That’s a ZONE… Sometimes you could have a feeling that it’s capricious. But every moment it is that what we have conditioned by our own states. Of course there were cases when people were falling by the wayside empty handed. There were also such cases when some of those were perishing right on the threshold of the ROOM. But anything that happens here depends not on the ZONE, but on us!
(from the film “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979, MOSFILM)
It was the beginning of 1980s, still Soviet time, when I first saw Tarkovsky’s STALKER at a closed screening for a limited public, at a tiny Yerevan movie theater called “Pioneer”. By that time films by several soviet directors among which there were also Tarkovsky and Parajanov, were considered by officials as quite suspicious and risky ones for presenting them to a wide public (despite the paradoxical fact that those films were commissioned by state). However appearing without preliminary announcement at the secondary movie theaters or clubs, sometimes just for single viewing, films were circulating in closed intellectual circles of former Soviet Union in a kind of semisecret atmosphere aggravating that way dissident thinking in the society despite all the precautions taken by the systems of control.
In that particular period of time marked as the last decade of Soviet reality with its domineering general atmosphere of hopelessness mixed with the state of idleness the personage of STALKER and the conception of ZONE were gaining various interpretations mainly leaning either to metaphysical pseudo-religious formality or encoded political messages against the quite concrete reality to which the audience and Tarkovsky used to belong to.
Such kind of dichotomous general understanding of not only STALKER but many other artistic perspectives was quite specific for soviet dissident culture of that time. The complexity and richness of notions, nuances, images and references were being dissolved in the perceptive logic based on binary opposition stumbling upon sophisticated simplification of subject, context, scenes, personages, etc.
As a reason of those perceptions STALKER almost immediately gained a mythical image of a film that bore in its core an illicit truth, although remaining for wide public either unknown or quite complicated. And after the collapse of the “last hope of alternative social order” it became one of the symbolic representations of alternative artistic representations in Soviet time, passing through the millstones of culturalization and aestheticization, continuing although to remain quite unknown but now for post soviet public.
That was the first time that Sarkis was doing an exhibition in Armenia. Fist time he was going to have a contact with a country, people, language, culture, behaviors and habits, incrusted in his memory through the numerous fragmented reminiscences, narratives, images and sensations, sounds and smells related to his own history, which in its complex was associating with of one of those main virtual homelands for the artist considering himself a nomad in spirit. That kind of experience could be compared with the journey to a certain place where the memories and imagery fixations, conceptions and constructs embedded as system files in someone’s conscious and subconscious worlds would get into the dramatic interaction with the reality. The results of that interaction might have different outcomes. That interaction is able to crash quite dear associations and images as a result of disillusionment. Or it could also overwhelm the consciousness with the illusions creating by that estranged infantile euphoric perceptions totally torn from the existing context. In Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was endlessly warning his client travelers about the traps that existed inside the ZONE.
And there could be other way of confronting the reality with the wide opened eyes, sharpened senses, liberated consciousness and clear awareness of all possible “traps” where accelerated memory starts generating new images and situations by interacting with actual place and actual context.
Sarkis’ journey to Armenia was deprived from banal nostalgic sentimentalism usually positioning the person in a passive role of a guided one. He chose the role of a guide or a stalker that was thoroughly groping his way in the midst of actual terrain and infinity of his memory, defining in constantly transforming situations the territory of his presence and action.
That defining process took quite a long way. It was 2002 that Sarkis first came to Yerevan to explore the situation and identify the sites of his possible installations. The exhibition took place only in two years and it coincided with the very serious changes in Armenian socio-cultural situations.
The name of Sarkis in Armenia was only known within the narrow circles of contemporary art scene. For a wide public he was absolutely new personage as the knowledge about Diaspora artists in Armenia was still continuing the logical, structural and ideological inertia developed by local art criticism during the soviet period.
That clandestine situation on one hand was creating certain organizational difficulties but on the other hand it was imparting a metaphoric logic to Sarkis’ odyssey when he in fact was reaching the isle of his memories without being noticed at first.
During his first visit Sarkis was wandering in the city with its streets and backyards, countryside with its sceneries and medieval Armenian monasteries, having accidental meetings and talks with different people, visiting museums, communicating and absorbing the energy of the place. A place that contained in its core such rough paradoxical contrarieties and cultural ruptures oversaturated with historical marks from different periods of and quite diversified present.
For Sarkis that was also the cultural environment of two for him central artistic personalities like Parajanov and Tarkovsky. And those two figures in fact became the two axes around which Sarkis structured his oeuvre in Armenia.
Two sites, two personages, two exhibitions
At the beginning Sarkis was thinking about using different sites around the city that would create a certain web of four installations fragmented and interconnected as mental images. But as far as Sarkis was getting involved with the local context his position and the project itself was getting more and more radical.
