Armenity / Hayoutioun, Armenia Pavilion in San Lazzaro, Venice Biennale 2015

In this symbolic year 2015, on the occasion of the one hundredth commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia has dedicated its pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia to the artists of the Armenian diaspora. It will be located at the Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

The curatorial concept of Armenity implies the notion of displacement and territory, justice and reconciliation, ethos and resilience. Regardless of their place of birth, the selected artists carry within their identity the memory of their origins. Through their talent and willpower, these grandchildren of survivors of the Armenian Genocide—the first genocide of the 20th Century— rebuilt a “transnational assembly” from the remnants of a shattered identit y. Their ingrained concern for memory, justice and reconciliation skillfully transcends notions of territory, borders and geography. Whether they were born in Beirut, Lyon, Los Angeles, or Cairo and wherever they may reside, these global citizens constantly question and reinvent their armenity.

Armenity is being held in a setting of special significance for the Armenian diaspora. It was on the Island of San Lazzaro, located between San Marco and the Lido and facing the Giardini of the Biennale, that in 1717 the Armenian monk Mekhitar established the Mekhitarist Order. It was here that in the early 19th century Lord Byron studied the Armenian language. Many important works of European literature and religious texts were first translated into Armenian on this scenic island. Over its three-hundred years history the Monastery of San Lazzaro with its gardens, former print shop, cloisters, museum and library, has helped to preserve Armenia’s unique cultural heritage, much of which might otherwise have been lost.

The Exhibition
The word “Armenity” is seldom used and rings as foreign or even invented, particularly to the ears of those not well-versed in the nuances of the Western Armenian language, which has been officially recognized as endangered. By choosing it the curator, Adelina Cüberyan v. Fürstenberg, opens a window to imagine a polity beyond the confines of geography, and the identity politics implied by the more commonly used label “Armenianness.” Armenity’s curatorial selection also transcends the political correctness of groups within the boundaries of diasporan communities that tend to instrumentalize artists for the sake of a given charitable cause, rather than caring about and supporting a broader understanding of cultural production as a driver of substantive change.

The exhibit’s emphasis on artists from Europe and the Middle East reflects several factors including the emergence of new art-destinations and art-economies in places like Dubai, Sharjah and Istanbul; the support for more modest initiatives in cultural hubs like Beirut, Cairo and Jerusalem, and the push towards multiculturalism and integration, all of which mark a shift from New York’s dominance of the international (art) scene since World War II.

Inherent in this repositioning of former cultural signifiers is a shift from representing (i.e. the genocide) to investigating modes of (its) representations. By forging aesthetic strategies that intervene with the lingering effects of the continued denial of the Armenian catastrophe or aghet, these experimentations give new relevance to iconic historical artifacts, figures, places, and events. In doing so they resist the perpetuation of sentimental images of victims, ruins, etc. that unconsciously repeat the initial intent of the denier, rather than enabling new possibilities of being or becoming.

As tools of subtle criticism and persuasion, the exhibited works collectively offer us alternative histories and cultural mappings that bypass official narratives entrenched in preservation ideologies and exhausted nationalist rhetoric, that date back to the ­19th-century ethos of national awakenings which coincided with the advent of the technological revolution that gave us the printing press.

With the exception of senior or more established artists like Sarkis, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, and Anna Boghiguian, the majority of the sixteen artists exhibiting in Armenity have gained prominence or entered the contemporary art scene in the last decade or so. Like the curator of the exhibition, they are better recognized in Europe and the Middle East, where many are based. While two are from Brazil and Argentina, three are from the United States, and a couple more collaborate with their partners, also artists, who are of Italian and Palestinian origin. Possessing historical links to the Ottoman Empire, all are multilingual and polycentric. Many come from immigrant families who experienced the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution, or Soviet rupture. Some are also back and forth-ers to Armenia, while others have just begun to discover their ­ancestral homeland in Turkey.

As global citizens, these artists grew up navigating through the precarious times of the last several decades caused by momentous developments including the fall of the ­Eastern Block, the formation of the European Union, man-made and natural disasters ­like Chernobyl, the end of Apartheid, accelerated globalization and migration, the technological revolution which provided greater access to Internet and social media, the murder of Hrant Dink, the resurgence of Cold War politics, and recent political upheavals in the Middle East and beyond.

Artistic practice for these artists also transcend the commodification of art. Incorporating diverse media, particularly archival materials, performance, sound, and light, ­many of the works assembled here trigger a transformative experience. They help shed residues of displacement and loss by instigating new memories.

