Hrair Sarkissian’s photographic oeuvre manifests an intimacy and ease with the camera, which does not always necessarily translate into an ease with his subject matter. It is as if Sarkissian’s work is conceived with a binocular vision, with one lens framing the often depersonalized urban and architectural sites his projects tend to focus on, and another lens accounting for the personal and emotional ties to these particular sites. These two elements do not instantaneously come together in the image, but develop over time, and over viewings. And so Sarkissian’s work is as much about the object of photography as it is about the subject of image-making: how much information does a photograph reveal or conceal? What does the photographic image fixate or document, and what does it leave open to the imagination?
In the series Construction (2010), the artist photographs different structures made from Kapla, the wooden block construction toy. Photographed against a black background, the bare architectural structures seem deracinated, as if they are timeless and suspended in space. At a first glance these are images stripped bare, marked by a sense of absence that cannot really be defined. What we are really looking at though, are the traces of oral memory translated into a material visual representation. Sarkissian, a Syrian with Armenian roots, tried to reconstruct the houses from his grandfather’s village in Turkey from where he escaped to Syria during the Armenian genocide in 1915. Sarkissian has never been to the village, nor did he ever meet his grandfather. All he could base himself on were family stories. Shadows eclipse the surface of these structures, so that we can never make out the full image. In the series we can discern walls, windows, perhaps a door, but these elements are always incomplete, as memory will always be.
It is no accident that the labels or captions accompanying Sarkissian’s work provide clues to the viewer, often prompting a return to the image for a second reading. This is best exemplified by the acclaimed series Execution Squares (2008), shown amongst others at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial and at this year’s Sharjah Biennial. Shot very early in the morning, in the Syrian cities of Damascus, Lattakia and Aleppo, it shows unassuming deserted city squares. Some bear posters or statues of former leader Hafez el-Assad, others are populated by palm trees or advertising billboards. It all looks calm and innocent enough, until we read that these places are actually execution sites where public hangings take place. Also here, the images seem defined by an absence, and are haunted by ghosts.
Photography is in Hrair Sarkissian’s genes. Growing up in Damascus, he spent more time in his father’s photography shop and laboratory, the ‘Sarkissian Photo Centre’, than at home. Working alongside his father for many years, Sarkissian eventually decided to leave the studio and become an artist, which led to a fall-out between the two men. Reconciliation between the artist and his father is to be found in Sarkissian’s graduation project for Amsterdam’s Rietveld Academy: the two series Sarkissian Photo Centre and My father & I (2010). In the former, he documents his father’s shop before its final closure; in the latter, he asks his father to photograph him for the first time in the studio, in a ‘last portrait session’, and combines them with portraits of his father. This project feels as a departure from previous works, in the sense that the emotional biographic object of the site and the emotional narrative come together seamlessly. The aesthetics are more informal, as if it were a family snapshot – which it of course is. Although Sarkissian usually shies away from depicting humans, the portrait series reconfirms a professional and a blood tie between the men. It fixes the present in order to remember that legacy.
While Sarkissian often works on lost and evacuated urban space, his most recent project, Istory (2011), realised during a residency in Istanbul, turns to the charged and cluttered interiors of libraries and archives. As a Syrian Armenian in Turkey, Sarkissian felt nervous photographing books related to Armenia and Armenians. His discomfort with the historical and the political gravitas is reflected in the photos, which feel cramped and suffocating. We never see the titles of the books, only the mere volume of history – which is also Hrair Sarkissian’s history – undisclosed.
Nat Muller is a curator and critic based in Rotterdam