For Armenia, the process of transition from the Soviet epoch to the new era of independent nation state was marked by serious political and social upheavals. It started from a romantic struggle for democratisation and independence, the rise of a nationalistic wave, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, severe economic crisis followed by a subsequent liberalisation of society, which also brought with itself neo-Liberal trends and neo-Capitalistic effects in socio-cultural development. In the extremely polarised post-ideological Armenian society today, it is possible to follow on different social levels, quite contradictory emotional and perceptive states which in general could be described as a striving to improve the quality of life, offering the idea of “prosperity” as a conception for a better future, experiencing at the same time a certain nostalgia towards the Socialist past. Despite the social and temporal contradictions, those consumptive programmes freely apply/manipulate the conceptions belonging to different social and political world outlooks, which when combined hardly produce an image of rational social order.

If we question what is the main sign that would indicate the shift of epochs in the post-Soviet Armenia, one of the most common answers will definitely concern the change of images. The changes of visual typology that determine the paradigm of new socio-cultural state have touched in fact all aspects of neo-Liberal cultural reality. New characters have intruded into the urban landscapes, the new buildings of neo-Capitalist “wild architecture”, the new pictorial and sculptural monuments that have come to substitute the old symbols of former ideological society, etc.

One such significant example of the substitution of imagery is the huge TV monitor in Yerevan that is displayed in exchange for Lenin’s monument at the Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square). Instead of the static idol that used to be the main ideological symbol of the Soviet epoch, representing both the conception of a “bright future” and centralised totalitarian system, now there is a visual interactive surface of dynamic imagery. Flowing together with the reflections upon the glass surfaces of new urban architecture is the continual drift of pictures appearing on the screen, creating a sense of fleetingness of time and frailty of any meta-narratives. But on the other hand, the kitschy aesthetics and content of local video clips, commercials and political advertisements assert the culturalisation logic of neo-Liberal society by reflecting the “eternal” essence of both national self-consciousness and the consumptive nature of the new society, which is in its early phase of accumulation of capital.

In that endless flow of images, it is possible to follow a general trend vectored to establish and/or define the image of the new “protagonist”, which would represent the new epoch. But the establishment of that image paradoxically leans towards the “heroic” images and the “hero-forming” technologies of the past epoch, creating a feeling of déjà vu or a sense of backward development of time and history. That queer combination of representational forms also creates a certain dichotomy in the static disposition of the “monumental” electronic device and dynamic multitudes of characters shuffling in a rush on the screen surface, trying to strike static poses but being displaced by the other potential “heroes” waiting in line.

The transformations of the image that were taking place in Armenian contemporary art were also in a certain way connected with changes in the media. The video image not only released the character from static representation, but also shifted the focus onto new aspects of the very logic of perception and formation of the image. By the mid-90s, the appearance of video in the Armenian contemporary art situation, as a new media for representation (first as a part of installations, and later as an autonomous form of art) coincided with the moment of serious reconsideration of the image of the protagonist and subjects of representation in local contemporary art productions.

Since the end of the 1980s until the mid-90s, images and subjects of the revolutionary romantic period prevailed in artistic expression. They were fraught with a zeal to announce the end of history (though judging by their avant-garde gestures and positions, it might seem that they were trying to contradict the old history with a new one) and to fill the perceptive disparity that existed in between reality and its representation, which were now substituted with qualitatively new artistic positions.
The appearance of introverted, contemplative perspectives since the beginning of the 21st century in the works and projects made by many artists belonging to different generations could be considered perhaps as a general tendency which strictly distinguishes it from the pathetic intonations of the preceding revolutionary decade, where the artists, besides changing the language of representation, were also trying to consider art as an effective instrument that was able to influence social reality.

In contrast to the evolving “rationalising” trends within neo-Liberal and neo-Conservative culturalisation logic, the new characters and subjects that started to appear in the video works of different artists were now increasingly focused on the re-readings and deconstructions of imposed (by the very same culturalisation logic) identities, psychological states, complex aesthetic, cultural and perceptional superposition, all considered from the perspective of contemporaneity.

