The book addresses late-Soviet and post-Soviet art in Armenia in the context of turbulent social, political and cultural transformations in the late 1980s, throughout the 1990s and in early 2000s through the aesthetic figure of the ‘painterly real’ and its conceptual transformations. It explores the emergence of ‘contemporary art’ in Armenia from within and in opposition to the practices, aesthetics and institutions of Socialist Realism and National Modernism. The book presents the argument that avant-garde art best captures the historical and social contradictions of the period of the so-called ‘transition,’ especially if one considers ‘transition’ from the perspective of the former Soviet republics that have been consistently marginalized in Russian- and East European-dominated post-Socialist studies. Throughout the two decades that encompass the chronological scope of this work, contemporary art has encapsulated the difficult dilemmas of autonomy and social participation, innovation and tradition, progressive political ethos and national identification, the problematic of communication with the world outside of Armenia’s borders, dreams of subjective freedom and the imperative to find an identity in the new circumstances after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This historical study outlines the politics (liberal democracy), aesthetics (autonomous art secured by the gesture of the individual artist), and ethics (ideals of absolute freedom and radical individualism) of contemporary art in Armenia. Through the historical investigation, a theory of post-Soviet art historiography is developed, one that is based on a dialectic of rupture and continuity in relation to the Soviet past. As the first English-language study on contemporary art in Armenia, the book is of prime interest for artists, scholars, curators and critics interested in post-Soviet art and culture and in global art historiography.
The conceptual horizons of the avant-garde in Armenia
This chapter interrogates the historical relationship between ‘contemporary art’, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘postmodern’ from the perspective of late Soviet and post-Soviet cultural discourses. Further, the chapter defines one of the key conceptual figures of the book, the concept of the ideal in a historical materialist understanding in order to set the theoretical and aesthetic context for the main conceptual figure of the book – ‘the painterly real.’
Resurrected ghosts, living heroes and saintly saviours on the 3rd Floor, 1987–9 4
This chapter discusses the 3rd Floor – an artistic movement of the late Soviet and early independence years in Armenia (1987-94) – in its complex relationship with the cultural politics of the perestroika period, the official art of the Union of Artists of the Soviet Republic of Armenia, and National Modernism. It argues that the 3rd Floor, thought its strategy of hamasteghtsakan art both reproduced the dynamic of the perestroika politics and surpassed it. The 3rd Floor affirmed the separation between autonomous art and all that falls outside this autonomous sphere – the social world replete with antagonism and discontent.
The chapter is dedicated to the conceptual artist group ACT. Its historical investigation of the group’s aesthetic strategies attempts to situate them within those structural changes that took place in the aftermath of independence following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and defined the trajectory for this decade. The chapter investigates, describe and critically revisits the social and cultural context defined as one of a ‘crisis of negation’. Further it analyses those spaces and possibilities that emerge in the gaps between ‘pure creation,’ and are made operational throughout the group’s existence, and the intensity of everyday life in Armenia in the mid-1990s. It argues that the concept of ‘pure creation’ emerges in the clash between autonomous art, and the intensity of turbulent transformations affecting everyday life. It is this clash that transforms the agenda of ‘pure creation’ into a political-artistic program that rhymes with the positivist assumptions of the post-Soviet liberal democratic state.
This chapter presents the argument that the collapse of ACT marked the return of the ‘painterly real’, which, for a moment, coincided with the state’s cultural politics. It investigated how the binaries such as ‘national’ and ‘contemporary’, ‘word’ and ‘image’ came into conflict and were reconciled at the aesthetic level in the period following the collapse of ACT (1996-98), a period that is marked with what I call the revenge of the painterly in the works of former ACT artists David Kareyan and Diana Hakobyan. This chapter situates the return to the ‘painterly real’ within the then-dominant, post-conceptual mode of historicization that characterizes contemporary art as an evolutionary convergence of tradition and contemporaneity. I argue that contemporary art played a vanguard role in sustaining and advancing this logic.
This closing chapter offers a reading of the work of two artists of the 1990s and early 2000s – David Kareyan and Narek Avetisyan, both previously members of the group ACT – and discusses their works in the context of social, political, technological as well as cultural shifts in Armenia. The two artists’ works, it argues, epitomize the contradictions of the turn of the century Armenia. This context is defined as a crisis of politics and political subjectivization vis-à-vis the state. This marked a shift from affirmative artistic practices in the conditions of the crisis of negation that characterized the mid 1990s, and gave birth to a politics of resistance. The chapter considers political, economic and art institutional transformations as interlinked processes that bring about an imperative to rearticulate art’s relationship to the social world. It locates the advent of video art, performance and installation within the advent of the media society and the techno utopias of global connectivity.