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Statement Sketch for Venice

Arrieregarde - Archi Galentz Searches for 21st Century Aesthetics

Archi Galentz

Statement sketch for Panel Discussion “Geographies of Imagination”

at Palazzo Zenobio at 3.06.2011 in the Framework of ATLANTIS’11 HICO-Projects.

The Black Garden Exposition View in Palazzo Zenobio, Venice, June 1-5, 2011

The process of transformation of the national identity into a cultural identity and the rise of awareness as a political subject are of central importance to my artistic work. As a multicultural representative of margins (Armenian, born in Moscow), who got his artistic education in Berlin I have a residency permit in Europe and find myself more and more in a role of a person in charge - what I learned to accept as a compliment to my integration... In the core of my artistic heterogeneous production one can find both an autonomous object and a drifting play with the expected contexts of exposition. As an “arrieregardist” artist I am appealing to seek for fresh and unconsumed aesthetics. This is my strategy to eschew the expected illustration work of "demonisation" that mostly treat my concrete homeland geography and history in terms of unrealized utopia: U-topian wish of the national State in borders of historical inhabitance, u-topian hope for recognition as a victim of genocide, u-topia of democratic rise after declared freedom of Gorbachov's perestroika, u-topia of the functioning social network between diaspora and the Republic after the start of recapitalization of the national State, and, finally, u-topia as a developing nation "clever" enough to bound long-term contracts with Russia...

I started my artistic education at the moment of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore, one of the first artistic topics in my education in the art academy in Yerevan was to develop a new coat of arms and work on series of posters illustrating the political situation and the struggle towards independence. Some of the hand-painted posters were exhibited in the academy and were bought by the Armenian Ethnographical Museum in 1990 (illustration 1). The project of developing a coat of arms as a new national emblem was continued after I was invited to Berlin as a guest student in 1991. Thus, I continued to develop the search of a new visual presentation of the new State at the same time searching for a concept of national identity and self-confidence drifting from geographical identity towards a possibility of cultural identity (illustration 2).

In 1997 I obtained my Master’s degree with a series of imaginary maps (one of the object series is exhibited here illustration 3). In 2000 I had my first solo show in a private gallery in Berlin. In 2001 I was invited to participate in an exhibition of Armenian avant-garde artists in Moscow (Art-Bunker in CAH, Moscow) and started to look for network projects bringing together Armenian artists spread around the world. I initiated an Armenian exhibition in ifa-Gallery in Berlin and Bonn curated by Mika Hannula – a Finnish curator who did his doctoral studies on the topic of “Finnishness”.

“Getting closer or four Armenians looking for a way out” 2003 became a starting point for a number of significant projects that we, as a group of Armenian diaspora artists, developed, without relating to a worked-out doctrine. We preferred not to title the show as a national Armenian art exposition, but to stress the relation among four of us. The basic formal concept was the decision not to show predictable images intended to arouse in viewers what one might call “social-pornographic” feelings. For instance, there were no sentimental black and white photos of the regions that suffered from the 1988 earthquake, no defenseless refugees, no “clochards”, and other victims of a failed “communist utopia”. And still it was a very “Armenian” show, or maybe it is better to say a “diasporic” show in its best way – a collaboration, based on trust, respect and real interest for every artistic position. At the beginning of 90ies we all worked in the same landscape and knew each other well. Ten years later we were spread among three countries as representatives of two generations and the support of ifa-gallery as a western institution gave us a chance to come together again and discuss our practice (illustration 4).

Later on, artists of the Berlin show Silvina der Meguerditchian, Achot Achot, and I organized a number of projects, integrating a whole landscape of diaspora artists. The constellation of participants was always different, depending on the context and the possibilities but this experience became a common practice for all of us. In 2005 there were exhibitions in institutions such as museums in Helsinki, Belgrade, Skopje, and Medellin. I used to expose my private art collection on specially built wall “cut-outs” put in the unfriendly white cubes of the exhibition halls. The collection is still expanding based on the subtle abstraction developed mostly in 90ies by colleagues that came from an avant-gardist tradition of manifesting the “gesture of freedom” and after emigration to different countries simultaneously developed a new aesthetics visible in small sized concentrated objects (illustration 5).

