Maybe some day, they will face the truth and give us some peace.1
Elliot Baker, 2014
It is not the same kind of experience for my generation as my parents or grandparent’s generations; we experience this reality differently. It passed into me in different form—into my identity and through that, into my art. They were the lucky ones that did not lose their lives and they were able, through the build up of bits and pieces, to continue living their lives and passing so much humanity and love and goodness into their children.2
Gagik Aroutiunian, 2014
Kiss the Ground is a five-part exhibition series that examines and celebrates contemporary Armenian art at a particular moment in history, organized to coincide with the centennial memorialization of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The first exhibition in the series showcases the art of Armenian-born, Chicago-based Gagik Aroutiunian. The exhibit includes a small but focused selection of Aroutiunian’s multi-media assemblage sculptures, paintings, installation art and video projections, all informed by the history of his family and the aftereffects of a culture nearly brought to extinction.
In 1980 Aroutiunian “escaped the Soviet Bloc…and while traveling in Canada…asked for political asylum.”3 By 1991, he had earned two degrees in visual art, concentrating on painting and sculptural media. For the past two decades, Aroutiunian has explored themes of memory and identity through the imagery of family, loss and displacement. When asked what the audience should know about his work, the artist explains:
I think it is important to know that my parents and grandparents were genocide survivors. I can be considered a second or third-generation genocide survivor. Genocide studies show that the trauma does not stop at the generation that experiences the genocide. So the experiences of second and third generations continue to affect the next generations.4
In conversation, Aroutiunian generously shares his memories and history—the stories of his family that he experienced himself, or that he remembers hearing in his youth and now keeps alive for his family to carry forward. In his art, however, Aroutiunian’s stories are not legible in a narrative or visual sense. Rather, the attitudes and feelings of what has been endured are made visible through Aroutiunian’s use of materials. The objects and images Aroutiunian assembles are routinely disembodied from their context and seemingly strewn haphazardly in proximity to each other. His sculptures and paintings are frequently made up of small bits, assembled into larger structures and incorporating found and ersatz fragments alongside the artist’s own fabrications. Sculptural presence is important for Aroutiunian because of its capacity to reveal physical proof of existence. His work with the immaterial processes of light, film and projection, on the other hand, exposes the contrasting impermanence of thought, feeling and memory.
Most everything Aroutiunian employs in his imagery is broken or separated in some way. Photographs are printed—the backgrounds often removed and cut away—and adhered onto various surfaces, then coated with resin, and precariously balanced on other materials or beneath water. Metal is cut, bent, fabricated, given a patina and welded into conglomerate networks. Stone is cut, carved and grooved, then stacked in such a way that images, objects and structures can be lodged in the resulting fissures—much in the same way seedlings find fertile ground in rock crevices. When Aroutiunian exhibits his sculptures that incorporate battery-powered lights, the gallery is instructed “not to replace the bulbs or power sources when they fail.” Fleeting phenomena, such as waves, illumination, reflections and refractions, play key roles in his work; the artist respects the natural life cycle of his materials and his exhibits are intended to outlast these individual elements. Look now and remember well.
In the physical works, images of people among broken or fragmented surroundings stare back at the viewer, often in unsettling and wavering manners; the projected works, on the other hand, are distinctly depopulated. There is great intention in Aroutiunian’s
isolation and placement of things; viewers are encouraged to wonder about the selection, placement and combinations he creates. As he describes in his artist’s statement (see bottom of webpage):
Sculptural processes and materials are manifestations of object/matter. Images, video and light, on the other hand, represent illusion. While the first is a primary means for me to represent identity and its displacement, the second is a way to represent memory and its transience.
By exploring contrasts, Aroutiunian juxtaposes particular sets of artistic interests, pitting one material/quality against another—the opaque with the transparent, the permanent with the ephemeral. What is concrete is at odds with what is only essence.
Paintings, Sculptures and Projections
In his paintings, Aroutiunian incorporates paint in much the same way as he uses light phenomena—for its transient properties. Gestures, calligraphic mark-making and the canons of Abstract Expressionism are ideal vehicles to govern emotional impetus. Where his raw feelings and emotional wounds collide and mingle, the artist’s feelings as he paints homages to family members shifts from painting to painting as memories merge with the novelty of a given moment. While the paintings share a similarity of combination—the central placement of photographs surrounded by a frame of painted gestures—the astute eye will notice few repeating motifs. The artist has painted over two hundred paintings revisiting each family member—a visual registry and diary.
