The Last Supper Menu
The project was exhibited as part of the International Forum on Contemporary Art “Diagnosis/Interdiagnosis”, Artist Union of the Republic of Armenia
November 20-26, 2008, Yerevan Armenia. Curator: Susanna Gyulamiryan
Coordination: Mkrtich Tonoyan, Raffie Davtian
It seems that the monumental-poetic method of representation – one featuring spatial installations – has, for the past two years, become Raffie Davtian's favorite style of artistic endeavor.
The stylistic grandeur of his work of the period (Human Doors; The Last Supper Menu) is well in tune with the breadth and the significance of the problems his works touch upon – the subject-object problem, where the former is the dominant and latter is the subaltern.
In the current project, The Last Supper Menu, the identity problematic emerges in its full palette, for the project couches itself within a context, the post-Soviet space, where the questions of identity are particularly acute. Put it otherwise, all the former Soviet republics are faced with the challenge of engineering their own identities within the context of their nation states (in contrast to their Soviet past when they were part of a shared universal identity). Moreover, the republics are also faced with the no-less pressing problem of rethinking the gender roles within their societies – the so-called gender problematic, which, saturated with a plethora of other, equally complex (racial, ethnic, national) identity components, at times assumes very dramatic, and even bloody, manifestations.
The installation addresses the national identity formation problems the former Soviet republics have undergone after the historic momentum when those states, which constitute 1/6th of Earth's territory, heralded their independence. Those societies, of course, greeted this transition euphorically, viewing it as a juncture of national liberation and a gateway into their full integration into the rest of the world, and as the point of departure for their 'truly' democratic future. Yet, they were quick to realize that the role they have in the broader world they so aspired into is that of objectness and that the status they have within the society of states is lower in rank, for they are viewed as the subalterns of the developed West, who, in they turn, show reluctance in admitting them in their ranks as equals.
The installation is comprised of draped human figures, which are absolutely hollow inside. Reminiscent of the Christian Apostles, the fifteen figures symbolize the former title republics of the USSR. Russia is somehow separated from the rest, because the artist has placed her national flag on the circular table framing the figures – in line with the flags of other world
powers with histories of colonization, conquest, and genocides.
The reference to Da Vinci's famous painting, The Last Supper, introduces the topics of betrayal and faithfulness, guilt and repentance. The evangelical Last Supper comes to signify the republics’ betrayal of their Soviet faith, also the frustration that followed thereafter, since the blind faith among many Soviet people that the entire Soviet apparatus of governance could not have been a deception has, in the post-Soviet phase, been replaced by realities no less harsher – 'wild' capitalism, corruption, and despotism on part of post-Soviet authorities.
The fifteen figures in the project appear before us as immaterial objects, or else, as symbols that are partially material – partial objects, to put it in the parlance of psychoanalysis. This signifies the role these republics play on the arena of global politics, where their entry into history has turned into a history of Otherness and subordination.
In the past, the subordinate status of the Soviet republics stood in relation to one center only, Moscow, today they stand amid a multitude of centers, which the installation presents through the symbolic inclusion of various state flags – of countries more powerful than the post-Soviet republics.
The figures come as full-length objects thronged together as a dense crowd in the center of the table. Encircled by the table, they stand beleaguered, since the table has no exit, no single passage out. On the other hand, the figures stand asunder and disconnected; i.e., they, despite their long history of brotherhood, are also estranged from one another. The figures, which represent nation states, feature different weights (some are smaller and others are bigger); they also appear in different gendered (feminine/ masculine) forms, which again points to the hierarchical nature of their internal relations; i.e., to the subject-object asymmetry.
