Istanbul (CNN)Francis Alys’ film The Silence of Ani begins 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.
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.
Michael Rakowitz: The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours
Michael Rakowitz‘ installation The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours takes place on the third floor of a primary school for Greek children which closed in the 2007, due to a lack of students, as the once-great Greek population of Istanbul dwindled to few thousand.
It is one of many exhibition venues linked to Istanbul’s ethnic minorities which force visitors to confront the city’s non-Turk communities — other events take place in the former offices of Armenian newspaper Agos, an Italian school and workers club, and a French Orphanage.
Here, across a whole floor of the school, he lays out a complex narrative, born out of his own extensive research. It weaves together the city’s architectural history: a mixture of European baroque and art nouveau, Islamic and Levantine styles that mingle in the interior of the city’s historic buildings.
Visitors can take in the collected objects — plaster casts, newspaper clippings, photos, letters, bones of slaughtered dogs, the remains of Armenian farms — in any order they wish.
They learn the story of Kemal Cimbiz, the real-life Turkish apprentice of an Armenian master craftsman, Garabet Cezayirliyan, who made plaster decorative motifs that still line ceilings across Istanbul.
When giving Cimbiz over as an apprentice to his master, his parents told Cezayirliyan, “The flesh is yours, the bones are ours” — a traditional Turkish saying, meant to convey that the teacher is granted the right to influence their child. Rakowitz says his project started with photographs of the atelier in central Istanbul headed by Cimbiz– now 76 years old and still working in the city.
“Almost as soon as Carolyn [Christov-Bakargiev] showed me these images of this atelier, I immediately understood that also, as a city, it was these Armenian fingers and hands that were creating these motifs on the building that were bearing silent witness to the trauma in the past 100 years. And it was almost like this architectural seance, where these citizens that were forcibly forgotten, were able to come back in.”
Rakowitz says 1915 interested him because “it’s one of those moments that nation building gives way to a certain kind of amnesia”. As the Ottomans attempted to modernise at the start of the 20th century, and build a Turkish nation, the Armenian minority — among other groups — were stripped of land, property, and aspects of their distinct cultural history, he says.
“I was interested in the fact that Armenians have contributed so much to the creation of the city of Istanbul: visibly the architecture, but also the Turkish language — the alphabet was actually created by an Armenian [Hagop Martayan, first Secretary General of the Turkish Language Association]. The architect named Mimar Sinan, the author of the Mosque of Suleiman [Istanbul’s largest mosque] was also of Armenian origin.”
“And there’s all these beautiful things. But then you, or I, as a researcher, immediately became confronted with these very violent moments in appreciating all the beauty.”
“Amid whispers in 1935 that the architect Mimar Sinan was Armenian, Turkish nationalists exhumed his body and they measured his skull to try to prove that he was an ethnic Turk and not an Armenian. And then the skull ‘mysteriously’ disappeared.”
Cimbiz’ story mixes with various other strands — the story of how Ottoman officials rounded-up 60,000 stray dogs and exiled them to the island of Sivriada in 1910, and how their bones were ground to make plaster, the same material Armenian craftsmen used to decorate the modernizing city
Rakowitz past projects have included reintroducing ancient stone carving techniques to areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban destroyed giant 6th century stone Buddhas in 2001 — and much of his work deals with cultural erasure, and how endangered or extinct crafts link us to our past.
This installation explores the way “a people’s narrative is often taken away from them,” he says, “and the way the Turkish Republic has negated the history of the genocide and has refused to deal with it or acknowledge it.”
“It’s one of those episodes that is a very foundational moment in the way that the 20th century happened, and the way that the 21st century is happening.”
Francis Alys: The Silence of Ani
Belgian-born, Mexico-based Francis Alys says he had “a little bit” of knowledge about the massacres before he began working on this project, which he’d picked up from fellow artists who belong to the Armenian diaspora (Armenian descendents reckoned to number up to 10 million worldwide — three times the current population of Armenia.)
But the nine months between being invited to contribute by Christov-Bakargiev and the launch of the Biennial unfolded quickly, with 56-year-old Alys editing his film until late on the night before opening. Four months were spent researching: reading and watching everything he could find, from both Turkish and Armenian perspectives.
“I had to kind of squeeze it.” he says. “And it’s maybe the reason why the end result is a ‘fable’. I stayed within the frame of something that is not a historical approach it’s a much more poetic approach. If anything maybe too poetic, within the circumstances. But it’s what came out over that short time.”
By “too poetic” Alys says he worried about a quote by German theorist Theodor Adorno that says writing poetry after the horrific events that took place at Auschwitz would be “barbaric” — that a person could not do something so uncritical and naively beautiful after such a massacre.
“The scale of the tragedy is tremendous. You can’t help but feeling a certain anger. If I have one regret it’s that I could have been a bit more critical, a bit more aggressive in my response to the Armenian Question.”
Alys spent a week with the children who appear on the stark black-and-white film, discussing the performance and their understanding of the events of 1915. Filming was supposed to take place over half the week, but they were kept indoors by poor weather until the final day.
The children were recruited from a primary school near the ruins of Ani, in the eastern Anatolia region of Turkey and, Alys discovered, most are members of the Kurdish minority. Kurds were resettled in the area after the Armenian exodus, and in recent years have themselves been victims of social discrimination and violence. Since 1984, Turkish forces have suppressed an insurgency by pro-independence Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K. which is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States), in a conflict centered on eastern Anatolia that has so far killed 45,000.
But among this group, living in a once-Armenian region, there is a startling lack of knowledge of the genocide, Alys claims. Turkish guidebooks scarcely mention its Armenian history, he says, and one must learn to recognize Armenian names to find the remains. At the end of filming, one student “came out” as Armenian, says Alys, to the surprise of his classmates.
“The more I was reading about the many massacres… the more I was completely shocked by the events,” Alys says. “I found out about the way history has been twisted, to the point that the kids we worked with had no idea about what really happened.”
“We’re talking about a case of rewriting history that has been extremely efficient.”