Exorcising the Soviet: The Unfolding of Contemporary Artistic Practice in Armenia

From Art Journal 78, no. 1 (Spring 2019)

Angela Harutyunyan, The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-Garde: The Journey of the “Painterly-Real,” 1987–2004. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017. 320 pp., 9 color ills., 48 b/w. $120, $50 paper

In the spring of 1991, months before Armenia declared its independence in September and the official dissolution of the Soviet Union that would follow in December, the twenty-three-foot statue (seven meters) of the founder of the union Vladimir Lenin sitting atop a tall pedestal in the Lenin Square of Yerevan (now called Republic Square) was removed and put on the back of a truck. After touring the city center, its head severed from the body, the statue was taken to the National Gallery of Armenia, which it had been facing since the statue was inaugurated in 1940. Today, while the head is in storage, the body is lying in one of the courtyards of the National Gallery, viewable only on special request. The thirty-six-foot pedestal (eleven meters), however, remained in place until 1994, when discussions of what to place atop proved too difficult to resolve. Thus the pedestal is now supposedly in municipal storage as well. Opening with this imagery of an aesthetic void created by dramatic political change, Angela Harutyunyan’s first book scrutinizes the kinds of artistic practices that took shape in the aftermath of the failure of a utopian experiment and its strictly and systematically imposed cultural program. While the Lenin statue was hastily removed, the ghost of the Soviet Union remains intact in some measure, as oscillations between hope and resignation continue to engulf both art and politics in Armenia.

In The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-Garde, Harutyunyan historicizes the art of the roughly two-decade period in Armenia starting with the late 1980s, including the perestroika years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She traces the ambivalent relationship of art and politics through the mid-2000s, a transitional period for Armenia, contending that artistic practices of this period best capture the dilemmas and contradictions of this time. “Contemporary art in Armenia has become a negative mirror for the social: art has been viewed as that which reflects those wishes and desires for emancipation that the social world has been incapable of accommodating in both late Soviet and post-Soviet contexts” (1). The book is by no means a comprehensive survey of art of the period, but a study of selected artistic practices, exhibitions, and art criticism that informed a specific vein of contemporary art in Armenia that the author deems autonomous. Her subjects include the exhibitionary practices of the art movement 3rd Floor (1987–94); the artist group ACT’s conceptually inclined works (1994–96); the national postconceptualism of former ACT members; initial attempts to historicize Armenian contemporary art through local and international exhibitions aligned with the state’s policy of cultural export (1995–98); and finally, the formally divergent practices of the artists David Kareyan and Nazareth Avetisyan (1999–2004). Together, these collective and individual artistic practices, exhibition histories, and the debates that surrounded them offer a map of “the Armenian avant-garde, as the avant-garde of the contemporary” (30). Throughout the book, Harutyunyan uses the terms “avant-garde” and “contemporary” interchangeably, not because she contends that they are synonomous, but as a shorthand for this particular narrative of avant-gardist Armenian contemporary art that she historicizes. The construction of this specific artistic arc maintains a relationship with the shifting politics of the newly forming national republic. This reveals the central argument of the book: that the Armenian avant-garde (of contemporary art), always maintaining its autonomy, was in dialogue with political developments, and to a point shaped by them, while maintaining its autonomy. Though the avant-garde wavered between negation and affirmation, its central task was providing the ideal for the political within this two-decade period.

Throughout the book, the repetitive insistence on the simultaneity of autonomy and avant-gardism makes for a challenging realignment of terms for the reader well-versed in Peter Bürger’s theory of the avant-garde, which positions avant-gardist tendencies in opposition to the modernist claim for autonomy. Here, Harutyunyan’s project would have benefited greatly from a discussion (or crafting) of a specific post-Soviet theory of autonomy, which requires a turning of tables to suggest that autonomy in this context is not a rejection of the social and the political as subject matter and aspiration, but an ability on the part of artists and art to step outside officially and nationally sanctioned culture. Both mainstream culture and cultural institutions seem to have continued to be informed by the ghost of the Soviet paradigm of art as extension of ideology in Armenia. In this way, surprising conjunctions as “the contemporary avant-garde,” “the national conceptualist,” or the “collectively made individual creation” would take on epistemological power as structural challenges to the episteme of Western art history. In the book, the strength (or avant-gardism) of the alternative art practices highlighted would have been more greatly appreciated if Harutyunyan delved more deeply into what these practices offered a counterpoint to. Descriptions of mainstream culture informed by ethnonationalism, the continued academicism of former generations, and the persistent power of artist-bureaucrats are hinted at, but never fully integrated into the narrative. A brief hint for how this might have played out registers in Harutyunyan’s discussion of how the practices of the 3rd Floor movement, with its embrace of youth culture and anarchic freedom, were opposed by other young artists whom she deems conservative. The latter claimed that there was space for critique within Socialist Realism if it could indeed be practiced in a realist way, showing through painting the economic devastation of the masses due to rapid urbanization and industrialization (31). Institutional stagnation in the artistic field and economic depravity at large that weakened the democratic dreams seem to have both been factors that caused artistic activity to stagnate, but perhaps they also fueled the avant-garde.

