InstitutionsBiennials & Triennials 29-09-2017

Haig Aivazian | History cracked open

No artist is quite as relevant as the Lebanon-born Haig Aivazian when it comes to cracking open — as he says — a moment in history in unexpected, unforeseen ways.

When asked if there are common threads running through his seemingly disparate body of work, he laughs: “I have friends who say that I always make long thin things. My first reaction is ‘what are you talking about’? But then I see they have a point…” Be it true or not, Aivazian’s work is certainly much more than that.

In “I am sick but I am alive”, an exhibition held at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery in 2016, building on the work he presented at the 2015 Armenian Pavilion in Venice, the Lebanese artist looked at music as an essential aspect of the construction of a national identity and at how the history of the discipline is entangled with the history of nations. Rome is Not in Rome, a project he presented at the Marrakech Biennale in 2016, was inspired by the discovery of Roman artifacts in a Beirut construction site for a Jean Nouvel building. As in many of his works, a gesture or an event become “a portal to some other place”, as the artist himself explains. “I was thinking about this newly liberal constructions in Beirut, and its relation to archaeology and to the idea of contemporary global museum. So there was a link between the Jean Nouvel site and the Jean Nouvel Abu Dhabi Louvre”.


Haig Aivazian, 1440 sunsets per 24 hours, Kadist Paris, 2017. Photo: A. Mole.


Throughout Aivazian’s work, what seems to be incidental perfectly fits within a wider ideological infrastructure. Thus, in “1440 sunsets per 24 hours”, a recently closed show at Kadist’s Paris space that buildt on the work Aivazian begun with the film How Great You Are O Son of the Desert!, (2009-2013) the artist started from France’s difficult recent history to weave a cohesive narrative showing how the everyday remains indissolubly linked to the larger-than-life progress of history and the structures of power.

Presented for the first time in France, How Great You Are O Son of the Desert! links, somewhat unexpectedly, the account of Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt during the 2006 World Cup with a touching, emotional account of the deaths of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15 and the riots that ensued, shocking the suburbs of cities throughout France and Europe in the Autumn of 2005.

“There’s something about the narrative structure of making connections between seemingly disparate things, but I really do think that they emerge from the same ideological framework or infrastructure.” explains Aivazian. “With Zidane’s head-butt we heard reports about Marco Materazzi calling him “the son of a terrorist whore”. This French guy on the football pitch is teleported to another space.  It’s almost like metaphysical spaces open, where people subjectivities change. Something within chronology breaks wide open when things like this happen.”


Haig Aivazian, 1440 sunsets per 24 hours, Kadist Paris, 2017. Photo: A. Mole.


By investigating very current and very sensitive issues such as the history of government surveillance and the racially-motivated abuse of power France has witnessed in recent years, Aivazian’s works also reveal history’s gaps. His research into the history of the “state of emergency” — under which France currently is until November 1 —  unveils the tragic irony of the French Republic: l’état d’urgence violates the principles of democracy in order to defend it. Its establishment in 2005 and 2015 following the French riots and the Paris attacks respectively, brought us back to its first introduction in 1955 during the Algerian war, linking recent history in indissoluble ways with the spectre of colonialism, something that France is still largely grappling with. “There are moments that grab my attention, and I think the 2005 riots were an important moment. [...] When I started reading on the “state of emergency” and the history of that law and the immediate colonial link there, [...] I thought ‘what history is this that we are dealing with?’ We can flashback to the colonial past with incredible quickness.”

In similar ways, sportings events or pop culture — notably Rihanna’s July 2016 interpretation of Diamonds at the Stade de France weeks after the Nice attacks — inscribe themselves within “a long-standing logic of quantification and categorization” that is often called into question in Aivazian’s work. On a more immediate level, a stadium is just a stadium; but in light of the history of technology and big data and their relationship with government surveillance, places such as the Stade de France — the theatre of, at the same time, concerts, sporting events or terrorist attacks — become highly symbolical and profoundly political. “The stadium is a sort of hotspot, it offers a lot of insight about things that apply to society at large in terms of security regimes”.

If it can seem very diverse at first, Aivazian’s body of work is consistent in presenting a coherent approach. “I’m interested in how things crack open, and when they do, the infrastructures that they let appear.” explains the artist. “The metaphysical moments I was talking about earlier, that’s what I always look for. Whether it’s a crack at the turn of the twentieth century, or in the case of Rihanna’s concert it’s often about these highly publicized events, it’s about re-reading of them. I’m not revealing any secrets, I’m just trying bring together alternate readings of events, in a way that strikes me as coherent and apparent.” Whether he’s revealing secrets or not, Aivazian is an attentive, meticulous observer of both his times and history, willing to “revisit, reconfigure things” as time goes on. “1440 sunsets per 24 hours” might have closed, but we might hear something new from him sooner than we expect.


Haig Aivazian, 1440 sunsets per 24 hours, Kadist Paris, 2017. Photo: A. Mole.

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