He divided his exhibitions in two parts, two venues reflecting that way on the dichotomous state of local reality full of oppositions, contrarieties and polarizations.
Two different places, two different states, two different histories, two different destinies. One of them for Sarkis was a very special one. That was the museum of Sergey Parajanov, the artist with whom Sarkis had been always in constant spiritual dialogue. The museum was founded in 1988 when Parajanov decided to move his collection to Yerevan from Tbilisi but it was opened one year after the artist’s death in 1991. It’s a small, well organized, cozy museum that is situated in a reconstructed 18-19 century Caucasian type town house in the imitated during the Soviet time ethnographic district in Yerevan. Today it is one of the most important tourist sites of Armenia.
The other exhibition took place at HayArt cultural center. That was one of two big contemporary art centers of Yerevan that was initiated and run by local artistic community throughout seven years. The building of the center was located in the very heart of the city and belonged to soviet modernistic architecture of late1970s. In the beginning it was used as one of the exhibition pavilions of the Yerevan museum of modern art. Then it was taken by the municipality but then it was returned to the artists (according to their demand) being though deprived from any support. By the beginning of 2000s with the advance of post soviet neo-capitalist economic and political reality the situation with cultural institutions started to get changed. Many places were privatized and changed their initial functions. Despite its incredible activity, artistic enthusiasm and international recognition HayArt center that was occupying almost 2000 square meters in the city center started to experience stressful times. The appearance of Sarkis and the idea about making an exhibition came out when those troublous developments for the center were reached their peak.
Breaking his project in two parts Sarkis made clear division between multiple states, acts, phenomena and conceptions like history and actuality, bliss and suffering, light and darkness, passage and the silence of pause, blackout and illumination, memory and oblivion. Setting up that distance between two exhibitions, two museums, two situations that from the first sight perfectly fitted the domineering general polarized understanding of things, Sarkis was clandestinely inviting the spectator into an endless chain of disorientations and reconsiderations as the museum spaces and every detail of both installations were interflowing and revealing new meanings at the same time remaining absolutely autonomous in their forms and concepts.
Inside the ZONE
The exhibition in HayArt called “Inside the Zone” having a direct reference to Tarkovsky. As it was mentioned before the building of the center was a striking example of Soviet modernistic architecture of late 1970s the traumatic history of transformations of which could reflect the drama of a whole epoch.
The building consisted of five interconnected cylindrical concrete blocks that were standing on short pillars based upon randomly scattered quadrangle islands. In the beginning those islands were surrounded by water so the building itself was a certain island surrounded by high-rise buildings. According to the essential project by the architects Gevorg Aramyan and Jim Torosyan the same logic should have been replicated inside the central hall where Sarkis afterwards displayed the heart of his installation. Four quadrangle podiums inside the main hall interconnected by a lower big podium in the center should have been also surrounded by water. The ceilings in all halls of the museum at the beginning were made of transparent plexiglass hemispherical modules that were opening a direct view to the sky and the tops of neighboring buildings letting at the same time vertical light inside the interiors of the halls.
However in the course of time the empirics made its amendments in that architectural utopia. The waters surrounding the building were dried and the “island” got connected to the “mainland”. The transparent ceilings of the museum were frequently getting broken and that is why they were substituted by regular roofs with the narrow side windows. Since the beginning of post-soviet socio-economical crisis the building appeared in a disastrous state. For museum of modern art it became totally inappropriate but it was still a beloved exhibiting place for the artists of the local alternative scene. Years later when the museum decided to move out from the building those very same artists insisted to keep the building as a center for contemporary art. Thus municipality provided them with a building cutting at the same time any kind of public support.
In that monumental poetic architecture with its distinct modernistic forms getting lost under ivies spreading out over the façade like vines of oblivion and its emptiness of disorienting circle interiors, ambient silence getting broken by echoing sounds of footsteps, endlessly changing illumination, damaged walls and entangled topology of space Sarkis identified the territory of his ZONE. A territory where the memory of space got accelerated by the memory of artist, where the accumulation of suffering was being transmitted into a colorful insight; a territory where different histories and meanings were coming together, getting confused and then generating new actual histories and myriads of new meanings.
The scenography that Sarkis skillfully set up using minimal means inside the building were creating an illusion of a completely turned inside out exposed architecture. The spectators after entering the narrow entrance and climbing up proportionally gigantic stairway were finding themselves inside absolutely bare circle space weakly illuminated with the light entering the hall from the narrow windows from under the high ceilings. The sight of spectators spontaneously was scanning the surface of the darkened walls and ceilings with their exposed grey damp patches remained after the winter season. The impression of scene was being supplemented by quite familiar but still ambiguous sour smell in the air.
