October 06, 2015

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

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.

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.

back to list