Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia II/III

Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia II/III
Show 4

January 25 – March 15, 2015

Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia

The literature of witness has had a significant impact on our understanding of the twentieth century. What we know about our age of catastrophe we know in crucial part from memoirs…stories that have taken us inside episodes of mass violence and killing, genocide and torture. They have allowed us acquaintance with individual victims and perpetrators, offering insights into the nature of torture, cruelty, suffering, survival and death. By the end of the twentieth century some scholars had referred to our time as an age of testimony.[1]
Peter Balakian
How to remember the past but to be able to enjoy the present? That was my new search…I discovered I could gain some mastery over the terrorizing images….get them out of my brain by painting them on canvas. I could transform the scenes and make them less frightening by creating beauty amidst the vultures of death. I could be faithful to history AND be able to free myself from the frozen past.[2]
Elliot Baker
The Thompson Gallery (The Cambridge School of Weston, Weston, MA) and The Armenian Museum of America have joined forces to present Kiss the Ground, a 5-part exhibition series centering on the work of 12 Armenian artists. The exhibitions examine and celebrate contemporary Armenian art at a particular moment in history, organized to coincide with the centennial memorialization of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. At its core, the exhibition series is catalyzed by the contrast between celebration and remembrance.
The first exhibition in the series took place in the fall and examined the art of Armenian-born, Chicago-based Gagik Aroutiunian. The virtual exhibition for Gagik Aroutiunian—Kiss the Ground may be viewed online by visiting Part II of the series, Talin Megherian—Kiss the Ground (December 18, 2014 – March 13, 2015), focuses on the abstract-narrative paintings of Talin Megherian (Watertown, MA). Her work explores familial and cultural stories about the Armenian Genocide, often focusing on the stories of Armenian women. Part II overlaps with this exhibition and may be seen at the Weston location until March of 2015.
The work on display in the Adele & Haig Der Manuelian Galleries, the second part of the Kiss the Ground—A New ArmeniaII exhibition series (which is itself an exhibition in three parts), runs between January 25 and March 1, 2015. The final part of Kiss the Ground—A New ArmeniaIII will take place at The Cambridge School of Weston’s Thompson Gallery from March 30 - June 13, 2015.
Kiss the Ground takes its name from the etymology of one of the Armenian words for “worship.”[3] The word “yergurbakootyoon” translates literally to “kissing the ground,” but figuratively refers to total submission—voluntary or involuntary. A gesture of the body, such as laying face down on the ground, is an act of deep veneration. As the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church points out, “words and thoughts alone cannot express all that we believe,” nor can they express all that the Armenian people have endured, and thus the gesture requires great effort. Though it is used as a term of “worship” today, the word is largely disconnected from its initial roots and is not commonly used. The aftereffects of disconnection, and the need for cultural redefinition, are what prompted this exhibition series. As a verbal expression that describes a figurative activity, yergurbakootyoon in the context of this exhibition series signals a metaphorical reference for an expression of hallowed respect and connection. The particular action conjures many images, thoughts and associations that go beyond its original usage. Spoken in English on American soil, “kissing the ground” brings to mind reverence for land, for home, for country, for people, and for a way of living. It is an act of great dedication to connect to a difficult past and build an uncertain future.
Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia offers a glimpse of the work being made today by American-Armenian artists from as nearby as Watertown and as far away as Chicago. As our audience noticed in the first part of this exhibition, while some artists in the show embrace their heritage and family histories, others do not; the choice to engage with a difficult past is a personal one for artists and families alike. A New Armenia begins with the premise that all post-traumatic experiences are valid. Each artist in their own way contributes something vital to the collective memory of Armenian people and culture, which today, despite its traumatic past, is thriving and expansive.
John Avakian (Sharon, MA).
Since 1989, John Avakian has been developing a hybrid mono-printmaking technique, which combines digital scanning and photo-imaging with monotype and paper-litho plate-making processes. Avakian’s one-of-a-kind prints blend a painterly attitude with printmaker’s technologies. His confrontational, serial monoprints are often monumental in scale. The scale of the work can be seen as an allusion to great personal and cultural turmoil. On the one hand, the size of the work visualizes the immensity of the crimes against humanity. On the other hand, the scale also alludes to the emotional and psychological burden endured by the artist as he created the series, which takes as its base imagery the photo-historical record of the Armenian Genocide. Avakian’s sobering imagery is by far the most graphic and shocking work in the Kiss the Ground exhibition series. As Avakian states:
These powerful and unique prints are both beautiful and horrific, and represent the most visually imposing statement I can make as an artist regarding the Armenian Genocide.[4]
Apo Torosyan (Newton, MA)
Apo Torosyan is a filmmaker and painter. Torosyan’s films and paintings are included in A New Armenia parts II and III, with planned screenings for both venues. Torosyan’s films trace the history of the Armenian Genocide and provide a platform for the descendants of survivors to tell their stories. Torosyan’s mixed media paintings tell stories in a different way. Torosyan has made over 500 mixed media paintings in his Bread series. Interested in its metaphoric potential, Torosyan incorporates the “staff of life” as a way of recalling Armenian history. Having made a vast amount of Bread works, the artist reminds us that this staple can easily be found in cultures around the world, but we should not take it for granted. For Torosyan, bread is an allegorical memorial. As he points out:
Many people died of starvation on the death marches for want of bread. There are photographs of Ottoman Turks offering small pieces of bread, too small to share, and dangling the scraps over children’s heads. The Bread pieces are the hidden story of the genocide. I have a lot of bread stories from my family and there is not an Armenian family who does not have a bread story.[5]
Gagik Aroutiunian (Chicago, IL).
Armenian born, Gagik Aroutiunian’s work focuses on memory and identity through the imagery of family, loss and displacement. In his sculptures, Aroutiunian uses fragments of objects to construct homages to particular family members. The notion of assembling broken bits of things, often repurposed objects, with many more parts missing in-between, is a painful reminder of what is lost when people, places, and things are forced into memory. Aroutiunian often uses media that transmits or projects light, and these elements too are abundant in his sculptures and installations. As Aroutiunian points out in his artist’s statement, his work is “intertwined” with an exploration of “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.[6]
Jackie Kazarian (Chicago, IL).
In her Project 1915, Kazarian pays simultaneous homage to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and the Armenian Genocide.[7] But rather than depicting the horrors of the 1915 Genocide, Kazarian has been working over the last year on a monumental painting and series studies that “celebrate Armenian history” and the “vitality” of “a culture that has survived for 3000 years.”[8] The works on display in Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia are a group of studies Kazarian produced to work out ideas for the 11.5 x 27 foot painting. In her Cross Lace series and her Forgiveness Lace series, like the larger parent work, Kazarian uses “Armenian lace, like a mandala,” to “refer to the infinity sign.”[9] The embroidered lace imagery comes from a sample of lace that was given to her by her grandmother[10]—who is from Marash, a city lost to the Armenian Genocide and which was known for its unique and beautiful embroidery techniques. The lace, scanned and then screen-printed on all Kazarian’s Project 1915 paintings and series work, stands “as an image of hope.”[11] Perhaps the most provocative works of art in the Kiss the Ground exhibition series are Kazarian's Forgiveness Lace series—many of which have the Armenian word for “forgiveness” as part of the composition. The Forgiveness Lace series present, if not propose, the possibility of healing after one hundred years of cultural anguish.

