Home / Armenia / Art and the State: Why the Conversation is Failing. Interview with Vardan Azatyan

Art and the State: Why the Conversation is Failing. Interview with Vardan Azatyan

Art critic and curator Vardan Azatyan left the curatorial team responsible for Armenia’s Pavilion at the 54th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia (the Venice Art Biennial) due to the lack of a budget for the project. Azatyan said this himself in an interview with Epress.am.

Why did you leave the curatorial team?

As you know, the Pavilion’s commissioner has two functions: to appoint curators and to secure a budget. The second function, due to various reasons, became impossible to ensure — even during the critical period in implementing the project, about 20 days before the Pavilion’s official opening. From that point on, the project did not have a budget, but financial assistance from the commissioner, who, through local leverage available to him, had to save the project and with it, his reputation as commissioner.

This put the implementation of the project before unpredictable risks and our had to enter emergency mode; that is, the curators were no longer going to supervise the project implementation process at least to the extent necessary for the project not to fail. And I’m convinced, the calling of any intellectual (be that an artist or curator) is to be able to perceive that unacceptable point when his involvement in a process passes the divide when the vicious social relations within society become more powerful than the possibilities of changing them. In this case, the last option in such change is to resign from one’s own involvement.

Indeed, the project could’ve failed at every step purely due to time or technical difficulties. The project’s being or not being was dependent on the companies preparing the works to be exhibited, the people packaging the works, the workers shipping them, the catalogue printers and so on and so on. Any … or delay during their work (circumstances from which no one is ensured) could’ve overthrown the project. Moreover, let’s say it wouldn’t have been possible to get the works from the company preparing them since the necessary invoice wasn’t paid. And in the absence of a budget, this payment process itself has unpredictable consequences. The project being partially displayed during the exhibit was one of the consequences of this uncontrollable and emergency situation: as you know, it was not possible to display Astghik Melkonyan’s work on the official opening day.

Could that have been a cause of the problems that arose in Armenia’s Pavilion?

I think it’s clear from what I’ve said that my resigning [from the curatorial team] was not the reason for the problems that arose during the process of implementing the Pavilion, but the move that was made as a result of the existence of these problems. My curator colleagues and I worked together in full harmony. In truth, one of the greatest achievements of this year’s Armenian Pavilion was this: people very different from one another were able to work together for the greater good. This fact, in a way, valued also the commissioner, but it seems he didn’t wholly realize the full importance of this reality.

As a result, it became so that he preferred the option of placing the project under risk instead of (taking on) the risk of ensuring a necessary budget. It’s odd, but from what I can judge, as a result, a much greater expense was made for implementing a project that was partial and for me unacceptable in terms of the human cost than that minimum budget which was needed for implementing the project successfully. I have to say, as a result of the harmonious cooperation among us three curators, all of our decisions were approved and carried out with agreement on all sides. It might sound surprising, but in the absence of a budget, the decision to resign from the project was approved together. At a regular working meeting with the commissioner, we gave him a deadline, for ensuring the minimum budget we agreed to, and we said if there was still no budget by that date, us — the three of us — would resign from our curatorial duties. Regretfully, it was only I who stayed true to this decision that the three of us jointly agreed to. Thus, the decision to resign from the curatorial team was not my personal decision. But, the truth is perceived as such that it was a decision I made alone.

How do you assess Armenia’s participation in the festival generally and compare it to previous years?

I’ve always been of the conviction that the success of national pavilions is not the success of its representation, no matter how that is, but first and foremost, it is the possibility of bringing positive changes to art and cultural policies inside the country. The latter should be the subject or topic of the conversation that the pavilion offers to foreign audiences.

The success of any national pavilion depends on whether the given country, without fears of appearing bad to others, is able to formulate its internal issues and propose in such a way that their not being “purely internal” is revealed — this way becoming a subject of overall dialogue and debate.

We, the curators, conceived our Pavilion particularly from this view, and the project conception is excellent evidence of this. The beneficial difference of this year’s project from previous years was in that fact. The curators hadn’t adopted a so-called sports approach. Contemporary art is neither football, with its corresponding diplomacy, nor an ethnographic ensemble, with its success depending on representation. A discursive and participatory approach was adopted this year (which was repeatedly stated during the press conference and in our speeches preceding the start of the project). As one of the curators, Nazareth Karoyan, often says, “We don’t want to present; we want to talk.” The project was envisaged in such a way that the exhibited works were not representative, but were rather a physical and conceptual platform for dialogue. The project was to include a number of international conferences on issues of concern to us today.

I particularly want to emphasize that this wasn’t simply a component of the project, but a constructive aspect of it. As a result of problems I have noted, it didn’t become possible to successfully implement even the exhibit part of the project. And I have to say that this pains me greatly, when I see that my colleagues found themselves in a situation in which they are forced to see the success of what was done not in “speaking” but in “presenting.”

What impact did the precedent of state support and involvement in the organizing of Armenia’s participation in the Venice Biennale have on the final result and preliminary work? Can this be considered a new page in relations between the state and contemporary art?

One of the most important features of this year’s Armenian Pavilion was the state assistance you refer to. Though there has been state support before, past pavilions and no individual was fully dependent on local financial resources. In this sense, this year’s pavilion was a new page for the Republic of Armenia in the Venice Biennale. And this was the reason that my two colleagues and I became involved in implementing the project. As you can assume from what I said before, for none of us was curating the pavilion an end to itself; rather, it was a means, an opportunity to lay the foundation for local sponsorship of contemporary art in Armenia, to establish such working relationships which would be the foundation for consistent and effective activities in this issue.

It truly pains me that those who were officially responsible for these changes — the RA Ministry of Culture and the commissioner — for various reasons, were unable to successfully fulfill their functions. As a result, the vicious work method common in Armenia was again employed — based on sacrifice, or as the people say, on the principal of “tearing the flesh to give.” This testifies to the fact that the institutionalization of society in Armenia (ministries, establishments, departments, plenipotentiaries and so on) are essentially fictitious by nature. Instead of carrying out their direct duties, they act as symbolic bureaus, which in the name of the “homeland,” in the name of “the nation’s honor,” are “authorized” to exploit and decimate the country’s most expensive resource — human energy. If this was taking place in a disguised or concealed fashion in previous Armenian pavilions, then the unprecedented significance of this year’s Armenian Pavilion was these social relations common in Armenia coming to Yerevan at the contemporary art project level.