Mekhitar Garabedian – Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there eng

pieter van bogaert

Here, and always already elsewhere.

Mekhitar Garabedian’s Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there.

for ‘Werktank’, 2011

(lees verder in het Nederlands)

Where to start? You’re standing in the middle of an installation that consists of five videos of various lengths, looped continuously on five screens. Five monitors are arranged haphazardly in the space. Not newfangled flatscreens—near-immaterial, disappearing into the wall like a painting—but of the stocky, squat variety, the kind that calls up the heydays, the very beginnings of video art. You start with a long pan. Take stock of the atmosphere. You’re awash in images and sounds of a city. You scan for a benchmark, a point of departure: a language, a monument, some advertising, a license plate. You register skin color, age, the activities of people. You read subtitles. You start with the translation, then pick up the headphones to listen to the original. In the mean time you’re scanning the text in the brochure you got at the entrance: the end (the explanation, the afterthought) that arrives at the beginning (the entrance, the welcome desk, the reception area). The images are from Beirut. The artist follows his mother through the Armenian quarter. You’re familiar with some of the artist’s work, whose Armenian parents have been living in the city for a while. You recognize motifs from his work: diaspora, history, family, language, image, memory. You try to contextualize these fragments, place them within a narrative frame. You construct a history, an aim, an ending—some kind of closure for the work.
You think laterally. You look for an ending and a beginning simultaneously. Or an ending as well as a beginning. An ending as beginning. You’re always already in the midst of things. But you have to draw a line somewhere. Hence the search for a history, a story, an entity, an identity. An ending, you left behind. But what history? And what moment within that history? 1915? The genocide? The dispersal of a people? 1975? The civil war? Yet another displacement? Or start at the beginning after all? At what is still to come? Something to look forward to? But which beginning then? The moment when Armenia will be united once again? And the Armenians have returned home? Or perhaps the day when Beirut will be whole again? And the looming threat dissipated?
You start with the artist. That way you always end up in the middle, enmeshed. In 1915 he wasn’t born yet. Same goes for 1975. And the reunification, the recovery—it will always remain lodged in the future. Then you’re free to start from a place instead of a moment. Aleppo in Syria, perhaps, which is where he was born in 1977. Or Ghent, in Belgium, where he lives and works and has for most of his life. Or Beirut, of course, in 2010: the city he lived in once and will return to, twenty six years later, to make this collection of videos.
Or no, wait: start with yourself. In Brussels, 2008. That’s where you first saw MG’s work at an exhibition at the Beursschouwburg.[1] You remember seeing pictures. Portraits of the artist. Not self-portraits, but portraits of him. They were included in his exhibition even though he didn’t make them himself—as if they were created by a spectre. As if the artist stepped outside of his body. The photographs were taken by CB (you remember—apologies for this bracketed tangent—a portrait of MG as CB, but that’s another story, another history, another moment, another place, another end, another beginning).[2] The portraits show MG asleep. There are nine, made over the course of nine years. Nine different moments, nine different images, nine different people. Nine moments of passage, too: from the end (of the day) to the beginning (of a new one).
You remember more pictures: of backs of photographs (come to think of it, the shots of the sleeping MG also show a lot of backs, trifles, overflow, a tuft of hair or a shoulder poking out from under the sheets). There are scribbles on those reverse sides that refer to the image on the front—to what is invisible in the here and now. They deal with what once was. You remember another picture, another portrait. It is a photograph in a video. A family picture from a long bygone time and place: Beirut, 1963. The photograph is scratched and creased—a picture in decay, a ruin the artist restores in the video. Off camera (as if on the flip side of the photograph) you can hear a family: voices of happy people, an echo of the happy people in the picture. They’re singing “Happy Birthday” in five languages: Armenian, Arabic, English, French, and Dutch. These are the languages of the family. Memories of history. Yesterday brought into the present, restored.
More photographs. An entire book’s worth: M. et moi (2008). Images culled from the archives of MG and CB—the book as archive. A joint portrait of MG and (as?) CB. A portrait as collection. One of many collections (as portraits) strewn throughout this oeuvre. The library where he plants parts of his own archive, for instance (Library, 2007). Or the song books he makes and deposits in a church (Yerkaran (Song Book) 1890-1923, 2006). The spoken dictionary (Pararan (Dictionary), 2006). The photographs of his mother are part of a collection that keeps returning. These are archives and you know the archive’s problematic is tied to both the ending (or rather, the never-ending) and the beginning (eternal regression).[3] How do you present such a thing? With a prelude, an introduction, an epigraph, a citation that sets the tone for what is to come. Like in the text he let you read, a collection of quotations: words and sentences that prepare what is to come—a text constantly starting (anew).[4]

