Art in Armenia: A Scene in the Midst of Change
The Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan (Photo: Aya Bach)
8 August 2012
Luxury shops and bank advertisements: Armenia is revelling in capitalism. Yet official cultural life is stuck in the old Soviet-age structures. The independent arts scene is seeking alternatives – and also turning to the Goethe-Institut for help. By Aya Bach
It is a mild October night in Yerevan. Bustling cafés in the broad parks around the opera house beckon us to enjoy life outdoors, a hint of luxury, a bit of serenity. In front of the building stands the over-life-sized sculpture of the composer Aram Khachaturian. He sits enthroned there like a national hero; one of the many monuments in Yerevan with which history has been written in stone. Yet the largest monuments were created in recent times: chic yet sterile new high-rises, many of them with western noble boutiques on the ground floor. And the construction continues, in spite of the fact that many buildings stand empty: the backdrop of capitalism.
Twenty minutes’ drive away is Bangladesh. That is what the locals call the huge satellite city of endless blocks of flats for those who cannot afford life in the city centre. Yet sometimes more hides behind these everyday façades than in the city centre. For instance, the cultural initiative called Suburb, with its own private art school and operated by idealists from the Yerevan art scene. Among them is Eva Khachatryan (33), who organized an international seminar here for artists to complete her advanced training programme, which was conceived and made possible by the Goethe-Institut’s Competence Centre for Cultural Managers.
Utopias and counter-modelsPreviously, she had spent two months in Berlin as part of this programme. Following a four-week theory unit, she was an intern at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK). Both elements gave the young curator not only additional expertise and lots of new contacts, but also ideas for her work in Armenia. At the NGBK she became familiar with an art project that excited her: Other Possible Worlds – Proposal on this Side of Utopia, a worldwide series of self-organized creative labs, art spaces and academies that not only think up counter-models to economically-dominated lives, but also put them into practice.
Now, Eva Khachatryan is standing with international guests in Bangladesh and has herself created a bit of utopia with her own cultural lab. In Suburb , Armenians, Georgians and Germans meet who work as critics, curators or artists, most of them also for art initiatives or institutions. Eva called her seminar Intersection of Parallels. Now she wants to make sure that the parallels between her guests intersect not somewhere in infinity, but within three days.
High-tech, churches and housing blocks from Soviet times (Photo: Aya Bach)
Her most important goal is to create networks, for the seminar participants could support one another across borders. “It is important to have the international scene here,” Eva stresses, “we have a young generation of artists who are hungering after any information about contemporary art.” This is hard to come by in Armenia, for training and studies are stuck in old Soviet structures. Anyone who wishes to know something about recent art has to turn to private alternatives – like the art school at Bangladesh.
But of the many art initiatives that arose in the post-Soviet elation, most have disappeared or are faced with major funding problems. There is no chance for state support, so what can be done? This offered plenty of discussion material for the workshop. For it is the question of how much state aid one even wishes to have. The Armenian curator Susanna Gyulamiryan, for one, finds there are good reasons to keep a distance. “Although we now have an opposition and artistic movements that are entirely contrary to the traditional institutions, we still carry a lot from the Soviet times about inside of us.” Understanding of art and historiography, she criticizes, are still just as semi-official as they are supportive of the state. There is no place for deviating positions: “I find that nationalistic!”
Graffiti and battle paintingsLike her, almost the entire art scene sees itself in a political oppositional role. So, alternatives to ties with state officials are welcome. That is reason enough to network with international art initiatives. That is also one of the objectives of the Competence Centre for Cultural Managers, which the Goethe-Instituts in the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia launched in 2009, first as a pilot project. Eva Khachatryan is a participant from the second year, for the programme continues. It is presently giving ten people from the cultural sector – six women and four men – from countries of the former Soviet Union the opportunity to further develop their careers and lay foundations in their countries. “Cultural managers have a tough time in the cultural and artistic scenes of the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They often lack experience, particularly in the field of international cooperation. This is where our programme starts,” explains Katrin Ostwald-Richter, project manager of the advanced training programme.
