monthly review

The Viewer Empty-Handed or Evanesced in the Social?

Marine Khachatryan

The Viewer Empty-Handed?

The exhibition ‘Secret Equations’ presents the eponymous series of canvases by Mika Vatinyan. There are only eleven paintings, not very different from each other and hung in an arts library, not having the privilege of (or perhaps, having been absolved from the restrictions of) an exhibition hall. Lacking the promise of big revelations due to the above-mentioned reasons, the exhibition (the text with its comprehensiveness, the canvases in their consistency), nevertheless, quickly convinces otherwise: upturning viewer expectations and ‘wiping its feet’ on those anticipations, through which, the demands we have of art are once again put under the jolt of questioning.

As noted by the curator of the exhibition, Vigen Galstyan, the paintings reject the viewers’ attempts to uncover stable meanings within them. The significance of the works, therefore, lies outside of the paintings themselves – this is not only a part of the works’ actual essence, but also the questions that lie beyond them: "Why are there eleven and not the twelve works?", "Why are they in monochrome?" and so on. The artist has ruled out meanings that are intrinsic to the works and has erased the supposed legible forms – two of the things adulated by the art-viewer. The curator, in his turn, has continued to play the game played on contemporary art and has placed the paintings in a library, which is, in theory a domain of verbal, rather than visual language. Hence, it takes a great effort not to ask: “What is left behind for the ‘confounded consumer’ of the artwork? Have they been thought of? How should the latter deal with the reality of finding art’s supposedly fundamental aspects stripped away?” The answer is clear: the viewer is generously bestowed with a new pile of issues, a fresh selection of questions– importantly, within the trajectory taken by postmodernist thinking and Contemporary art – the pleasure of contemplating which should compensate the ‘pit’ of epistemological emptiness and give birth to new meanings.

However, the absence of a yearned purpose would not aggravate the viewer were it not literally ‘performed’, played, and ceremoniously staged. The paintings are made of black and white stains, between which are symbols of addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. In some places the stains have disappeared, leaving behind only the mathematical formula. Anyone who happens to be in the library will catch themselves making earnest mental calculations in order to understand the logic of the distribution of these signs (who wouldn’t hasten to solve the first puzzle offered to them?). Moments later, this is revealed to them as yet another ‘conspiracy’ constructed by the work of art, and it becomes clear that the works only pretend that they hide a serious logic, while in actual fact are only engaged in gestating forms.

This is an imitation of coding: an undertaking that has long haunted art and has been regarded as its duty. The solution to the puzzle, which is promised by exhibition’s title, is an illusion, a deliberate deception, as a result of which there is the mental effort prompted by the coding process, but no rational solution or the culmination of disclosure. The works promise insight, only to leave the viewer empty-handed in front of a broken wooden tub. It's like making a crossword puzzle with an intentionally wrong number of squares for the answers (you ensure the effort, but exclude even the smallest possibility of an outcome), or prepare a riddle without a foreseen solution, thus mocking the puzzle-solver’s yearning for reaching the answer.

That is why the viewer is ‘angry’ and deeply disenchanted (despite the curator’s‘warnings’). The works flirt with the mind and limit themselves to that. If stable meaning embedded within the work is absent, yet the ghost of its empty promise pursues the visitors throughout the exhibition space, then the latter becomes engaged in a tussle about the lack of meaning, which is fated to end for them with the painful realisation of their own insolvency. And, as noted by curator Vigen Galstyan, ever since conceptual art the viewer has, for already a long time, been deprived of the possibility of nourishment from the aesthetic analysis of the artwork. Thus, the possibility of meaning is carefully debunked, while aesthetic pleasure is abruptly derailed by the artist through the deconstruction of the images. In the era where absolute truths have come to an end, the expectations of the viewer who has lost hope in finding wisdom or truth from philosophy and spiritual fulfilment from religion, have also been rejected by art. So is the visitor left completely empty-handed?

If so, what is then offered here in lieu of this deprivational feeling’s unpleasantness? And the proposal is a form of post-modernist alertness: total control of expectations, self-referential accountability. The intention is to bring to the viewer the missive of post-modern sobriety, the aversion of spontaneity, the paranoid suspicion of truths, meanings and claims of knowledge. The subversion of meaning, and its refutation, makes the questioning of its necessity conscious.

