Turkish presence at the Venice Biennale

By Victoria Khroundina | April 30, 2015

The Venice Biennale – the world’s oldest and biggest – kicks off next Saturday May 9. This year’s theme is ‘All the World’s Futures’, with artists from 89 countries investigating the ‘age of anxiety’ that advances in technology have left us with, and exploring the relationship between art and the development of the human, social and political world.

The Turkish Pavilion at the Arsenale (pictured), which has been secured by the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture (IKSV) until 2034, will this year feature brand-new works by the important conceptual artist, the mononymous Sarkis. A graduate of the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, Sarkis had his first show at the Istanbul Art Gallery in 1960. Although known to work in various mediums – he has a penchant for neon, for instance – Sarkis is especially famous for his installations – which span a wide range of subjects but are always highly conceptual and imaginative. In 1964, Sarkis moved to Paris where he has been living ever since. His works are in the collections of some of the biggest museums in the world and he has been involved in too many exhibitions, biennales and festivals to mention here.

Sarkis’s exhibit is curated by Defne Ayas, the director at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and the publisher of its online journal WdWReview. For the past decade, she has been one of the curators at Performa, a performance art biennale in New York. She has also co-founded Arthub Asia, a production and research initiative, and the Blind Dates Project, a venture that ‘match makes’ artists and academics who then together look into what remains of the Ottoman Empire. In recent years, she has co-curated a number of biennales in Eastern Europe and Russia.

So the Turkish Pavilion at the Biennale is in good hands, but what can we actually expect? Well, what we know is that Sarkis will use the space of the pavilion as a ‘theatrical stage’ to investigate the ideas that lie at the core of his practice. The exhibit, entitled Respiro (which means ‘breath’ in Italian), will involve mirrors, stained-glass panels and – you guessed it – site-specific neon works and will collectively try to convey the objects, images, thoughts and codes that are held in both our personal and collective memories. A composition by the Italian composer Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi, based on Sarkis’s drawing of the rainbow’s seven colours, will round off the exhibit. Sarkis has previously incorporated music into his works, as in his show, Cage, held at ARTER in late 2013, which showcased 96 watercolours painted with fingertips as a kind of a homage to the great American composer John Cage.

‘In Respiro, I will be reaching out beyond geopolitics, to a more expansive context of a million plus years, going back to the creation of the universe and the beginning of time, back to the first-ever rainbow – the very first magical breaking point of light,’ said Sarkis earlier this year. ‘Instead of binding ourselves to specific instances within the histories of politics, religion, philosophy and the arts, we will be embracing contemporaneity of the present and the past in our continued attempt to defy stagnation.’

A publication of essays and image readings by curators and art historians will accompany the exhibit. Edited by Ayas and published by the IKSV, it will be available at the biennale and from selected bookstores.

While Respiro will undoubtedly wow and perplex audiences all at the same time in Venice, simultaneous installations by the artist will open in various other cities on May 7. There will be shows at the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, Château d’Angers in Angers, Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire in Chaumont-sur-Loire and Musée du Château des ducs de Wurtemberg in Montbéliard.

‘Few artists have combined artistic ingenuity with such a subtle critique of history as deftly as Sarkis,’ says Ayas. ‘Against the current landscape of deep uncertainties, our intention is to unfurl a proposition that reveals Sarkis’s profound concern for humanity. The focus is the transformative power of his art, and both the timelessness and the timeliness of his oeuvre.’

Sarkis’s works will also be displayed as part of the Armenity show, beginning a few days prior to the start of the Biennale on May 6 and organised on the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. This year, Armenia has dedicated its pavilion to the artists of the Armenian diaspora, 18 of whom will present works that deal with notions of displacement and territory, justice and reconciliation, and ethos and resilience.

The exhibition is curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, a Swiss citizen of Armenian origin who was born in Istanbul and spent the first 10 years of her life there. ‘When I moved to Europe with my parents, I set the story of my origins aside in order to experience the everyday life of the country in which I was being raised. My contemporary reality, by then, was a European one,’ she says. ‘Over the years, art and personal development reinforced my ‘Armenianness’, allowing me to also open up to different cultures. Later, when I travelled to Armenia, I discovered that my homeland no longer belonged merely to my private, family sphere, but was directly connected to my real origins – to my Armenity.’

San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The location where the show is being held is also of special significance for the Armenian diaspora. The venue, Mekhitarist Monastery, is on the Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, located between San Marco and the Lido. It was on this island that in 1717 the Armenian monk Mekhitar established the Mekhitarist Order. It was also here that in the early 19th century Lord Byron studied the Armenian language. Many important works of European literature and religious texts were first translated into Armenian on the island.

Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, ‘Even before the gates of Aleppo they were allowed no rest’, 2014, photography, courtesy the artists

Some of the works in the exhibition will be related to the island itself – the Iranian artist Rene Gabri and the Palestinian artist Ayreen Anastas engage with the manuscripts at the monastery for their installation, ‘This State is Sinking’. Meanwhile, the Istanbul-born artist Hera Büyüktasçıyan has reinterpreted printing blocks with the characters of the Armenian alphabet for her work ‘Letters from Lost Paradise’, an exploration of Lord Byron’s stay at the Mekhitarist monastery. Other text-based works include the Syrian-born artist Nigol Bezjian’s installation ‘Witness.ed’, which focuses on the poet Daniel Varoujan, one of the first Armenian intellectuals, who was murdered in the genocide.

Aikaterini Gegisian, ‘A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas’, 2015, ollage on paper, 28.5 x 22 cm © Aikaterini Gegisian, courtesy Kalfayan Galleries, Athens/Thessaloniki

It will also be interesting to see how the generations of the artists affect what aspect of Armenia they are exploring in their works. Artists of this generation, such Aikaterini Gegisian, are concerned with assessing the country’s independence, for instance, while artists of previous generations, for whom Armenia was part of the Soviet Republic, present works that are much more rebellious and were produced to challenge the ‘iron fist’ that ruled them.

Sarkis, ‘41 Danseuse dorée en haut du toit, from “Ailleurs ici”, Chaumont sur 
Loire’, 2012
, stained glass, metal, LED,  
52 x 77.7 cm, courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles

Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Anna Boghiguian and Sarkis, for example, belong to the age of protest of the late 1960s, which over time was translated into a form of art.

Haig Aivazian, Hastayım Yaşıyorum (I am sick, but I am alive), 2014, wood and polyester varnish, 235 x 40 x 100 cm © Haig Aivazian, courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg

The exhibition also brings together young artists such as the Lebanese artist Haig Aivazian, whose installation is the first part of an ongoing research project on the Turkish-Armenian oud master Udi Hrant Kenkulian (1901–1978), and the American artist Nina Katchadourian, who draws upon her own family background to retrace her origins in a six-channel video work.

Armenity runs from May 6 until October 18, 2015. Every afternoon, a vaporetti will leave for San Lazzaro from the Giardini (garden) venue. The Venice Bienalle takes places from May 9 to November 22 at the Arsenale and Giardini venues.

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