Beyond random coincidence, psychologist Carl Jung defined “synchronicity” as events that seem related but with no causal relationship. Armenian contemporary artist Anush Ghukasyan stumbled into such a “meaningful coincidence” with her “Inside Out” installation as the current pandemic unfolded earlier this year.
As one of the most active artists of the younger generation in Armenia, at age thirty-five, Ghukasyan’s appetite for new work is constantly growing. With a background in graphic arts from the State Academy of Fine Arts of Armenia, Ghukasyan has established herself in the realm of installation art. Ghukasyan’s work consists of clay installations modified with techniques from graphic arts and printmaking. She carries on the rich tradition of Armenian ceramics, from the minimalist aesthetics of prehistoric works to the Medieval schools in Dvin, Ani, and especially Kutahya.
“Pottery from those periods was mainly different kind of vessels,” Ghukasyan explains. “Many of those artifacts that were not considered art from the beginning are actually much more close to art because of their honesty and sensuality.”
Ghukasyan’s art delves into questions of time, memory, identity, and human relationships with the environment. Sometimes her installations are bright pieces of exquisite craftsmanship, fragile and delicate, while others are more raw, unedited. Her recent installation “Inside Out” stands in the middle, just as the world has experienced an “in between” period during the COVID-19 pandemic: time is somewhat suspended, neither in constant motion nor completely interrupted, ever dissolving and ever expanding.
“Inside Out” is an extension of the “Imprints” installation Ghukasyan created while exploring the issues related to the identity crisis, the pressure of cultural assimilation, and the impacts of globalization on cultural diversity. Such an ongoing crisis sheds light on how nature and heritage are wounded and permanently scarred by imprints of power and destruction. The pandemic brought forward a new global identification type: the lockdown experience.
Ghukasyan’s creative output in lockdown is remarkable. For more than four months, the artist worked simultaneously on three different installations and prepared the ground for a fourth. In parallel to the large-scale installations, she produced striking portraits wracked with anxiety and uncertainty as a response to the personal emotional breakdown she experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. Directing all her energy toward the white canvas, Ghukasyan’s personal variations, sensuous portraits, and virus-afflicted raw nude sketches acted as art therapy.
She created her “Screaming” series of oil paintings during the initial lockdown period, while she was away from her studio in the capital city of Yerevan. Isolated with her family in Yeghegnadzor in the region of Vayots Dzor in the south of Armenia, Ghukasyan didn’t have access to any of her personal tools or art supplies but managed to use the small pieces of canvas left over from an artist relative. Expressing her anger over being torn from her personal space, supplies, and routine, Ghukasyan’s agonized ungendered portraits are overwhelming biographical testimonials of our time. With mouths wide open or the face cut in half, they seem to emit vast, infinite screams.
Ghukasyan started creating “Inside Out” before Armenia’s government imposed a lockdown in early spring 2020. Although she attributes this work to her personal feelings rather than a premonition of the pandemic to come, the installation is a bold statement of how far humanity has drifted away from nature. It looks like a perfect example of a “meaningful coincidence” with the devastating outbreak of the virus.
Composed of nine rough, rust-colored sewer pipes peeking above ground, the piece evokes the grotesque genre, expressing a sense of personal and global mourning. Inside the pipes, Ghukasyan playfully glazed surrealistic illustrations of adorable cumulus clouds, like soft piles of cotton. The scene is humorous at first but critical at large. By flipping the dirty pipe interiors outside and the ethereal sky inside, these aesthetically playful ceramic sculptures question the tension that has arisen during the pandemic.
“Until now, the clean air was outside,” she explains. “During the #StayHome period, the clean environment became the house, the closed areas where there is no air.”
Ghukasyan’s concerns with the growing distance between humankind and nature increased as cultural institutions shut their doors and as the art world shifted to the digital sphere. She embarked on an artistic journey, or a solo “performative installation.” Since she couldn’t show “Inside Out” inside a gallery, at least not for a long time, Ghukasyan planned to install it outdoors. The installation found its temporary home in a clay pit in Nubarashen, a district in Yerevan. Situated in the southeastern part of the city, Nubarashen borders the Erebuni district, home to the Urartian Erebuni fortress founded in 782 B.C. by King Argishti I and rich in ceramic production.
Performed by the artist herself, the performative installation was curated by me, documented by photographer Nelly Gevorgyan, and installed with the support of artist Vahram Galstyan. The wide and unexplored mine of clay offered the perfect space. Ghukasyan installed her work in different positions, in different areas, and used the colors, shapes, and texture of the clay to enhance her narrative. Merging performance art, installation art, and land art, “Inside Out” explores the topic of the human relationship with nature. The pipes resemble some kind of open-mouthed creatures erected from the land as transmitters of information from the Earth’s body, like speakers of the land’s sound system, witnesses of the current environmental crisis.
“We are constantly moving away from nature,” Ghukasyan says. “The growing distance is becoming so normal for humans that one does not realize how far we have gone․ We don’t seem to deal and connect with nature, but we have to deal with viruses as well, don’t we? After all, these layers of alcohol-based antibacterial sanitizers drive us away again from nature․ The next step will be that the simplest germ will make us sick, and we will move away again․ This growing distance constantly puts us in a hole, such as those pipes․The hole is constantly narrowing and narrowing, and it is not clear why it is narrowing. We have to think about it.”
The smooth glaze seems to enhance the transmission between the interior and exterior, allowing air to pass without any layer of protection, unlike the ones covering our respiratory passageways during the pandemic. Unlike the artist’s portraits in the “Screaming” series, the wide apertures of the pipes don’t seem to be screaming. Nor is the artist. Both breathe in peace and calmness. The soft clouds evoke the ephemeral and transitory. In constant motion, in constant transformation, clouds always leave when–left alone—just like thoughts and emotions. The installation touches upon human fragility and the artist’s wanderings, dreams, as she embraces hope for a peaceful environment—inside out.
“Inside Out” received the “Be Heard” prize from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in July 2020. The installation will be exhibited in Yerevan in February 2021 by aha collective under the curation of Nairi Khatchadourian.
Nairi Khatchadourian is the Senior Museum Specialist for the My Armenia Program, funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution. As a Paris-born independent curator based in Yerevan, she works in the fields of contemporary art, design, and cultural heritage.