Ostentatiously prescribed meaning is quickly spent and forgotten, while its subversion at mid-way points to the very need for meaning, turning those ‘dependent’ on art more vigilant. Hence, the yearning for meaning isn’t automatically fulfilled but is conferred upon the viewer as a fundamental, new query – a thorn invisible to the eye.

Need has a tendency of being conflated with economic demand, and art, of course, should have professed to root out this den of consumerism’s tentacles. For this reason, our excitement in the quest for meaning is curtailed. However, the sobering idea of meaninglessness isn’t offered on a platter from the get go – it is ‘earned’ through the failed attempts to find resolutions in the canvases. The eradication of meaning is placed in a closed box - under the mystery layer of erased images – and is supposed to be opened and discovered by the viewer. In this regard, the unveiling of meaning’s absence is as rewarding as the assurance of its presence would have been, since the discovery of unexpected absence isn’t particularly different to stumbling upon a particular presence. The nullity of meaning is delivered as the revelation of new meaning, the act of discovery taking place in the accompaniment of disappointment but with the satisfaction brought by the decoding result (the ‘empty-handedness’ of the viewer is put under a big question).

Judging from the curator’s text, his answer to this question would be that Vatinyan’s works are not examples of philosophical inquiry, but rather works, which take place through hesitation, destruction and ruination. And yet, doesn’t destruction also maintain the deconstructive and rebutting logic of questioning? Does erasure mean hesitation and revision, or a re-examination through refutation?

The problem is that art today is facing such a paradox. Questioning the essence of art has been discredited in contemporary art, while not questioning it doubly so, and, it should be said, for a long time already. One could say that contemporary art vacillates between these issues in search of the lesser of the two evils. And the choice has fallen on the safest action found midway between the two: revision – the brightest intonation of post-modernist vigilance. This route diplomatically indemnifies from either furious confrontation or unquestioning acceptance, both of which are entangled in the same behavioural ethics. Dipping into the waters, revision tries to get out dry, be impartial but intervene, to drudge while remaining unblemished and spotlessly clean.

Vatinyan's works are also in this state of ambivalence and hesitation. To deny any possibility of meaning or not? To codify or explicitly show the absence of codes? To complicate or to simplify? To create an image or to destroy it? To leave the viewer empty-handed or give them their due? This is a dilemma. The induction of code and the preclusion of its understanding is exemplified by the erased images and in one instance – in spite of the logic of destruction – the multiplied photographs of the artist as a child, all which serve as proofs of this equivocal hesitancy.

In the opinion of the curator, the gratification of visitor anticipation is a fulfilment of consumerist demand, and yet, its opposite – the questioning of such expectations – seems to be no less consumerist. From this perspective, the artist arrives at a dead-end where the saving grace of indecision, the rule of the ‘half-way’, comes to the rescue.

In this case, why is game-playing or the incitement of intellectual exercise not excluded? There is no hesitation in their investment. Do they still belong to the diminishing range of art’s plans? The reason is probably that the art, which has turned the viewer’s empty-handedness into its own achievement, can’t find a better way to engage with the viewer than the ploy of the intellectual trigger.

The Viewer Evanesced in the Social

Another project, entitled "To See with Fingers", makes the viewer's destitution utterly impossible, since even the title denies such a possibility.

The exhibition can be conditionally divided into two parts. One of these – the videoportraits - is the result of Susanna Hakobyan’s research project, which opens a small window into the inner world of blind people and their slightly more complicated, but no less intense daily life.

The individuals represented therein have professions that require the consistent development of many alternative skills, in order to compensate the lack of another capacity. Vahe is a self-taught computer programming specialist and a mountaineering enthusiast, Lusine is a psychologist, Yuri, a chess player and a musician, Razmik leads an active theatrical life, Vahan is a librarian, Arkady wants to become a great scientist, Sahak is a brushmaker, 12-year-old Areg attends music school. And only they know how much effort is required to mentally conjure and manage the chess board, to climb a mountain, to play with one hand while reading the notes with the other, to cut vegetables without damaging oneself, to learn to swim in darkness, make brushes that are accurate to a millimetre, and get the ‘knack’ of everything with hands. In the videos, each of them shares the dexterity of their ‘all-seeing third eye’ - trying to guess the colours of keys, draw flowers, relay in detail the contents of the family album (who’s photographed where) and the sequence of books in the library.

