Painter and art curator Ara Haytayan recently returned from the Fifth Beijing International Art Biennale, where Armenia, along with Mexico, India, and Spain, had its own special exhibition. For the first time, Armenian contemporary art had become the special guest of a huge art event in East Asia.
Being the curator of Armenia’s exhibit at the Biennale, Haytayan observes that on one hand, Armenia has presentable art, but on the other hand, it cannot get out of the snare of individual initiatives and initiate an overall strategy.
And for this reason Armenians are condemned to begin their conversation in different media and art platforms from zero — especially since television also places its own clear restrictions.
Festivals and biennials are also media platforms, which help discern the face of Armenia. Did the Beijing biennial change anything?
Our exhibit in China impressed people but wasn’t connected with Armenia, since nearly no one knew what Armenia is — especially since the Chinese were pronouncing our country’s name as “Yamenia,” and we were identified as Romania or Yemen. Ultimately, we have a strategic issue to resolve.
If we can identify what are the important points for our country on which to “strike,” say, in the coming 5 years, many things will be much clearer. But now we have to admit that a country named “Armenia” simply doesn’t exist in people’s memory. First you have to let them know that you exist, then show that there are views, steps, and art in that country.
Each time we participate in these types of forums and biennials, we always begin the conversation from the same point; that is, we explain where and who we are. We are forced to hold a map in our hands so that we may show the two seas and us in between those seas, a little bit below.
|“Armenian television depicts the world in a narrow, primitive, ethnic model. The television consumer slowly will withdraw since he’ll constantly feel that that which comes from the world doesn’t have anything to do with him and he has nothing to do with the world.”
The problem is that a person from Armenia presents himself to world as primitive — just as the media constructs the world. The media gives us a clear notion that, for example, it was the French who taught Algerians how to walk, hold a musical instrument, and write. While Armenians are perceived as Russians are perceived (a completely absurd situation).
Many are sure that we simply haven’t existed (there were no Middle Ages or before), since till the 1990s we were Russian, and then we opened our eyes and saw what’s happening in the world and began to imitate it.
For the [rest of the] world, we’ve only just begun to grow up and we’re condemned to give an explanation on who we are. We constantly say and will continue to say the same thing, since we haven’t accumulated and archived the layers of art and history.
If a foreigner comes [to Armenia], you have a chance to explain your place to her (you can take her to the Matenadaran Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Garni, Geghard, and show her), but if you go [abroad], you feel that you have no tool to make the task of talking about yourself easier.
Art has always been that tool.
Of course by drawing a map of art you inform others about yourself. All powerful and not as powerful powers understand quite well that art is an important business card to prove their existence. Furthermore, art today is used to prove future existence. Following art are industry, finances, the economy, and so on.
But in Armenia, art is in a derivative state. The approach toward art is very clearly seen in the layout of newspapers: art is on the last page, in between the classifieds and the sports section. Even on websites, culture takes up a small space. And this means that it’s the last thought.
Meanwhile, international news media today has a completely different structure: art becomes the face after which the other sectors aspire.
Is that approach there in China’s news media?
That is felt especially in China, while in Europe this structure has long been in use. China realizes that art is an outlet for it. For its amount and its potential, today’s China ensures a “way out” through art, while keeping the remaining issues on the back burner.
In all other areas, China has great claims, but it understands very well that its footprint on this planet is art.
And Armenia, participating with a special and extensive exhibit in a biennial of this scale in Beijing, proved that it likewise is prepared to play a big role. And a question arises: are we in control of that position? We really took a step that broke the mold, which was complete as an exhibit, but as theoretical material it had zero response and deteriorated.
Participating in large-scale forums provides new opportunities, and maintaining this thread, we have to take the next steps, analyze, develop the next initiatives, and create a way of thinking that’s full of contrasts. Everything is a chain: we have now fortified a good chain, but we don’t know what’s going to happen after.
But China knows. Being the host of the biennial, China keeps half the exhibit space to itself, since out of 84 participating countries, it has to show what it’s done to 83 of them. China has set a very visible size — I’m half; you’re the other half.
But on the other hand, the Chinese view this step as a means to educate themselves. They openly say, we’ve been shut for many years and we’ve lost contact with the [rest of the] world. And now we have to fill this [loss].
That’s also our [Armenia’s] situation — on a smaller scale, of course.
In terms of being shut, yes, but in terms of attitude, no. That is, they’re open to accept, while we’ve clamped shut. China has made a decision to be open, to educate itself. We’ve narrowed the versions of our identity and we’re illusorily protecting it.
It’s very important to understand, to a great extent, what are the ways of preserving viability for a nation in the world today? To find the development model that is specific to your country.
And what’s the Armenian model?
Our chosen (or not chosen, but declared) model is the opposite of China’s model. We consider that we ourselves are valuable, and we constantly search for ourselves in a few symbols, in which we become stagnated.
The interest of the Chinese is boundless and everywhere, while we’re focused on ourselves. Of course we can’t imitate their attitude, but we definitely have room to avail of their policies, especially when it comes to art, which, in Armenia, is on the verge of disappearing.
[In Armenia,] it becomes so that any initiative remains an individual decision and doesn’t become a part of state cultural policy. Each of us, based on our individual cultural policies, take some steps armed with our own knowledge and personal routers. Then we achieve some result, which though it might be interesting, in all cases is an unknown result.
Does Armenian television have unique characteristics?
Armenian television has its scale of priorities, which makes people defenseless.
