Issue 1/2004 - Diadochenkultur?

Instable Conditions

Traces of past and present-day body regimes in two works by artists from Yerevan

Hedwig Saxenhuber

»To throw my body into the fight« – this line, which comes from a poem by Pasolini written in 1966, could provide the motto for the performative regime to which Haroutioun Simonian subjects his body in his latest video. The »fight« refers to a 20-minute performance without an audience. At the beginning of the work, Simonian’s naked body tries out cautious movements, at the mercy of a slippery mass of Vaseline that severely limits him in his movements. This resistance causes ruthless reactions to himself: he tries to free himself by jumping, with the result that his body and head strike hard against the floor. Again and again.
These scenes show how the artist is willing to demand everything of his physical self. Despite this rigorous approach, however, a certain lightheartedness and a touch of irony are present in the work as undertones. At times, Simonian’s actions even seem helpless and comic. The violence against himself is not an autoaggressive act. Rather, this private performance shows an approach based on exploration of the subject’s spectrum of action – it is about crossing borders and possibilities of liberating the subject. It is only through the absence of an audience at the performance that the artist succeeds in penetrating into deep, existential structures, as if into a dream - in depicting the relationship between the individual body and the social space.
Haroutioun Simonian was invited as an »artist in residence« by the Geneva-based curator Anna Barseghian and the philosopher Stefan Kristensen, who have been working on their project »Utopiana« for three years. Utopiana has set itself the goal of bringing new artistic and theoretical input into Armenian contemporary art and making this art visible outside Armenia as well. Simonian’s installation in Geneva is one result of their single-minded and very successful activities. They were able to procure the Centre d’édition contemporaine for the presentation of the installation: the performance as a video recording screened on a monitor standing on the floor and the empty black room next to it with the traces of Vaseline and smears left by the fight resemble an abstract, three-dimensional picture. A surveillance camera transmits this motionless room in two-dimensional form to the display of a small control monitor. Simonian’s work in Geneva is his most abstract to date; in contrast with his ballet work, the video installation »Uterus« and his self-presentation as a sleeper, it no longer has a specific location. It tries to explore the tangible border between »I« and the Other, the personal and the collective.
In post-Soviet countries in the nineties, there were many examples of works in which artists used their bodies as an expressive medium. Soviet authorities suppressed every »useless« exertion of energy, the intensity of desires and every kind of »unregulated« behaviour by rigidly censoring images of the body in its expressive functions and sexuality.1 »We have no sex« was the motto, a slogan that they tried to use to shape abstract »bodies of the people«. For Simonian, who grew up in the Soviet Union, his naked body is the medium of reflection. After the collapse of the Union and despite the changing forms of symbolic exercise of power in the new state of Armenia and the sudden influx neo-liberal social forms, the power regimes regarding the body/bodies are still dominated by rigid norms, and now also by Armenia’s extremely right-wing politics. Simonian’s videos and performances are often censored in Armenia.

The vanished tower
In March 2003, Karen Andreassian began to work on his project »Voghchaberd« for Utopiana. »Voghchaberd« translates as »Village with Tower«. The name refers to a building that, since the devastating earthquake of 1988, no longer exists. Voghchaberd is only ten kilometres away from the city of Yerevan with its over one million inhabitants. During the Brezhnev era, it was a prosperous, prestigious village favoured by apparatchiks, who built their summer residences there. The village’s recent history has been dominated by two phenomena: the collapse of the Soviet Union and a natural catastrophe, the constant sliding of the slope on which the village stands. In recent times, there have been frequent official attempts to resettle the village’s inhabitants, but they have successfully refused, accustomed to their instable situation. The present sliding terrain can be seen almost as a concrete symbol or a metaphor for the endless crises in Armenia in the 20th century.2
For his presentation – which is taking place at the same time as Simonian’s exhibition, in the Centre pour l’image contemporaine in Geneva – Karen Andreassian has made a selection from his abundant studies and observations of Voghchaberd in four short video narrations, digital footprints and on the Web. The video documentations are essay-like, intense in their perception, telling little stories about life in Voghchaberd: the farmer Hrach Nahapetyan tells about a dream in which he had a presentiment of the death of his son, a soldier, who in fact did die the next day in an accident during the Karabakh war; and how, in the dream, he would not allow his son to be buried in the cemetery that broke up into different pieces in the landslide, as he didn’t want him to break his legs again because of the instable terrain. There is the writer who goes into raptures over the fertile land and the healing earth it contains, which, he says, even the feral pigs eat. In another sequence, Andreassian show us Edvard Zadoyan, who works as a rubbish collector, his truck and the sophisticated, extremely strong hydraulic device used to empty unwieldy iron dustbins. The geological instability that causes the people to live in constant uncertainty also has its positive aspects: the wild countryside produces abundant supplies of berries, fruit and herbs, which the artist shows in the fourth film. Andreassian is not a distant observer; he is the confidant of the people he portrays, something confirmed by the way they look at the camera and by the soundtrack of the video. It is also not a part of his strategy to establish a distance to the viewers. He works using an emotional, subjective visual language, and aesthetic enhancement through the digital processing of the images.
The time factor is an important part of the concept, occurring in various guises. The same subjects are filmed in October and December, providing a contrast of seasons: the lighting makes the landscapes seem almost apocalyptic in nature, at first obscuring the true problem. Andreassian’s methodical scepticism reveals itself when viewers ask about the reality, about the practices and rhetorics of truth behind these vedutas of disappearance.
The web site is the virtual location of the resettlement. Andreassian has assembled all those living in the village by name and with their date of birth, written in the Armenian alphabet. The web site is cleverly constructed and connected with another one,, so that between hits an index of the intervals in seconds is created, and the digital parameters appear in their pure existence and in a universal model.

Haroutioun Simonian, Centre d’édition contemporaine, 18, Rue Saint Leger, Geneva, 30 January to 27 March 2004
Karen Andreassian, Centre pour l’image contemporaine, Saint Gervais Geneve, 5, Rue du Temple, 31 January to 4 April 2004
More information at: http://www.utopiana.a


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 Sonia Sanan Kildjia, Überlegungen zu Uterus von Haroutioun Simonian, in Erlauf erinnert sich …, ed. Hedwig Saxenhuber, will appear in spring 2004, Revolververlag Frankfurt/Main
2 The following radical changes and crises dominated Armenian history in the 20th century: the First World War, the genocide of 1915, Sovietization, Stalinism, the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1988 earthquake and the Karabakh War.