Some of the works reference the rich threads and textures of ancient Armenian traditions (i.e. folklore, mythology, manuscript illumination, engraving, embroidery), not to replicate but to free their contextual stasis by infusing them with contemporary meaning and relevance. The commitment of these artists recalls medieval monks whose experimentations contributed to cultural rebirths (i.e. the invention of an alphabet in 405 AD and distinct architectural styles of the 5th–7th and 10th–12th centuries) which in turn ­were influenced by the flow of capital, ideas and trends (in art, literature, design, fashion) made possible through older global networks of trade and patronage systems.

The hybridity of their inspirational sources motivate these artists to investigate a multiplex of particularities and to translate them into singular aesthetic languages. But these are not narratives of proof and externality; rather they are intimate expressions of the silences that give us pause from the weight of the unspeakable. They are like a collection of love poems that no longer they belong.

Saint Lazarus of the Armenians
San Lazzaro degli Armeni is a small island in the Venetian Lagoon which has been home to the monastery of the Mekhitarists, an Armenian Catholic congregation, since 1717. It is the primary center of the Mekhitarists, while the Mekhitarist Monastery of Vienna is their primary abbey.

San Lazzaro has been enlarged nearly four times from its original size through land reclamation. It was recognized as an academy by Napoleon in 1810 when nearly all monasteries of Venice were abolished. A significant episode in its history is Lord Byron’s visit in 1816–17. The island is one of the best known historic sites of the Armenian diaspora. The monastery has a large collection of books, journals, artifacts, and the third largest collection of Armenian manuscripts (more than 3,000). Over the centuries, dozens of artists, writers, political and religious leaders have visited the island. It has since become a tourist destination.

San Lazzaro lies 2 km (1.2 mi) to the southeast of Venice proper and west of the Lido. The islet is rectangular-shaped and covers an area of 3 hectares (7.4 acres). The island is accessible by a vaporetto from the San Zaccaria station (Pier B). Some 40,000 people visit the island annually, with Italians making up the majority of visitors.

The island’s official Italian name, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, literally translates to “Saint Lazarus of the Armenians”. It is often referred to in English as Saint Lazarus Island. In Armenian, the island is called Սուրբ Ղազար, Surb Ghazar (“Saint Lazarus”).

Contemporary artworks
Agheg, Mekhitar Garabedian, 2003
Streetlights of Memory – A Stand by Memorial, Melik Ohanian, 2010/2015
Untitled (Gurgen Mahari, The world is alive, Venice), Mekhitar Garabedian, 2015
Tasnerku, Mikayel Ohanjanyan, 2015

San Lazzaro is entirely occupied by the Mekhitarist monastery of San Lazzaro, which is the headquarters of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Congregation. The monastery is known in Armenian as Մխիթարեան Մայրավանք, M(ə)khitarian Mayravank’, which literally translates to the “Mekhitarist Mother Monastery” and in Italian as Monastero Mechitarista. The monastery currently contains a church with a bell tower, residential quarters, library, museums, picture gallery, manuscript repository, printing plant, sundry teaching and research facilities, gardens, a bronze statue of Mkhitar erected by Antonio Baggio in 1962, an Armenian Genocide memorial erected in the 1960s, and a 14th-century basalt khachkar (cross stone) donated by the Soviet Armenian government in 1987.

The cloister of the monastery consists of a colonnade of 42 columns in the Doric order. There is a 15th-century water well in the center of the cloister, which is surrounded by trees and shrubs. A Phoenician and early Christian inscriptions, a first century headless statue of a Roman noble from Aquileia and other artifacts were found there.

The bell tower with an onion dome was completed in 1750. It is not attached to the church and stands alone near the northern side of the church.


Contemporary artworks
Unexposed, Hrair Sarkissian, 2012


Contemporary artworks
Table (Histoire de mes ancêtres) / Saint Lazare, Venise, Mekhitar Garabedian, 2013/2014
“… Uma história que eu nunca esqueci…” / “… A story I never forgot…”, Rosana Palazyan, 2013/2015
Datcha Project — A Zone of No Production, Melik Ohanian, 2005/2015
Witness.ed, Nigol Bezjian, 2015
To Cilician Ashes, part of Witness.ed, Nigol Bezjian, 2015

Gardens and Courtyards
The gardens of the monastery have been admired by many visitors. “The island… with its flower and fruit gardens, is so well kept that an excursion to San Lazzaro is a favourite one with all visitors to Venice,” noted one visitor in 1905. Irish botanist Edith Blake wrote: “The garden in the centre of the cloisters was gay with flowers, and there was a calm, peaceful air of repose over the whole place.”

The monks at San Lazzaro make jam from the roses grown in the gardens. The jam, called Vartanush, is made from rose petal around May, when the roses are in full bloom. Besides rose petal, it contains white caster sugar, water, and lemon juice. Around five thousand jars of jam are made and sold in the gift shop in the island. Monks also eat it for breakfast.