The influence of television is restricted by a specific generation. It’s for the elderly. There comes a generation where television no longer plays a role in the lives of people of that generation.
|“[In newspapers] art is on the last page, in between the classifieds and the sports section. And this means that it’s the last thought.”
In any case, it’s quite unfortunate that people limit themselves to television, even if they’ve reached a respectable age and, to a great extent, have nothing to do in this life.
But let’s put the elderly aside. It’s more heinous when television cultivates in children an extremely narrow perception of the world.
Of course, television allows a person to avoid feeling alone, to feel a part of a big community. But Armenian television focuses on issues that actually weaken a person and deprive him of protection.
After all, tomorrow he, faced with reality, will encounter more difficult issues and will understand that he’s not prepared to overcome them. Tomorrow’s challenges await the new generation, but television has already convinced this generation that the only things to think about are neighborhood gossip and problems with mothers-in-law. And it’s obvious that this generation will become a victim of reality, since it won’t be prepared for the new challenges.
Armenian television depicts the world in a narrow, primitive, ethnic model (mainly through soap operas). As a result, when Armenian youth find themselves in an environment that’s outside that model or meet someone who’s different than the main characters of soap operas, an aggressive question immediately arises within them: “Who is this guy?!”
That is, it turns out that the “who” is unknown. And that unknown gradually becomes more intensified, since the characters offered on television have become so narrow that they fit in only 1–2 models.
What’s the danger of that?
Those who come to Armenia from abroad will be unknown to us each time (we’re going to say, who is this, what is this), and we’re not going to be able to fit what we’ve seen into what we know. The television consumer slowly will withdraw since he’ll constantly feel that that which comes from the world doesn’t have anything to do with him and he has nothing to do with the world. He has created a small micro-universe inside him, which, in turn, is not connected to anything. That’s what’s distressing.
|“I think, in any case, the news outlet that develops a particular education section in its pages and tries to prepare its audience for new challenges wins.”
The world Armenian television creates has no direction — it takes you toward neither the past nor the future nor the world. That is, the only way is toward inward gossip, which stagnates you and finally leads to gangrene.
I try to stay away from television as much as possible.
It’s noticeable that Armenian news is built on danger — someone being murdered, strangled, burned. Is violence attractive to the news?
International news is also built on blood. Shock is always preserved in the structure of news, to remind us that the world is not perfect. And then reported naturally is that regular terrorist acts are happening in colonized countries (bombs continue to go off in Iraq).
And all this is viewed not as exceptional, but as quite a natural phenomenon.
With that they try to keep people within the bounds of blood, loss, and imminent danger. Recent events in New York, for example, were depicted in the news as a huge alarm call. If even the life of a city like New York is threatened, then the world is not perfect.
Over the years this idea is reinforced in different ways in people’s psychology and creates a dependency on the news.
I think, in any case, the news outlet that develops a particular education section in its pages and tries to prepare its audience for new challenges wins.
It’s clear that there are two main directions in the news of large colonial countries. On one hand, they find fault with the savagery and barbarity of backward countries; on the other hand, they show what an original culture they have, the specimens of which find their place in the world’s best museums.
And that is a very interesting way of suppressing nationalism. It seems that it’s very difficult to suppress, say, the nationalism of a French person. But every time a French person sees another statue of the Buddha in the Louvre she is initially surprised then adjusts to the idea that the Indian cleaner working next to her has a huge culture and he’s not the only one.
In Armenia, it’s the opposite approach: we always search for an Armenian trace and immediately accept he who has Armenian genes.
Our tragedy is that, having Armenia’s model within us, we are unable to maintain the principle of tolerating others and also appreciating the world through them. It’s very difficult, for example, to admit that the Turks also left valuables. When this is brought up, resistance immediately emerges. It’s very dangerous when we begin to believe that apart from us, no one else is valuable.
I’ve never seen us initiate a large-scale television program on the truthful decisions or successes of our neighbors, the Georgians. Existing programs are simply the superficial Eurovison Song Contest or some festival or another.
To admire your neighbor’s actions is a very valuable sentiment that “sits” inside a person and due to survival proves your neighbors’ (as well as your) existence.
In any case, our news-propaganda system is quite unhelpful and in opposition to the people. For a country like Armenia to become fenced in domestic issues is tantamount to death, since the body of its people (the 8 million) are outside of Armenia.
For a people physically outside its country, it is the countries and challenges outside that are of current interest and concern. After all, in order to feel comfortable an Armenian living in Germany wants to like Germany, while women of Gyumri who trade in Istanbul don’t want to hate the Turks, since they understand that the trade that ensures their daily bread is not built on enmity.
These people contradict that which the news media preach.
And what are those token images with which Armenia presents itself to the world in the news media?
For the Europeans, [French-Armenian chansonnier Charles] Aznavour is such a symbol. But Aznavour is not a platform for showing new art. People remember him, but when talking about our identity, our image today he doesn’t help us. We “exploit” Aznavour; we don’t create our symbols by which we can explain who Armenians are. I don’t want to come across as immodest, but it was also due to the Beijing biennial that Armenia began to exist. Art began to acquire an image.
For example, our neighbor Georgia is not yet able to have a large-scale presence at the Beijing biennial, while Azerbaijan is not represented at this platform. Iran, however, invests huge potential, while Turkey comes up with interesting projects.
I want to say that this biennial is a unique map of regional participation. We can situate our remarks next to powerful states — of course, if we understand the importance of this.
Interview conducted by Nune Hakhverdyan.