Culture 14:22 09/04/2011

The Armenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is expected to be unprecedented

 As the Highlights has already reported, the next, 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia) will be held from June 4 till November 27, 2011. This year its title is "ILLUMINATIONS".

The original idea of holding Biennale in Venice had occurred to the Venetian Consul Riccardo Salvatico in 1893, and by 1895 it was already established as "The International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice".

At the very first Biennale artists from 16 countries exhibited their art. Shortly after its launch the Biennale acquired huge international prestige. And when, soon after World War II, in 1948 the Biennale was resumed, it quickly became a world-recognized venue for the avantgarde art. It should be noted that in the 1930s the Biennale grew by including international theatre and film festivals. Since 1975 the architectural Biennale also takes place.

The first time Armenia participated in the Biennale was in 1995. However, Armenian artists did participate in the Biennale long before 1995 - in 1925 the famous master of engraving Edgar Shahine represented France, and in 1934 the great painter Martiros Saryan contributed to the Soviet Exhibition. Edward Palasanyan, the founder of the Yerevan Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (“NPAK”), was the Commissioner of the Armenian Pavilion from 1995 to 2009.

As the Highlights has already reported (in its September 20, 2010 issue), in 2009 President of the National Assembly Hovik Abrahamyan initiated the Open Doors Policy of the NA, and many cultural events open for the general public which took place due to that initiative were curated by Chief Adviser of the RA NA President Dr Viktor Mnatsakanyan and Armine Antikyan, who was in charge of the cultural programs of the Parliament. Therefore, it was not considered a coincidence when Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosyan appointed Dr Viktor Mnatsakanyan to the post of the Commissioner of the Armenian pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. In turn, Armine Antikyan, an experienced art journalist and founder of Gallery One, has been appointed by Commissioner Mnatsakanyan Chief Coordinator of the Armenian pavilion. Mrs Antikyan, together with art critics Vardan Azatyan, Ruben Arevshatyan and Nazareth Karoyan, who serve as curators, is responsible for developing the concept of the pavilion and selecting the artists to be exhibited. (Continuity is ensured by the presence in the team of Vardan Karapetyan, a born and bred citizen of Yerevan who lives in Venice and who has been coordinating the Armenian pavilion actually at all the Biennales Armenia participated in since 1995 as well as pavilions of several other countries such as the Netherlands plus various similar projects. And indeed the name of Sona Haroutiunyan, Head of the Art Dept. at the RA Ministry of Culture should be mentioned here as a key supporter).

Thus change takes place not only regarding personalities, the change is conceptual as for the first time artists are chosen not by a single curator but by a whole curatorial team, members of which, according to Commissioner Dr Mnatsakanyan, are "the best professional experts in both Armenian as well as international modern art having appropriate experience". As one of them, Nazareth Karoyan said, "Our knowledge, experience should be combined, as we are experts in different aspects". Viktor Mnatsakanyan assured The Highlights correspondent that the curators and he himself are doing their very best for Armenian modern art (and culture, in general) being presented in the best possible way, as befits our rich millennia-old culture.
Expanding on Dr Mnatsakanyan's idea, Armine Antikyan said: "As the Venice Biennale is the widest-known and the most prestigious modern art fest in the world, all the participants strive to represent their countries in the most favorable light. One must be able to say something special, something that would be interesting for the rest of the world. And if an artist says a new word in modern art and it is taken up by the foreigners, then our pavilion is a success. I believe we'll be able to attract foreigners' attention to the Armenian pavilion as the selected authors - Mher Azatyan, Astghik Melqonyan and Grigor Khachatryan are interesting conceptual artists".

In Vardan Azatyan's opinion, the nature of the project they are carrying out this year sets it apart from the Biennale projects of yesteryear: "The nature of the project is different. Our project presupposes cooperation with other national pavilions. And work is carried out ahead of time. That is, it is not that we take the [artist's] work, go and hang it on the wall or put it in some hall... Our work is taking place ahead of time with many of our colleagues who are already involved in the combined effort. The outcome will not only have a visual representation, but it will be more communicative and discoursive by its character. Conferences and workshops will be organized, in which different people will be invited to speak on the proposed issues...".

Thus they came up with the title for the Armenian pavilion - "Conceptual Framework: Complementary Contradiction between the Global and the National". And, as they willingly explain: "Today in Armenia, in our public life, in politics and in culture a dilemma is evidently emerging. It is essential to do with our integration into the so-called "globalization" processes (which is considered as a guarantee of our 'modernization'), while at the same time negating it by endeavouring to keep "our identity" unchanged. In other words, let's join the others but keep separate, let's get modernized but remain unchanged". As Ruben Arevshatyan says, “the concept of the Armenian Expo is based on the attempt to connect to the universalism". He explains: “The artists selected, living in the times of sudden change, of break-up of the post-Soviet era, are attempting to present their own personal experience in the language of art, touching upon the crisis of modernism as they do so". He emphasized that in his view the conflict between the universal and the singular is one of the most topical discourses of the world today.