Similarly, Aroutiunian’s sculptures reimagine family over and over again. While the primary elements of his sculptures are made up of fragments of raw materials assembled with the artist’s personal rules of transience, it is important to take note of the recognizable objects sparsely populating his sculpted works. In his 1996 work To My Mother—Between Two Stones, for example, the artist embeds a shoe form-keeper among welded bits of metal. Thoroughly subsumed in the fabric of the work, the shoe reference is easily overlooked. But to catch a glimpse of it is to call to mind the desire to keep worn things as new as possible. Such ideation of “shoes” recalls similar objects and associations—pedestrian exodus, for example, or the memories every person has of receiving help to put on their shoes as a child, or even the metaphorical concept of putting oneself in another’s shoes. With such everyday utilitarian objects, associations abound and any viewer may find personal meaning. What stories and memories are conjured by such inclusions?
Aroutiunian’s projections and sculptures that incorporate time-based media take advantage of the inherent nature of film—the succession of stills that make up a moving picture. In considering how Aroutiunian constructs his filmic work, it is helpful to think of film-stills-in-succession in the same way the artist builds up his sculptures and paintings—one piece at a time. In his 1998 multi-media sculpture Artsakh (Wings), the pieced footage, looped by the monitor at the bottom of the work, shows an Armenian landscape with a collapsed high-voltage transmission tower5—connectivity is rendered obsolete.
The high-definition projection House of Memories is a work of stunning visual and aural complexity. Though it is simple in its premise—a visual juxtaposition between analog and digital systems of memory decay—it is perhaps challenging for viewers to immediately recognize the correlative imagery of a decaying house and broken electronic circuitry. The imagery reveals itself slowly. Human memory fails, but so do the machines we make to remember for us. During his 2004 trip to his childhood home, Aroutiunian, flooded with personal memories, filmed his journey around the decaying building. Once he returned to the United States, he assembled broken bits of computers, phones and touch screens into the forms of house silhouettes, using the same principles as stained glass to create cohesive sculptures. House of Memories is an amalgam of film footage of two distinct kinds of memory. Both projected film and windows transmit light, and it is this transmission the artist was interested in juxtaposing. While apprehending the imagery of the film, viewers have to contend with issues of attraction and repulsion, reinforced by the ethereal light and sound show. The accompanying soundtrack to House of Memories provides the exhibition’s aural ambience. The soundtrack—a work in its own right—is a collaged audio mix with snippets of Chopin’s Nocturne #1, Haydn’s Piano Sonata #s 53 & 56, and a Bach Partita, each intermittently interrupted by snippets of two Armenian a cappella lullabies, Nani Bala [Grandmother’s Baby] and Tikranakerti Orortsayin [Tikranakerti6 Lullaby]. As the Western and Middle Eastern musical styles shift abruptly back and forth, appropriately contrasting visual imagery shifts too: images of the artist’s childhood home in Armenia, which is desolated beyond repair, are juxtaposed with close-up photographs from his House of Memories sculptural series—sculptures of composed circuitry taken from electronic devices associated with memory: cameras, printers, computers, phones, scanners.7 Aroutiunian has provided a statement specific to House of Memories, which can be found in the Artist’s Statements section (see below).
Bird, the final work in the exhibition, is a multimedia installation that leaves a lasting impression and illustrates the weight not only of Aroutiunian’s burden, but also that of the Armenian people in general. In this deceptively simple piece, a film projection on a wall, of a bird in flight, is interrupted by a birdcage, which is both illuminated by the projection and casts a shadow on the wall behind. Viewers can move around the cage, which is situated in the middle of the room and raised up into the air by a thin, welded pedestal frame. Viewers cast shadows upon the wall when they are behind the cage. The bird image, which occupies the center of the screen for much of the film loop, flies inside the centered cage shadow. Every once in a while, the bird flies outside the shadowy confines. Art critic Philip E. Bishop beautifully describes the intellectual exercise:
This is all an illusion, we might reassure ourselves, an artist’s little riff on Plato’s cave. But see if the human heart doesn’t lift just a little when the bird’s shadow “escapes” the cage, and sag again when it returns.8
Bishop’s reference to Plato’s cave, in this instance, takes on the weight of a hundred years of sadness, turmoil and pain on the scale of an entire population. But it is also important to recognize that the bird never escapes the parameters of the projected light. Aroutiunian’s exercise, which keeps the bird always in the frame of the projection, teaches us an important lesson. The cage is only an illusion, and the bird is still confined. Indeed, the bird experiences moments of freedom, but in the end, it is still imprisoned by a larger, more illusive, but still confining space. Bird exposes the elephant in the room: How can the Armenians know of anything else when all they know is still uncorroborated history? Aroutiunian’s juxtapositions raise simple but penetrating questions: why the unusual coupling of materials? Why combine traditions from different cultures? What is lost or missing? Why remember? Why, in some sense, are Armenians not free?
