solution and that it was necessary to invent another form of exhibition freed from museal restrictions. Plight, as it is reinstalled today on the fourth floor of the museum, ends up, for reasons of conservation due to private ownership, deprived of its first meaning as a Plexiglas barrier prevents the spectators from having access to it and, consequently, from fully experiencing the installation. For Sarkis, that misinterpretation necessitates a clarifying “statement” he undertakes at the moment these lines are written and that within the rhizome-like exhibition, Passages, which includes all the floors of the Pompidou Centre, creating a new interpretation of the plural function of the building by taking place everywhere from the basement (the Forum) to the last floor. One of his interventions is specifically to allow the visitors to discover Plight at specified hours in the week and to access the installation, otherwise closed, by wearing oriental slippers of coloured felt. Taking up Beuys’ fetish material but linking it to his own use of colours (significantly it was in his Darmstadt’s exhibition that the use of coloured felt appeared, felt manufactured in the same factory that furnished Beuys), Sarkis questions the institution. By allowing the spectator to be the actor of his exhibition as well as by emphasizing the protective function of his felt slippers, he flouts the museum, trapped by its obsession with security and so concerned with preserving an art installation that it finally makes it lose its essence.

The other significant example that helps understand the complexity of that notion of interpretation applied to his own creative process, is the exhibition in three stages that Sarkis proposed at Lyon’s contemporary art museum in 2002 and that he produced thanks to the complicity of its directors. On the whole floor of the museum’s 1,200 square metres, he organized not one event but three which followed one another under the generic title Le monde est illisible, mon coeur si. Each of the three stages took on the “scene” name and all were staggered over several months, transforming the idea of exhibition and its temporality in moments of suspension. In the first scene, La brûlure, artworks from various periods in the artist’s life were gathered, in the second, L’espace de musique, one listened to Morton Feldman’s composition “Crippled Symmetry” sitting on kilims from a collection and, finally, in the third, L’ouverture, current events were called up with newspapers from the whole world blown around thanks to the powerful air coming out of a gigantic piping which surrounded the whole empty space. Within this last stage, Sarkis wished to let philosophers speak, and that happened twice, Bernard Stiegler being the first, followed by Angela David, who came to meet the audience in order to confront their thoughts with that opening to the world in the context of an exhibition that was defined as a forum.

The place of the interpretation was this time almost reflexive, Sarkis playing with his concept in order to establish the paradigms of his process, by giving the keys to a possible reading of the function of art within what is politically at stake.

By undertaking a constant to-and-fro between subjectivity (the readable (lisible) heart) and the collective (the unreadable (illisible) world), he was endeavouring to measure on the scale of his own work, the unlimited dimension of a freedom space.

It is precisely at the heart of this conversation that his “life and work” meet.

Elvan Zabunyan

(Translated by Paul Buck & Catherine Petit)

[1] Except when noted to the contrary, all quotes from Sarkis come from conversations we have had together since the beginning of 2007.

[2] Sarkis studied at Saint-Michel from 1950 to 1957. He started his schooling in an Armenian primary school (1945-1950) in the neighbourhood of Beyoglu, not far from Tarlabasi. He redid his primary year. He recalls that experience before Saint-Michel as not encouraging and rather inconclusive, “I felt my spirit was elsewhere and that I couldn’t concentrate on what was imposed upon me to learn”.


[4] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paris, Seuil, 1957, p.7 (Mythologies, London, Cape, 1972, p.11. Trans. Annette Lavers)

[5] Ibidem, p.8 (p.12)

[6] Walter Benjamin, “La tâche du traducteur”, 1. Mythe et violence, Paris, Denoël, 1971, p.262. (“The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations, London, Cape, 1970, p.20. Trans. Harry Zohn.)

[7] Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul, Memories of a City, London, Faber & Faber, 2005, pp. 157-159. Trans. Maureen Freely

[8] One notices that the way Sarkis manages the dates at the time contributes to the creation of a chronology that escapes linearity. Indeed, he gives the date of 1960 as the turning point in an activity that became completely autonomous from the moment he finished Art school. But, for example, that period of service started at the same time while in our most recent conversations, he dated it 1961-1962, which I decided to keep. One notices too the shifting of terms, lieutenant/officer, Ministry for the Army/Ministry of Defence. As I’m not very familiar with the military terms, nor with the organisation of those ministries, I have left the information as that.

[9] Halil Altindere, “Giris / Introduction”, User’s Manual: Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006, edited by Halil Altindere and Süreyyya (sic) Evren, Translation from Turkish: Nazim Dikbas, Revolver, art-ist, p.3.

[10] Sarkis 26.9.19380, Bonn, Kunst-und-Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1995, p.14.

[11] Sarkis, Der Besuch. Das Gespräch. Die Erwartung (The visit. The conversation. The waiting) Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum, 2002. Catalogue of the exhibition.

[12] Ibidem, p.13 and p.16.

[13] Michel Foucault, The archaeology of knowledge, London, Tavistock Publications, 1972, p.169. Trans. A.M.Sheridan Smith