Eva Khachatryan’s four weeks with the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK) in Berlin as part of that programme is already proving productive. In return, NGBK coordinator Wibke Behrens came to the workshop in Yerevan to sound out further possibilities for cooperation. She can envision bringing an Armenian scholarship holder to Berlin for a longer period. Although this cannot be planned in detail in three days, “it simply makes sense to stay here longer in order to understand how the cultural clocks tick.”
The spectrum ranges from street art to the international parquet: at night, political activists from the Art Laboratory collective spray provoking graffiti on the walls and tend to wrangle with the police. In a rear courtyard, an artist duo shows a kind of peep show of a musty bedroom: the installation deals critically with sexuality and gender roles. And works by the photographer and video artist Vahram Aghasyan – spectral remains of Soviet buildings in Armenia – could already be seen at the Venice Biennial.
Graffiti in the toilet of an artists’ bar in the centre (Photo: Aya Bach)
Yet, what is shown in Yerevan’s exhibition spaces is conflicting. Although there is a Centre for Contemporary Experimental Art (ACCEA) it is not open to all. And when the workshop participants visit the ACCEA it is opening an exhibition of the photographer Ruben Mangasayran: images from earthquake and war regions in the 1990s. They are excellent works, but far from experimental.
The largest art temple, however, is Cafesjian Center, which was established a few years ago in a megalomaniacal building from Soviet times. It climbs over 300 metres up a hill, topped by a national monument. Now, an American-Armenian media entrepreneur is showing his collection, which ranges from decorative glassworks to a respectable Vasarely collection to wall-filling battle paintings from Armenian history.
How much institution is wanted?So, how Eva Khachatryan and her politically committed co-workers should position themselves in this environment is a challenging question. But, she deliberately began part of her workshop at Cafesjian Center. A representative of the Armenian cultural ministry even makes a visit to this representative venue: uncommon attention paid to contemporary art. But here, too, a free exchange of opinions evolves and artists who elude every state-supportive function are given their say.
The Georgian Wato Tsereteli presents his art centre in Tbilisi, which arose from private commitment and is now among the most important addresses for contemporary art in the country – supported by Georgian sponsors and western European cultural institutes, including the Goethe-Institut. Can this serve as a possible model for Armenia? This is one of the central debates of the workshop, which is then continued intensively within a smaller group. For at some point, every initiative must ask the question of how official, how institutionally, they wish to work. How close should they be to the state, how much should they cooperate with other organizations – including those from outside the country? Is there a risk of cultural imperialism? And how can they remain independent and creative?
The guests at Cafesjian Center also include Stephan Wackwitz, director of the Goethe-Institut in neighbouring Georgia, and former secretary-general Hans-Georg Knopp. “It was worth it to come here and to see how productive the work is,” says Knopp, “we have to keep supporting this.” After three days of discussions and insights in the local art scene, the participants also agree that they wish to continue working together, perhaps in collaboration with the artist-in-residence programme GeoAIR in Tbilisi. Artists and curators could come to Georgia and Armenia to offer their input in the entire region. In a joint effort, they also aim to create an archive for contemporary art in the Caucasus. Eva Khachatryan has long planned this, now it might happen – also with support from Berlin. “We could organize this with the NGBK,” she says. She also hopes to establish a library to alleviate the acute lack of information.
Fighting for civil societyThere is much work ahead for the artists in Yerevan – not only in establishing structures and networks. Making the public space a place for art is presently a concern close to the dedicated curator’s heart. Theoretically, there is enough room. “But the city centre is highly commercialized. I often ask myself, do we have any leeway at all?” says Eva Khachatryan, “you want to have the feeling, ‘this is my city!’” So far, in her experience, most artists have avoided any dealings with state powers. Now she wants to take a step herself that she has shied away from: she wants to seek out support for her initiative from the cultural ministry – as its representative at Cafesjian Center promised.
She has no illusions, however. She knows she will need a great deal of patience for her work. “I don’t know if we can truly build up civil society in our country with a seminar like this. But, we’ve been working at it for ten years and more and that is what we are fighting for,” states Eva Khachatryan following the three workshop days that the funding programme made possible. “We do not leave our country, because that’s exactly what we want to establish. This project is very helpful for us, because we believe we are doing something meaningful!”
This article was taken from the latest issue of the Goethe-Magazin. You can discover even more exciting reports, backgrounds and interviews on the subject in the Culture and Developmentissue.