A Thousand Words
The quiet revelations of photographer Hrair Sarkissian
There is a quality to early morning light that drains the drama from photographs: the scenes look peaceful because they are expunged of character. No doubt it is a quality of the light, which is soft and diffuses in the first hour after dawn, before the sun is strong enough to bring highlights and shadows to a scene. But in the street photographs that form Hrair Sarkissian’s series, Execution Squares , there is no drama because there are no people and there is no traffic. We see an ugly traffic island made of badly poured concrete; a highway underpass, so low and heavy that it looks ready to crush pedestrians; an Ottoman-era clock tower stranded in a sea of cheap cement. Why photograph a city at all, if you wake so early that there are no people in your pictures? The reason is given by the title: these are squares that were used for public executions. The sequence was taken before the current revolt, but Sarkissian uses the early morning quiet to tell you everything you need to know about the Assad regime: it was not intended for people. That was never its purpose.
Sarkissian has a bleak sensibility. One might easily describe him as a dark humorist, although he is too mordant to ever raise a laugh. He is a Syrian–Armenian, born in Damascus in 1973 into a family that was driven from Anatolia in 1915. His work is often informed by biography, though in a quiet and tangential way. For instance, Istory  is a series taken in Turkish libraries showing bookcases containing the historical records of the fate of the Anatolian Armenians. Much of the world now accepts that the Ottoman military government whose rule saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire carried out a policy of genocide towards the Armenians. The Ottomans were careful bureaucrats and their records cover the years of these crimes, but the exact definition of what might be termed a massacre, or genocide, what was official state policy and what were individual crimes in the midst of a world war, has become a political argument. The truth, contained in the files in the Turkish libraries, sits silently because the truth is too difficult to explore.
It may be better to describe Sarkissian as an ironist in the tradition of Socrates, whose questions were designed to undermine what was apparent, in order to make his audience admit the real, repressed truth. This aim is at its most apparent in the series Zebiba , from Egypt, which shows the raisin-like bruises that come from touching ones forehead to the ground in the act of praying. Now ubiquitous in Egyptian cities, they are taken as a sign of piety. But looking at the young-ish men who bear them, we recognise that they mean so much more, whether this is vanity, politics or defiance.
Sarkissian is an exciting if disquieting talent. He is one of the winners of the Arbraaj Group Prize at Art Dubai 2012. On March 9, a solo show opens at the Darat Al-Funun gallery in Amman, Jordan.
Also showing now at e-flux, 311 East Broadway, New York, are extracts from Khalil Rabah’s ongoing project, Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Human Kind, which began in 2003. The title may also be taken as ironic: a national museum for a state that waits to be born. Rabah is deadly serious, however, as by the circular logic of the ironist he asks: if this is not a museum, then what is?