By Susanna Gyulamiryan
Fragile Safety (public performance)
In collaboration with Susu Shuling Shih (Taiwan)
As part of the Artist-in-Residency “Art Commune” Yerevan, Armenia
Sharles Aznavour Square, December, 2008, Yerevan, Armenia
Invited artists: Guillaume Aubry (France), Ulrika Ferm (Finland), Nazeli Hakobyan (Armenia), Stas Shulepov (Armenia)
In Ancient Greece, praxis and theoria were viewed as two clearly differentiated categories. For Plato, for example, the ’turn’ from one to other constituted an act of metanoia – the journey out of the cave into daylight to ascent to the divine realm. Today, however, metanoia comes as the antithetical of its original signification. Put it otherwise, the individual of today forms his/her images of the world through the mass media. What we witness today can best be characterized as a process of society’s growing visualization, when various image technologies and presentation modes acquire an ever increasing spread. Globalization, in this respect, is definitely a process inspired by the global media.
And what this process implies is that not only our perceptions of present facts, but also our views of history, are clearly mediated by image technologies and by certain strategies of representation.
Informed by these considerations, the project at issue focuses on the ways governments make use of media devices to exercise control and leadership upon people. In a related step, the project also asks questions about individual, and how s/he relates to reality.
It is common knowledge that in their rhetoric, and their promises of ‘a better life’ for people, governments habitually quote words and ideas like Freedom, Democracy, Liberty, Hope, or Prosperity, since they are all too well aware that those are indeed the "things" people want most of all. With words like this, they trick people into the illusion, or the belief, that some course of action will be taken to usher them into where they aspire to be most. By instilling these illusionary dreams and hopes, governments seek to implant the hope among people that they have good chances for a better future; a hope – albeit deceitful – that helps people to carry on in life.
In Taiwan, for example, the media customarily popularizes the belief that they could be much better off if they joined China, for this could lead them into a greater prosperity, higher affluence, and the fulfillment of grander dreams. Ironically, we abandon those dreams, those castles in the air, only when we get fully strangled and suffocated by them.
In Armenia, on the other hand, the modi operandi of people’s behavior are such that they do not adhere to rationally chosen courses of action, such that would coincide with their beliefs, or else, would allow people the means to derive benefits. This quick observation well resonates with the processes underlying the active social and civic movement that have in the course of the past several months put Armenia on a massive turmoil; one that the ruling elite sought to behead as relentlessly and as consistently as it possibly could. The movement, to be exact, did not emerge as a nation-wide unrest, but took the form of a social and civic movement, for it divided the society into two conflicting fractions fighting against each other; and as such, it unfolded as a struggle for democratic values. The greater portion of Armenian society refrained from any participation in this activism; something many tried to attribute to people’s dire economic conditions and the assumption that people’s daily survival chores leave little space for them to take up social activism. The Mass Media, on the other hand, did not tie
the ideology of the movement with people’s social and civic consciousness, but viewed it as an organized fight serving the political ambitions of one person only.
"We Can Doooo it" (short film),
The film premiered in French Open Area, Yerevan, Armenia. June 2008.
We Can Dooo It. The 13th Boston Turkish Festival. Documentary and Short Films Competition. December, 2008.
We Can Doooo It. The Konstanz kurz. film Festival.spiele_1.5, Germany. November 2008.
How to Narrate Woman Stories?
Vardan Jaloyan, 2009
We can doooo it is an unimaginable, yet a fantastic woman story for our reality. It is a skillfully made production, the main heroine of which – an
aged woman – performs deeds typical for Western societies. In the
Armenian context, the title of the movie would sound somewhat differently
– We cannot do it! The main heroine of the movie is silent, and it seems
that the story is not about her. The symbols of the consumerist civilization
are quite notorious. The heroine, the symbol of capitalist civilization, also creates additional auxiliary meanings, connected, in particular, with the industrial and post-industrial division of labor. The Woman has her own history of representation in the western civilization; in the Armenian context, thestateofaffairissomewhatdifferent.Themainimpressiononegetsfrom 38 this film is grounded on this very difference.