Contemporary artworks
Por que Daninhas? / Why Weeds?, Rosana Palazyan, 2006/2015
Ani, Anna Boghiguian, 2015

Publishing house
A publishing house was established at the island in 1789. It was closed down in 1991, however, the Mekhitarists of San Lazzaro continue publication through their publishing house, Casa Editrice Armena. Until the early 20th century, a number of important publications were made on the island. Khachig Tölölyan wrote of the role the Mekhitarists and their publications:

With astonishing foresight and energy, the scholar-monks of this diasporic enclave set out to accomplish what [Armenian scholar Marc Nichanian] has described as a totalizing project, a cultural program of research and publication that imagined Armenian life and culture as lamentably fragmented, and launched an effort to equip both the deprived homeland population and the artisans and merchants of the diaspora with the wherewithal of a national culture on the European model.
The publications of the Mekhitarists, both in San Lazzaro and Vienna, contributed greatly to the refinement of literary Western Armenian. The San Lazzaro branch became particularly noted in the fields of history, the arts, and literature influenced by the Italian penchant for the arts. The publishing house printed books in dozens of languages, which included themes such as theology, history, linguistics, literature, natural sciences, and economics. They also published textbooks and translations from European languages and editions of classics.

The library contains 150,000 to 200,000 printed books in Armenian, as well as European and Oriental languages. Some 30,000 European books printed before 1800 are kept at the library. The entire collection includes books on the arts, the sciences, history, natural history, diverse classical texts, literary criticism, major encyclopedias and other reference books.

The floor of the library is decorated in a Venetian style. Its ceiling, partially destroyed in the 1975 fire, was painted by Francesco Zugno and depicts Catherine of Alexandria, the four fathers of the Latin Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, St. Gregory the Great), and fathers of the Armenian Church. A chalk sculpture of Napoleon II by Antonio Canova is preserved in a glass cabinet in the library. A sculpture of Pope Gregory XVI by Giuseppe De Fabris, presented to the Mekhitarists by the Pope himself, is also kept at the room.

Contemporary artworks
Ada Ewe vierge, Sarkis, 2013/2014
41 – Danseuse dorée en haut du toit, Sarkis, 2012
67 – Croix de brique, Sarkis, 2012
Ritorno a Khodorciur: Diario Armeno, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1986
Atlas de Mammuthus Intermedius, Sarkis, 2014
Tresures, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, 2015
Hastayım Yaşıyorum (I am sick, but I am alive), Haig Aivazian, 2014

Armenian museum
The Armenian museum was designed by Venetian architect Giovanni Rossi and completed in 1867. Seriously damaged by a 1975 fire, it was restored in its present from by Manouk Manoukian. It formerly served as the library of Armenian manuscripts and publications. The museum now houses items related to Armenian history and art, inducing helmets and bronze belts from the Urartian period; the sword of Leo V, the last Armenian King of Cilicia, forged in Sis in 1366; Armenian ceramics from Kütahya; coins, stamps and a passport issued by the 1918–20 First Republic of Armenia. Numerous Armenian religious objects of art from the 16th to 18th centuries are on display. A bas-relief in agate from the medieval Armenian capital of Ani and a curtain formerly hang at the monastery of Lim Island on Lake Van are also on display, along with several paintings by Russian-Armenian marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky, including depictions of Mount Ararat and Niagara Falls. His Biblical creation-themed painting Chaos (1841) was donated to the congregation by Pope Leo XIII in 1901. The death mask of Komitas, the musicologist who established the Armenian national school of music, is also on display in the museum. Also on display is one of the most ancient swords ever found, originating from Anatolia and dating to the 3rd Millennium B.C.E. This sword are comparable in composition, style and date to the Melid early swords.

Contemporary artworks
Accent Elimination, Nina Katchadourian, 2005
Rotolo Armeno, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 1989/1991
A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas, Aikaterini Gegisian, 2015

Oriental museum
Oriental and Egyptian publications and artifacts are held in what is called the “Lord Byron Room”, because it is where he studied Armenian language and culture during his visit to San Lazzaro. It was originally the manuscript room. Its most notable item is the Egyptian mummy, sent to San Lazzaro in 1825 by Boghos Bey Yusufian, an Egyptian minister of Armenian origin. It is attributed to Namenkhet Amun, a priest at the Amon Temple in Karnak, and has been radiocarbon dated to 450–430 BC (late period of ancient Egypt). The collection also includes Etruscan vases, Chinese antiques, a princely Indian throne with ivory inlay work, and a rare papyrus in 12 segments in Pali of a Buddhist ritual, with bustrophedic writing in red lacquer on gold leaf brought from Madras by a Russian-Armenian archaeologist, who discovered it in a temple in 1830.

Letters from Lost Paradise, Hera Buyuktasciyan, 2015
The Keepers, Hera Buyuktasciyan, 2015
When counting loses its sense, Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, 2015

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been establihed. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.