There were video screenings and presentations in galleries, artist-run-spaces and other venues in Berlin, Bonn, Paris and Buenos Aires. Sivina Der Meguerditchian applied to the Netherlands-based European Cultural Foundation with the concept of a group show that was accepted and exhibited in 2007 parallel to the 52nd Venice Biennial under the title “Under_Construction: Visual Dialogue. Talking about identities in the Armenian Transnation” (link 1). The interest of ECF was caught by our questioning of globalization and mechanisms of finding communities as they were financing the first “Gypsy” pavilion and wanted comparable presentations. It is important to mention that Mechitarist Congregation in Venice that invited our diaspora artists platform to expose in Palazzo Zenobio faced pressure from the Armenian Ministry of Culture and the Embassy in Italy to reject our presentation and we had to move with the exhibition to San-Lazzaro island. Nevertheless, this experience consolidated us and we produced a catalogue with comments from Spanish, German and Turkish culturologists and concluded the project with a video documentation that is to be seen on our website.

In 2009 we were invited to Tallinn City Hall to expose with Estonian diaspora artists and refused again to fit the given pattern of “displaced persons”. Instead we made a collective exhibition putting an accent on the positive potentials of being “globalized and de-territorialized” under the proud title “ThisPLACEd: virtual - real - in between” (illustration 6 and link 2).

Same year we were invited to take part in the “Krossing” festival as a collateral event of the 53rd Venice Biennial in Forte Marghera and prepared a self-curated exposition “Voulu/ Obligé. Outskirts of a small contradiction”. The participants were of Armenian descent from USA, England, Germany, and France and as multi-multi-cultured we tried to find the edges of desired cooperation, to discuss where the possible breaks of further development are. Catalogue texts, interviews, video-documentation and other information are available on our website: (link 3). Let me briefly introduce you the conclusions out of our attempts.

Bice Curiger, the curator of this year’s biennial, questioned the representatives of the national pavilions last year if art itself is a kind of a nation. Recently, in the German magazine “Monopol” she continues with the idea that if art is a sort of religion than it is not a militant one. We, the artists mentioned above, were developed in a belief that contemporary art is a universal language and the early hope of our under_construction group was to integrate dispersed artists of Armenian descent on the base of contemporary art, or concretely the experience of discursive reasoning of own practice. Secondly, we hoped to activate a globally spread Armenian communities, sensitizing them in up-to-date concepts of identity. We started to speak about non-mainstream topics. From the beginning of our cooperation we wanted more than another line on a CV, more than exhibitions in “good venues”; we wanted a creative manifestation and real experience useful to construct some new functioning social “rhizomes”. Imagine, that we as Armenian diaspora artists, are already in a situation that many artists of other nationalities are just starting to face, as the times of the national State are about to go. This concept is not easy to digest, some members of our group prefer just to investigate the heritage from accepted neo-colonial discourses and exploit the exoticism bonus using mainstream aesthetics and ready to impress with high monetary investments in art production.

Not less problematic is the confidence in national culture that is already developed and only has to be conserved. This is a common sense for an average Armenian and consequently gave a birth to governmental slogans like “one nation - one culture”, that was popular in Armenia in recent years, but, at the same time, even the question of national language remains a tremendous unsolved problem. In a way, it is a shame that Armenians fight about proper orthography in the 21st century and a population of 7 million allows itself the luxury of having three different communication standards (Western Armenian, Eastern Armenian and Grabar or classical Armenian). No wonder there is not a single international art magazine in Armenian, or a serious collector or a museum! Our national elite ignores or probably is afraid of contemporary art as a platform of intellectual exchange and model for democratic and transparent conscience finding.

I tried my best to keep contact with my homeland and I still think of myself as a part of the local art scene. In 2006, I was invited to teach at the Yerevan State Academy of Arts and also held a seminar at the Contemporary Art Department of the Open University bringing students to analyze their current environment. I also gave a solo show named “Arrieregarde - Pose As A Position” curated by Susanna Gyulamiryan and together with her and two other curators we organized a show called “Questioning” investigating the surrealistic tendencies in Armenia from late 70ies to 1986 on the example of my father Saro Galentz. The most interesting conclusion for me was the reached consensus that by using contemporary art language we are forced to use discourses that move around dichotomy pro- versus contra-Soviet and we can hardly illuminate our own history. No doubts, Armenia faced a huge wave of modernization before its independence and it needs some will of soberness and enough imagination to judge about achievements for the smallest Caucasian republic. Subconsciously, the majority of Armenians contemplate a mediaeval feudalistic society as an ideal social order, as climax of uniqueness and culture, as paradise lost…

