What we see and don't see in Hrair Sarkissian's new exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation

The Syrian-Armenian artist is known for conceptual photography that exposes stories often left out of official histories

In Hrair Sarkissian’s work, it is often about what you don’t see. His subjects are not only what register in his photographs, but the unspoken and invisible stories and histories that exist beyond them.

The Syrian-Armenian artist’s latest series Last Seen centres on the unresolved grief of families dealing with the forced disappearance of their relatives. Started in 2018 and completed this year, the project consists of 50 photographs taken in five countries: Lebanon, Argentina, Brazil, Kosovo and Bosnia.

Take a look through the gallery above to see more photos from the series.

Sarkissian, after conducting extensive research, travelled to these places, meeting with individuals whose children, siblings or spouses have gone missing for political reasons or conflict, and then capturing the place where they were seen alive for the last time.

This new body of work has been commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and is now on view as part of the artist’s first mid-career survey, titled The Other Side of Silence.

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I can’t even begin to describe with words the stories I heard about how families were abducted or tortured in the same spot that they’re still living today
Hrair Sarkissian, artist

The exhibition, which opened on Saturday, includes 13 other works created over the last 15 years, providing an overview of his practice and most significant works thus far. Among the works on view are Unfinished (2006), Zebiba (2007), Homesick (2014) and Final Flight (2018-2019).

Born in Damascus in 1973, Sarkissian developed his relationship with photography at an early age, with his father establishing Syria’s first colour photo lab in 1979. The artist, who left Syria to study in Amsterdam and now lives in London, spent hours in the studio and learnt the foundations of large-format photography.

Until today, Sarkissian primarily uses analogue photography, which gives his images a softer, more saturated and, at times, painterly quality.

'It's really beyond imagination'

Sarkissian’s process requires a precision that runs throughout his practice. For Last Seen, he decided that he would only take a single photo for every family he visited. His intention was also very specific – to photograph homes, private spaces that families still inhabit, where the missing person’s phantom lingers.

“I can’t even begin to describe with words the stories I heard about how families were abducted or tortured in the same spot that they’re still living today. It’s really beyond imagination that human beings can do such things,” Sarkissian tells The National.

At Sharjah Art Foundation, the photographs are displayed on one wall, hung beside each other in a grid. There are living rooms, hallways, stairwells, backyards and bedrooms, all empty and eerie. Embossed at the bottom of the photographs are the names of the missing and the date they were last seen.

The circumstances of their disappearances are not revealed in the work, and the artist explains that the point is not to delve into the political situation of every country, but rather to speak about the trauma and legacy of war and state brutality.

“It’s about how these families are living with the ghost of the person who is still missing. They are still waiting for the person to come back,” he says.

Last Seen bears particular resonance to Sarkissian’s earlier work Last Scene, not only in the homophonic titles, but also in their exploration of memories and mortality.

Sarkissian’s visual elegies contrast one another in various ways. The 2016 work Last Scene comprises 47 photographs of public places in the Netherlands that terminally ill patients wished to see before their deaths. Here, Sarkissian channels the memories of the dead, as the photos were taken a year after the patients’ passing, while his latest Last Seen excavates the memories of the living.

In the two series, what is present and absent in the photographs both carry significance. Sarkissian typically avoids human subjects in his images, preferring instead to capture places and architectural sites where context only unfolds when the viewer reads the artist statement or exhibition text.

His first major work Execution Squares from 2008 shows empty public squares in Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus that have been used as sites for capital punishment. The tranquil scenes belie the horror of their history, which the artist himself witnessed as a teenager, seeing three dead bodies hanging from a tree in Marjeh Square in Damascus.

Within these absences – of human presence and of the violence that persists outside of the artist’s frames – our imagination acts as part of the work. Sarkissian compels viewers to become involved in the remembering, or at least in imagining the missing or the dead, in visualising the stories and situations tied to these photographs.

The artist does not seek to compile a report as a photojournalist or historian would. Instead, he exhibits the photographs inside cultural institutions, offering them up for contemplation. The details behind each picture often remain with the artist, who has become a living embodiment of this archive.

“I bring these ideas to the audience in a way that they don’t get disturbed directly by the image. It’s about creating space, to think, to realise, to search and research this topic that I am presenting on the wall,” he explains.

He would not be able to photograph graphic scenes of cruelty, he adds.

It is part of the reason Sarkissian turned to sound for his 2020 work Deathscape. The five-channel sound installation plays recordings of archaeologists digging up mass tombs dating back to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime in Spain. The sound of the earth being hollowed out blends with the breaths of the diggers, producing a haunting rhythm.

“If I photographed the scene with these skeletons laid out, I don’t think anybody would want to look at them. But the sound creates another impact. Even for a few seconds, you experience it,” he says.

Hrair Sarkissian. Courtesy Hrair Sarkissian

The deliberateness of Sarkissian's medium and his process also allows him to stand apart in today’s image-saturated digital world. Reflecting on his practice, Sarkissian understands how our relationship with the image has changed.

“In the past decade, people photograph everything good and bad, and it just gets out there. We reached a point where we don’t want to look at anything any more,” he says.

“In the early ages of photography, it used to be considered proof, as evidence, but now we don’t necessarily believe what we see in the image. It’s not a reliable medium anymore.”

To see the truth in his photographs, he says, is to trust him and his research as an artist.

Sarkissian on his current project, Sweet and Sour

Sarkissian is currently producing a new project commissioned by the Bonnefanten museum of art, that will go on view when The Other Side of Silence travels to the Dutch museum in 2022. Titled Sweet and Sour, he calls it one of his most personal works to date. A few weeks ago, the artist journeyed to Eastern Anatolia, formerly Western Armenia, where he traces his roots.

“My grandfather was married and had a child. During the genocide, his entire family was killed,” Sarkissian says. His grandfather was in Syria when the incident happened and could not return when the massacres took place.

“As a family, we’ve never seen any photos of the village, no documents. It was only recalled through stories and music,” he says.

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As Armenians, we still live in this history. We still live in the event of the genocide
Hrair Sarkissian

When he finally visited the village this year, Sarkissian says he received suspicious looks from the locals, including one who asked him, “Are you here to reclaim land?”. He responded: “I’m here to reclaim a memory.”

The next stage of the project is to present the images to his father in Damascus and to film his reaction. “The work goes to the core of the relationship between my father and grandfather, my father and me and my brother,” he says.

Sarkissian’s father, Vartan, becomes a kind of “vessel” that holds the generational trauma inflicted on the artist’s family and millions of others who live with the legacy of the mass murders.

“As Armenians, we still live in this history. We still live in the event of the genocide because it’s something that has not been resolved. For us, it’s not something that happened in the past and that we moved on from. We’re still living in that moment," he says. "It’s something that will continue to go on as long as this matter is not recognised properly by the Turkish government.”

The Other Side of Silence is on view until Sunday, January 30. More information is at sharjahart.org

Updated: November 2nd 2021, 7:34 AM