Gender Troubles, Academia gallery, Yerevan, 2008
This latest interview considers the notion of the archive from another perspective, from the perceptions (status, position and role) of woman within contemporary Armenian society, particularly in the art context. While the question of the archive does not appear directly in this interview, it exists as a reflection found within the formulation of models/approaches in the recent Soviet past (gender-equality, de-gendering) or during the 1990’s Armenian woman artists’ practice of “speaking through the body” or by the fact that contemporary Armenian art institutions mostly belongs to the men comparing with the passive attitude of the women art professionals. These are some of the issues at the center of Susanna Gyulamiryan’s1 curatorial research and practice during the last five years.
Interview with Susanna Gyulamiryan.
1. Susanna, in the last years your curatorial and theoretical research has been exploring and presenting women’s contemporary artistic practices, and with an Armenian focus. How do you articulate your position as a curator and art theoretician to initiate this research, taking into consideration women’s issues in Armenian contemporary art practices are still just on the way to being analyzed and formulated?
2. You also are a lecturer at the Fine Arts Department of Armenian Open University teaching Cultural Studies and Gender Studies at the Yerevan State University, Department of Cultural Studies. What methods do you use in the practical work to connect your project and research with it?
I will answer to your two questions together as they are connected to each other. Perhaps it has been five years that I’ve consequently reflected on the works of female artists involved in the Armenian art context. In general, I am trying to work from the point of view of the public presentation and engagement with the “woman issue”, the many difficulties to realize exhibitions and presentations, and I publish texts which comment and study these questions. There is no support to develop this area, neither financial nor human resources from the foundations or official structures. The means are so few that it only is possible to keep these efforts alive by incredible strength and inextinguishable enthusiasm. To understand this indifference towards the feminist discourses and gender issues occurs as well in art, maybe it is necessary for a short introduction reflecting back to the tendencies and approaches still formulated during the Soviet years. It is known that “de-gendering” as well as “de-nationalization” was part of the Soviet Union’s universalist ideology. This was apparent in the sense found in the first proposal of the “Soviet man” definition, in which specific characteristics of both gender-roles and national models were erased. According to the concept, the principle of equality found its place in the ideology of socialism, with the idea of the equality between the genders solved in the Soviet Union by the “upper” powers, while those “below” made their attempts by social activities underground, and were persecuted or just missing completely. What is concerning about the principle of gender-equality is that it is known these kinds of slogans had been transformed exactly into the Soviet context. So while in the public sphere (about the political there was no conversation) there was equality, in the practice it was a fictive engagement between woman and man. This was discovered especially during Gorbachev’s time, when he officially announced that there is no need that the woman will put efforts to come out in the public sphere, as her main problem is to bring out the private, the question of household chores, the care of the children and so on. That look liked in the nineteenth-century publication of Mrs. Ellis’s The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide which was a warning to all women not to be tempted by the aspiration for becoming too progressive, as women must be satisfied by the principle of knowing only a little of everything, but it was not obligatory for women to gain profound knowledge in any sphere.
One of the first steps in the struggle for women’s liberation and rights was the woman’s desire to be involved in the masculine sphere, and this is of current importance nowadays as well. Women in general still speak about their rights referencing the model of equality with men. In this sense, as the stalwarts of difference theory state that the whole previous history and culture is built in accordance to the masculine models, selection, taste and preferences, the world is masculinized and a woman should thus contradict the males’ standards and archetypes by a female position, as in “feminine” or “womanly”. The logic being that without this definite vision of the world the women face the risk to loose their individuality.
This concept can be observed in the art context. It was typical for Soviet Armenian women to be like a man, to create as a man and to appropriate all visual codes suggested by the men who found their place in the art history. Only during the post-Soviet period a certain turn happened. Armenian woman artists started to speak on their own with their own rules, about their own body by way of their own body (the more popular experiment) sometimes using very clearly the feminist strategies. It was mostly visible in 1990’s. This positive direction had its deficiency. These attempts were usually unconscious with the Armenian woman artists, in the sense that it did not have a development as a consequent strategy, as a way of the struggle when the “personal is political”. So there is a need to make efforts into the direction of the study of the feminist theories and art practices. My own efforts and intention are to include in the teaching educational programs the feminist theoreticians as well as art theoreticians, theories and so on. Gender studies subjects are a necessary part in the educational programs, and I was intending to respond to their absence. I would like to say unfortunately, that this attempt in the State University at the cultural study’s department collapsed, as the class was considered [for State University’s professors] as an extra and unuseful. It is not surprising, if we take into the consideration the fact that so-called “Cultural studies” are perceived by the local (State University’s) professionals as a cultural study of the Babylon period or Ancient Greece.