The book’s subtitle, The Journey of the “Painterly Real,” 1987–2004, reveals Harutyunyan’s supporting thesis: it is the painterly approach that substantiates the autonomy of the Armenian avant-garde as it positions itself dangerously close to the ghost of Soviet art’s political involvement, but with a freedom provided by the painterly gesture. The brief discussion of the history of the painterly through a detour to the Soviet Armenian National Modernism of the 1960s and 1970s—an ethnocentric modernism that combined references to Armenian manuscript painting with Euro-American Abstract Expressionism—provides a much needed contextual key into understanding how the painterly gesture has been historically associated with oppositional discourse (76–81).1 However, the painterly becomes a forced argument later in the book when applied to the strictly conceptual work of ACT artists and David Kareyan’s post-ACT video and installation works of the late 1990s.

The first chapter of Harutyunyan’s book is dedicated to reviewing the existing academic literature on the term “contemporary” as well as a discussion of what avant-garde in Armenia means in relation to the Euro-American historical formulations of the qualifier. The task of extensively discussing the relativism of art historical terms conceived within one context, and how they might apply to and depart from the particular region that falls outside the terminology’s birthplace, befalls every art historian working on a non-Euro-American topic. It is not only tediously unproductive, however, but becomes the Achilles heel of the book. The more regionally specific rumination on the concepts of the ideal and autonomy through the philosophical discussion between Evald Ilyenkov and Mikhail Lifshitz proves much more pertinent to the concerns of the aesthetic realm in question. The unresolved dialogue between art as a product of social activity (Ilyenkov) versus ideals as preexisting in nature rather than products of human social labor (Lifshitz) stresses a key dialectic between the social ideal and the material object. This tension remains productively unresolved throughout the book.

An unsteady mixture of terminology, reliant on conditionals, tasks the reader with a wearisome mental exercise of mapping the ever-so-slight shifts in meaning necessary for the historical and geographical readjustment of established terminology. For instance, Harutyunyan never returns to the dialectic between Ilyenkov and Lifshitz after the first chapter, though she admits this unresolved tension later in the book: “But ideals and ideologies are also inextricably connected: though materially and historically constituted, and while appearing to transcend this constitution, they occupy a third sensuous-supra-sensuous domain” (246). While this continual search for mnemonic devices to remember the intricate nuances in terms used is somewhat aided by Harutyunyan’s repetitive reiterations of her arguments about autonomy, the ideal, the real, and the painterly, the retraction to the comparative lens through modernism, conceptualism, postmodernism, and the interchangeably used terms contemporary and avant-garde often creates more confusion than clarifying matters for the reader.

Curiously, the artists in question created their own context-specific terminology, which could have easily relieved Harutyunyan from resorting to imperfect renditions. Nazareth Karoyan, a member of the 3rd Floor movement, coined the term “hamasteghtsakan art” from the Armenian word hamasteghts (to create together, with a second meaning of innate) and also with reference to hghanal (to create) and hghatsq (concept). The term, which came to denote an aesthetic of incoherence, outlived the group and continues as a strain through artistic practice even today, as Harutyunyan attests. While its main supporters, the art ciritc Nazareth Karoyan and the artist Arman Grigoryan, had slightly diverging views of what hamasteghtsakan art meant at the time (for Karoyan it was a free mixing of styles and techniques, and a rejection of authorship, and for Grigoryan, freedom for the artist), it entailed for both a nonhierarchical approach to images and styles of incommensurable temporalities, carrying a parallelism to the liberal idea of freedom that characterized the transitional years of perestroika. Harutyunyan posits that the liberal fear of content in politics was reflected in 3rd Floor’s exhibition-making practices. Does it matter whether this was “a romantic post-conceptualism” (70) or “a local articulation of postmodernism” (73), or that it reflected the modernist ethos because it advocated for total autonomy for the artist? Perhaps the fear of content presented by the hamasteghtsakan attitude was precisely that the experience of Armenian perestroika’s transition into liberal democracy required a unique approach, not easily translatable through the use of existing frames of reference. The claim that the 3rd Floor movement had for the cultural vanguard was itself in response to, and hence part and parcel of the official political stand, if not its full reflection. The 3rd Floor was an answer to Mikhail Gorbachev’s call to transparency. Its artists challenged representational content from within the margins of the existing Soviet artistic establishment, embracing romanticized bourgeois life and counterculture simultaneously, as they were both anti-Soviet attitudes in their individualism, and hijacking the already existing framework of official youth exhibitions to do so.