And Nazareth Karoyan points out that they have chosen works of artists (all of whom won prizes at many prestigious international exhibitions) representing three generations , judging them by "inner dramaturgy" of the works.
Photographic and textual images (visual and video installations) are united under the title "Endeavors", putting forth the idea of integration into the Global with strong implication of unchanging the Essence. In his photographs, Mher Azatyan, who represents the first generation of artists in independent Armenia, studies collective lives and individual experience; in his works the human being draws the strength to carry on with his life from minor things, from transposing, rearranging of objects around himself.

Astghik Melqonyan belongs to the second generation, emerging in the 2000s. It seems she has recently turned from traditional for her photographs to graphic images,-diagrams, schemes, presenting people's everyday routine problems as management of salary, effective use apartment space, etc. The author, using visual techniques, is drawing a “map” of concerns typical for today's Armenians.

And Grigor Khachatryan, the real veteran, who turned to conceptual forms as early as the 1970s, will display at the Biennale his series on the theme of “Official Meetings” built around the attributes of power, such as a megaphone, serviceman's uniform, handing of awards, etc. Khachatryan makes a point of using parts of newspapers as it is believed that mass media is used by the authorities to project their power. It was him who had established the so-called “Center for Planning of Chances” through which non-existent imaginary institution he produces such tongue-in-cheek crowd pleasers.

As Ruben Arevshatyan explains, “Armenia has already been present at the Venice Biennale, and with very good artists indeed, but, unfortunately, in fact the Biennale did not become a launching pad for them in terms of having a wider international exposure". "We go to Venice to talk to the world", Arevshatyan stated.

The Armenian team of curators is united in seeing the 54th Biennale as a “turning point” for the Armenian contemporary art. And Commissioner Mnatsakanyan believes that "Armenia will present an unprecedented and very interesting project". Location is important as the Biennale pavilions and events are scattered around the city, and as in the past the Armenian exhibition was on display at the Mourad Rafaelyan College of Mekhitarist at St Lazarus island, it meant that it was visited only by whoever had deliberately put it on their schedule, thus cutting off anybody who could stumble on the Armenian display while roaming around other pavilions. It is only natural, then, Dr Mnatsakanyan says, that in order to raise the number of visitors, and, as a result, general interest in Armenian art, we should have another pavilion at the Arsenale, which, after serving for centuries as a storage for weapons and the Navy foundry, in the 1950s became one of the main locations of the Biennale with leading countries, such as China, Turkey, UAE and many others, rent space for their national pavilions. Most probably, Armenia will be granted permission for this in time for exhibiting in the next, 55th Biennale, as it takes some time for the application to be approved by the Chief Curator of the Biennale, Swiss art critic Beatrice (Bice) Curiger, and we should not forget additional expense one more pavilion requires.

Returning to this year concerns, let us recall what Vardan Azatyan said earlier - to raise the interest in the Armenian display, to make it livelier and to establish ever more active contacts with other delegations, the Armenian team is going to organize various discussions with broader Biennale participants' involvement, including intellectuals from the Armenian Diaspora. Those discussions are planned be held at another prestigious venue, the Giardini, or Gardens, where 29 of the leading "world modern art powers" such as Austria, Finland, Denmark etc. have their national pavilions alongside the Central Exhibition (housing mostly Italian artists). Those events to be organized by the Armenian team are to be spread throughout the duration period, not only using opening and closing slots.

As for funding, they have been receiving financial assistance from benefactors from the RA as well as state help from the Ministry of Culture (which assisted financially Armenian pavilion at the previous, 53rd Biennale). To note, for the first time Armenian pavilion is supported financially by the NA President Hovik Abrahamyan. And the organizers expect similar support from all those who, as Dr Mnatsakanyan says, “are concerned about Armenia's cultural rating.” Among the key backers is also the “New Cultural Policy Foundation” founded by Dr Viktor Mnatsakanyan. Importantly, this year the organizers shifted from getting most of the funds from the Diaspora (as in the past) to receiving support first of all from Home, which is one of the most important features of the new approach, together with forming a team of professionals, holding active and transparent discussions with wide participation of art critics, art lovers and artists themselves, - all that augurs well for the noble cause of better presentation of the Armenian art to the world.

As Mr Mnatsakanyan points out, from five to seven million people attend every Biennale, and “if half of them visit the Armenian pavilion, if Armenia is covered by the serious cultural magazines and other media outlets, our country will be in a favorable situation”.

As Armine Antikyan informed the Highlights, in just a few days the official site of the Armenian pavilion,, will be relaunched.
What remains to say?
Good Luck!

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