On a sunny, late October day, I strayed into a crumbling 19th century building in the centre of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, attracted by a large poster for an exhibition called ‘This is You’.

Intrigued by the image and an opportunity to get inside one of the city’s few remaining abodes from the Czarist era, I walked through a crumbling corridor into a typical, pre-Soviet Yerevan backyard – the kind that is now as rare as hen’s teeth in a city totally transformed by the oligarchic building boom in the years since Armenia’s independence from the USSR in 1991. Sitting around the wooden porch, a group of alternative looking twenty-somethings were having drinks and a hearty laugh, which stopped for a moment when they saw me walk in.

When I asked to see the exhibition, a young man stepped up to show me around his studio, which also served as a living space.

The ramshackle interior, containing a mix of neo-expressionist paintings, vaguely surrealist sculptures, vintage pottery and kitschy Soviet memorabilia was more memorable than much of the young artist’s experiments with the entire backlog of modernist art. But when I looked up at the ceiling I gasped at the sight of a stunning round chandelier made out of recycled materials.

It was  executed overnight on a whim, my host explained, because he liked to re-use things that people found useless. It was the kind of object one would normally find in an upscale Berlin gallery made by some fashionable artist investigating the possibilities of politically-engaged design. When I asked how much he’d want for a copy, the young man chuckled.

Why don’t you come over for a drink one night and we can make one together,” he said, as if the idea of money was tantamount to an insult. I hadn’t even managed to tell him my name or that I was a curator.

Appreciation goes a long way in the country, especially when it is directed at young artists trying to do what they love in a country with next to no institutional infrastructure, public interest, or commercial enterprises for contemporary art. Despite these conditions, a large number of Armenian youth have in recent years worked to make a space for themselves in this sphere, making the country an untapped reserve for serious collectors. 

The state of contemporary art in Armenia offers a model that is puzzlingly outside of the normative market behavior that has defined the global tendencies in this field since the late 1980s. 

Packaging Armenian art

It was not that long ago that contemporary art from the countries of the ex-Soviet block was given enthusiastic international exposure in Euro-American arenas. After a flood of exhibitions in the 1990s, which rushed to expose the Western public to the surprises, provocations and guilty delights of the dissident and socialist-realist art from the now collapsed USSR, curiosity has turned into something resembling polite interest. To risk a blunt generalization, it could be said that the new art produced in these ex-socialist states has lately been subsumed into the network of international grant-based projects, various second-tier biennials, or left to answer to the demands of local socio-political contexts.   

In the smallest then-Soviet republic, Armenia, contemporary art travelled a checkered path. Despite its size, the country was renowned in the USSR for the quality and the comparable ‘freedom’ of its artistic production. This was compounded by a rich heritage of medieval art, (currently on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum’s blockbuster exhibition ‘Armenia!’) and a roster of world-famous Armenians such as Ivan Aivazovski, Martiros Saryan, Arshile Gorky, Ara Güler, Yousuf Karsh and Sergei Paradjanov, who have been a source of pride and inspiration even as they consistently overshadowed the work of living artists.

‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Secret Equations’ by Mika Vatinyan, 2018. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Art made by Armenians has evolved across fragmented communities dispersed from India to the United States and has resisted any kind of paradigmatic summation.

Little wonder then, that the international market – eager as it is now to mine the Middle Eastern deposits of modern and contemporary art – has not quite figured out what to make of and how to package ‘Armenian’ art.

It is not uncommon to see doyens such as Gevorg Bashinjaghyan, Martiros Saryan, Yervand Kochar or Minas Avetisyan categorized as ‘Russian’, ‘School of Paris’ or ‘Oriental’ artists at auction sales. Working artists rarely make the cut, unless they are based in the Diaspora. Recent events like Armenia’s 2015 win of the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Art Biennial or the hosting of the 2017 Standart Triennial of Contemporary Art have not had a tangible impact on the fortunes of local artists. 

