Details of Silvina Der-Meguerditchian’s installation, “Treasures” (2015), manuscript, collages, digital pictures, ink drawings, punched paper and gold foil, small glass bottles, dry herbs and flowers, video.

Silvina Der-Meguerditchian: The Re-creator of Lost Worlds

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YEREVAN / BERLIN –Silvina Der-Meguerditchian is a multidisciplinary artist. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, lives and works in Berlin. Her artwork uses different mediums such as installation, video, sound, mix-media and performance. The burden of national identity, the role of minorities in society and the potential of a space “in between” are important topics in her artistic research. Der-Meguerditchian is also interested in the impact of migration in the urban texture and its consequences. Reconstruction of the past and the building of archives are a red thread in her work. Her projects were awarded by different international institutions, to name a few, the European Cultural Foundation, Kunstfonds Stiftung, the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Goethe Institut. In 2022 she was awarded with the Falkenrot Preis, the working fellowships for visual arts by the Senate Department for Culture of Berlin and the “in view” grant by the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Silvina has been working as art director of the Houshamadyan project (www.houshamadyan.org) a project to reconstruct ottoman Armenian town and village life since its inception in 2011.

From 2014 she cooperates with “Women mobilizing memory”, a group of artists, writers, museologists, social activists, and scholars of memory and memorialization, who focus on the political stakes and consequences of witnessing and testimony as responses to socially imposed vulnerability and historical trauma.

She participated in “Armenity”, the Pavilion awarded with the Golden Lion at the 56. Venice Bienniale for the best national participation. Her artistic work has been shown in many exhibitions around the world, including, among others, Germany, Italy, Greece, Argentina, USA and Turkey.

“Out of lost stories, things and objects Silvina arranges living archives, creates textures of memory which are material for new affiliations, open up spaces of action for a more hopeful future and a different kind of coexistence” (Barbara Höffer).

In 2021 Silvina Der-Meguerditchian: Fruitful Threads bilingual (German-English) catalogue was published by Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Vienna.

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Dear Silvina, I first saw your work in 2015 at the 56th Venice. We all were so happy that our Pavilion received the Golden Lion award for the best national participation.

Yes, of course, all the participating artists were very happy about this recognition. Adelina Cuberyan von Fürstenberg did a great job curating and we as artists gave our best. I had been interested in the Venice Biennale as a platform for a long time. That’s why it was very significant for me to be invited to the official pavilion. Actually, I initiated the first diaspora pavilion in 2007, it was not in any program, a “subversive” pavilion. Back then it was an initiative to open a dialogue with the Republic of Armenia, and to talk about our affiliations and our self-perception as a trans-nation.

Do you think that the Armenian Diaspora Pavilion’s Golden Lion award was politicized as it coincided with the centennial of Armenian Genocide?

If you are addressing the politicization in the ROA, and the questions about why and if diaspora Armenians should represent Armenia, to tell you the truth, I am quite discouraged and frustrated regarding the relationship of the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora in the field of culture. As far as the visual arts are concerned, I think the ministry of culture in Armenia does a lousy job. In the diaspora it is not much better, in fact we have no institution worth its name that promotes and strengthens the visual arts. The relationship between the ROA and the Diaspora is already very dysfunctional in general, something that is clearly manifested in the field of culture.

There are many issues where we address the difficulties with different tools. Moreover, there is no such thing as “the diaspora,” but different diasporas which are not a model of unity either, depending on the institutions prevailing in the different countries. It seems to me a totally ridiculous thing to fight for hegemony of what is Armenian culture or Armenian language and who represents it, instead of playing in a team in which there are many “specialists” and with an incredible wealth of experiences that could achieve a lot of things. Our diversity is our forte, it is a historical diversity of experiences, instead of silencing it, we should celebrate it.

Regarding the politicization in the international art world, despite some malicious comments, I think that the Golden Lion was well deserved, and it was the opinion of most people I met. The pavilion was meaningful, at the right time, in the right place and spoke with the right voice. Instead of “shouting” (figuratively speaking), like many works in Venice that try to attract attention with huge amount of materiality and expensive mega installations, our works dialogued with the space and integrated with the monastery to generate a chorus of whispering voices, which had to be given attention, not out of megalomania, but out of sensibility, aesthetics, politics, and poetry. Adelina was the perfect director for this “chorus.”

Silvina Der-Meguerditchian

You give new life to old artefacts. In your installation of “Armenity,” called “Treasures,” you presented 350 folk health remedies from your great-grandmother’s notebook. Don’t you intend to give new life also to those remedies translating and publishing them?

There was the plan to publish the folk remedies as a book in Turkey in 2016/2017, but the political situation deteriorated so much that the idea was left up in the air. In addition, the sponsors of the project, between them Osman Kavala, ended up in prison. (On November 10, Osman Kavala, who is sentenced to life imprisonment in Turkey, was awarded with “Prize for the Dialogue of Cultures” by the Stuttgart Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. It was handed to Der Meguerditchian, who in her speech called for the award to help “close the gap between real and moral politics.”)

In 2021 while I was installing Treasures at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse, I met Heinrich Evanzin, a pharmacist and physician researching medieval Armenian medicine in Vienna (Austria) and we agreed that he would try some of the recipes.

This year a cooperation with Dr. Talin Suciyan of the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, came up. There will be a translation and a scientific publication on the subject in the next few years.

It was logical that you, who recreates lost worlds and involved in artistic archeology, became a part of Berlin-based Houshamadyan project, reconstructing Ottoman Armenian town and village life in visual forms. In this project your talent of filmmaker has been revealed – I highly enjoyed your shorts on Hajin and Dikranagert (Diyarbakir) Armenians. I am sure you will make us happy with new outstanding projects with Houshamadyan.

