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Armenia as a Periphery, Pt. II with Sarah Kunkler and Edgar Amroyan

Continued from Armenia as a Periphery, Pt. 1

Sarah Kunkler: I am thinking….is all good art confrontational? It’s a good question….I guess, I think…I agree. Art confronts something that is difficult, that is a challenge for us. So, you think Caravaggio’s painting you saw in Naples is a decoration on the wall?

Edgar Amroyan: No Caravaggio’s work isn’t a decoration. There are examples of art and there are examples of culture (museums are an example), but I think many works of culture are still unacceptable for society because society everywhere has mediocre taste. Yes, in Armenia and many other countries that are more traditional. But this problem is not only in Armenia. And I think really art has to be in confrontation with society and common people, and sometimes culture engages in this problem instead of art. For example, the last time I saw an exhibition of contemporary art in Yerevan which didn’t have anything to say…It was something like a wall decoration. And what do you think about this?

detail of Sarah Kunkler's "Armenian Carpet" series of reductive woodcuts.

SK: So…I’ve been thinking a lot about your ideas of art and confrontation…and yes, I do think that the best art ultimately confronts something about society, individuals, ideas…good art challenges how we think, and our ideas.  I think that is one of the goals of art…which is quite a big question for artists- what is role, our goal in society.

In Yerevan, I think art is going down two paths- one, being more traditional, like you’ve discussed, and the other is working with these ideas of confrontation…usually political confrontation, but I think the Armenian art scene is moving quickly, changing, and a revolutionary force.  I’ve never been to a country with such a need for a voice, and political art serves a distinct and vital purpose.

In your Soviet Party body of work, you deal with the memory of living under Communism in the 1970s.  Can you tell me, how do people today, in Armenia, with the current bad political situation, how do they think about their Communist past?

EA: In Armenia there are two points of view. One part of artists think that art has to be independent from politics, and another part thinks that contemporary art can’t be without political art. But I am talking about some common opinions. In Armenia there are some groups of artists who focus on central problems like feminism, sexual problems, for example. There are personal artists with their own points of view, but  Art-Laboratory is unique in Armenian art sphere, because in Art-Laboratory there are artists who are creating different works from each other but they are united in social and political problems. An example of this was the opposition lead by Armenia’s first president after 1991, Levon Ter-Petrosyan. In the 2008 elections between Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Serj Sargsyan, the current president, Serj Sargsyan,with the help of Robert Qocharyan, falsified election results, and people demonstrated. On March 1 2008, the government killed opposition’s demonstrators. After that, I think art in Armenia can’t be unpolitical.

Oil on canvas, by Edgar Amoryan from the 'Soviet Party' series.

About other artists, and the direction of art…Art can’t be only text, but has to be based on action. There are many artists who ask the government to help them, they think that’s the only one way to help art and artists, but I think really art in Armenia and countries like Armenia, this dependence on the government must not be allowed and I don’t accept any transaction with government. And those artists who go into this transaction every time need to be justified by other artists.

I was thinking about the Soviet Party quite often, some time ago, but the idea formed after my Italian solo exhibition, which was on October 04, 2008 in Loft Art Gallery. This exhibition was also concerning Soviet times, and my Soviet childhood, and was called “Magical Association”. The acquaintance with Italian contemporary art helped me to realize this project more quickly and easily, though I was thinking about it for a long time.

After my Soviet Party exhibition, in one of my interviews I talked about Armenian Soviet Society, which aimed to be like Western people more than now, and it was question, which my exhibition made, why the people of independent Armenia aimed more or less to be like Europe than before. That’s why I created this project, to show Soviet times and people’s documental life. I was like a mirror for the society of those days. This is really political I think, and when Vardan Jaloyan explained that this project was like body language and resistance art, because in Soviet times parties and fun events were presented as criminal and capitalist activities by our government. Though the Soviet cinematography in the past showed a negative opinion about official propoganda, unlike today, which has no opposition point of view…

Color photos of Yerevan, Armenia by Sarah Kunkler

The people I interviewed, for my work, told me they didn’t think about their future in Soviet times, they talked about some social inequality but they said they did not see such inequality as now and they think that the Armenian situation today is really vandalism…
Of course they are glad for being an independent republic, but in spite of this, they are still dependent on Moscow. Anyway, Armenian people did whatever they wish…The same was told by those who were serving in Soviet Army. I have talked to them after “Suicide Soldier” graffiti and they were surprised at our current army situation.