Cosmetic, Nana Manucharyan, “Gender Troubles”, Academia gallery, 2008
This attempt was much more successful in the Armenian Open University, Department of Fine Arts due to the dean Samvel Baghdasaryan, who never disturbs but always promotes the importance of these kind of practices in the educational projects. But the time given for the Cultural Studies class is too limited for more wider researches. But in any case, it provided an opportunity to use the feminist theories and gender studies in the art practices of student-artists. The first attempt by me was the Gender troubles exhibition in 2008, which particularly involved students I considered positive as enough problems were being articulated. We worked collectively even organizing something like an extra classes around the gender issues. But here the problem seems obvious, in the sense that my challenge as a curator directed to the student-artists to involve them in the Gender troubles. Platforms international workshops which will take place in April, 2009 and attention, brought were no reactions locally i.e. the previous student experiment remained only on a unique attempt and the inspiration disappeared. It means despite the efforts an ideological basis does not take shape and develop. More surprisingly even artists considered very activist gave tribute to the conservative thinking, arguing for difference between the concept of “sex” and “gender”. This means that the issue is not seen as one with the socio-cultural origin but simply as a “natural” status-quo norm. Even non-governmental women organizations in post-Soviet Armenia so far refuse the opportunity of real civic, social women movements in Armenia. There are a lot of women NGOs in post-Soviet Armenia which emphasize only problems of domestic violence and introduction of the western feminist practice often brings a mechanical duplication with disregard to the local economic peculiarities, labor conditions, and cultural and national individuality factors. In this sense the attempts from the outside to locate western feminism in the local context can be called “inter-passive” according to the definition of Slavoj Žižek. It means not to reflect the “troubling dualism” in the social and cultural contexts (self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, masculine/feminine, civilized/savage, real/unreal, active/passive, God/person) which gets systemically harmonized to establish power over women, the working people, everyone that is constructed as the “Other”…
On the other hand it’s necessary to mention that in the Armenian artistic context of 1990s there was a wide-spread paradigm of “speaking through the body” by women artists. Body-art and video-performance transformed and played with accepted codes of the naked body and representation of an aesthetic of pain. This then changed into the new themes such as (for example) the woman’s tabooed homosexuality. But in terms of “speaking about body”, while the latter becomes an object of examination and epistemological endeavor, it is still missing for more consequent and long-term work. But it is interesting to mention that one of the male artists perhaps approached this question more consequently: to speak about body “speaking about body”. That was the Human Doors project, where the artist invited me to collaborate as a curator. Monthly consequent work together on the project gave me an opportunity to write a large article about the gender issues which are central in the project, observing also problems of post-colonial and queer identities.
Human Doors, Raffi Davtyan, Avant-garde folk Music Club, Yerevan, 2007
But despite the efforts of one or two persons to change the situation to this direction, it was not enough. There are no resources, neither financial nor human, to support the direction to realize and analyze studies, to work with the archives, to refine large-scale educational projects, especially for the feminist and gender-oriented studies. What has been done has a very formal notion, essentialist, with focusing the attention to the family violence and various monitorings, which are implemented for example by the gender center attached to UNDP in addition to the many organizations. It is the result of avoiding discourses and often not being aware about them.
3. Since 2007 you are President of a contemporary institution, the Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory(ACSL). What considerations brought you to take this initiative?
It is a good question to mention the fact that the contemporary Armenian art context (institutions, foundations and so on) is largely in the hands of men and with masculine privilege. They prefer to collaborate with women-professionals who have access to resources abroad (mostly the West) or with the women from the local art context who take a role of the secondary “doer” in the organization of the institutions. The boards of the all the local art institutions are men because of the simple reason that in these kinds of initiatives the woman professionals remain passive. Despite my attempts, it wasn’t possible for me to collaborate with these institutions because of this male domineering attitude and “asymmetric” relations.
It will be very nice if in these kinds of initiatives the women professionals involved in the Armenian art context become more active. On the other hand, when the Armenian art institutions are led by women Armenian art workers who are living abroad or from diaspora, their attitude is not less colonial as it is borrowed from the same upper attitude to the subaltern, who is in the role of the man from the “third world” obeying the rules of colonization.
Surprisingly the women of the local context are much more inclined to obey this, maybe because of the same deficit of independent initiative, that the woman has to serve, which was the model formulated over many long years. It is important for a woman not to use the models of leading, precisely these masculine power models. In my new process of the work (the institution was founded in 2007) I did not manage to involve the women in the institutional work - my collaborators are men, so while this is still the standard relation it is now also paradoxical.
- Susanna Gyulamiryan is an art critic, the curator of the numerous contemporary art projects. Her current field of interests covers the philosophical, epistemological, and aesthetical representation of the “other” in visual arts and aesthetics, and specificities of the “feminine” in contemporary art. She is a lecturer on Gender Studies in the Department of Cultural Studies at Yerevan State University. She also gives courses on Cultural Studies in the Department of Fine Arts at Yerevan Open University (International Academy of Education). Since 2007 she is the president of the Contemporary Institution Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory (ACSL).