The lost voices of the 20th century's first genocide return to Istanbul

Istanbul (CNN)Francis Alys' film The Silence of Anibegins with the rustling of wind through a breathtaking city that now lies in ruins. In the ancient stone, we see eagles carved out, and slowly a melody of birdcalls rises to crescendo -- revealed to be the sound of flute whistles played by children darting between the debris.
The artist behind the film, Alys, says he worries it is "too poetic." If he had time to do it again, he might make something more critical: his starting point, after all, was a genocide in which more than a million Armenians were massacred.
The notes accompanying the film, currently on display at this year's Istanbul Biennial, tells us that these ruins were once Ani, one of the most technologically impressive cities of the medieval world, and the capital of an Armenian Kingdom that stretched from modern day Armenia into eastern Turkey.
Ani, silent since the 17th century, speaks of a more modern absence: of the Armenian populations across Turkey who were killed and deported by Ottoman forces in 1915, and of a catastrophe whose name it is forbidden to teach in Turkish classrooms.
In Istanbul -- where the film is among a spate of works that confront the Armenian Genocide on its 100th anniversary -- the poetic optimism of the birdsong sounds out against a backdrop of government silence.

Artist Kristina Buch's installation at the Istanbul Biennial also draws inspiration from the ruins of Ani
Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadfastly refused to recognise the massacres as a deliberately orchestrated genocide. Yet works at the exhibition by contemporary artists of Armenian descent -- Sonia Balassanian, Hera Buyuktascıyan, and Sarkis (real name Sarkis Zabunyan) -- as well as Belgian-born Alys, Iraqi-American Michael Rakowitz, and Lebanese-born Haig Aivazian, among others, have formed a rising chorus of opposition in the heart of the country's largest city.
The biennial's curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has made recognition of the genocide and Armenians' cultural legacy a major theme of the event (which takes place in locations across Istanbul until 1 November).
Erdogan currently faces mounting pressure from international leaders to recognize the genocide as a deliberate campaign orchestrated by his country's Ottoman Empire ancestors -- and Christov-Bakargiev believes art can alter the course of this political debate.
In the biennial's opening address, she said she chose to become a curator, in part, because "I feel that art has a possibility of shaping the souls of people, transforming the opinions of opinion leaders who are then in a trickle-down effect shaping what will be the policies of government."
Alys and Rakowitz, an American conceptual artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent, who currently works in Chicago, explain why and how they took on this monumental issue.

Armenian programme presented at 14th Istanbul Biennial - See more at:
“The year 2015 marks one century on from what Armenians first called Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime”) to define the brutal cleansing of their people in the late Ottoman Empire, an event that has traditionally been associated with the year 1915. It is thus crucial that an exhibition of contemporary art in Turkey focuses on the Armenian question, through both historical works of art and contemporary projects. At the 14th Istanbul Biennial, this is not expressed curatorially through any national pavilion, nor an “Armenian” section of the exhibition, but through a strong participation of individual artists and specific artworks that echo this history, interwoven into the texture of the whole exhibition,” said curator of the 2015 Istanbul Biennial Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

Bringing together artists who are creating works and conducting research related to Armenian history and trauma in contemporary Turkey, the Armenian programme features established and emerging artists from the Armenian Diaspora, such as Arshile Gorky and Paul Guiragossian, together with non-Armenian artists from across the world, whose work obliquely emerges from a reflection or experience of this history, its aftermath and its present.

The artists’ work will not be located in a single venue, but will be dispersed along the Bosphorus, in spaces ranging from the Istanbul Modern to the new Hrant Dink Foundation and a former tobacco warehouse. Artists in the Armenian programme include: Vernon Ah Kee, Haig Aivazian, Sonia Balassanian, Anna Boghiguian, Kristina Buch, Hera Büyüktasçıyan, Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, Arshile Gorky, Paul Guiragossian, Michael Rakowitz, and Sarkis.

“The Armenian programme in the Istanbul Biennial offers a framework for artistic activity to explore and creatively work through issues of historical and political trauma, towards healing and reconciliation, and a path to a brighter future. Dilijan Art Initiative believes that contemporary art has invaluable educational potential for creating cross-cultural understanding, which is why we are delighted to support such a remarkable project,” said Founder of Dilijan Art Initiative Veronika Zonabend.

Dilijan Art Initiative was founded by the philanthropists Veronika Zonabend and Ruben Vardanyan as part of the IDeA (Initiatives for Development of Armenia) Charitable Foundation, which aims to create a framework for the development of the city of Dilijan and Armenia as a whole.

The project was launched in the belief that art has a unique galvanizing capacity across cultures, disciplines, generations and genders, transcending time and space. It works to promote Armenian culture internationally, providing support for the presentation of work by artists from the Armenian Diaspora in the world’s leading exhibitions and major cultural events. Dilijan Art Initiative supported Armenity/Hayoutioun; the National Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia at the 56th Venice Biennial, which was awarded the Golden Lion.

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