SK: So, from what I understand, you are saying that today, Armenians are disappointed with what is happening in their society?

I like the ‘Soviet Party’ because of the paradigm it shows- between actual life, what a real person life is pretending to be, and the reality of a Soviet future. It’s interesting the connection between this body of work, and your ‘Suicide Soldier’. In your interviews today, with Army members….how did they react to your collaboration with Garik? Were they surprised, angry, shocked?

I know that today, many aspects of the Armenian political sphere and country are directly connected to Russia. Do you think this is a good thing, or a bad thing? How do people feel about the influence of Russia?

EA: Yes you understand correctly, Armenian people are disappointed with the current Armenian situation and many people have emigrated from Armenia. Of course it’s no good that the political and economic life of a country depends on another country. An independent country has to be independent in all aspects.

Sure there are people who think that Armenia needs Russia and as proof they use the Turkish issue, but those types of people are becoming less and less.

work from the "Soviet Party" series of paintings by Edgar Amoryan

As the last question I want to know what do you think about architecture of Soviet Armenia?

SK: To start, I’m most amazed by the paradox within Soviet Architecture. That is what strikes me the most, when viewing from the outside.

I’ve really only focused on domestic spaces in my work. This is where I find the most contradiction- between form and function versus our ideas of domestic space. This is what struck me most- staring at slaps of concrete, or some other panel with an obvious industrial production, the textures- almost completely void of human touch. This contradiction is so rich…I think I could spend a lifetime discovering its various layers.

But as I began to think about my new surroundings, I also became aware of my background, and my ideas of architecture- which are completely, utterly different than my current surroundings. as mentioned earlier- I am viewing this from the outside…and I am an outsider.

The beginnings of Soviet Architecture too are unique. A political movement chose architecture as a way of embodying concepts. This is something that separates it from other architectural styles. The idealistic roots of socialism, and how the architects of the late 20’s and early 30’s incorporated these principles in the plans of not only buildings, but cities. The idea of decentralization, and how these decentralized areas function today is something that I think I’m just beginning to explore in my work.

Color photo of Yerevan by Sarah Kunkler

Color photo of Yerevan by Sarah Kunkler

In former Soviet countries, like Armenia, there is a huge question today for its citizens- is life better, now, under democracy, than before, as part of the Soviet Union? This question isn’t easy to answer, and is heavy with the controversy of today’s political situation. When I visited Armenia, one fact was inescapable, as I looked around me- Armenia’s past. How easy is it to move away from something ideologically, politically, when you can’t escape functioning in a fallen empire’s greatest, still living, accomplishment?

So, Edgar, my question for you: how do you feel, when looking at the architecture that surrounds you, how do you feel about life before 1991, and today?

EA: You know Soviet architecture is divided approximately by 3 periods: constructivism, Stalinism, modernism. In Armenia the constructivist ideas didn’t succeed because a person named Alexandr Tamnanyan (he was an architecture) was invited to Armenia from Petersburg. He was one of the architectures of the Russian Empire and a representative of Russian classicism. He could mix classicism with the the Armenian traditional architecture. He built modern Yerevan, being influenced by old Armenian temples and churches. Before that Yerevan was a little town with black stone buildings composed by 2-3 floors. Of course we can’t say there weren’t Constructivist buildings too, for example the building of the KGB.

The classical style was more close to Stalin’s Imperial ambitions than constructivism. In the 1950s the square of Spandaryan was built..I was born and grew up in one of its buildings. They are a dark and dry mix between socialism and classicism but those buildings are well projected.