Armenians, and the world as a whole, did not have a word to describe the systematic “destruction of some one million Christian Armenians under the auspices of the Ottoman government in 1915-16.”9 Henry Morgenthau—the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-16—called it “the murder of a nation.”10 Without the word genocide at the world’s disposal, however, international law at the time regarded “crimes against humanity” as “crimes committed by one state against the citizens of another.”11 Therefore, “Armenians, as Ottoman subjects, were excluded from this category” because at that time “no international convention existed to cover crimes perpetrated by a state against its own people.”12 Turkey takes that fact as their high ground. But as one Turkish historian has pointed out, “The failure of the official Turkish state approach is its insistence that this immense crime was a justifiable act of state necessity, which therefore allows the country to avoid taking any moral stance on it.”13
It is not surprising, then, to find that many Armenians, like Aroutiunian, keep the memories of their families alive through the telling of their stories or through the creation of art to remember them by. Decades after the massacres, the term genocide was coined in no small part to describe what had occurred in 1915. Although Aroutiunian did not directly experience the Armenian Genocide, he absorbed the stories of his family and neighbors and lived under its shadows during a time when the Armenian Genocide was referred to as “the Forgotten Genocide.”14 Unlike his parents, Aroutiunian grew up learning about the concept of genocide, and the term was available to him in reference to the experience of the Armenian people. Aroutiunian’s work, within such a context, primarily deals with the effects of the history and unrest his generation has lived.
Genocide the Word
What we are dealing with here…is the annihilation of the Armenians.15
Talât Paşa, June 30, 1915
The recent history of Armenia, specifically that of the last one hundred years, is a story that is not at rest. Modern Turkey is the legal, official and cultural successor of the Ottoman Empire, which consisted of many cultural groups including Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians. Armenians continuously existed in Eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor) for around 3000 years, until 1915.16 In that year, the Armenian population, along with the Assyrians and Greeks, found themselves driven out of the region. In his book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Turkish author Taner Akçam, describes why:
Following their shocking defeat in the Balkan War, 1912-13, the Ottomans lost more than 60 percent of their European territory. A deep belief developed that it was impossible to live side-by-side with the empire’s remaining Christian population, or even worse, that Ottoman Christians posed a threat to the empire’s very survival. Thus the ruling Ottoman-Turkish authorities formed a policy which aimed at homogenizing the population of Anatolia, the territorial heart of the empire. This policy had two main components: the first was to disperse and relocate non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Arabs, among the Turkish majority with the purpose of their assimilation. The second component involved expelling non-Muslim, non-Turkish people from Anatolia, which resulted in the removal of two million people in all, essentially the region’s entire Christian population. While the Armenians as well as Assyrians were targeted by special measures aimed at their annihilation, Greeks were also expelled. In total, almost one-third of the Anatolian population was either relocated or killed. What is crucial is that this ethnic cleansing and homogenization paved the way for today’s Republic of Turkey.17
The removal of Armenian people from Turkish regions resulted not only in the deaths of millions of Armenians,18 but also led to the destruction and loss of countless properties, the decimation of art and artifacts, and the severe reduction of the Armenians’ historic homeland. The stances of most Armenians and Turks today, towards the events of a century ago, appear to be largely irreconcilable. Armenians want Turkey to admit to the crimes of genocide. Turkey, however, disputes the events of 1915 and rejects that they should be classified as acts of genocide.
In 1915, the word “genocide” did not exist. On the other hand, there were several key phrases that raised ideas about inhumanity and injustice throughout the written history of democracy. For example, in 1814 the phrase “principles of natural justice” is used in the Treaty of Paris and the phrase “principles of humanity and justice” is used in the Treaty of Ghent.19 In 1815, the Declaration of the Powers on the Abolition of the Slave Trade included the phrase “principles of humanity and universal morality” as justification for ending the slave trade.20 In 1860, the National Convention of the American Republican Party issued the statement “…We brand the recent re-opening of the African slave trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity.”21 In 1890, the phrase “crime against humanity” was used to describe the treatment of Africans in the Congo Free State, under King Leopold II of Belgium.22 And during World War I, on May 24, 1915, the Allies, Britain, France and the Russian Empire jointly issued a statement “explicitly announcing, for the first time,”23 the commission of “crimes…against humanity…”24in response to the Armenian massacres. After World War I an international war crimes commission attempted to establish a tribunal to try “violations of the laws of humanity,” but the phrase “laws of humanity” was deemed too “imprecise and insufficiently developed” by the US representative and the concept was not pursued.25
While many people worked to recognize the horrors that the Armenian people endured, it took the Armenian massacres along with the scale and magnitude of the First and Second World Wars combined before the world powers realized the urgent need to define wholesale aggression toward a specific people as a “crime against humanity.”
