This is a good question, but it is not easy to answer! First of all, we could not ignore the fact that 2015 is an important year for the Armenians. What happened in 1915 is part of a history to which the Armenian nation identifies, so this was a good moment to evaluate the legacy of Armenia’s 20th century history in order to move forward into the future. What we really wanted to do was go beyond the mentality of victimhood, toward a mentality of success; Armenians are not only survivors, but they have managed to keep, develop and enrich their ancient culture and traditions.
I think that art is a special language in this regard: it helps people to express their emotions. But another thing is that in Venice, Armenian artists did not only represent Armenia—these were the grandchildren of the diaspora—so it also showed how Armenia is part of the world. What happened 100 years ago was an attempt of destruction of the whole Armenian nation, the people were thrown away from the lands they lived for thousands of years, but it was also the tragedy for the presence of Armenians in the world in all aspects, from the arts to science, technology and diplomacy. So of course, we are very happy that the Pavilion won the Golden Lion, because it helped a lot by way of gaining recognition for a nation that is at once a cultural centre, and that has played a cultural role globally speaking. The art touches emotions and mindsets strongly and directly, we consider art as one of the most powerful vectors to help Armenians redefine their identity for the 21st century, without losing the legacy of the 20th century.
What happened 100 years ago was a great tragedy not only from the point of view of the victims. But now is the time to rejuvenate what has been destroyed, and to acknowledge the fact that Armenians have something to say to the world, especially from a global perspective. The culture is more of a network in this sense.
To this end, 2015 helped to unify the nation in relation to this history. It was the year two groups [united]: the Armenians of Western Armenia who suffered the most during the Genocide and settled mostly in the western world or the Middle East, and those who stayed on in the territory of Armenia, which became part of the Soviet Union. The people who grew on either side are carriers of different mentalities: either more connected with Russian culture, or with western culture. Even the language is slightly different between the western and eastern Armenians, and this becomes even more complicated when you think about the legacies of the diaspora in general. Of course, things are assimilated more or less, but there is still a firewall, which is exactly what we at the Dilijan Art Initiative are trying to break down. This is not a business project at all. It’s about uniting the community.
This is what struck me the most about Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s concept for this biennial. I think she took a very long-term view that comes from a deep understanding of the issues, which makes it important to include non-Armenians when it comes to thinking about this idea of recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Actually, recognition is more an issue for Turkish society than Armenian: it is Turkish society that needs to acknowledge this in order to move forward. In the case of the Armenians, it is actually more about passing through from the suffering about the past to creating a bright future. Of course, we should remember the history, but the recognition will make the Turkish society the biggest winner, as it will cure itself. While the Armenian mentality will not change because of this. However, the recognition may have some political impact.
I would say it is more important to identify, understand, and create bridges; it’s mutual. It is important to learn from each other and to be open; this is the core of what the Dilijan Art Initiative is about. And it is the right time to do so. It would have been hard with the previous generations, who retained the physical trauma and memory of events of the 20th century. But with the next generation, who didn’t have this physical trauma, they can overcome it and move forward.
For instance, I’m very pleased that the daughters of Paul Guiragossian, the world-class painter, decided to come to Istanbul, and to lend his works to the Biennial. This was not an easy decision for them to make, however, which again attests to Carolyn’s great vision: she managed to convince Guiragossian’s daughters to give their father’s works in Turkey. The visit to Istanbul for some Armenians was huge, actually. For many, it was their first time in Istanbul.
What Carolyn-Christov Bakargiev tried to show was how Istanbul used to be Constantinople, but she didn’t do this in the manner of a political pamphlet, let’s say, but with a level of real care. And she had strong support from IKSV, which says a lot about their vision for what Turkey needs. The Armenians played an important role in the Ottoman Empire and half their historical buildings in Istanbul were built and designed by Armenians. And this history cannot be erased. But unfortunately, human beings don’t seem to learn.
The main identity of Dilijan Art Initiative is about connection and education. We believe in education as a powerful instrument for creating the future, and art is one of the ways to learn – as I said before, it is a special language.
Now, Dilijan itself is a special place. It is rural but at the same time sophisticated. It is also a place between two capitals: Tbilisi and Yerevan. In the 19th century, it was the place where Armenian nobles who lived in Tbilisi would summer, and they brought culture with them: Tbilisi (Tiflis at that time) was a cultural centre of the Caucasus at the time—very cosmopolitan with a strong Armenian presence. In Soviet times, heritage was even stronger, because this was one of the resorts offered to unions of composers and writers fully supported by the Soviet Government: they would be given places to stay in the area for some time: Dmitri Shostakovitch was here, for instance, and Benjamin Britten was invited to come. So it also has this interesting architecture from the 1960s.
What we want to establish is an art residency, but to make it something different: an experience that is not like anything you could find elsewhere. We also want to connect with good art institutions in different parts of the world, and to bring them to Dilijan. Ultimately, we want this to be a cultural meeting place that is open; a place that gives you something. We don’t want to consume; we are looking to create a different energy, and produces knowledge that enables creation. I think one of the main issues of modern society and the problem with the education system in general is that everything is focused on consumption. But real satisfaction comes from creating. —[O]