Political art: Imagined Futures

With contemporary art so deeply involved with the self, drunk on the vanity of the image, and so intertwined with the world of money, glitz and glamour, it is refreshing to come across an exhibition that is not afraid to be political.

Hrair Sarkissian is involved with big explosive narratives. The Syrian born artist’s work is social theatre; at once part of a rich panorama of contemporary Arab art that, not surprisingly, has politics at its core.

Born in Damascus in 1973 of Armenian heritage, Sarkissian uses photography to re-evaluate larger historical, religious and socio-political narratives that address his mixed background.

For instance in Homesick (2014) Sarkissian destroys a scaled replica of his family home in Damascus – on one screen an 11-minute time-lapsed silent video presents the demolition of the model. We are not informed of the cause. All the viewer is shown is the slow, theatrical collapse of the building.

Simultaneously, an eight-minute video shows the artist wielding a sledgehammer – the lens focusing on his face and torso. Once more the target of his blows is not presented. It is immaterial.

The building represents the space where the artist belongs, a container for his memories and his family’s collective identities. Sarkissian contemplates the consequences of what it means to expect the worst. He examines what it could mean to fast-forward the present, acknowledge loss and begin reshaping a collapsed history, before the event.

In Front Line (2007) Sarkissian draws on his Armenian identity to contemplate the predicament of a people and place with an unknown political destiny through a series of previously unseen photographs.

We see the war-torn enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Throughout the centuries the claims over this territory have shifted, the borders have been remapped, yet the repression of the region’s indigenous Armenians has persisted. Over a million of its Azeri and Armenian inhabitants remain displaced even today.

The photographs depict 12 deserted landscapes and 17 portraits of those who fought during the 1988-1994 war. The images are haunting and raise questions about the reality of war and the contradictions inherent within struggles for national independence.

Hrair Sarkissian – Imagined Futures is at The Mosaic Rooms in London until 25 April 2015.

 Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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