Genocide as a concept and a word was first penned in 194326—two years before the end of World War II and three years before the first General Assembly of the United Nations. The word genocide—from the Greek genos (family, tribe, or race), coupled with a Latin suffix -cide (killing)27—was coined by a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, Raphael Lemkin, who lost 49 of his relatives to the Holocaust.28 Lemkin studied the Armenian massacres closely while formulating his concept and while working on his proposal to United Nations about genocide, which recommended establishing the protection of basic human rights under international law.29 The term appeared in print for the first time in Lemkin’s book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in 1944.30 In 1946, the United Nations adopted a resolution affirming that genocide was a crime under international law.31 In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which legally defined the crime of genocide for the first time.32
In 1965, while Armenia was under Soviet control, hundreds of thousands of Armenian people observed the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan—the capital of Armenia today. Despite being a “taboo subject,” and in order to subdue political unrest in what became a “turning point for the Armenians,” the Soviet Government agreed to build a Genocide Memorial, which was completed by 1967.33 Another measure of justice came for Armenia when, in 1991, it finally achieved recognition as an independent republic.
Today, one of the oldest of world cultures and the first Christian nation34 continues its struggle for justice for the victims of the Genocide, while the term genocide continues to inspire research and debate. A notable development in the history of defining the word is Samantha Power’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which “explores America’s understanding of, response to, and inaction on genocides in the 20th century from the Armenian genocide to the ‘ethnic cleansings’ of the Kosovo War.”35 By 2006, several countries had gone on record to recognize the Armenian Genocide—France, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others—and Armenia, France, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland36 worked to adopt laws against the denial of the Armenian Genocide, sparking much debate.
While the Kiss the Ground series was designed to raise up into consciousness the atrocities and sobering realities the Armenian people have endured, visitors to the gallery will notice that overt imagery of genocide is not present in the first exhibition—a fact which also raises an important question: What is the subtopic of this first exhibit, this first view of a yearlong exploration?
Memory and Responsibility
Gagik Aroutiunian makes art to remember. As he points out:
I think who I am as a person—as a human being—a great deal of it comes from my family; the way they brought me up and the values they [instilled] in me. It’s always been sad, the fact that my family doesn’t exist any more. So I feel some responsibility as to telling about the family.37
Thankfully, the Armenian people did not perish after the horrors perpetrated against them a hundred years ago. But that was hardly consolation when Aroutiunian was a child growing up on Armenian-inhabited soil. At that time, Armenia couldn’t possibly foresee its own promise to become a country in its own right. Thus, while global powers continue to work, debate and define the events of nearly a century ago, Armenian families and artists alike have figured many ways to memorialize their stories. Today, much has occurred that is positive and affirming for the Armenians, but much more is yet needed. The work on display in Gagik Aroutiunian—Kiss the Ground, then, is an embodiment of the artist’s homeland aspirations. It is, as the artist has said, through the build up of bits and pieces that memory sustains what has been lost. In turn, the true place and people endure.
Gallery Director, Curator
1. Elliot Baker, The Past Is Not Past—A Drama, 2014, p. 17
2. Gagik Aroutiunian, quoted from an interview by the gallery director, August 29, 2014
3. Aroutiunian email, September 4, 2014
4. Aroutiunian Interview, August 29, 2014
5. Aroutiunian Interview, September, 9, 2014
6. In an interview with Aroutiunian, the artist explains: Tigranakert is the name of city that was founded by Tigran the Great, King of Armenia in the first century. This his King fought against Rome, as the new capital of his kingdom. Nowadays that city which went through many transformations throughout centuries under different empires—Rome, Byzantium, Arabs and Turks—never lost its strong Armenian component and its unique customs specific to the Armenians of that city until it was ended in 1915. In modern days it is known under the name Diyarbakir in Turkey with an overwhelming Kurdish population. No Armenians exist there (maybe there are a few Islamized hidden ones?), but recently, with efforts of a very progressive Kurdish Mayor of the city, the Armenian church—supposedly the biggest church in the Middle East—was renovated. Email, August 31, 2014
7. Aroutiunian, About House of Memories, 2014, catalog p. 147 (Also, see below.)
8.Philip E. Bishop, ‘Displacement’ Exhibition Evokes Simple Imagery that Speaks Volumes, Special to the Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, FL, March 5, 2009
9. Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide (Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians), Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, p. 1
10. Henry Morgenthau, The Murder of a Nation, Armenian General Benevolent Union of America, Inc., New York, NY, 1974
11. Taner Akçam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Holt and Company, LLC, New York, NY, 2006, p. 2-3
12. Akçam, p. 3
13. Akçam, p. 9
14. Aroutiunian email, September 4, 2014
15.Akçam, p. 6
16. Thomas F. Mathews and Roger S. Wieck Eds., Treasures in Heaven—Armenian Illuminated manuscripts, The Pierpont Morgan Library, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 5.
