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Nune Hakhverdyan

The Armenian Connection to Istanbul’s Salt Water

The 14th Istanbul Biennial is the largest international exhibit of modern art. It is always interesting to see just how modern art is addressed and positioned in Turkey, which has many pretentions. The country is ready to invest money in modern art.

This year’s biennial, titled “Saltwater: A Theory of Thoughts Forms,”offers a profound, emotional and slightly untidy way of grabbing one’s attention, which is fragmented and launched in random directions.

The Biennial compelsvisitors interested in interacting with the art to walk along narrow city streets, enter exhibits held in small garages, and go to special venues like abandoned areas, a dilapidated lighthouse or a five-star hotel. Sail on a boat through the Bosphorus or stroll through Istanbul, map in hand, prepared to get lost at any moment. The Biennial is a city within a city.

Istanbul is a crater of many, multi-layered histories, languages and cultures. That crater is being examined in this year’s Biennial. The Biennial’s participants do not only include artists but also oceanologists, psychologists and archeologists that have all relied on salt water to fuel their imaginations. 

Biennial curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, left,

and artist Anna Boghiguian.

 The Istanbul Biennial differs from the Venice Biennial in that it doesn’t have a national pavilion format—the works are displayed around a central concept. Since that concept’s foundation is Istanbul, with its history and thought, the Biennial gently lifted various national layers from the water’s surface that comprise the city’s flavor and scent as well as pain and hope.

 The Armenian display was one of the most salient exhibitions at the Biennial. It was born out of the IDeA Foundation’s Dilijan Art Initiative. Foundation cofounders Ruben Vardanyan and Veronika Zonabend promoted the exhibited art as a means to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and also as a way to strengthen ties between Dilijan and the world. Art is thankfully the vessel with which the unique history and rich creativity of Armenia can be revealed.

 Salt water leaves one thousand and one impressions of emotion and thought. There arethe sea, tears, sweat, water without salt, salt without water, and at the end of the day, the sea is the way of life, with ties to the world.

 Biennial curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is the tie that binds the Istanbul Biennale, and finding the dividing line that cuts across history is what’s interests her.

 Salt water cures but also inflames wounds. The crime of a century ago was such a wound that led the modernist painter Paul Guiragossian of Beirut to create life within himself. Born of genocide survivors, the artist had his series of portraits exhibited in the Istanbul Modern, the city’s largest museum. The portraits become minimalist with a pair of compelling works titled “The Past and the Present,” which feature symbols of migration. Guiragossian added an important hue to the Armenian projects by having his works converse with others in the Istanbul Modern, which are all experiments in the ideas of loss, retrieval and interpretation.

Paul Guiragossian’s “The Past and the Present”

Artist Anna Boghiguian, who was born in Egypt, constructed the huge installation called “The Salt Traders” in the auditorium of Galata’s former Greek school. At its center is a giant sail with various flotsam strewn about along with nets, sculptures of fish and other things associated with the sea.

Anna Boghiguian’s “The Salt Traders”

“I hate the sea,” Boghiguian said with a conceptual smile. “But I like salt.” Salt was a good that was used in place of money in ancient times and from sea to sea was a sign of wealth. According to her, since history has not yet finally succumbed to the danger of salt water and become hardened, history needs to be retold constantly to avoid repeating mistakes.

Sometimes the subject matter tells the craftsman how it should be treated, developed, painted, transformed and become a new object. For the design of her installation “Red,” Aslı Çavuşoğlu turned to the use of the Armenian paint vordan karmir, whose preparation secrets have never been revealed.   “For Turks it’s just a bug, but for Armenians it’s poetry,” she said.


Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s “Red”

Michael Rakowitz, whose roots are in Iraq, displayed his detailed and perhaps the boldest Armenian-themed installation in several classrooms in a Galata school. He became interested in the work of Karapet Gezairlyan and began to study Armenian heritage as a result. Elements of decorative architecture and plaster reliefs on buildings and sketches were presented in stages. Initially the raw materials used were dust, stone and even bone, then the material became pencil sketches before finally becoming works of art.

“I saw a surprising beauty in that design, and perhaps the craftsmen’s warm fingers protect several fragments,”he said. Rakowitz is interested in the intentional erasure of traces of art and the mind’s resistance to its oblivion.

Many works at the Istanbul Biennial reflect forgotten, abandoned, haunted spaces, drawn-out intervals and loss. And since silence expresses loss best of all, many of the works are silent.

They are silent even if they make use of noise and music. Francis Alys, who lives in Mexico but has roots in Holland, made a short film called “Silence of Ani.” Ani was once a blossoming capital of Armenia that is now quiet and desolate, a place that artists attempt to fill with noise and life. He looks for children whose violin-like vocals resemble the chirping of birds. The arias of the child-birdssomehow transform into songs, which continue long after the film’s images have faded away. The film can be interpreted as a poetic jest or a political statement. It’s up to the viewer to decide which.

Haig Aivazian explores the ties between music and silence in his musical composition “Wavy, Wavy is the Sea of Bolis.” The Choir of St. Trinity Armenian church of Beyoglu performs the popular song written by genocide survivor and renown Istanbul native Hrant Kenkulyan, which mixes elements of sacred music and Turkish motifs.

Still from “Silence of Ani”by Francis Alys

This composition, which assembles Istanbul’s cultures, languages and creative spirit,can perhaps be perceived as a spectacular display of experience.

That integration seems natural when your breath is calm and a gentle breeze is blowing, and beside you is the wide-open sea, with its clean air and brilliant dreams of undertaking.

Crystal salt is completely similar. It seems resilient so long as it hasn’t come into contact with water. In water, it dissolves and disappears. All that remains is the taste of salt.  

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