The Armenian pavilion, hosted in a Venetian monastery that has sheltered the culture for 300 years, won the Golden Lion this year.
“The botanical gardens at Salerno were in a poor state after decades of dereliction, and when they started renovating them, they found strange wild plants and exotic flowers blooming,” said Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, an Armenian-Argentine artist based in Berlin. She displayed her new installation, Treasures, at this year’s Venice Biennale, with 17 other, mainly diaspora artists (www.armenity.net), in the Armenian pavilion at the Mekhitarist order’s monastery of St Lazarus of the Armenians, on a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon. She had recreated a manuscript, a compilation of folk medicine recipes her great-grandmother wrote down in a notebook in Buenos Aires more than 70 years ago.
Her plant analogy illustrates a reconstruction of Armenian identity with perhaps three quarters of the 10 million Armenians scattered all over the world: a national identity is no longer possible, but is a universal Armenian identity possible, similar to that which Jews have preserved over two thousand years?
The St Lazarus congregation of the Mekhitarist Fathers, a monastic order of the Armenian rite within the Catholic Church (separate from the Apostolic Armenian Church) has been developing an Armenian identity based on faith and culture since its foundation on its Venetian island in 1715. While it has been active in the Armenian homeland, its main work has been in diaspora communities. “What was new about Fr Mekhitar was his idea of giving new life to Armenian culture through the idea of culture as the organic unity of human experience,” said Professor Alberto Peratoner, who teaches philosophy at the Triveneto theological faculty in Padua and collaborates with the order’s cultural projects.
The order flourished in the 19th century with Fr Ghevont Alishan, the diaspora writer, poet and archaeologist, who wrote several treatises on Armenia that remain masterpieces, even though he never set foot in Armenia. St Lazarus became such a prominent centre of learning that Byron went there to study classical Armenian, seven years before he went to Greece to fight in the war of independence.
Fr Hamazasp Keshishian, a St Lazarus monk, said: “Since the times of Fr Abbot Mekhitar and his disciples, the ideology of the Mekhitarist order has been to transmit our spiritual, national and cultural values to the Armenians, and complement them with those of major universal civilisations, including European ones, as well as ancient and classical civilisations and their history, assimilating them into our culture.”
The implicit premise of the Mekhitarist doctrine is universality: Armenian identity comes alive every time mass is celebrated in the Armenian rite or the language is spoken, or written in the Armenian alphabet. This can be done anywhere in the world. Unknown to most of the diaspora, this was happening centuries before the Armenian genocide of the 20th century.
The history, epics and legends that Armenian schoolchildren learn anywhere in the world are mostly by Mekhitarist authors. “Fr Michael Chamchian systematised the history of the Armenians in three volumes, from the foundational epics to his own times, inserting it into the world history narrative”, said Samuel Baghdassarian, director of the Collegio Armeno Moorat-Raphaël in Venice, a former Mekhitarist congregation high school turned into a cultural centre. “He was implying that the Armenian nation was as universal as the classical civilisations; the tacit religious message was that Armenian history is that of a new covenant.”
In the 20th century, as arts and sciences diversified beyond the scope of traditional monastic life, the order’s work became focused on maintaining its religious and educational activities. The Armenian exhibit won the Golden Lion at this year’s Biennale for the best national pavilion, giving new prominence to the monastery.
An imaginary country of the mind
Among its artists were Sarkis (Zabunyan), based in Paris, and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan from Istanbul. Sarkis, born in 1938, has been based in Paris for many years but draws from experience shaped as part of a minority in the young Turkish Republic; he witnessed the pogrom of 6 and 7 September 1955, when mobs attacked properties and stores owned by Greeks and some Armenians. Art critic Ruben Arevshatyan says that Sarkis draws from his memory of tragedy to create a “treasure of suffering”. His works displayed at the monastery included 30 small wooden sculptures that represent what the artist considers the 30 genocides of the modern era. They resemble totems from ancient civilisations but are not: they are symbols of an imaginary country in his mind.
Büyüktaşçıyan, born in 1984, still lives in Istanbul. Whereas Sarkis’s art is evocative, Büyüktaşçıyan’s creations show her frankly trying to hold on to her identity. She was born into a community that no longer speaks Armenian as its first language, an unprecedented development in the city that was the birthplace of modern western Armenian. Her main work at the pavilion was an installation like a large, strange typewriter: the title of a fictional book was rendered in Armenian typefaces on the inclined surface of a desk. By a mechanical device, the letters, cast in bronze, rose and fell, like a keyboard. The prominent Armenian characters and imaginary English book name (Letters from Lost Paradise) echoed Milton and Byron as well as her attachment to her own culture.
Other artists at the pavilion, curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg, included Hrair Sarkissian from London, with Unexposed, photos of the hidden Armenians of Turkey, descendants of genocide survivors who converted to Islam and stayed behind. There was also Nigol Bezjian, based in Beirut, with a video installation — Witnessed — dedicated to Daniel Varoujan, a graduate of the Moorat-Raphaël high school and a great poet who was among 250 Armenians arrested in Istanbul on 24 April 1915. He was murdered a few months later, aged 31.
The visitors and activities generated by the show have stimulated new educational and cultural projects by philanthropists, intellectuals and diaspora organisations in cooperation with the Mekhitarist congregation, including a virtual learning initiative. St Lazarus could become the focal point of an Armenian renaissance. Rosana Palazyan, a Brazilian Armenian artist from Rio de Janeiro, showed weeds with quotes from botanical texts, one of which read: “They are born where they are not wanted [and] have great capacity for survival and multiplication of the species.”
"Le Monde Diplomatique," August 2015