The other important feature that distinguishes those new artistic approaches and which in fact was depicted as a main subject for this video selection, is the apparent accentuation of absurd, futile and irrational actions, contemplations and superpositions that gain different forms, different manifestations and different energetic tensions in the works that were created in the period of 1998–2006.

One of them, however, is an exception in the sense of temporal belonging. Hamlet Hovsepyan’s untitled 16mm experimental film made in 1976 (which was converted into video format and presented for the first time in 2005 at his solo exhibition in Yerevan), through the monotonous repeating motion of a man walking around a big rock, visualises the emotional tension of the stagnation of the 1970s, where absurdity of action becomes an allegory for the existential condition, and in a certain sense, the only way out from the situational deadlock. The second untitled video made by Hamlet Hovsepyan in 2006 on the basis of ideas that the artist developed in 1974, is a still image of an electric wooden pillar that was shot today exactly replicating the aesthetic and compositional principles specific to the experimental cinematography of 1970s. The only elements that purposely give away the temporal belonging of the video are the film scratches (the artificiality of which is delicately emphasised) made with a computer program. That laconic image echoes the aesthetics and spirit of the 1970s in its meaningless dramatic tension, which creates feeling of déjà vu in the context of the backward development of time.

Another author, Haroutyun Simonian, in his untitled video performance that was produced in 2004 in collaboration with Utopiana Association and Centre pour l’image contemporaine Saint-Gervais, Genève, presents another “meditative” state where the naked artist, during 20 minutes, fights with himself, trying to define the limits of the body and its movements in the social space. His desperate attempts at liberation, which in the consequence of painful falls and hard risings, creates on the one hand a sensation of total hopeless, meaningless situations, and on the other, it discloses deep existential conditions. Another movement of the state of meaninglessness is presented in Sona Abgaryan’s untitled video (2006), where the artist is moving in front of the fixed camera in a certain rhythm. These movements cannot be qualified either as dance, gymnastics, struggle (or imitation of struggle), nor as disordered neurotic convulsions. It is possible to see all these aforementioned states in one, which represents personal resistance toward the invisible, absorbing state of systemised harmony.

The meditative state could be described as purposeful, but at the same time, as an obviously futile action entrenched in idiotic manifestation. This comes out in AZAT’s Don’t Worry short video (2001), where the artist presents the simple process of blowing up a balloon, as an ironic reflection upon the social expectations of a “work of art”. Grigor Khachatryan’s untitled video (1998) presents the process of grave digging in reverse, which concludes with syllogistic speculations on the rational social understandings regarding the meaning of life, contradicting his own “idiotic” position for ratiocination. “At first, I thought I would grow up and become an artist, then I thought that I would grow into an idiot, now I think that I’ll die if I grow more. Therefore, when I die I have not become great enough. Therefore when I die, I’ll be great. Grigor Khachatryan, a name high and delightful”.

In the background of the gradual fragmentation of society, after the fall of the “last hope of an alternative social order” and the reestablishment of neo-Conservative power systems, the development of a new socio-cultural situation evolves trends of backward development, of history at a certain moment starting to evoke social thinking, a sensation of fatality and incapacity to change the binary conception of the world. But the paradox of this new era is in the persistence of past experience and the realisation of the effects that relate to the logic of the society of spectacle. But despite the persistence of that consciousness, the drama of split personality and rapture between conceptions and personal experience leads to the detonations of irrational upsurges.

The video performance Civic Commotion (2000) by David Kareyan is an explicit reflection on the split personality, viewed in the context of the backward development of history, expressed through the outburst of the irrational blind fury of a patriarchal man, as a result of bankruptcy and disability of liberating and emancipating conceptions, which had in fact affected not only the consciousness, but also the body of the patriarchal society.

Karine Matsakian, in her untitled video (2002), reflects on the conflict between the contemporary and traditional values of the world. The doll displays acts of conflict as a symbol of maternity. The interrelation of the artist and the doll represents the duality of the game, where the artist, associating herself with the contemporary world, seems to reject traditional heritage, continuing to remain at the same time a daughter and a mother.