In his introduction to his great-uncle’s book, Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, Peter Balakian acknowledges the impact of the “literature of witness:”
Memoirs such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, and a many others…have allowed us acquaintance with individual victims and perpetrators, offering insights into the nature of torture, cruelty, suffering, survival and death.
In this “age of testimony,” insight into the catastrophes of the 20th century is abundantly available in the art of those artists who have boldly explored the darker side of humanity. The artists of A New Armenia have shed much light upon the “forgotten genocide,” and have afforded us a better understanding of the conscious makeup of contemporary Armenian identity. But there is also the fact that the splintered Armenian culture is vetting their place in the world; diaspora and homeland Armenians have never let go of the vitality of their culture and have worked to keep alive much of their traditions and cultural grounding.
Collectively, the work in Kiss the Ground—A New Armenia juxtaposes complicated issues for consideration, in which reverence often commingles with solemn remembrance. As the title of the series implies, veneration requires effort. However challenging, such exertion helps to evolve understanding into a new Armenia.
Todd Bartel
Gallery Director, Curator
Thompson Gallery

[1] Grigoris Balakian, translated by Peter Balakian, with Aris Sevag, Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, Vintage, New York, NY, 2010, p. xiii
[2] Elliot Baker, Kiss the Ground: Elliot Baker—The Past Is Not Past, Thompson Gallery and, 2014, p. 40
[3] Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Ed. The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, St. Vartan Press, New York, 2011, ix
[4] John Avakian, Artist’s Statement Part II—Lest We Forget, published in Kiss the Ground: Elliot Baker—The Past Is Not Past, Thompson Gallery and, 2014, p. 83
[5] Apo Torosyan interview, 10/13/14
[6] Gagik Aroutiunian, Artist’s Statement, catalog to the exhibition, Gagik Aroutiunian—Kiss the Ground, Thompson Gallery and, 2014, p. 146
[7] Jackie Kazarian, quoted from video, Project 1915,, 1/11/15
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jackie Kazarian, email correspondence, 1/8/15
[11] Kazarian, quoted from video

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