NOTE: Mathews, points out: “The origin and early history of the Armenian people remain obscure and controversial because of the near absence of archaeological evidence, and because Armenians did not find their own voice until the creation of a native alphabet in the early fifth century A.D., a millennium after their presumed arrival on the [Anatolian] plateau. As a result of this paucity of direct evidence, and the confused, fragmentary, and often contradictory testimonies of foreign authors, the most that can be said with reasonable certainty is that the Armenoi, an Indo-European speaking group, seem to have filtered gradually into the plateau from the southwest during the seventh to sixth centuries B.C.; their presence is attested there in the late sixth century by both the Greek historian Herodotus and the Bisutun inscription of the Persian king Darius the Great (521-486).”
17. Akçam, p. 8
18. Akçam notes: In line with the argument of necessity, the state claims that the destruction of the Armenians was not the deliberate policy of either the government or the party but ta series of isolated events that occurred, without intention and in the course of harsh wartime conditions, during a :normal” deportation. It remains, however, extremely difficult to explain how 300,000-600,000 people ( the numbers variously cited in official Turkish sources) died within a year—1915—as a result of disease, random attacks, and general wartime conditions while raising no alarm among the central authorities. p. 9
19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimes_against_humanity#cite_note-3, 9/3/14
20. Ibid. note-4, 9/3/14
21. Ibid. note-5, 9/3/14
22. Ibid. note-5, 9/3/14
23. Ibid. note-6, 9/3/14
24. “…crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization…”; http://www.armenian-genocide.org/Affirmation.160/current_category.7/affirmation_detail.html, 9/3/14
25. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimes_against_humanity#cite_note-7, 9/14/14
26. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphael_Lemkin#cite_note-1, 9/3/14
27. Genocide in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.—”1944 R. Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe ix. 79 By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.”
28. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide#cite_ref-18, 9/3/14
29. Author not cited, The California Currier, December 8, 2005, http://npfdinfo.blogspot.com/2007/10/raphael-lemkin-discusses-armenian.html, 10/19/14. Note: to view video clip, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzAexRmeZFs
30. Ibid. OED
31. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide#Genocide_as_a_crime, 9/3/14
32. Ibid, Genocide_as_a_crime
33. Aroutiunian email, September 4, 2014
34. Mathews and Roger S. Wieck Eds., p. xiii
35. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Problem_from_Hell, 9/3/14
36. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide_denial#cite_note-rt.com-121, 9/14/14
37. Aroutiunian interview, August 29, 2014
About the work
The practice of art is like a magic prism through which artists attempt to view and understand themselves and the surrounding world, and which allows them to share and communicate the discoveries made in the process.
My work is about identity, displacement, and memory. Intertwined with this exploration is a fascination with two different entities: the rough, explicit, material quality of object/matter, and the ever-elusive image/illusion that we dream, envision or imagine. Sculptural processes and materials are manifestations of object/matter. Images, video and light, on the other hand, represent illusion. While the first is a primary means for me to represent identity and its displacement, the second is a way to represent memory and its transience. This juxtaposition is consistently present in my work in one form or another.
Many of my pieces integrate photographic images (usually in the form of transfers) as an important component of the piece. I excise images and figures from their original background before placing them in a new, artificially created environment. This artificially created environment in turn heightens the image’s sense of detachment from its setting. However, the process of placing the image in an alien environment also heightens the visual power of the resulting image, freeing it from any pretension of representing reality. The result is a peculiar relationship between the figure and its environment, and the establishment of a new reality.