Up until recently, women in our culture were almost exclusively mentioned only in ashugh [bardic] songs praising feminine beauty. Several stories about women can be found in the Christian Life of Saints. In the latter case, the forms of representation of men and women differ from each other. If men in those stories preach noble ideas, are persecuted and then perish, women fighting for their faith perish silently. For our culture, the behavior of the Gregor the Illuminator probably remains the archetype of masculine ideal, while that of Virgin Gayaneh – that of feminine ideal. The history keeps silent about women mainly because the role allocated to them is motherhood and housework, and they, of course, are not considered something worth mentioning.
With the rise of Enlightenment and the victory of romanticist ideas, also the issue of equal rights for men and women came to the forefront, which gave rise to new stories about women –examples of them in Armenian literature are Sos and Varditer by P. Proshyan, or Anoush by H.Toumanyan. Especially characteristic is the nationalistic approach, which gives tribute to the ideas of political and social liberation, but which disputes the incontestable value of woman's liberation.
Armenian classical writer Raffie, one of the founders of Armenian nationalist Romanticism, mentions in an article, ‘The Armenian Woman,’ that in rural areas women enjoyed much higher degree of freedom, and had a stronger feeling of dignity than those living in urban areas. Raffie mentions that the progress of civilization has not only triggered moral decline, but it has also contributed to the growth of inequality. A similar conclusion is observed in Alice Kessler-Harris’ work, the Work of Women and the Social System. Describing the morals and manners of the pre-industrial, still agrarian, New England she mentions that it was a usual thing for a woman to own a, or to work as a typesetters, or carry out her husband's business.
Armenian nationalism was concurrent with Victorian morality in its attitude towards women, whose only legitimate place was seen to be at the baby cradle and at the kitchen fire. Everything else was seen as perverting women. In the 19th century women only were enlisted to the reserve army of labor, the necessity of which was felt especially during wars. During war years they would substitute men in their workplaces, drive trains, repair aircraft, or work on machines.
Raffie Davtyan in his film addresses the latter form of representation. The film is about an aged Armenian woman. Probably the central symbol of the film is the poster which bears the same title the film does. This gives us the hint that the script of the film is not based on a true story, but on a comics – a Spider Man of a kind, but one based on feminist topics. Hence, the obvious parody allusions to Hollywood productions – the American worship of cars, thrilling scenes of robbery, ‘high society’ attributes picked up from American melodramas! They all make us involuntarily draw lines of parallels with the well known film by Quentin Tarantino, the director whose films attribute no secondary role to eccentric women and their stories. The title of the movie, We can doooo it, might as well be replaced by, say, A Feminist Pulp Novel, or A Criminal Pulp Novel, similar to Pulp Fiction. What we see in the film is an imaginary woman who well corresponds to to Western models of the modern liberated woman. The only fantastic element, to be precise, is the fact that the heroine is neither American, nor German, but Armenian. The heroine, much in line with the accepted neo- liberal stereotypes, is liberated not only from the hard gender standards of ‘national’ patriarchalism, but also - from age limitations. The autonomy is more stressed by virtue of the age she has: we see before us an old woman, who is in no need of any guardianship – either from her relatives, or from state-run social institutions. She repairs her car herself, she drives it herself, she neutralizes a robber without any male support, and finally, she is the architect of her own loneliness.
The problem of gender stratification, it seems, is resolved. The gender division of labor takes place not along the employer/worker axis, but through a juxtaposition between manufacturer and consumer. For women, gender stratification follows from the very nature of their activities: housework, or the like, say, the work of a waitress. Because industrial activity is valued as being more superior than consumption (or, for that matter, if we take the soup-opera style adage that ‘father works, mother protests, and children enjoy life’), women and children are expected to have a lower status than ‘working’ fathers. Yet, the heroine of Raffie Davtyan’s film is a ‘working father,’ a unique ‘manly woman’ in a plot where the only motive that breeds a feeling of melancholy is the illusion of equality.
It is an illusion because it does not resolve the problem of capitalist inequality between the industrial and the consumerist. As written by Joan Huber, ‘The household work is the same thing for gender stratification, as the market for class[es]. Women shall not be equal with men, until they implement their talents with the same confidence, as men.’
