Art Endings

Dr. Anahid Kassabian  GAM Review #6

I began a conversation about art with Hrayr Anmahouni some time before I actually encountered any of his work. We met at a lecture and discovered that we have both friends and interests in common, so we started meeting for coffee. We spoke of many things those afternoons: the dead end of nationalism, the lack of an art discourse in Armenian, the paucity of diasporan film language. These conversations were the first of many joys, an important beginning.

The next beginning was an art encounter. Hrayr showed me some of his works—rubbings of the rust on a missile cover, the trace of a trace of a massive weapon. Then the bullet hole series, which has two components: the first are actual bullet holes in paper over which he prints NRA targets in black, hazard orange, or clear ink, and the second are large print photos of a sheet of metal used at a target range that is utterly riddled with bullet holes; through the photo itself is again an actual bullet hole.

Another series of vast canvasses is painted with pomegranate juice. Yet another, small in scale this time, consists of photographic images or texts printed on a transparent surface, in multiple layers, backed by a phosphorescent mat so that the depth of layers glows hauntingly. There are two groups of these works: a series of landscapes and a series of texts. My favorite, which I eventually bought, is a reproduction of a Vahe Oshagan poem on death, “Amenayn degh mahuh mi che”. The text is interrupted by big blotches where the paper on which the poem was printed, from which Anmahouni took the photocopy, is itself dying, turning brown with age. 

All of these works, separately and collectively, demand an interrogation into the nature of presence. What is here? Now? What can stand for what, and for whom? 

Such questions should, must, be at the center of diasporan intellectual and artistic life, and yet works like these are rare indeed. Anmahouni’s paintings and prints demand that we peer into the funhouse mirrors of dislocation, multi-national capital, and Western metaphysics. So, for one clear example, what is the relationship between the photo of the bullet holes and the bullet hole in the photo? If a photo is, as we believe, a trace of what once was really there, does it share an ontological status with the bullet hole itself, which is also clearly a trace of that which once was “really there”? Are they both marks of presence? Of absence? Do they signify these questions differently? What of their co-presence in a single work? And what can these traces offer us in terms of understandings of violence and its representations in the present geopolitical and national political moment?

The next work I encountered was (Translated) Tebi Gyank, a tour de force half-hour video about, among other things, translation. The video’s lineage begins with Vahe Oshagan’s poem. [some info needed here: text, publication, length, etc.] Sound artist Hovaness Salibian created an aural art object based on the poem, and Anmahouni then produced a third reshaping of the work, which is certainly also a wholly distinct third work. The video is a mix of many kinds of images, including original and found footage and photos. The film begins with a black screen on which a blur of white slowly fades into focus, reading “(Translation)/Tebi Gyank”. [Hrayr, please note: the box says “translated” but the title text says “translation”. What do you want me to do?] Next is a sound loop of someone saying “tebi gyank” in a morphed voice that sounds highly technologized, to put it mildly. Over that sound then comes the title in Armenian, Tebi Gyank, flickering in and out. We begin to hear the poem being recited (by Oshagan himself, in fact, though one can’t know that from the film), and the layers of this work continue to build. At various moments we see the text imposed over images, many, perhaps even most, of which are out of focus, out of tracking, destabilized in every conceivable way. By the end of the film, the range of destabilizing techniques he has used is staggering; in addition to those above, there are very extreme close-ups of photos, so that one sees the print process, negative images, jaggy, overly fast pans, and much more.

On first viewing, it can seem overwhelming. But in fact, much more subtle alignments are taking places, rewarding the careful perceiver for her attention. Sometimes the alignment of image and sound is literal, as in the match of images of light with the line “Gyankus louysn eh.” At other times, the matches are more contemplative, such as the focus on an image of a younger Oshagan with the line “Inchbes abril?” Or when Salibian’s sound piece has a beautiful passage with a looped, altered repetition of “    gyankus“ and Anmahouni layers that with a sepia photo of the child Oshagan that eventually becomes a negative of a photo of him as an adult.

The images are fascinating in themselves as well. San Francisco street scenes of people and newspaper machines and sex ads alternate with an Armenian dance, photos, quotations from Pelechian’s Four Seasons, porn films, and footage shot in Oshagan’s apartment. This clash of so many visual images, and so many kinds of images, reverberates movingly with the poem’s own imagery.

Perhaps most compelling to me, as a scholar of film sound and music, are passages where the visual movement and shapes follow the contours of Salibian’s sound piece: the visuals shift with the shifting timbres of Oshagan’s voice declaiming the poem in a particularly Armenian vocabulary of aural gestures, or they morph along with the morphing of the sounds. Eisenstein wrote eloquently about synaesthesia, the experience of one input in multiple senses (seeing sounds, for example; according to some psychological studies, approximately 10% of the human population has this capacity), but I have always been dubious about it as an artistic strategy. Here, however, Anmahouni makes it work absolutely beautifully. There’s something both lyrical and lingering about this strategy; it lifts and accentuates the sound art into another layer of perception.

In Stan Brakhage’s hands, these techniques interrogated the nature of light and vision. Anmahouni’s work, however, takes them in a new direction, asking them to draw out questions about not just light and vision, but their relationship to sound and, most prominently, to words. (Translated) Tebi Gyank builds a complex structure out of words, sounds and images that demands of its perceivers an active engagement with all of its questions in and among each layer.

This, I want to suggest, is what art looks like after the end. Or better yet, after many ends. After the end of the home of Armenian diasporan art production in Beirut. After the end of Armenianness as a coherent nationalist category. After the end of art in general.

In postmodernity, it is argued, everything becomes commodified, and all art becomes subject to the laws of the marketplace, thus becoming perhaps not art at all, but rather entertainment. When I encounter works like Anmahouni’s, I experience a different path through postmodernity, one in which commodification, while unavoidable, offers new materials for art—materials such as rust, bullet holes, and porn films. Critique and interrogation from within commodity culture offer new and different possibilities, and Anmahouni is asking us to see and hear them along with him.

This, for me, is the end of an Armenian art practice that looks to the past, to the traditional, to images from crafts and caves and carnage. It is also the end of a self-indulgent Euro-American art practice that put itself at the center of everything. In its place, it seems to me that Anmahouni is offering the beginning of a critical practice that has much, very much, to teach us.