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Reflections on the process of curating a project by Sarkis for the Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale 2015, in the year of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.By Defne Ayas | Aug 2015
Following high-level diplomatic visits by Ministers of Culture such as Jet Bussemaker, the Netherlands’ Minister for Education, Culture, and Science and Fleur Pellerin, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication, but none by Turkish ministers beyond the ambassadorial level, with moving responses from tears to enchantment, awe and respect to estrangement (“Is this Turkey?”) including threshold-testing, game-of-thrones-like tribal encounters within the national worlds of art and journalism, Respiro by Sarkis is still breathing in and out in Venice at the 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia, until November 22, 2015, while Turkey undergoes political ups and downs with serious consequences for the rest of the region and world.
Respiro took its initial breath on April 3rd, the first day of the installation, and came fully alive on April 23th, meaningfully a day before the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. It consists of two site-specific neon rainbows and two large-scale mirrors with fingerprints applied in watercolor by seven children. At a three-day workshop preceding the centennial, they applied the patterns of the cosmos that Sarkis has been drawing in his notebooks to the mirrors with their fingertips. The young contributors—Abay, Anna, Aren, Helin, Karla, Claudia, and Linda—came from Istanbul and Venice and spoke Armenian, Kurdish, Arabic, Aramaic, even Chinese, and not only Turkish and Italian. Quite possibly Sarkis’s magnum opus, Respiro also brings together several of his iconic sculptures, including an altar made out of red glass cut to the exact size of the one surrounded by Caravaggio paintings in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. 36 stained-glass panes created with a medieval technique thread the installation, hanging, in Sarkis’s words, like “diamond earrings”. These illuminated panes feature images that encrypt pain, war, Eros, and autobiography through a pictorial orchestra to exert a deft but subtle critique of humanity: the palm of a hand cups a flame; a seraph peeks through, high on the wall of Hagia Sophia, which is on the verge of becoming a mosque again; the murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink smiles against a background of pomegranates; a sleepy Sergei Parajanov (persecuted in the Soviet Union) is caught off guard; and the Great Architect Sinan’s embrace of Mihrimah Sultan comes together with an image of Sarkis’s parents’ grave, just to name a few of the images.
There is no doubt that, of all the work that Sarkis has produced to date, Respiro, which means “breath” in Italian, has been the most personally challenging. Did Sarkis know why he was invited now, why this year? Here was a master who, for five decades, had combined ingenuity with a subtle critique of history —so deftly that one could only bow to this dedication. Of course, he knew; he had restless nights, thinking through it all. Thinking of his parents, things left unspoken. The personal connection was palpable. There would never be another 2015. The absence of a model, of an example was clear. The only given: his half-century-spanning oeuvre, its timelessness and its timeliness. And perhaps one other: a love for the land, freed of before, now, and after.
Given that the 100th anniversary of 1915 is a fact—whether or not the invitation to work with the Pavilion came because of this—and given that Sarkis’s oeuvre has encrypted and distilled themes addressing the cultural-historical spoils of war, Kriegsschatz, for such a long time, it was clear that this exhibition would be an unprecedented attempt.
We certainly had our reservations, especially at the outset. Would we be used? If so, how? Would we be part of a discourse that possibly made a leap forward in the recognition of the genocide, a word that is not used to describe the massacres and suffering, a technical term invented by Raphael Lemkin, with restitution politics and economic consequences, beyond the scope of our imagination and knowledge? Would we receive the actual endorsement of government entities? How about the problematic uses of the word genocide and the reluctance to use it because of emotional repercussions yet to be explored? “As such, these calculations and codifications obliterate what is unnamable, unimaginable, and incomprehensible about the Event —the Event ‘itself’. Like the Catastrophe, they also interdict. So ‘Genocide’ as a performative is a interdit. As a interdit, ‘Genocide’ is not itself a silence; rather, it imposes a silence by entombing the Event within the pursuit of a calculable verdict,” David Kazanjian, one of our contributors to the Respiro publication, would write to Marc Nichanian in one of his letters. 
Could Respiro be the opening, the key, the path to a Turkey that would reset its buttons that have rusted for 100 years? How would it deal with organized forgetting machines such as states? How could we protect the project from a line of artistic production that would reduce this complex issue to one dimension? And why keep revisiting the old wounds, licking them over and over, when you can rise above them? Why not produce hope? Why not stage the exhibition as a statement in defiance of stagnation? Why not embrace contemporaneity at the intersection of the present and the distant past?
Sarkis chose to tap into his rich arsenal of visual, architectural, and musical apparatuses while acknowledging works from the art-historical canon, such as “The Tempest” by Giorgione. Grabbing this “sense of permanently suspended enigma” by its horns, he activated once again his ongoing and profound engagement with the concept of Kriegsschatz (the spoils of war). He had full autonomy in selecting the artworks and the music that plays day and night, together with the neon works breathing in and out for the duration of the exhibition; and he commissioned this musical composition from Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi, which is based on the artist’s rendering of the rainbow’s seven colors as a system of partitions. This particular score is playing not only in Venice, but also in the lobby of the newly opened building of the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, adjacent to “Altın Ikona” (Golden Icon), an artwork that Sarkis gifted to the Foundation as a prelude to Respiro. The work is presented as a golden square, on the same scale as Sarkis’s stained glass of Hrant Dink’s photograph that is on view in Venice. Five additional “messenger” institutions, in addition to Sarkis’s “Respiro” in Venice and “Golden Icon” at the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, have agreed to work with Respiro, to place his works simultaneously on view in Château d’Angers, Angers, France; Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, Chaumont-sur-Loire, France; Mamco, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva, Switzerland; Musée du Château des ducs de Wurtemberg, Montbéliard, France; and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Respiro, the publication that accompanies the exhibition at the Turkish Pavilion in Venice, in the meantime, had a different fate than the installation itself. It had to be initially released online only: the use of wording “genocide” in one of the short essays conflicted with the Turkish state’s rigid policy toward the historical genocide. We learned this on April 24, 2015 in person, on the day of the centennial, from our lead mediator with the Ministries. It was an absolute devastating moment for our team, a moment of discomfort, of having been stabbed in the back, but also a mirror of our naïveté. Of course, we were in a diplomatic zone, and we had to abide by the rules and laws as dictated by the government. What did we think? The commissioner had given us such an autonomous operational space; the private money that backed it was so generous and hands-off that we were no longer immediately aware that we were still to be in this representational mode, having to work within the diplomatic parameters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is a chronic situation, a political stand that we could not afford to change in any way, a situation steeped in a long tradition in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The publication in its print version quickly folded into a new work titled Kriegsschatz Leidschatz Rainbow, May 2015 at the exhibition site. It locked in and started storing our pain. Those at the opening could see the publication on the exhibition site in a gilded case and were informed that it was there, together with everything else. We took our suffering in and turned it to gold and to art as honestly as we could. In addition to being distributed online to a few thousand online readers, the publication has now been reprinted and started its circulation – with exactly the same content, but expanded by a few installation shots and completely freed of all the burden of corporate logos and flags.
Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The Pavilion of Turkey at the
56th International Art Exhibition,
la Biennale di Venezia
9 May - 22 November 2015
Sale d’Armi, Arsenale
with additional messenger sites
Curator: Defne Ayas
Assistant curator: Özge Ersoy