Gagik Aroutiunian, 2014
About House of Memories
House of Memories
is an ongoing series in which I use the ruined interior of a house as the primary material source to represent and interpret the fragility and transient nature of individual memory when exposed to the test of time. The house, which belonged to my parents, has been uninhabited for the last twenty years and is in a ruinous state. For me, the space and all the objects in it are linked to the most profound recollections, and yet I can’t help but feel that with the passage of time my memories are deteriorating along with the house itself. Because of this, I have chosen the ruined interior full of decaying, unusable furniture and objects as an allegorical manifestation of the current state of my memories. However, to think of my memories as a deteriorating ruin is unbearable; rather, I prefer to think of the process of memory as a transformation from one state to another, from one condition to another one. As a counterbalance to the grim condition and reality of that interior, therefore, I decided to create abstract structures to serve as a surrogate material translation and representation of specific memories and experiences. These structures are fragile, semi-transparent, and constructed entirely from elements of devices originally used for communication, data storage or image processing (cameras, printers, computers, phones, scanners). These devices have been deconstructed to the point where their elements become devoid of their original purpose, function, and identity, pulverized by force into small particles. With these bits and parts I have created a new, perhaps sad and tense, but nevertheless beautiful image/translation of past experiences and the feelings they evoke.
Gagik Aroutiunian, 2014
Exhibition catalog available at Lulu.com. Please follow this link: Gagik Aroutiunian exhibition catalog
200+ Window Pieces Gagik Aroutiunian Will Never Show the Public
But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.
Plato, The Phaedrus, c. 370 BCE
One can hardly give examples [of infrathin]. It’s something that escapes even scientific definition.
Marcel Duchamp, 1968
Gagik Aroutiunian creates window pieces—an ongoing series of work in different media titled House of Memories—that address memory in both general and personally explicit senses. One of his longest ongoing projects, his window pieces constitute a body of 200+ works that are not meant to be exhibited and do not have a series title other than their general reference as “window pieces.” Aroutiunian’s window pieces are often used within other works—in particular, his film projections and installations, but also various series of still photographs. Aroutiunian creates his window pieces by grouping low-relief materials that aid synthesized memory—component parts from discarded computers, cameras and scanners—and fusing them together with resin and epoxy to form screens or filter-like objects that both block light and allow light to pass through the aggregations. Ultimately, Aroutiunian’s window pieces function similarly to stained glass windows—fragmented (glass) shards of differing shapes, colors and textures, fixed into place on typically vertical planes, allowing light to enter a space as much as they fracture and refract light into patterns and designs on the interiors of rooms and halls.
To create these objects, Aroutiunian collects unwanted computing hardware and imaging devices, breaks them apart, and separates the parts into material groupings. He then assembles them into bas-relief or three-dimensional structures—at times by fusing them into new amalgams with epoxy, and at others by arranging the parts on a scanner bed and scanning the bits, only to rearrange them and repeat the process again. Some of his conglomerations result in physical constructions, while others are designed to be taken apart after the scanning process. The physical, composite-objects, which themselves are dysfunctional objects of recollection, are then placed into windowed settings for visible scrutiny and memorial documentation. Sometimes, Aroutiunian’s re-membered accretions contain photographic images, which, much like an oasis, act as clear points of recollection among the desert of unusable and fragmentary computing debris.
Aroutiunian places these assemblages on windowsills and photographs them throughout the changing seasons. His photographic documentation of these pieces numbers in the thousands. He avoids halination by waiting for optimal lighting conditions.
Most of the time I only have a six-minute window of available light to photograph these pieces. When the sun is overhead, the light is too strong and distorts the work, making it hard to see various parts because of the many highlights. I wait until the sun is on the horizon, before it disappears behind it and then take as many pictures as I can. I frequently photograph when it snows because of the ambient, indirect light.
Due to the constraints of the type of light he needs for his photographs, Aroutiunian is quite limited in where he can place his window pieces. To date, he has only used his home and his studio windows for his photographic purposes, which are always west-facing—he plans to expand and experiment with locations and backgrounds in future bodies of work. To get the light he needs for his images, he takes photographs on days without weather conditions that block the sun, or on snowy days in which the light is diffused by snowfall. On days with direct sunlight, he utilizes the fleeting moments as the sun touches the horizon and before it falls below it.
The component parts he captures in his photographs are sharply in focus, whereas the blurred images of spaces seen through the window pieces are only suggestive of times of year and a general sense of place. Blurring background imagery evokes disengagement from the present, just as focusing on broken bits connects to remembrance of the past.
Aroutiunian exhibits only his documentation and the projections—never the actual objects that he places in his own windows. Despite the pleas, encouragement and invitations he receives from friends, colleagues, and curators, instead of showing these windowsill assemblages in any public venue, Aroutiunian exclusively exhibits the abstract versions of the window pieces—the photographs.
Aroutiunian turns down any opportunity to exhibit the actual works in order to acknowledge and mourn evanescent experience—moments transposed from multidimensional experience into digital or visual information, and transposed again into imaging systems that ultimately render in only two dimensions the experiences and memories that were already altered and colored by light and eroded by time. Aroutiunian then enhances this degradation through his own fracturing processes. His photographs—captured images in the passing light of particular moments in time, re-presented via digital imaging technologies—are several steps separated from the original memories the fractured objects could once represent. These steps of separation present the viewer with a conceptual metaphor, enhanced by the absence of the original subjects, objects and entities that prompted the need for recollection in the first place.
