Life-Sized Photographs Revealing the Wounds of Conflict to Be Presented in First Mid-Career Survey of Syrian-Armenian Artist Hrair Sarkissian
The Exhibition, "The Other Side of Silence," an International Co-Production, Features Major New Commissions and Significant Works from the Past 15 Years of the Artist’s Career
Last Seen, 2018-2021. Series of 50 frames archival inkjet prints, embossed; 40 x 50 cm each. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.
The first mid-career survey of work by London-based Syrian-Armenian artist Hrair Sarkissian—one of the foremost conceptual photographers of our time—opens 30 October 2021 at Sharjah Art Foundation. Taking audiences on an expansive journey through the hallowed squares of Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus, across the skies above Palmyra and over the snow-covered post-industrial landscapes of modern day Armenia, The Other Side of Silence brings together two major new commissions by the artist and more than a dozen of his most significant bodies of work from the past 15 years.
Captivated by the possibilities of the medium, Sarkissan has long worked with analogue photography, using a large-format camera to produce life-sized photographs—a medium that Sarkissian has noted enables the thrill and experience that 'chance' plays in capturing time in an age that is over-saturated with digital cameras and hyper-saturated image culture. Spanning photography, moving image, sculpture, sound and installation, Sarkissian’s practice creates meditative dreamscapes in some moments; deathscapes in others—sites where the muted voice, absent from the frame, is temporarily offered space to breathe.
The Other Side of Silence reveals the artist’s timely exploration of the histories of disappearance; the architecture of violence and that which exists in the interstices, withheld from official record or history. In his earliest work in the exhibition, Unfinished (2006), Sarkissian presents, for the first time, his long-researched photo-serial on the decaying and uncompleted monuments of the contemporary Middle East. Presented alongside this is Last Seen (2018-2021), the artist’s most ambitious project to date. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, these 50 photographs represent the lives of families whose loved ones unexpectedly “disappeared” during times of conflict. Sarkissian spent time with families with an aim to resuscitate the memory of those individuals ‘lost’ to history—withheld from life or death, in Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, Kosovo and Lebanon. A single click presents the site of their last appearance—sites that became memorials in their own right.
In Between (2006), a series of 16 images of Armenian landscapes blanketed in snow, reflects the artist’s attempts to reconcile the memories passed down from his grandfather’s Armenian heritage and his life as a refugee in Syria, where he would learn the practice of photography working in his father’s photo studio as a youth. This relationship is explored in Sarkissian’s photo installation, My Father and I (2010). After establishing the first colour photo lab in Syria in 1979, Hrair’s father Vartan had hoped his son would take on the family business. Instead, Hrair moved from Damascus to Paris and subsequently Amsterdam. In 2010, Hrair Sarkissian invited his father to stage ‘the last photo shoot’, anticipating the inevitable closure of ‘Dream Color’—a marker of the inevitable death of an art form.
Held in the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection, the series Execution Squares (2008) depicts public squares in three Syrian cities which were historically used for public hangings. While the aftermath of one such execution, witnessed by the artist as a child, remains as a memory ingrained in his mind’s eye, Sarkissian revisits and photographs these sites of violence in the stillness of dawn revealing the fragile paradox between the physical beauty of these spaces and the political and social realities which they obscure. The resultant works act to both mark and erase the horror.
The exhibition also includes Final Flight (2018-2019), his multimedia commission for Sharjah Biennial 14, which explores the story of the endangered Northern Bald Ibis through print, film and sculpture. Efforts to conserve the last colony discovered in the Syrian dessert near Palmyra were constrained by the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and the birds finally disappeared around the time Palmyra was destroyed in 2014.
Deathscape (2021), the artist’s first sound installation, documents the work of forensic archaeologists as they excavate mass graves in Spain and unearth the legacy of the country’s civil war and its fascist dictatorship.
‘Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs tell stories that, while often deeply personal, reveal to us, as viewers, the universal truths hidden beneath the surface of his works,’ noted Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation. ‘The Foundation’s relationship with the artist dates back to 2009, when his now-iconic series Execution Squares was exhibited and acquired for the Collection. We have gone on to present this and other major works by Sarkissian in Sharjah Biennials 10 and 14. It has been rewarding to follow his developing practice over these past years and to now continue our support through this international platform, in collaboration with our partners, Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm and the Bonnefanten in Maastricht.’