But you digress. You have to return to Beirut. That’s where you were going to start, in the summer of 2010. And to do so, you have to go to Mechelen, in Flanders, in the winter of 2011. The exhibition is titled Multiple Solitude. The name is taken from a book by Paul Virilio. So is the title of the work you want to address: Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there—also a Virilio quote, who appropriated it himself from Gogol. The first title was picked by De Werktank, the production house responsible for mounting the exhibition. The second one was chosen by MG, whose work is produced by De Werktank.
So: Multiple Solitude. The exhibition is a collection, the budding archive—the portrait—of a relatively new production platform. It clusters around notions such as personality, memory, history, the past. The same themes return in Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there, the five videos for which MG traveled to Beirut with his mother (and grandmother and CB) in order to record her personality, her memories, her history, and her past there, on site. All those videos together constitute a collection and a portrait. But a portrait of whom? Of what? Of a city: Beirut. Of a neighborhood: the Armenian quarter in eastern Beirut. Of a person: MG’s mother, who lived in that quarter until the start of the civil war. Of a medium: MG, the artist—always present yet always off-screen. That medium, that invisible presence, is a spectral artist. “He,” and you’re quoting his mother in this video, “wanted to come to Beirut to photograph my memories.”
And here—allow me—you make another little detour. To Ghent, summer of 2007. The artist asked his mother to read his future in the grounds of a cup of coffee every other day. Forty cups with the sediments fixated inside and seventeen serving trays, the explanation written on them and read onto tape by the mother, are now part of his (or should I say their?) work.[5] The mother as medium, as an invisible spectral artist who exists outside the frame. It points to a family tradition to image the past—memory—because the coffee cups of course never show the future as it is still to come, but always the future as it has been thought, in the past tense. The future as the future once was. And for that you have to go to Beirut—that was your goal, from the start. The city of her youth, of his first years. The city of broken promises, of ghosts and ruins, of what could have been. And among those ruins: a neighborhood, houses, people, visitors.
Beirut is a hospitable city. Always has been. It is the city of elsewhere, an elsewhere woven into the city’s many names. Beirut is not only the “Pearl of the Orient, Garden Without Fences, Land of Welcome and Tolerance, The Playground of the Middle East, Le Pays du Miel et de L’encens, Land of Milk and Honey.” It is also the “Paris of the Orient, Switzerland of the Middle East, Hong Kong of the Levant, Window on the West, Gateway to the East, Crossroads of Civilization, A Crazy Quilt of Minorities.” It is “A Trojan Horse, City in Crisis, A Country Held Hostage, A City That Will Not Surrender, The Impossible City, An Open Wound, The Open Heart of the Arab World, Hell by the Sea, Lebanam, Une Ville Qui Refuse de Mourir, Mille Fois Morte, Mille Fois Revécue.”[6]
This city is like a siren call. It is the city that gets under your skin. The city to return to—the eternal return within his work. The ghost town that keeps haunting him. It is where he made these videos. Or rather, this work in progress. This anti-video, which is also an ante-video: a video to come, a work-as-return, a revenant. And so this installation, this portrait of a mother, becomes a portrait of the work that has been and the work that is yet to come. A video about a city as work in progress. An installation as a city. A ghost town.
You recognize MG’s many languages in this video, in this city: Arabic, Armenian, English, French, Dutch. It is a cosmopolitan work. A work of tongues and translations. That translating, that is the artist’s task: he is the one who translates, who decides what will and will not be translated, who thinks of subtitles and captions for images. Some of the passages he chooses to translate seem trivial: things that could be classified as leftovers, detritus (and yet the act of classification itself negates that status: inclusion into the archive means inscribing them with the force of meaning). Other passages that remain untranslated breed frustration. Some of the subtitles appear unmoored from spoken text, like the memories of an invisible subject, scribbles at the bottom of the image. Or on the rear. Or in the margins. Confusion of center and periphery.
These details, these trivia, these leftovers, that detritus are what you carry with you everywhere; these are the characteristics that end up shaping your personality. These trivial things—already key in the video MG (2006), in which the artist attempts to mimic himself in front of a mirror but to do so relies on the example (the mirror image) of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Baisers Volés—are what turn this portrait of the city, the mother, the artist, of diaspora, into a mirror. When you enter the vortical space of this installation, when you become part of this image, when you step through the mirror, you become part of a process. Of a work in progress. It constitutes changing, shifting, becoming other. Becoming Armenian (“We are all Hrant Dink / We are all Armenian” is printed in Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, and English on the posters MG recycled after the assassination of the eponymous Turkish-Armenian journalist in 2007). That’s you. A stranger in your own body. Here, and always already elsewhere.

– transl. Yasmine Van Pee

[1] You choose to use the initials and avoid pronouncing the actual name. Mekhitar. Checked or free “e”? Hard or soft “k”? Long or short “a”? Do you pronounce the “i”? Garabedian? With an “i” or with “dj”? Voiceless Flemish “g”? Velar French “g”? English? (Or Armenian perhaps, or Arabic? And what might that sound like then?).
[2] Respectively: Mekhitar Garabedian and Céline Butaye, Intimacy is being angry and it doesn’t relate to anything or anyone, because no one is inside of you with your language to understand (2008), installation of 9 photographs; and Mekhitar Garabedian, Portrait as/by C.B. (2006), photograph and text.
[3] Derrida addresses the theme in Archive Fever (orig. Mal d’Archive). The table of contents of that book, by the way, is remarkably similar to the one Garabedian used for his contribution to Code, issue 8 (Winter 08/09): 10-11.
[4] Mekhitar Garabedian, “Words are friends: In bad times they keep you company,” A Prior Magazine #20 (2010): 39-77.
[5] Their work? Broader than merely the collaboration between artist and mother, this also points to the collaboration with the artist’s father (Agheg, 2003) and of course also to the numerous collaborations with the forementioned, the ever-returning C.B.
[6] Much thanks to Jayce Salloum, who enumerated these and more of Beirut’s monikers in: Felix: A Journal of Media Arts and Communication vol. 2, n° 1 (1995): 317.