“Hull,” 2018: ballast stone, gold plate, 12 x 24 x 24 in.

Blurring of Boundaries: Zarouhie Abdalian’s Art and Politics

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When so much seems lost to our governments’ policies of war and destruction, it is good to know that art is still available to open our eyes to a different way of looking at the world. “If we do not rebuild the world, mankind will perish,” says Zarouhie Abdalian, a 39-year-old artist from New Orleans, whose entire oeuvre is propelled by her desire for change.

Zarouhie is best known for her site-specific sculptures and installations. Although trained in traditional techniques, like painting and ceramics, where the artwork can be moved from one exhibit space to another exhibit place, Zarouhie soon became interested in the contexts in which people encounter art. This context includes the viewer and the place where the artwork is viewed. “I start with a specific location — its physical characteristics, social situation, history etc., to determine what I will make. A context-specific installation is produced for a particular place and a particular time; it cannot be moved without changing its meaning and purpose,” explains the artist.

“threnody for the unwilling martyrs” (detail), 2021: signaling bells, modular pipe, electronics. Dimensions variable

Zarouhie’s work has been featured in countless exhibits, both solo and group, across the United States, and also in museums around the world, extending from Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Norway, to China, Russia, Australia and South Africa. Her installations are on permanent display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Berkeley Art Museum, and others. Zarouhie is a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans (BA, summa cum laude) and of the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco (MFA). The young artist is featured in an impressive bibliography of articles in prestigious art reviews, journals and magazines, like Art Review, Art in America, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and New Yorker.

I started this piece with the intention of introducing Armenians to one of theirs. I was surprised, however, to discover a woman who has kept close to her roots and who has travelled to Armenia, three times already. Speaking of Shushanik Kurghinian, the early-20th-century socialist feminist writer from Armenia, described as having “given a voice to the voiceless,” Zarouhie says: “I can’t believe it took me nearly 40 years to — rather accidentally — come across her work but am grateful to be able to read her now.  Everyone should.” That confident tone pervades everything the artist says and does.

Zarouhie creates sculptures and sound installations that explore injustices, both past and present — the exploitation of labor, racism and militarism, among others. The deliberate, often unusual, choice of sites for her installations, like a derelict building, a downtown plaza, a homeless shelter, or a parking lot, reveals the relentless woman who will stop at nothing to bring, in her own words, “gaping inequalities and real atrocities” to light.

“threnody for the millions killed by silicosis (2017) is a memorial to lives lost to silicosis, a disease endemic to miners, caused by the inhalation of silica. The banging and tapping heard throughout the exhibition depict the act of knapping, a process of making stone tools by striking with rocks. The whole exhibit is an invitation to thought and reflection.

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Even when one doesn’t fully understand the “meaning” of a specific installation, one trusts the artist’s knowledge of the historical and the social issues that the artwork tries to highlight. Whether it is about the divide we have created between “brain work” and manual labor, or the “murderous sanctions and military assaults of the US government,” Zarouhie’s indignation comes through. All one needs to do to appreciate the artist’s sincerity is to watch her in conversation with professional art critics. There is something extremely appealing in the relaxed, yet amazingly self-confident, manner with which this young woman delivers her powerful messages. A gentle smile confirms that all is said and done with conviction. Zarouhie’s motto is: “Believe in what you’re doing. The key to success is to do projects that feel right to you.”

The young artist’s creations sometimes seem “bigger” than the delicate woman who conceived and put them together. Zarouhie chisels, cuts, saws, paints, sands and polishes. She works with other professionals only when “the project is at a scale I could not achieve alone.” For example, to make “Banner” (2018), an installation at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, “a group of six people, including myself, embroidered a large canvas over a two-week period.”

Zarouhie’s is certainly not art for art’s sake aestheticism. The political motivation behind her work is unmistakable. Labor abuse and the mass murders of the United States government are all ideas intricately connected with her aesthetic creations. Art and politics are not separate realms for her. “Aesthetics is not ahistorical, and the criteria by which something is judged to have aesthetic merit have changed over time,” points out the artist. Her “politics,” on the other hand, is resistance to existing conditions. “Politics is about wanting to create change, it is not about an issue,” she emphasizes. Ultimately, it is the artist’s commitment to her vision that inspires confidence and empowers the viewer to act — the ultimate “politics.”

Abdalian may not be a household name in the Armenian community, yet she is very much in touch with her Armenian heritage. As a child, she was exposed to Armenian music, art and poetry at home. As a young artist, she was influenced by Arshile Gorky, but “encountering the work of the great Soviet Armenian artist Sergei Paradjanov,” at 18, when visiting Armenia with her grandmother, “was eye-opening because it exposed me not only to his oeuvre but also introduced an extremely creative era of Armenian art history I knew nothing about.”

Zarouhie Abdalian

As a young adult, Zarouhie attended Dr. Kevork Bardakjian’s erstwhile Armenian Language Summer Institute in Yerevan, through the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, “to expand my knowledge of Armenian language and history.” Years later, she returned “to reconnect with dear friends.” “It would give me great pleasure to make a project that would speak to and more directly solicit feedback from an Armenian audience, which I expect will happen in the coming years,” confides the artist.

Her Armenian identity is something Zarouhie has never shied away from. In 2011, she was commissioned to make work for the Istanbul Biennial. “I found myself in the position of creating a site-specific piece for a country I mainly knew through hundred-year-old family stories of the Armenian genocide. I wanted to make a piece that would honor these histories while also speaking to and of the present. As an Armenian-American artist making work in Turkey, I felt I needed to make a work that conveyed what that context meant to me,” she says.

Yet, Zarouhie’s art transcends her Armenian roots. “As descendants of survivors, the Armenian Genocide charges us to actively remember while giving us the strength to do so. As Armenian Americans, genocide also pervades our diasporic home; genocide is foundational to the United States and it continues to define state policies,” states the artist. Indeed, her 2021 “threnody for the unwilling martyrs,” in downtown Oakland, is a monument to the “unwilling martyrs” of the policies of the US government — those killed on the job because of unsafe conditions, those murdered by police or obliterated by bombing campaigns etc. The installation centers around the use of bells as a basis for sound sculpture. “I wanted to give expression to living through this historical moment and to memorialize it. I used bells to create this work because bells signify a range of things:  a call to service, warning, commemoration, marking of time. The piece is meant to function across these registers, as memorial but also as incitation.”

Installation art is ephemeral. Much of it will not end up in museums and galleries. To those of us schooled in the “illusion of permanence” of traditional paintings and sculptures, the fact that installation art cannot be commodified and sold may seem like a drawback. But if we should redefine permanence, with Virginia Woolf, as “the ever-changing moment,” the transitory achieves “permanence,” and our judgment becomes less dismissive. Woolf’s comment on London, in her essay “Oxford Street Tide,” comes to mind here: “The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass. . . . We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt.  It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility.” There is, indeed, joy for Woolf in knowing that things are perishable, yet possible to rebuild. It is the joy of knowing that, “All things fall and are built again/And those that build them again are gay,” to borrow the words of celebrated poet W. B. Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli”). This awareness of the possibility of building something new, something that will, hopefully, dismantle the divisions and correct the inequities of the existing social structures, is at the core of Zarouhie Abdalian’s vision of transforming the status quo. “Art that is innovative and proposes new forms goes hand in hand with the human activity of trying to build a new society,” affirms the artist.

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