Next to our building there were some others which were been built by German WWII prisoners. Those buildings were more quiet and they seemed more human to me when I was a kid. The apartment where I live was given to my grandfather by the government, because his parents emigrated from Turkey because of the Genocide, during which they lost their home. It was the first present of Socialism to my grandfather, but was it really free? As my grandfather grew up without his father, because he was arrested and sent to Siberia during Stalin’s rule because he was a Trockist. After Stalinism, a few years later, till about the 70’s, the modernism became popular: the big buildings, cement, big local walls, sometimes utopian, but not practical buildings. In the 90‘s, nothing seemed to change in architecture. Since 2000, wild capitalism, which doesn’t concern anybody with anything, or anything with anybody, is out of control. Money came from suspicious ways and didn’t take account with architectural norms. The first step was the destruction of old Yerevan buildings (before the Soviet period, a whole historical period was destroyed), as it was the center of the city. After that the green areas also suffered. The new buildings are built close to each other, and aren’t interesting from an architectural point of view. Besides, they are not human. The worst is they are called elite buildings and it’s very expensive to live there. So, the society is divided into 2 parts: the poor and rich. So, these buildings symbolize the end of Socialism and Humanism.

SK: One of the things that helped me to develop my ideas of Soviet Architecture in Yerevan was learning to differentiate between the different types of Soviet Architecture in Yerevan, as it is more easy to see the two later periods you’ve mentioned. I remember your neighborhood, and the big square, the buildings, and the enormous streets. As I remember, there was a more classical feel, and you could easily see that this area was an example of Stalinist architecture. Compared to the neighborhood of Massive, it is extremely different…like two different worlds.

It’s interesting to me that you say the buildings built by the German war prisoners of WWII are more ‘human’….why exactly did you feel this?

I also remember reading that Yerevan really only became a metropolis after the Genocide, when thousands of people moved from Eastern Turkey to find safety. Before this massive move, which included your grandfather, what was traditional Armenian architecture like?

Another interesting thing I noticed, which I felt was quite ironic, was that the new style of architecture, seen in the buildings along the controversial Northern Avenue, in the center, seemed to reflect Stalin’s architectural principles, more than anything else. How do people feel about this new part of the city?

Who were some of the architects that designed parts of the city like Massive, which were clearly built during Brezhnev’s period?

EA: Yes, I was talking about the German prisoners built buildings, because they seemed more human to me, and they were small, (3 floors). They are also a soft color, they were parts of European culture that were missing all time.
Really Yerevan became a center for all Armenian people after the Genocide. Before Soviet Armenian architecture, architecture had a more traditional character, like the little buildings composed of 1-3 floors, which were commonly built by black stones and had a strong and grim look. The famous Armenian and Soviet futurist poet Yeghishe Charents, wrote in one of his poems “I LOVE BLACK, GRIM AND INHOSPITABLE WALLS OF RUFFS LOST IN DARKNESS…”. You are right about Northern Avenue, it is really totalitarian architecture and has become a parody of Stalin’s period, and I haven’t met anyone who liked it.

SK: I remember those buildings, and their reddish color, and the diamond shaped windows…they really stood out from their surroundings. They also seemed to have a cubist influence to them, with their sharp diagonal angels.

It’s a pity that most of the traditional Armenia architecture has disappeared….but I remember that there were a lot of protests by residents, and other citizens, against the construction on northern avenue.

We have spoken a lot about the past. When I was in Yerevan, I met a few artist that were dealing with Modernism, in Armenia, and especially in connection with architecture in the 80’s, and early 90’s. I read quite a few times the statement ‘Modernism will never disappear in Armenia because it was never finished’. This idea was extremely fascinating to me, especially as I looked around me, and saw the remains of an ideology, of different dictators, and of an attempt to rebuild. The more I discussed this topic, I also met artist that didn’t agree with this statement, for various reasons. And I want to hear your opinion- do you think about this statement? Is it an accurate description of a current problem with architecture in Armenia? Or, has modernism finished?

EA: Yes you are right about those buildings, they have local forms and remind constructive architecture. Modernism, in Armenia, is since 19th century, but was formed in Soviet Period. But for me Armenian modernism was a little different, because really Modernism is not shown by facade forms, really Modernism must have an attractive exterior, but the Soviet Government doesn’t think about it so much (it’s about architectural modernism, in the other spheres the image was different). For me the question doesn’t exist, because I think modernism is in the past, and in our days, art has to be contemporary, more about actions and politics.

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