‘We live in an era where social justice has been enabled through the medium of photography and its mass proliferation. The act of re-authoring history to reflect the diversity of human memory and lived experience is at the heart of Hrair Sarkissian’s practice,’ said the exhibition’s curator, Dr Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator at the Foundation. ‘In Sarkissian’s majestic images and his expanded practice, which has grown to encompass sound, and embodied video and installation, the scene before us may at first seem quiet, but if we look twice, or more; one starts to feel unsettled—within them is a spectral quality that awakens something emotional inside of us.’
Exhibition Organisation and Additional Venues
Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence is organised by Sharjah Art Foundation, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and the Bonnefanten, Maastricht. The exhibition is curated by Dr Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation; Dr Theodor Ringborg, Artistic Director, Bonniers Konsthall; and Stijn Huijts, Artistic Director, the Bonnefanten. After its presentation at SAF, the exhibition travels to Bonniers Konsthall, where it will be on view 26 April to 19 June 2022, then to the Bonnefanten Museum, where it will be on view from 27 November 2022 to 14 May 2023.
The Sharjah presentation of Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence marks the release of the artist’s first major monograph, edited by Kholeif and Ringborg, published by Bonniers Konsthall in collaboration with Lenz Press and designed by Hans Gremmen. The publication features original essays and texts by exhibition co-curators, Kholeif, Ringborg and Huijts, as well as Hoor Al Qasimi (Sharjah Art Foundation President and Director), Marianne Hirsch (Professor, Columbia University), Hannah Feldman (Associate Professor, Northwestern University), Todd Reisz (architect and writer) and Vali Mahlouji (curator and psychoanalyst).
Visiting the Exhibition:
Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence
Saturday, 30 October 2021–Sunday, 30 January 2022
Galleries 3 and 4, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, Sharjah
Admission is free. Advanced book is required at sharjahart.org.
About the Artist
Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs utilize personal memory, research and human encounter as a way to navigate stories that official histories are unable to tell. Blurring the lines between large-format photography, moving image, sound and installation, Sarkissian produces large-scale serial works, which engage the viewer in a reflective consideration of what lies behind the surface of the image.
Sarkissian’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2020); Davis Museum, Wellesley College, US (2017); Sursock Museum, Beirut (2017); KADIST, San Francisco (2017); Fondazione Cari Spezia, Italy (2015); Mosaic Rooms, London (2015); and Darat Al Funun, Amman (2013). Among his group exhibitions are The British Art Show (2021); Unsettled Objects, Sharjah Art Foundation (2021); Trembling Landscapes, Eyemuseum, Amsterdam (2020); Inhabiting the Mediterranean, Valencian Museum of Modern Art (IVAM), Valencia (2019); 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Sharjah Biennial 14 (2019); The New Europe, Brighton Photo Biennial (2018); IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT, Fotohof, Salzburg, Austria (2018); No Looking Back, Okay? Maribor Art Gallery, Maribor (2018); Flatlands, Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Manila (2017); Age of Terror, Imperial War Museum, London (2017); 10th Bamako Encounters, African Biennial of Photography, Bamako (2015); 56th Venice Biennial (2015); Time, Conflict, Photography, Tate Modern, London (2014); and Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany (2015); Arab Express, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2012); Lines of Control, Herbert F Johnson Museum at Cornell University, New York (2012); DRIFT: An exploration of Urban and Suburban Landscapes, Sharjah Art Foundation (2011); Facing Mirrors, Photography Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece (2011); Sharjah Biennial 10 (2011); 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Greece (2011); Out of Place, Tate Modern, London (2011); Out of Place, Darat al Funun, Amman (2011); Breaking News, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Italy (2010); 21st International Photography Meeting, Thessaloniki (2010); Disorientation II: The Rise & Fall of Arab Cities, Sharjah Art Foundation, Manarat Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi (2009); and 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009).
Sarkissian’s work can be found in the collections of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, US; Mori Museum, Tokyo; Tate Modern, London; Sharjah Art Foundation; UAE; Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Italy; Fondazione Cari Spezia, Italy; The Khalid Shoman Collection, Amman; and The Farjam Collection, Dubai.
Sarkissian’s awards include the Abraaj Group Art Prize, Dubai (2012) and a Steenbergen Stipendium, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2010).
He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam (2010). Born in 1973 in Damascus, he lives and works in London.