I really enjoy working with archival materials. I love working with dialects and with traditional dances. Armenian dialects that are still spoken in different corners of the world and the movements of the dances belong to the intangible cultural heritage and are one of the biggest challenges for me. To archive them in such a way that they are permeable, that they can be disseminated and perceived by a large public is a difficult task. I love challenges. Since last year we have been cooperating with a team of traditional dance specialists in the United States. Bringing into dialogue those tutorials with archival footage from the diaspora meetings/picnics is a very rewarding task. You see how they behave, the clothes, the joy. It makes me happy.

You are one of the rare diasporan artists, who initiated and participated in projects with Turkey, like “Mobilizing Memory: Women Witnessing” in 2014, “Grandchildren, new Geographies of Belonging” in 2015. Before I also believed that through arts and culture we can build a dialogue between Armenia and Turkey, but after Osman Kavala’s imprisonment and especially the 44-day war I hardly can believe in it, at least for the near future.

I have to say that I am also very disappointed, I was convinced that we were on the right track. I am an optimistic person, however, I also think that in the near future the slope is going to remain very steep.

I think there is a difference between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Unlike Azerbaijan, Turkey has a civil society, which is very fragile, but it exists. Feminists in Turkey are very strong and courageous. Many of the people interested in a dialogue are scared off or had to leave the country. Others are very brave and are still there, but they are a tiny minority. I believe that the work we did for more than 10 years is not lost. If the geopolitical situation allows it, I believe it will be possible to pick up where we left off and build a better future.

For that today, September 2022, it would be important that Turkey and Azerbaijan leave the path of hatred and destruction. The more wounds they create, the more work it will cost us all to go back. The genocidal intention must stop. Their speech and acts need a 180° change.  It is a rhetoric and behavior of the last century. You don’t need to analyze too much; their acts speak tones…

The worlds today’s challenges must be faced by humanity together, using the strengths and different capabilities of all cultures. Domination, oppression, and expansion are backwards categories from an obsolete mindset. This strategy might appear as relevant today, but in the long term it’s not.

[Note: On November 10, Osman Kavala, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Turkey, was awarded with the Prize for the Dialogue of Cultures by the Stuttgart Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. It was handed to Silvina Der Meguerditchian, who in her speech called for the award to help “close the gap between real and moral politics.”]

Silvina, you are so Armenian in your works! But I agree completely with Joanna Pfaff Czarnecka, who observed: “I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Silvina has the gift of dressing what is personal to her, her very own, in a language that is universal and therefore very communicable. For me and for many other recipients of her work, her struggle with the path of her own family in the light of the terrible history of Armenia is striking.” How you manage to be both national and universal?

I try to be faithful to all that is me, that way I can feed my cosmopolitan spirit. The fluidity and flexibility in transcending different geographical spaces and cultures without losing myself are the characteristics of my Armenian identity that I like the most. This practice is evidently reflected in my artwork. I’m happy that you can identify with aspects of my work.

Is there room for expressing your Argentinean side in your works?

I was born and raised in Argentina. The constituent years of my adolescence and childhood were spent in Buenos Aires. I’m sure there are strong parts of me that are rooted in this experience. To have known the endless plains in Patagonia, the vastness of a country. Being critical of the government, having experienced hyperinflation over and over again, having lived in a military dictatorship, trying to get ahead on my own with agility and flexibility, being daring and daring ventures with no safety net to save me if I fail, having lived close to extreme poverty, etc. All these are some of the parts of my Argentine identity that have helped me to survive and that are also manifested in my artistic practice.

You work in international scene with your typical Der-Meguerditchian surname, which should sound difficult to non-Armenians. Being married a German, how so you kept your hard-pronouncing surname instead of taking German family name?

Because my name is part of my identity, where one of the belongings it marked me the most comes. I wanted to honor that belonging using my name, despite the difficulties.

Installation view in “A Knot in the Throat: Foraging for a Vanishing Present” in the Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, 2021.

How much do you know about the contemporary art scene of Armenia and how would you evaluate it?

I can’t evaluate the scene, but I can simply tell you my experience. At one time around 2003/2005 I tried to generate a genuine and curious link with artists from the Republic of Armenia. I had the expectation that this link would help me to get to know myself better, but it did not work. I tried to generate some virtual projects putting a lot of effort on my part (at that time there was no Facebook, skype or zoom) but there was no interest. The artists I met told me that they didn’t think we had anything in common, calling me naive for thinking that because we were Armenian, we would have something to say to each other. I found the circuit very closed, distrustful, prejudiced and even arrogant. Artists of my generation showed no interest over the years.

The last few times I went to Armenia it seemed to me that the younger generations are more open and that there is potential. But the last time I went to Armenia was in 2017, and I am not aware of the latest developments.

When we met last August in Venice I was delighted to learn your son’s name is Avedis and that he attended an Armenian course. Always dealing with issues of migration, minorities, identity, belonging, family, how do you see the future of Armenians in such a melting pot as Europe?

If we manage to get out of this current conflict with Azerbaijan, which aims to reduce and annihilate us, I believe that our capabilities and skills, the role of translator, mediator, intelligence with no other raw material than our ability to adapt and start from scratch again and again, is very attractive for Europe’s idea of the society of the future.

If we begin to capitalize on our strengths, and act as a team, the Republic and the Armenian Diaspora, we can do it. We must come out of this battle with determination.

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