Since the late 1990s, many Armenian artists were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere and nearly all commercial galleries specializing in contemporary art have closed their doors. At the moment of writing, the country has no public collections or archives of contemporary art. The Yerevan Museum of Modern Art, for example, has no holdings of photography, video, new media or any other form of non-traditional art. There are no state or private institutions that teach contemporary art practice, no auction houses that sell it, no collectors to buy it or periodicals that write about it.

Were it not for the ongoing activities of the Armenian Center for Experimental Art, the occasional exhibitions of current art held at the upscale Cafesjian Center for the Arts or smaller outfits like the Dalan Gallery, along with projects initiated by independent curators and a few artist-run spaces, contemporary art would have remained entirely invisible in the otherwise hyper-active cultural life of Armenia’s capital.

Against this background, the consistent pulse of contemporary art in Armenia begets standard explanations. What exactly propels it and who is it for? Enthusiasm, passion and political commitment are clearly at work here, but they can only go so far without some prospect of financial sustainability or, at the very least, social and institutional acknowledgement.

Young artists appear and disappear quite unexpectedly, emerging from intimate circles and self-mobilized clusters. They show their works through thematic exhibitions organized by an equally young generation of curators, many of whom, it should be said, are women. The curator has emerged in Armenia in the past two decades as a key driving force for both the production and presentation of new art. The shows they organize in and amongst their milieu can be wildly uneven in quality, yet they play an important role in providing the opportunity for fresh talent to manifest itself.

These efforts rarely attract the wider public and remain something of an acquired taste in the context of everyday Armenian culture. From my ongoing observations over the past decade, an exhibition of contemporary art will last, with few exceptions, for a maximum of two weeks and be seen by less than three or four hundred people.

Deals, ideological pricing

Sales from these exhibitions are sporadic and prices can vary to such a degree that the only determinant may actually be the self-esteem of the artist.

Once I offered to close a bar bill (approximately $30) for an established artist friend, in exchange for two provocative drawings from a series I enormously admired. It was a joke, but he was only too happy to hand me over the pieces the next morning. In comparison, the 5,000 euro starting price asked for a neo-avant-garde collage by one of the rising stars of Armenian art, Karen Ohanyan may seem astronomical, but is considerably more modest when taken in the context of international blue-chip art stamped for investment. As a rule of thumb, a buyer could walk away with a piece of contemporary art she admires – in all but the most monumental or costly media such as bronze sculptures – for well under $5,000, which is significantly more than the average annual salary in the country.

A 2005 oil on canvas work by Armenian contemporary artist Karen Ohanyan, from the series Post-Utopias. An outlier in Armenia, his smaller works start from 5,000€. Image courtesy of the artist.

As a rule of thumb, a buyer could walk away with a piece of contemporary art she admires – in all but the most monumental or costly media such as bronze sculptures – for well under $5,000.

There are exceptions, of course.

The internationally renowned conceptual and performance artist Grigor Khachatryan, for example, demands prices that are more attuned to the undisclosed ‘bottom lines’ of high-end galleries in London and New York. This is more of an ideological, rather than a commercial stance by an artist who justly feels that his work is on par with his better-known contemporaries and should be valued accordingly.

But such valor is rare in an environment where sales of art by emerging and experimental artists are considered something of a privilege or happenstance. When I recently rushed to purchase a surrealist ceramic sculpture by the supremely talented Anush Ghukasyan, I felt compelled to apologize over and over again for being unable to offer more than her (ludicrously low) asking price. She was bemused to say the least.

Ceramic sculptures by Anush Ghukasyan from her solo show ‘111’ held in 2018 at Dalan Art Gallery, Yerevan. Photo: Vigen Galstyan

Though there are a number of dealers in Yerevan – the Antikyan and Arame Galleries in particular – which represent established contemporary artists of the older generation, none are exclusive and their transactions are rarely publicized. Often, works can be acquired at lower prices directly from the studios, provided that the buyer never declares what they paid for the work.

Sales generally depend on the largely profane tastes of the local elites or the nationalist pangs of diasporan collectors. What actually gets sold is rarely the good stuff.