One thing that has become clear to me and to the other artists emigrated or diaspora-born, is that in the late 90ies and up to the present, those living in countries with developed art systems have found themselves excluded from serious interest and support. They are already cut off from their homeland community, but are not real “aborigines” anymore – to be shown to the western public as an exotic example illustrating the “insights” already digested by mass media. This might be seen as a sort of paranoia, but it comes from personal experience, seeing firsthand how prejudiced clichés have been pushed through international exhibition halls framed with solid print works with the help of native “compradores” who measure their professionalism by the payoff. This term of Marx, that historically was used to name local traders in China who sold foreign goods as own production, has been used in Russia since 2005 (see the “Grundrisse” internet forum started by Dmitry Gutov and other Moscow-based artists) to sign the local agents serving the order of foreign “kulturträger”, and other knights of the cold war period who are still active and make serious capital on middle class resentments.

Probably it is more than a coincidence that the creative core of our under_construction group in one or another way have not followed the common, usual artistic career path. Being somewhat apart from the “system”, many of us have to search for uncommon resources. Our group continued to use every possibility to cooperate with foundations and institutions, but from the position of the emancipated and skeptical player. We found that it is more valid to make a living as designers, restorers, teachers, or translators and so on. I recall the historical figure of Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment who lived in a diaspora being banished from his community and made his living as a lens polisher but was free to develop his own philosophy, rather than to deny his ideas and beliefs, beholden to his orthodox community.

Being as we are - transnational, de-territorial or multi-geographied, today we have an opportunity to avoid falling into the role of the “victim”: in fact, we are survival experts. We have arrived at this position of stressing the positive aspects of being different, alone, geographically dispersed and un-integrated: we should take the next logical step and realize that we will probably always keep one foot out of the contemporary art system. It is a euryfagous system: the changes are already happening and we better face them as prepared actors and not marionettes. The most beneficial thing to do is to write own histories. I consider it is time for us to decide if we are ready to stop running after the “train that left”, consolidate our efforts, and start to work on our own aesthetics to decide clearly which way to move tomorrow.

Since 2008, I am running an exhibition space in Berlin-Wedding named “InteriorDAsein” (link 4). In 2010 it became a member of an artist colony of around 30 art spaces “Kolonie Wedding”. There were a number of solo and group shows stressing the past Soviet territories. I am also negotiating with the ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia so that InteriorDAsein can plan 5 to 6 exhibitions a year of artists from the Republic of Armenia and diaspora. Developing an independent residency program and starting gallery activities is also being considered.

For me personally, the position of an independent artist is very close to that of an arrieregardist fighter. Contemporary art uses this term mostly to name something back-oriented, a phonetic contradiction to the avant-garde (Clement Greenberg’s “Avant Garde and Kitsch”, 1939). I use it in the sense meant by the fathers of military theory Jomini and Klausewitz, to speak about the one who faces the enemy without a reserve army behind him, and without a General who watches and commands. The arrieregarde fighter, this metaphor, is very much about survival, about keeping contact with your comrade, about taking care in a situation when it would be “reasonable” to surrender. A craftsman artist becomes a healthy constellation: I suggest we see this position as a chance to be able to examine basic relations.

One of my favorite contemporary thinkers, the Slovenian-born Slavoj Zizek criticized the new European oppositions to the neoliberal order, comparing them not with the marginal as usual, but with the strategy of hysteric man who permanently needles his master with unrealistic demands. The same happens in art: criticism is an important part of and is exposed proudly from the system to present its tolerant nature. But the requests are of the same un-emancipated manner: more exhibition space, more money for whatever, more attention from mass media…

We are often expected to play the role of a victim. We should instead build our own virtual and physical spaces. I already spoke about our communication platform of Armenian artists and my artist-run-space… let me introduce you our latest cooperation project – the 80 pages magazine in Eastern Armenian called “ORER” that was published in Prague in May as a special edition completely dedicated to art and visual culture. “ORER” (means “Days”) has been published bimonthly for 12 years already is an independent magazine. We as under_construction core artists together with the founder of the Gyumri Biennial Vazo Pahlavuni-Tadevossian and the editor Hakob Asatryan have been communicating via Skype for over a year being situated in France, Czech Republic, Germany, and even Argentine. This is a precedent of cooperation of artists that bear the weight of journalism and layout design with the local diaspora print media. We even persuaded the buyers of the magazine advertisement to let us redesign it, in order to keep a homogeneous appearance. Therefore, using Branko Dimitrievich's words, a curator I worked with in Belgrade: “"Who I am" is less important than where I am standing.”