‘Blind Dates’ Exhibition Opens in New York


A section of the mixed media installation Building Blocks by Xurban Collective (Guven Incirlioglu, Hakan Topal and Mahir Yavuz)

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — The “Blind Dates Project” exhibition of 13 new art projects dealing with Armenians, Turks and other peoples and cultures of the Ottoman Empire opened on the evening of November 18 at Pratt Manhattan Gallery, a public art gallery affiliated with the Pratt Institute. Several hundred people attended the public opening reception, which featured Nina Katchadourian and Ahmet Ögüt’s AH-HA performance project.

The two artists completed the exchange of the letter “a” in each of their names as a somewhat whimsical but symbolic way of linking their lives. Katchadourian is of Armeno-Finnish-Swedish descent, while Ögut is a Kurd from Diyarbakir based in Amsterdam and Istanbul. An attorney, Sergio Munoz Sarmiento, from the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts supervised and legalized the ceremony in the presence of a crowd of spectators. The two agreed eventually, most likely upon the death of one of the new “couple,” to exchange the letter “h,” also commonly shared. As both of their names already have these letters, the exchange is invisible in a practical sense. It is a parody of sorts alluding to forfeited historical treaties and agreements. The artists, previously strangers to each other till they were match-made by the curators of the exhibition, explained their motivation for establishing this rapport as follows: “Between ethnic groups or cultures that have been at odds, there is often the expectation that there will be a visible way to differentiate between them, when this is in fact very complicated and often untrue. The invisibility of the gesture is therefore central to this project, and at the center of the concept.”

Avatars of Yerevan (animation video and paintings on paper by Karine Matsakian and Sona Abgarian)

Many of the displayed projects at the exhibition deal with the predicament of Armeno-Turkish relations. Nearly 30 curatorially-paired artists and practitioners of other disciplines such as architecture, dance, history and music were involved in producing new works for the international exhibition, which is transnational in nature. The majority of the participants are from Armenia, Bosnia, Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey — in other words, people who can trace their ancestry, often in complex and indirect ways, to the now defunct multicultural geography of the former empire. Also, through local participation, such as that of New York-based choreographer, Aaron Mattocks, who poses as the ghost of Arshile Gorky in Aram Jibilian’s photo installation titled “Glass House,” the exhibition creates linkages beyond the region. In this way, it also comments on the cosmopolitan nature of diasporas.

During the process of preparation for this exhibition, “Blind Dates” encounters, workshops and events took place over the past few years in far flung cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Sharjah, Yerevan, Van and Venice. The “Blind Dates Project,” subtitled “New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire,” is an attempt to reexamine in new ways “contentious historical accounts/events and their lingering effect on life today.” Most of the art works exhibited challenge dominant ways of looking and thinking about identity, nation-states and art history.

Six major American art publications, along with the Mirror-Spectator, sent their representatives to attend the opening, so there should be good coverage of this event in the international art press. A majority of the participants in the “Blind Dates Project” were present in New York at the inauguration of the exhibition and many were to participate in a roundtable discussion on their experiences in these recent attempts at artistic “research” and collaboration on November 20 titled “From Rupture to Rapture?” It was moderated by Radhika Subramaniam, director and chief curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design.

The “Blind Dates Project” is directed and co-curated by Neery Melkonian with Defne Ayas. Melkonian, based in New York, is an experienced curator, art critic and educator, as is Ayas, who works as a director of programs for Arthub Asia and as an art history instructor at New York University in Shanghai. Ayas felt that with this installment of the “Blind Dates” process, “something very significant has begun and is gaining momentum here, through the hard work and dedication of all parties involved. This includes artists and curators, as well as the unprecedented support of an American cultural institution and several visionary art patrons. Now we need to devise ways to spread this ‘cure/medicine.’” She and Melkonian envisage that the exhibition will later have its own publication, and perhaps even a documentary film. The exhibition will travel to various parts of the US and the world, where with each venue the exhibit will be reformulated and expand, spurring questioning and discussion about the Ottoman legacy, identity and contemporary art.

Close-up of one tile from Navelstone, ceramic tile sculpture by Linda Ganjian and Elif Uras

Melkonian felt that “we succeeded in creating a platform, a physical space, independent of the strings attached that normally come with exhausted agendas and fixed ideologies. We brought together artists, and sometimes non-artists, together under one roof to explore complex issues pertaining to this geography without resorting to quick and formulaic solutions but by simply talking with one another, which is crucial for establishing true dialogue. More importantly, after decades of interruption, the ‘visual’ takes precedence here. A window has been opened from which the ‘NOW,’ or our present moment, is examined.”

She added that the intent was “not to ‘illustrate’ but to ‘illuminate’ life — a necessary existential practice that has a long tradition in human history starting with cave paintings/dwellers. In the case of modern Armenians, this tradition was once interrupted with the Ottoman rupture, then again with the Soviet rupture; and there are several eruptions in-between, including political strife in places like Iran and Lebanon. So you can say that this is a reclaiming of that loss of visual articulation. We live in a world where the visual has taken over with new technologies — the Internet and media dissemination — and in order not to vanish in this phenomenon of our times, one needs to put forth or reinvent new or relevant visual vocabularies.”

The exhibition will be accessible until February 12, 2011, from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, email exhibits(at)pratt.edu, or visit www.pratt.edu/exhibitions.

“Solemnity” video projection by Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian with Anahid Kassabian