David Kochunts, a young artist who paints explicit satires on Armenian sexual mores in a style redolent of grotesque comic-book illustrations, told me that his oligarchic customers only commission him to paint copies of 17th century Dutch landscapes or still-life and would be horrified to learn what his actual work looked like.

Potential sales generally depend on the largely profane tastes of the local elites or the nationalist pangs of diasporan collectors. What actually gets sold is rarely the good stuff.

Other artists work under similar situations, often churning out large, sleekly post-modernist or abstract canvases as a way of getting product ‘on the walls’. Their more unconventional oeuvre (such as installations or video) is reserved strictly for exhibitions and survives, in most cases, in photographic documentation only.

This situation will not be changed locally, but would require interest from major contemporary art museums, powerhouse auction houses, or ‘star’ private collectors.

In neighboring Iran, the Tehran Art Auction on January 11 sold over $3.4 million worth of art, a more than 130% increase from the previous year. About one-third of the bidders were there for the first time. Photo: Rouzbeh Fouladi / NurPhoto

In contrast, Armenia’s neighbors Georgia and Iran have managed to develop local contemporary art markets that primarily target buyers at home while consistently attracting foreign interest through the confluence of private capital and state-backed cultural policy.

The international focus particularly applies to another neighboring state, Azerbaijan, which has invested millions of dollars in promoting home-grown contemporary art across the world in an attempt to craft an image of a culturally-emancipated and progressive modern nation.

Such tactics are unheard of in post-Soviet Armenia, which has seen an alarming dwindling of state interest in arts and education gradually replaced by an emphasis on liberalizing the economy and the development of information technologies. Despite the May 2018 democratic revolution and the subsequent take-over of power by prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s centrist My Step Alliance, this trajectory has not only remained consistent, but has been taken to quite extreme levels. Soon after winning the parliamentary elections in December, My Step representatives announced their highly controversial plans to close the Ministry of Culture and amalgamate its operations into a mega-ministry, which would oversee science, education, culture and sports.

While some have welcomed the decision as a means of finally ‘liberating’ the arts from a rotten bureaucratic left-over of the Soviet era, most see the Ministry’s closure as a sign of the new government’s utter indifference towards artists (contemporary or otherwise) and intellectual production. While the government has more pressing issues to handle – from military security to the derelict public transportation system – this denuding of culture from internal and foreign agendas is a marker of a new, highly ambivalent horizon that does not promise much to those young artists eager to fulfill their artistic ambitions. For a nation so eager to play the ‘cultural heritage’ card when it comes to proclaiming its relevance to and place in the world, this is strange to say the least.

Defying market norms

All these circumstances have precluded any real possibility of establishing a stable industry of contemporary art in Armenia. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

Nazareth Karoyan, one of the founders of modern curatorial practice in Armenia thinks that the commodification of contemporary art is quite an old approach as today, the art world is no longer driven by the market alone.

“There are other engines at work now that promote production, like community-based activities, social and corporate responsibility and so on,” Karoyan said. 

Indeed, the communal aspect is a strong factor in defining the creative strategies of Armenian artists. Here, art is often a byproduct of long-lasting friendships, romantic relationships, activism, protests, day-long drinking and partying sessions, ongoing debates and fights. It is a deeply personal activity that is intrinsically tied with the need to affirm an experience, to assert a certain position in relation to the world at large. In other words, the making of art in Armenia is inseparable from the grind of everyday existence.

Most local practitioners between the ages of 20 and 50 support themselves through other means.

Hayk Paronyan, for instance, is a self-taught artist who produced his video works while working in the army. His wife, Sona Abargyan – the author of now-iconic, witty feminist paintings – made bags and other ‘trinkets’ as a side business prior to landing a teaching job at the well-funded TUMO Center for Creative Technologies. Mika Vatinyan, whose new series of conceptual paintings has just been exhibited at the Cafesjian Centre is an actor in TV crime series and the theatre. Louisine Talalyan, a key figure in local queer-art movement, taught art in a corrective facility for women. Others make money as designers, software programmers, commercial photographers, waiters, and even construction workers.