The other section of the exhibition consists of portraits in braille writing, with labels next to them. In these inscriptions, the artist has described in a few words the pictured individuals –people with vision impairments - while the portrayed describe themselves. In contrast to the videos, the portraits disturb the more orthodox exhibitionary strategies of introducing the viewer to the lifestyle of blind people, thus changing the voyeuristic relationship between the observer and the observed.

In a number of places, the exhibition approaches the problem from an entirely opposite position. Current civilisations have the ambition to endlessly flex our abilities and stretch the human possibilities towards infinitude: taller and taller buildings, more sensitive and ‘sensible’ technologies, constantly broken sporting and other records. Still, rather than add yet another stone to the mounting stairway of human abilities –that bloated ideal of all-powerfulness - this exhibition (meaning, in particular, the bead-like, touchable portraits) offers to deduct, to momentarily abstain from a really important part of our existing abilities: vision. Written on the exhibition wall, the exhortation ‘If you are seeing this writing, close your eyes and feel’ compels towards this.

It is this refusal that tries to put seeing and vision-impaired people in an equal state. Yet, in this instance, the opportunity for equality is afforded not by bringing the blind close to the experience of those with sight (something that constantly haunts the vision-impaired - operations, numerous medical interventions), but by giving the seeing an idea of what the blind ‘see’. Those who pursue equality in this exhibition are not the blind, but those with sight. Hence, the seeing and the blind trade places: it is those with sight who aim to see like the vision-impaired and the latter become a barometer for seeing. And suddenly, it is not the blind that put under question their skewed ability, but the sighted that begin to suspect their ‘crippled’ capacity to imagine, think images and outline mental visions with finite means. Human limitation is revealed to the visitor in the guise of superhuman prodigiousness, since to see as much as a blind person does with fingers is beyond the capacity and sensitivity of the sighted visitor’s fingers, mental sharpness and the dexterity of imagination.

The project doesn’t go for simplistic sermons on equal opportunities, thus taking the path of lecturing on inclusivity (it would otherwise be tiring, just like any other kind of castigation). Instead, equal conditions and inclusivity become ideas that are not forced upon, but come naturally to the visitor. Rather than persuading (since persuading, more often than not, assumes bigotry), the exhibition moves away from the ‘proselytizing’ realm of activism, placing the visitor inside an unprecedented new experience – one of replacing the eyes with hands. The ensuing consequence is an obsession of bringing any unattainable image into tangible relief, of turning imperceptible levels perceptible and palpably bulbous. This is not a desire enforced upon the viewer, some kind of given concept, order or an appeal, but a thought that is arrived at and therefore enduring and without a quick backtracking route. The sharp necessity of equal conditions becomes an assured conviction. This is where the exhibition’s strength lies.

It is thanks to this that the visitor is ‘disturbed’ as the curator claims. The viewer loses all the chances to remain an observer. It is at that point that the question of the visitor’s ‘gain’ becomes obsolete and the issue of being empty-handed or not is taken out of the equation. Thus, the visitor’s focus on ‘demanding’ their due and identifying their benefit from art disappears. The esurience, which precedes the idea of empty-handedness dissipates with what is acquired through the touch of fingers.

Because the viewer witnesses an instance when art "appears as a home where the fragility of the human soul can find a refuge," as stated by the project’s curator, Nazareth Karoyan, the problem of empty-handedness completely disappears from the field of vision.


From the viewer’s standpoint, the analysis of these two exhibitions (one, which does not make the spectator a part of the work’s becoming and the other, which does) offers a distinctive option for perceiving them. This is especially important in the framework of stale (or anachronistic) discussions regarding the weakening connections between artworks and their addressees. Integral to comprehending the exhibition, the question of the viewer’s gain is brought to the forefront in one instance, while in the second case it is pushed back, since the viewer is involuntarily drawn within the exhibition to physically become a part of it, thus sidestepping the interrogation of the show’s essence and aptness. In the first case the viewer finds herself inside art’s borders, thrown within the whirlpool of questions that arise from revising those borders. The latter situation affords an experience through art, which lies outside of art’s boundaries per se.

1. Opened at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts on 1st of December

2. Opened at the Yerevan Museum of Modern Art on 10th of December

Photos from the ‘Secret Equations’ exhibition are taken from the website of  Cafesjian Center for the Arts

Photos of "To See with Fingers" project by Ed Tadevossian

Translated by Vigen Galstyan