The only landmark that spectators could see in that half dark space in order to continue their way was a bright narrow entrance to the other space coming out on the background of dark wall surface. Taking the route towards that passage the motion and the attention of the spectator all of a sudden was being interrupted by the tin basin that was displayed on the floor right on their route. It was filled with water on the surface of which there was a floating loaf of bread gradually decomposing and turning into a slushy substance and spreading that specific sour smell of metamorphosis through all over the space.
In contrast to the dimness of the first hall the second hall was just flooded by daylight. It also had a circle shape with narrow stairway in the center connecting the lower level of the hall with the circle console gallery. From the gallery there was another passage to the third hall that had similar structure but where the stairways were taking the spectator from the same kind of circle console gallery down to the ground level. Wandering up and down through the halls of the building the spectator on each level was coming across similar kind of tin basins displayed along the route to the main part of the installation with floating and decomposing loafs of bread. Repeating the structures of the halls the basins were scattered in the space like certain metaphors of transitory state. The process of decomposition was absorbing all the initial symbolic meanings of bread, water and vessel making the viewer to experience the very process of decay inside the disintegrating space, generating through the personal intuitive perception of that moment numerous new meanings of existence and transition.
Only the last basin was filled with clean water on the surface of which there was a floating small tin vessel reminding a boat or a baking cup that was half filled with water inside of which there was dissolving a sky blue pigment left by artist. That was a hall of anticipation; the place of pause and concentration. That was the place where Tarkovsky’s heroes ended their journey and did not enter the cherished ROOM. Through the half open iron door on the other side of basin it was possible to hear the distant but increasing and diminishing energy of a thunderstorm and to feel the presence of something long awaited. The long incessant route through the grey, monochrome spaces and passages led to the pulsing vagueness behind the half opened iron door after entering which all the things were getting completely changed. The limited circle spaces with their complex system of passages and colorless environment all of a sudden were changed into an ample space of central hall that was filled with lights and colors, with the atmosphere of arousal and appeasement.
The sound of thunder rumbling in the distance was followed by rainstorm percolating through the roof and invading the space. The sound of shower was hitting the painted luminescent blue, red and yellow surfaces of the podiums and getting intertwined with the reflections of those colors was filling the space with the aura of freshness. The fourth podium Sarkis covered with many different antique Armenian carpets. The iridescent atmosphere of the space was getting accumulated in the patchwork of colors and ornaments of those carpets that were inviting the spectator to mount and to settle on that colorful field of enclosed myriad memories, spoils of war, mythologies, traumas and amnesias. Sitting on that podium, touching the curves and texture of the ornaments the sight of the spectator could trace the space of the ROOM and concatenating all the fixed elements there animate them through the revived memory. In the silence of the fading away rain and breaking sounds of last heavy drops the long journey that seemed to be finished now was appearing in a timeless space started once and lasting forever.
The initial scenography of inside out turned space that was tangible all the way long to the ROOM at a certain point was inverted back chaining all the elements and concentrating the accumulated energies into the central object of the whole installation.
Through the crystal head resting overturned on the travertine floor in the center of the space and shining under the intense spotlight like a precious meteorite fallen down from the sky Sarkis was juxtaposing the revival processes of different memories in the territory of his ZONE. Like in Tarkovsky’s film where the origin of the ZONE was connected with the fall of meteorite in Sarkis’ ZONE the sparkling crystal head which in fact was the portrait of the very artist in a cosmonaut’s helmet gained the symbolic notion of the “primal cause”. That was the artist who defined the territory of his ZONE by activating the energies of Leidschatz (treasuries of suffering) and Kriegschatz (spoils of war) through the juxtaposition of his memory with the revived memory of that ramshackle place giving a chance to every spectator entering the ZONE to reveal their traumas, amnesias, knowledge, certitudes and doubts joining the journey to the universal memory where a small drop of pigment inside the tin boat of Sarkis could all of s sudden turn out into the sea of color like the transformation that happened with the boats on the colored podiums.
“Throwing yourself into the very heart of the battle”; that was idea once expressed by Sarkis in Yerevan was clearly describing the position of artist in the process of interaction with the actual context.
For Sarkis the conception of ZONE and questions concerning the revival of the memory and the place, the problem of transmission in that particular project had specific import. When he came in the beginning of May in 2004 to Yerevan to make his exhibition HayArt center was already closed for artistic community which was struggling to take it back. All the projects except Sarkis’ planned for that year were cancelled. Sarkis didn’t accept that situation as a privilege but he contextualized his whole project by joining the artists’ campaign. Within those nine days of his stay in Yerevan the HayArt center was kind of sieged by the artists, students, intellectuals, activists. Every evening after finishing working on the installation Sarkis was having long lasting lectures and discussions with students and artists, followed by meetings, then interviews.