Another example of the “meditative” process is represented in Astghik Melkonyan’s Kilikia (2002) video, where the young artist covers her naked body with arabesque style ornaments (deprived of any symbolic significance) to the tune of one of the most important romantic/patriotic Armenian songs, “Kilikia”. The automatism of process subsequently shifts the very character of the act from illusion of purposefulness to meaninglessness, repeating neurotic movements entrenched in desperation, as well as symbolic and physical disintegration of the body in the imposed stereotyped identities.

In her videos, Diana Hakobyan offers parallels between the games that we usually play in our childhood and life in society, where the person acting in the video is trying to resist by breaking the imposed social conceptions, following at the same time the rules of the game or fusing it as in a certain mystical ritual. The problem of a disparity between essence and phenomenon, which is being filled by imposed conceptions and stereotyped identities rationalised by neo-Conservative, consumptive perspectives on reality, comes out in the videos of several artists. Arman Grigorian’s What is Art and Who Creates It? (2004) presents philosophical contemplations around inconsistent combinations of ideas and objects. Ignoring the customary form of questions and answers directed to a wide audience, the artist tries to emphasise the reality that lies in between the image and text.

Hovhannes Margaryan, in his A Hammock Story (2005), reflects on the subject of image and/or identity formation regarded in the context of cultural and historical narratives. By reinterpreting those narratives through banal conversations or childish games played by adult artists who pretend themselves to be various well-known personages from art history—like Andre Breton or Russian artist Serov, or patron of art Mamontov—in the first part called “‘Bourgeoisie rushes’ on European and Russian art” (reinterpretation of Serov’s painting The Girl with Peaches), the artist makes parallels between creativity and contemporaneity, depriving at the same time the subject and the characters from their cultural and historical context. The second episode, where the philosopher tells the little girl the fairytale of the “Scarlet Flower”, presents the very mechanism of stereotype imposition. Concluding with the third episode, “March of the Proletariat across the Russian Taiga” depicts a man rhythmically walking across the snow, armed by those imposed stereotypes in a process of hopelessly searching for his unique “own way”. It is also possible in other videos to follow the persistence of impartial attitudes upon reality or cultural product or any action due to which the subject of consideration first loses its meaning and symbolic, cultural and contextual significance, and only afterwards starts to turn into a new narrative, gaining new imagery.Tigran Khachatryan’s Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous film that was one of the most significant symbols of late Soviet dissident culture and world outlook) belongs to the series of films called Garage Videos. Those films are reinterpretations of well-known movies, made by classic directors. The artist re-enacts the film, freeing it from traditional limitations of genre and 198 199 style, attaching to it through personification a certain autonomous essence, being interested as he says in the exploration of the perceptional differences of the same film by his and his parent’s generations.

Vahram Agahsian’s videos present the archaic image of late Soviet Modernist architecture or the image of the Proletarian, presented in a hazy environment, in uncertain construction. This could be perceived as showing certain nostalgic feelings about utopian projects or just anthological views of something that has already lost its significance, but also gives the viewer an opportunity to develop her/his own meaning to the presented futile images and actions.

Today social utopias and revolutionary expectations have been substituted by everyday micro-utopias and mimetic strategies. The impossibility of any direct critical positions against society based on the illusion of marginality, brought with itself the sensation of futility in regard to attempts to overcome the general logic of culturalisation. Many artists on the Armenian contemporary art scene began a process of dramatically reconsidering the role of art and the feasibility of its confrontation against the “rolling mill” of the society of spectacle.

In the artistic approaches presented, the “futility” of any critical positions with regard to the logic of neo-Conservative socio-cultural developments turns into an allegory of an existential condition, a form of creative liberation—a certain method of autonomous resistance against the backward development of history, hoping that the focus on contemporaneity will again one day turn the development of time forward. The solution to the global problem could depend, as in Sona Abgaryan’s Player 13 video, on the most unnoticeable participant, a new protagonist, which continuously contradicts her/his autonomous “glorious futility” (as the main condition of creativity) with large-scale rationalisations, imposed regulations and stereotypes.

First published: Ruben Arevshatyan, “Glorious Futility”, in: Projected Visions II, Strasbourg, apollonia european art exchanges 2009.