This aspect of Aroutiunian’s work, beyond the artist’s prerogatives—intuitive or decisive—offers important insight into his oeuvre. When considered as a metaphor for memory, Aroutiunian’s reluctance to show the windowsill assemblages offers his audience a poetic understanding of what drives much of the artist’s work: the relationship between material and immaterial recollection and the intangible transfer from life into art that art provides—the differences between states of being, the representation of those states through creative expression, and the perceptions prompted by the objects subsequently created.
To emphasize a particular point about recollection, Aroutiunian breaks objects that can remember information into bits, which in turn destroys the utility of the object’s mechanisms for memory. The paradox Aroutiunian explores, through collecting, breaking, scattering, re-collecting via sculptural practices and then photographing the seemingly dead objects he fashions, exposes the tensions between the forces of memory and entropy. He takes this elaboration a step further by denying public access to his actual assemblages. Ironically, fragments of memory are still burned into the fractured materials, despite having been broken into pieces and becoming virtually impossible to retrieve what is stored in the parts. Yet, the parts Aroutiunian re-assembles into new configurations, however inutile, still actually hold the images and ideas they once stored—albeit broken, separated and mixed with other objects that too once hold other fractured memories. Therein lies the purest of artistic motives to create this work and to subsequently bar it from his viewers—invoking the missing thing.
Aroutiunian exercises three levels of action in his window pieces in orderto revitalize the power of remembrance. First, he breaks the objects that remember; then, he reassembles the bits that can no longer remember effectively; and finally, he denies public access to the actual re-grouped objects by not showing that work and by presenting abstracted versions of the work—renderings of the objects, seen in the varying light and conditions of undisclosed temporal moments. Viewers are reminded that the light of any given moment may enliven a fragment of memory not routinely recalled, regardless of any level of distortion. Aroutiunian’s combined gestures force his viewers to ruminate on the power to recollect of ourselves. This highly abstracted, multi-tiered activity can be better appreciated by considering a word coined by Marcel Duchamp—infrathin.
Infrathin suggests the boundaries between an essence that moves from one state into another, what might be considered as a kind of sublimation between entities and dimensions. Duchamp offered the following example of his concept as a way of moving toward understanding a definition of infrathin:
When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two odors marry by infra-thin.
“’Infrathin’ generally characterizes a thickness, a separation, a difference, an interval between two things.” In another example, Duchamp points out the infrathin separation between the detonation of a gun and the apparition of the bullet hole in the target the gun was fired at. There is of course a separating duration between the detonation of the gun and the appearance of the hole in the target, but that duration is not perceptible. What interests Marcel Duchamp “is certainly not…finding the instruments with which you could physically perceive this separation through some new technology. What interests him is making you understand that it is just enough to imagine it.” “The more invisible this difference is, the greater is the infrathin dimension of it.”
How experiences are transferred into memories via organs or devices that remember is not so much the point of Aroutiunian’s actions and objects, but the intervals between experience and memory is of great interest to him. Aroutiunian’s studio practice can be divided into two basic categories: material and immaterial. In his own words, Aroutiunian divides his work into these basic groupings: “objects/matter” and “illusions.” When compared to what he does in the studio, the connection between what Aroutiunian makes when he uses matter, and the subjects and memories that can’t be seen but can be felt are infrathin—illusions.
Synthetic memory—hardware such as the computer, digital cameras and scanners—house and organizes memories using complex electronic matrices and software to provide memory retrieval, and require any number of systems to enact remembering. Software and human memory overlap in the structured ways they encode elusive information—remembering—and they are both susceptible to failure, degradation and information loss. Aroutiunian’s work addresses the loss and retention of history through the ways in which he visually, physically and metaphorically breaks apart contemporary memory devices as he creates his memorial icons. But he forces us to remember our own sensations by denying us access to the actual objects he photographs. Aroutiunian is interested in infrathin transfer—what intermingles, or what imperceptibly exists that cannot be proven, as it transposes from one dimension into another.
Words, pictures and objects are the basic analog tools used to record experience and knowledge, but objects, pictures and words by themselves can never completely represent knowledge. The failure to adequately represent a thing through image, object and definition, for example, is beautifully illustrated in Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. Similarly, the matrices of memory only ever preserve a fraction of what is lived and understood through the experiences of living. Aroutiunian’s window pieces and their documentation seem to tell us that stand-alone memory is not enough; we need to look at memories in different light, at various times in the year, and even then we may never fully understand what it is we experience/have experienced, let alone loose along the way. The process of re-experiencing something is a process of shifting view points, editing, distorting, and highlighting certain aspects of what has been experienced, and such situational conditions are what drive Aroutiunian to continue creating his elusive work.