Then there was the opening. And after there were three hot summer months of the exhibition and continuation of artist’s struggle to keep the center.
The Reflection and the Sublime
In Parajanov museum the situation was absolutely different then it was in HayArt. Instead of gloomy, marginalized, resisting, being on the edge of destruction state Parajanov museum distinguished with its bright, colorful, warm, pacifying atmosphere. The museum was located on the top of ravine with a spectacular view of Ararat Mountain with the city landscape on the horizon and ruining small old house right down the hill the part of which was still inhabited.
The museum was presenting mainly the collages, drawings, photos by Sergey Parajanov, some archive materials as well as some art pieces donated by different artists in different times to Parajanov and to the museum. All the works, objects, archive materials, artifacts, donations were exposed in an integrated logic obeying the omnivorous appropriative method of Parajanov’s collages being however accurately differentiated according to timeline, typological and genre belongings.
For Sarkis whose artistic conceptions on the presentation and reception of works of art, their reification in the institutional frames of the museums, which he had realized through his installations many times in many different museums all around the world that was a long awaited occasion for continuing his dialogue with artist Parajanov.
Here Sarkis divided his installation in two parts. One part of the work was inside and the other part was outside of the museum. If in his installation in HayArt Sarkis applied the method of uninterrupted perception of the territory that he had determined as a ZONE, then in the museum of Parajanov he created an interval between one situation and another situation. That distance created by applying the method of montage was giving to the spectator an opportunity for critical attitude towards the art works presented inside the museum which was the inclusion in the creative process of the memory revival as well as of generation of new images and meanings.
Approaching the museum the spectator could see a big mirror leant against the wall of the old ruining house that was down the hill. In the mirror the shape of which was reminding the schematic silhouette of a house there were reflecting the walls of the Parajanov museum. The distorted reflection of the building was constantly changing depending on illumination, spectator’s angle of view catching sometimes fragments of sky, neighboring buildings or colors of surrounding environment.
In the main hall on the first floor inside the museum, with Parajanov’s well known “Altar”, Sarkis displayed on the carpet covered table an old copper basin filled with water. The surface of the water with a floating slice of bread was reflecting the images of Sarkis’ twenty five films made in Saché that were appearing on television screen displayed behind the basin. The sounds of ringing bell and music juxtaposed with the emphatic gestures of artist/actor in screened scenes were energizing the space displacing at the same time the narrative decorum of the exposition and defining perceptional interval accessible for the spectator transforming the exhibition in whole and every individual piece in the museum exposition into a total experience in accordance to Sarkis’ conception.
The final element of the exhibition at the museum was the figure displayed on the second floor in the midst of Parajnov’s collages. That was a standing figure with outstretched arms covered with the old cloth cuttings found in one Parajanov’s drawers in the museum. From the head of the figure to the back and front there were trailing down heavy locks of black video tapes that were containing the records of Parajanov’s films as the visualization of the memory of those films. Two piles of the same kind of videotapes were resting on the floor. While working on that figure Sarkis gave a name to that sculpture which afterwards just got dissolved in the big title “The Reflction and the Sublime”. He called it “The Groom and the Bride” bringing in one two oppositions and determining at the same time a distance between them by the endless memory flow that is channeling the energies of accumulated sufferings and treasuries of war. A distance, an interval where the Sublime could be discovered.
Three hot Yerevan summer months of Sarkis’ exhibition passed away. Despite all the efforts of local artistic community, expressions of international solidarity coming from the friends and colleagues of the center, flaming interviews and appeals of Sarkis to keep the HayArt as a center for contemporary art, and the very Sarkis’ exhibition which was giving a chance and time to save the situation HayArt cultural center was closed for contemporary art on the second day after the exhibition was over. The society by that time was imperceptibly getting dragged into a new political, social, economical and cultural reality reminding the atmosphere of soviet stagnation period of 1970-80s.
After the exhibition got closed Parajanov museum could not accept Sarkis’ figure of “Groom and Bride” that artist wanted to donate to the museum explaining that the installation was too big and they did not have enough space for it. The other part of the installation – the mirror house was under the threat of total destruction as there was going to start a construction on that territory.
By the group of artists the installation was moved to the collection of Center for Contemporary Art Gyumri and reconstructed for permanent exposition in a gallery called “Style” according to the new scenography given by Sarkis.
In a right angled room being illuminated through blue glasses of two widows there is figure displayed in the center with trailing down heavy locks of black video tapes from the head. Two piles of the same kind of videotapes were resting on the floor in the two corners of the wall with the windows behind the figure. The spectator enters the room through a narrow entrance and moves to the figure that stands in a blue contre-jour. After turning back the spectator finds himself reflected together with the figure in a big mirror having a shape of a house. There is a silence all around.
Copyright © Ruben Arevshatyan