This film stands as a reminder for the Armenian audiences that women lack confidence in their own forces. This lack of confidence, of course, is not stipulated by the anthropological, or ethnographic, peculiarities of Armenian women. It is the outcome of Armenia's pre-assigned role within the global capitalist system, which is the role of a peripheral province, just like woman's peripheral status in the kitchen attributed to her within the patriarchal systems.
It is possible that under capitalist conditions the women in the capitalist center acquire a certain degree of autonomy, yet this does not solve the problem of gender stratification in the global periphery – in places like Armenia. In the West, the women of middle and higher classes can act as autonomous subjects by putting the burden of household chores onto the shoulders of Indian nurses, or Mexican cooks, or Armenian servants; i.e., by exploiting the women from the global peripheries.
One could then claim that neo-liberalism brings freedom to women, but it does not bring equality. The women around the post-Soviet space, those who belong to the elite, have a different opinion about the deterioration of their conditions. To quote Elena Gapova, if a woman in a small Armenian, Ukrainian or Belorussian city had lost her job and faith in herself , can a workshop on development be helpful for her consciousness? She is unemployed, because the only city enterprise is closed, and her husband has lost his job. In this case, gender “by itself” is a problematic instrument for understanding post-Soviet inequalities..... It is obvious that the women throughout the post-Soviet area deny the political liberalism of the 'rights,' which does not challenge economic inequality, and which can only mean separate reforms, and even they are little probable, because women, as social group, are deprived of having a voice.
It was well expected that in the post-Soviet period gender knowledge should become the genuine word which might change the situation of inequality. Yet, in Armenia, the right-winged, neo-liberal/imperial feminism has almost absolute hegemony. Throughout the entire post-Soviet period, it served as an instrument for opening up paths for imperial capital, and it was a form of preaching the new forms of consumption. On the other hand, Raffie Davtyan has always been sensitive to the colonial discourse, and his gesture has to be evaluated from that perspective. His movie is more like a question mark – how to tell woman stories?!
After You, Sir!
(Installation/ mixed media, performance)
In the Group Show “Empty Signs”
Center of Contemporary Experimental Art. May 2008. Yerevan, Armenia.
Curators: Sona Balasanyan, Edward Tadevosyan
Comprised of door dummies lined up in a horizontal row, the installation features plaques of inscriptions containing the names of popular award ceremonies, accolades, initiation ceremonies for orders, as well as prestigious international festivals: the Legion of Honour, the Order of Knighthood Ceremony, la Biennale di Venezia, the Nobel Prize Ceremony, the Cannes Film Festival, the American Cinematography Academy Award Ceremony, the Oscars.
Executed conspicuously immaculately, the installation mirrors the artist’s intention to re-create the whole pomposity, glamour, and extravagance of those ceremonies, which he achieves through the use of attributes invariably associated with those events – the ever present red carpet marking the route of ceremonial processions, as well as the nickel-coated rods designed for fencing off nominees from the armies of bystanders – the mere mortals.
The symbolical row, the way it appears on the installation, echoes the idea of simulacra – imitations which, having lost all relation to reality, only simulate it. As such, the installation is conceived as a composite model of the world – one that, in the artist’s perception, has transformed into a collection of seemings (outward appearances), imaginaries wherein art is ever more engaged in the simulation of the creative process: indeed, many artistic works often come as empty signs, as representative forms void of referees.
The spectator, as human, has ceased and has turned into an appraiser or an arbitrator who has arrived to read out “the coefficient of efficiency” generated by the commodity circulation of signs of culture and art. The pure and empty forms exhibited in the project signify that many meanings in the modern world stand disconnected from their original intendment and lean towards serving the purpose of prestige, and that of status differentiation.
The performance accompanying the installation imitates playfully the crowd of journalists, paparazzi, and TV crews who shoot, record, and interview emptiness – and thus enhance the idea of simulation.