The brain houses the mind and provides the physical matrices for memories. No single individual can see into another’s mind, but any individual presented with an illusion about a creator’s thoughts, memories and musings can gain insight into what prompted the creator’s imagery. Aroutiunian’s denial of access to his window pieces forces his audiences to reconcile with the tensions of remembrance: the brain as physical object, as opposed to the energy that passes through it; the opacity of physical things versus the translucency of memories.
Aroutiunian’s work exposes the tensions between the apparatus of memory and memory itself. We can never know the memories the artist encounters while he makes his window pieces any more than the artist can fully conjure the forms, events and spaces of his own past. Those are lost forever. What he makes are, in the end, only windows onto fragmentary pieces of what remains.
The immaterial, memories, light itself, require places to reside, the mind or other storage facilities, in order to be saved and recalled again at a later time. What is immaterial can transfer—even if only in the abstract sense—into recollection accretions, material recollection centers, light stores. But light storage itself does not guarantee recollection. Memory is an act of inhabitation—thoughts and experiences become memories if often repeated. In the mind, we revisit the memory to keep it alive. In virtual space, hardware imbues binary codes into retrievable numeric sequences, written down and ready to be read again, if, it is known how to access such information. Stained glass windows are like light stores; they hold particular images in particular configurations, held in place for us to re-see, to re-member. But like any imagery, we must use it or lose it. For example, Christian iconography persists two millennia after it was initially created—that in and of itself is an extraordinary human feat for the millions who can still read the iconography. But much Christian iconography is lost on today’s audiences for those who do not/cannot read or remember the symbolism. How many people know what a square halo signifies today, for example? Thus, there are countless millions today who do not know, which is to say, they do not remember what certain aspects of Christian symbolism yet mean. Concomitantly, when we are presented with an unknown imagery, the mystery can easily haunt and prompt us to engage in detective work if we are so inspired.
When we look at stained glass windows from the outside of the building we see the apparatus, the object and the light store with its various designs; but with light coming at the surface and primarily going through the glass, away from where we stand, we are generally less impressed from the exterior view—the view of the hardware. Conversely, when we are in the interior of the space, we are filled by divided and parsed wavelengths of light, rich colors, shapes and images, and we become flooded by the vision of what the fragments do in light. What they mean literally washes over us as they project inward and splash into the transformed interior space of rooms and our retinas. Yet, when the window-lit room is vacant, though the light may yet fill the space, the memory cannot be recalled. When the window-lit room is inhabited, the memory comes alive for anyone in the space. When the light-store's meaning is implicit, recollection and transfer become possible again. Aroutiunian engages with the threshold between legibility and illegibility, between memory retention and memory loss, between communicability and silence. Aroutiunian is aware of these differences and works with them repeatedly: some things can be known again, and some things can never be re-known.
Considering that most, if not all, of Aroutiunian’s work is about the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath—the literal loss of 1.5 million light stores—the subject of recollection takes on an overwhelming character in his work and in particular the illusions that beckon what has departed. Aroutiunian’s window pieces may be as problematic, if for different reasons, as Theuth’s “letters.” And although Aroutiunian’s window pieces can act as a crutch for his own memory, they ultimately do not foster his or his audience’s forgetfulness. On the contrary, they demand remembrance—they invoke it. And yet, in spite of their demands, they can’t do their job in any real or actual sense, because they will only ever be scattered oases of fragmentary recollections. We can never see such stuff firsthand again—those lights were put out a century ago. Aroutiunian acts accordingly; he denies anyone access to the actual objects themselves.
Thompson Gallery, Gallery Director, Curator
January 17, 18, August 17, 18 2016
 Plato, Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett M. A., Vol. 1, Random House, New York, NY, 1937, p. 278  Marcel Duchamp, quoted by Hector Obalk, in The Unfindable Readymade, http://toutfait.com/the-unfindable-readymade/, 2000, retrieved August 18, 2016, Duchamp’s quote originally appears in: Interview with D. de Rougemont: “Marcel Duchamp mine de rien” [Lake George, New York, 3-9 August 1945], Preuves, Paris, no. 204 (February 1968): 43-47; reprinted in Journal D’une Époque 1926-1946, Paris: Gallimard, 1968  Gagik Aroutiunian, January 9, 2016 telephone call