This is nothing particularly out of the ordinary. But for many of these artists, their creative practice rarely correlates with the notion of vending. Instead, it comes out of a certain exigency to resist the pressures of capitalism and the increasing alienation of our technologically-powered lifestyles. Which means that, at a certain level, Armenia has inadvertently become an artistic wilderness, where tribe-like groups of practitioners make and break their own rules, largely untouched by the pre-programmed global market mechanisms, burdensome institutional etiquettes and the demands of the mass media.

Yerevan has seen an influx of young art-makers from Iran and the Armenian Diaspora, who are attracted by the closely-knit underground scene and the more affordable living costs. 

This is not a case of disengagement from the larger developments in the world. On the contrary. Recent initiatives such as the Armenia Art Fair, the 2018 International Contemporary Art Exhibition, the International Print Biennale and an assortment of other events, all testify to the healthy interest in cross-cultural exchange and dialogue. Yerevan has also seen an influx of young art-makers from Iran and the Armenian Diaspora, who are attracted by the closely-knit underground scene and the more affordable living costs. 

As the history of contemporary Armenian art becomes more institutionalized with publications like Angela Harutyunyan’s The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-Garde, the prospect of renewed attention from major institutions and the global art market appears to be just a matter of time. This will certainly be helped by the 2018 ‘Velvet Revolution’, which has generated a benevolent focus on the country. It remains to be seen whether local artists and other players from the contemporary art field will take this opportunity to finally put Armenia on the map.

Armenian Prime Minister, then-opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan waves to supporters at a rally in Yerevan on April 30, during the 2018 ‘Velvet Revolution’. Photo: Vano Shlamov / AFP

Navigating the scene

Armenia has the potential to take its place in the global art market, industry professionals believe.

It’s a cliché, but we are at an interesting geographical crossroads, said Anna Gargarian, the director of nomadic outfit HAYP Pop Up Gallery in a recent interview.

She cautioned, however, that before you can nurture a market you have to create a culture … a culture of awareness, appreciation, interest, and a critical mass in the contemporary arts. This will happen through education and a foundational contemporary cultural institution.

Gargarian is putting her words into practice with plans to open a commercial gallery for contemporary Armenian art in Yerevan this year. Her task will be helped by the new online journal Critical Review – a desperately-needed scholarly resource on current art in Armenia.

But as it stands, a visiting collector or curator will not find a handy guide-book in some posh restaurant or a bookstore telling them which hot artists or ground-breaking exhibitions to look out for.

Collectors and curators will not find a handy guide-book in some posh restaurant or a bookstore telling them which hot artists or ground-breaking exhibitions to look out for in Armenia. 

Activists and political artists celebrate former prime minister Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation outside the bohemian art cafe Ilik, on April 23, 2018 in Yerevan. Photo: Vigen Galstyan

Going to a late-night bar in the center of Yerevan or tracking people on social networks will be more productive. You might get in with the rowdy crowds at Studio 20 or the youngsters at the bohemian hang-out Ilik, which could lead to invitations to a traditional barbecue at the Institute of Contemporary Art, an electrifying techno-party at the Rambalkoshe co-working hub or the Embassy Club. You may find yourself at artists’ studios in the more remote corners of the country like Sisian and Gyumri, or a sit-in at a government building.

Whichever way one tunes in to the contemporary art scene in Armenia, it ultimately becomes an odyssey of personal discovery and relationship-building with a strong dose of emotional involvement

Exploring this world as a collector, critic or simply an art lover will depend entirely on one’s own worldview, intellectual baggage and expectations from art. And it is advisable to leave aside the dictates that have demarcated so much of what is considered ‘worthy’ in contemporary art if one is to find the rewarding delights of the unexpectedly varied, uneven and even polarizing extremes of contemporary Armenian art. ♦

Vigen Galstyan (PhD) is a curator, artist and art historian based in Yerevan and Sydney. He is the director of Lusadaran Armenian Photography Foundation.