Velvety Artistic Representation at Venice Biennale

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By Tina Chakarian

In May 2019, the Republic of Armenia presented “Revolutionary Sensorium” at what is perhaps the most prestigious international art exhibition of our era — La Biennale di Venezia. The Armenian Pavilion was inspired by the 2018 Velvet Revolution, a historical event that quickly became the subject of global media coverage and analyses, with particular attention attributed to its non-violent nature: not a single bullet was ever fired.

What lessons did we learn from the revolution, exactly?

First, it underscored the invaluable role of youth in leading resistance. The protests were almost childlike in nature. Following Serzh Sargsyan’s official resignation, a group of teenagers brought back snow from the country’s mountainous terrain to Republic Square, only to start a snowball fight in front of parliament. Hundreds of young men and women held signs denouncing Sargsyan, comparing him to Cheburashka — a Soviet cartoon character. The use of drones and modern technologies in the revolution were indicative of a movement led by a new generation of Armenians, tired of outdated politics and Soviet-era politicians.

Second, women were at the forefront of the groups involved in the formation of organized, anti-government protest. To quote an article in Open Caucasus Media “on top of consistently being involved in the grassroots-organizing of social movements, they [women] also make up the majority of Armenia’s journalists.” It is women who form the majority of Armenia’s NGOs and media, and who had been leading the resistance through their civil activism, decades before the revolution took place.

Last July, international art curator Ralph Rugoff announced the theme of the 2019 International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. He named it “May You Live In Interesting Times,” an ode to the ancient Chinese curse. In December, the Economist named Armenia “Country of the Year.” The opening of La Biennale was to take place on May 9, 2019 — just two weeks following the one-year anniversary of the revolution. And so, we created Revolutionary Sensorium, a pavilion meant to recreate the events of April 2018 through video installations, artwork, and live performances.

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Following my announcement regarding the theme of this year’s Armenian Pavilion, I was met with a recurring question which I had difficulty answering, “Can art really effectuate change?” Can Revolutionary Sensorium truly honor the decades of work on the part of activists, human rights defenders and journalists who have selflessly fought against the corruption and authoritarianism widespread in Armenia? After all, art cannot monitor free and fair elections. It does not choose who governs and leads nor for how many terms. It will not implement transitional justice, nor will it hold trials to indict individuals responsible for widespread civil and political injustices.

What art can provide is a platform for dialogue. The rise of political art as genre and the incensing number of contemporary artists associating themselves as activists, means the historical distinctions between art and politics have begun to dissolve. National pavilions have a special role in the world of political art. They made their debut appearance at La Biennale di Venezia in 1907, and have since featured the greatest modern art hailing from every corner of the world. At La Biennale, there are no closed borders and territorial disputes. There is one exhibition, nearly one hundred participating countries, and an open space to communicate what message your country wants to send to the world, and to its people. Here, art is a space for full, uncensored discourse, accessible to all. It is a space where artists can make otherwise marginalized cultural narratives visible on a global scale. This is what Revolutionary Sensorium does so brilliantly.

Armenia is a country reborn. The next few years will be vital to its establishment as a democracy. Last December’s elections reflected poorly on that establishment, with few women elected to parliament. Women were an invaluable voice in the revolution, but are now ignored in the decision-making process. Revolutionary Sensorium is an immersive experience, yet its purpose is not solely to rekindle the emotions we felt during the revolution. It is a reminder of solidarity and unity in the midst of uncertainty. It is a reminder that peaceful protest can ignite change and that women and youth are indispensable to this process.

This is not Armenia’s first time participating in the Venice Biennale. In 2015, the Armenian Pavilion presented Armenity, which won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Pavilion. Its theme honored the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and was based on the premise of the formation of nation characterized by a dispersed identity. The artists featured in the pavilion were Armenians of the diaspora, descendants of the 1915 genocide survivors. The pavilion commemorated the darkest hour in Armenia’s history while shedding light on perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of the Armenian nation — the Diaspora. In its portrayal of the diaspora as blossoming and flourishing in every corner of the world, borrowing from its adopted cultures while staying connected to an Armenian motherland, Armenity sent a message to the world — we are among you.

Armenia will have the chance to represent itself again at La Biennale di Venezia in 2021. It’s a chance for us to support our most talented artists in both the Armenian mainland and the diaspora, allowing them to showcase art inspired by our country’s past, present and future. This is not an easy initiative. To assemble a team of artists, curator, development director, and producers takes months to plan and of course, requires adequate funding and resources. It can be done, but it’s up to our commissioner and sponsors to see that the Armenian Pavilion can create something capable of actually effectuating the change we so often speak of.

(Tina Chakarian is an Armenian installation artist and business development specialist currently based in Yerevan. She is the development director of the Armenian Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia. For information on the exhibit visit Armenianpavilion2019.com.)

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