The first mid-career survey of works by London-based Syrian-Armenian artist Hrair Sarkissian—one of the foremost conceptual photographers of our time—The Other Side of Silence explores the myriad ways in which contested histories are narrated and distributed through images. Taking audiences on an expansive journey through the hollowed 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.
Sarkissian's initial training began in his father’s photo lab, ‘Dream Color’, in Damascus, an experience explored in the photo installation, My Father and I (2010). Captivated by the possibilities of image making, the artist left Syria for France and subsequently, the Netherlands, in his thirties to continue studies, which led him to think conceptually through the space of photography. Within this sphere, the artist seeks to make evident the invisible narratives that live behind the unresolved wounds of conflict.
The life-size photographs that Sarkissian produces are developed using a large format camera—a life-long practice which relates to the artist’s interest in the role that ‘chance’ plays in capturing concealed narratives through lens-based media. Acting simultaneously as an archaeologist and storyteller, he employs photographic techniques to conjure landscapes that uncover the collective imprint of conflict in the lives of those who are most often 'left behind'. Drawing upon personal and collective memory, Sarkissian uses his own experiences to spearhead researched and choreographed scenes. Here, he invites the viewer to consider the formal aspects of the image; to ‘breathe in’ each one's silence, leaving room to evaluate what might exist beneath its surface.
Over the past two decades, Sarkissian’s practice has evolved to encompass moving images, sculpture, sound and installation, creating 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.
Anchoring the exhibition are two ambitious commissions: a photographic installation, Last Seen (2018–2021), commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Sweet and Sour (2022), commissioned by the Bonnefanten. The exhibition features the most extensive presentation of many of the artist’s most significant works produced since 2006, including archaeological re-imagining in Unfinished (2006) and a personal investigation into his Armenian heritage in In Between (2006). Two well-known works by the artist from the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection, Execution Squares (2008) and Final Flight (2017–2019) are also on view.
The collective threads throughout the show foster an inclusive emotional space. Constructing a sense of solidarity around collective traumas—Sarkissian argues for a form of social justice that compensates for the failures of official history, which too often, neglects to narrate the stories of the dispossessed.
Bonniers Konsthall and Lenz Press have produced Sarkissian's first major monograph, edited by Dr Omar Kholeif and Dr Theodor Ringborg. The book features original scholarly contributions from authors including, Marianne Hirsch (Professor, Columbia University); Hannah Feldman (Associate Professor, Northwestern University); Todd Reisz (writer and architect); and Vali Mahlouji (curator and psychoanalyst). A major essay by Kholeif contextualises the artist’s practice alongside an exploratory text by Ringborg. The foreword is authored jointly by Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, Ringborg and Huijts. The publication is available in the Foundation's three shops, located in Mureijah Square, Flying Saucer and Arts Square.
This exhibition is curated by Dr Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation; Dr Theodor Ringborg, Artistic Director, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm; and Stijn Huijts, Artistic Director, the Bonnefanten, Maastricht. On view at Sharjah Art Foundation from 30 October 2021 to 30 January 2022, the exhibition will travel to Bonniers Konsthall, where it will be on view from 26 April to 19 June 2022 followed by its presentation at the Bonnefanten from 27 November 2022 to 14 May 2023.
Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence is organised by Sharjah Art Foundation, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm and the Bonnefanten, Maastricht.
The Other Side of Silence: A Conversation with Hrair Sarkissian on Memory, History and Photography
Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs reflect on personal memories, using subjectivity as a way to navigate stories that official histories are unable to tell. Using traditional documentary techniques in large-scale works, he engages the viewer in a profound consideration of what lies behind the surface of the images, thereby re-evaluating larger historical or social narratives.
In conjunction with the exhibition Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence, on view at Sharjah Art Foundation from 30 October 2021 to 30 January 2022, this conversation between the artist Hrair Sarkissian and the curator Dr Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation, will discuss Sarkissian’s newly commissioned works as well as his journey as an artist and the ever-present themes of memory, trauma, history, loss and belonging.