In turn, a younger generation of artists who came together as the group ACT (which was both an acronym for Actual Arvest [Actual Art] or Actual Arvesti Hosanq [Actual Art Stream] as much as a word on its own) (175) coined the term “pure creation” that Harutyunyan describes as a reflection of the “dry proceduralism and calculated rationalism” of the liberal democratic state in ACT’s approach to art making (105). What’s more, during this time, ACT (for Harutyunyan, the artistic avant-garde of the mid-1990s) was not oppositional to state power, but fully behind the newly elected president Ter Petrosyan and his administration—they came from the same intelligentsia as the artists in question, and shared aspirations and views of instituting liberal democracy. For Harutyunyan, this was a crisis of negation for the avant-garde. Yet if one suspends the term avant-garde, there is no crisis, but a local and momentous alignment between political and artistic culture, anchored in the term “pure creation.” Borrowing forms from politics, ACT staged protests, votes, and performances mimicking and glorifying political liberation in Armenia, and it clearly rejected the painterly, posing a problem for Harutyunyan’s supporting thesis. Harutyunyan argues that the entry of national colors into the text-based, post-ACT works of Kareyan and the state-backed export of contemporary Armenian art for participation in international exhibitions created a new mode of art making that was contemporary in form, and national in content. (This approach takes a different look in Grigoryan’s “Armenican” paintings of the period.)

The misalignment between state-endorsed cultural policy and the artists in question in the late 1990s as the democratic experiment in Armenia began to falter illuminates Harutyunyan’s argument for the specific strain of Armenian contemporary avant-garde to uphold. Her discussion of the transformation of Kareyan’s practice is well articulated through close readings of the artist’s work, attesting to her confident championing of this work as exemplary of the Armenian contemporary. Instead of offering resolution, or a neat picture of an ideal world to which to aspire, Kareyan’s works become images of irreconcilability, of an acceptance that the attempt to recover the object of loss, whether it is called the ideal, the utopian, the democratic promise of freedom, or some similar term, was never there to begin with. Kareyan’s installation and video work of this period offered the viewer neither an ideal world of freedom through the painterly, nor a conceptual gesture of rationalism, nor a direct representation of the real, but sustained an unresolved tension aimed at undoing the viewer’s certainty by the encounter with the artwork.

The disillusionment with the democratic system was simultaneous with artists’ fascination with video, to the point of what Harutyunyan calls “techonological fetishism . . . [in which] video promised to deliver ‘the Real’” (231). While the paradigm of the painterly remains unconvincing, this is where Harutyunyan’s establishment of a shift in the meaning of the real through a brief media archeology is strongest. She explains that the true postmodern turn of media representation, mostly through television, came at the same time as the artists’ interest in video. Her comparison between the coup d’état attempt as televised artistic prank in 1991—which did not alarm the public, contrary to expectation—and the live broadcast of a violent attack on the parliament in 1999 offers a point of entry for understanding a societal shift that also has aesthetic implication. She posits that the mistrust of television, even during the perestroika period, meant that what was broadcast was taken with great skepticism, as television was seen as an ideological tool of Soviet propaganda, an attitude that led to the perception of the 1991 artistic prank as unreal in the first place. In 1999, however, the coincidental broadcasting of real carnage in the parliament building left a huge mark on the collective psyche. Not only was the economy stable enough for Armenians to follow the broadcast on their own TVs without the interruption of power cuts, but they had grown accustomed now to taking televised representation as the real event. Concerns with the body, violence, and sex entered the work of artists after the televised attack, and the use of video within the artistic realm doubly conflated representation with the real.

Writing an art historical account of a period of political transition, in addition to the epistemological difference of attempting to do so while using the dominant vocabulary of the Western art historical discourse, remains an unresolved challenge for all of us in the field. As a first attempt at historicizing recent alternative artistic practice in Armenia, Harutyunyan’s The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-Garde is an impressive venture, and highly informative on artistic practices of the twenty-year period in question. If seen as a long-term historical unfolding of contemporary artistic practice in Armenia, it arrives at its true subject matter in its last chapter, specifically in Harutyunyan’s discussion of Kareyan’s installation and video work. If it is the gradual emergence of an anti-Soviet consciousness that defines Armenian contemporary art through the period that Harutyunyan scrutinizes, the exorcism of the Soviet is perhaps completed at the end of the book with Kareyan, with claims neither for the vanguard nor for autonomy, but for a more modest, open-ended approach outside the purview of the Leninist historical time, an approach that embraces unresolved tension—which in itself could be seen as evidence of the contemporary.

Duygu Demir is a curator and PhD candidate in the history, theory, and criticism of art and architecture program at MIT. Her dissertation is provisionally titled “A Syncretic Modernism: Articulations of Painting in Turkey 1933–1954.” She is interested in modern and contemporary art, especially but not exclusively of the non-Western variety. Her research topics include exhibition histories, transnational encounters, and moments of confluence between art and architecture. Before her graduate studies, she worked as a programmer at SALT in Istanbul.

  1. This section in the book is a summary of Vardan Azatyan’s article “Disintegrating Progress: Bolshevism, National Modernism, and the Emergence of Contemporary Art Practices in Armenia.” ARTMargins 1, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 62–87, also online at https://doi.org/10.1162/ARTM_a_00004, as of February 6, 2019.