by Aram Atamian
Note by the editor: Aram Atamian is the author, choreographer and performer of “Oda[r]isque”, a participatory performance and installation that took place over the course of three days, from December 20-22, 2018 at HAYP Pop Up Gallery in the context of HAYP 12 12 12 RETROSPECTIVE.
0° a walk around Oda[r]isque
From top: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque with Slave, 1839; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath, 1852-59; Silvia Sleigh, The Turkish Bath, 1973; Oda[r]isque #1: Aramazt, 2018; Oda[r]isque #16: Mary, 2018; Oda[r]isque #18: Petros, 2018; Oda[r]isque #21: Karen, 2018.
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“You’re coming from behind the mountain” is how my Persian-Armenian friend translated one of his favorite Armenian idioms to me. It means roughly the same thing as the English idiom “You’ve been living under a rock”, but also, he explained, implies this person-from-the-other-side has a certain wildness or is ‘unbridled’ or ‘unleashed’. The Armenian word sandsardsak came up to describe this shade of meaning in particular. During my research in preparation for Oda[r]isque, a participatory performance and installation for HAYP’s final exhibit 12-12-12, this idiom kept coming back to me. My notes in my phone remain from this conversation sometime in 2016:
Screenshot of a smartphone note from 2016
The three dashes [- – -] indicate where you can insert your pronoun of choice, depending on who is coming from behind the mountain. As the project was coming together, I asked a friend from Yerevan if this idiom was familiar as I was considering having it be a subtitle of the project and wanted to make sure it was relevant. She didn’t recognize it, but she suggested the word sandsardsak as an alternative to the idiom .
The Program/instructions that were given to all attendees of Oda[r]isque on December 20th-22nd from 7:00-9:00pm AMT.
Thank you so much for coming! Together we’ll be hijacking classical 19th century orientalist images to playfully research connections between geography, identity, and fantasy.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: grab whichever props immediately look appealing to you-no need to overthink.
Step 2: together we’ll collaborate on making an image. We can use the blue book  as inspiration or just jump right in.
Step 3: I’ll shoot our images and they will be on view here for the remainder of the exhibition for our collective reflection and enjoyment. With your permission, they will be compiled and accessible on the @odarisque Instagram account .
The special thing about orientalism is that it is a personal fantasy about direction. A fantasy of what is not here but over there—a line of desire that can be followed in the imagination and then, for some, by setting out on foot to follow that line. What one hopes to find over there could be an escape, it could be freedom from sexual repression, it could be a new life or even a new self. In the past this has been oriented around a myth of an East and a West, Orient and Occident . What is it, though, when our fantasies of possibility are linked to home and identity instead of just the exotic? How do we use these two-directional fantasies of ownership to conjure home and to define ourselves?
I was initially concerned that
- People wouldn’t want to be photographed.
- People wouldn’t feel like subjects.
I found to my surprise and relief that
- Most people like to be photographed.
- Each person, it seemed to me, had such a precise point of view that the passive objects of the source paintings were entirely replaced by critical, powerful subjects.
While each collaborator more or less had a strong vision for the image they wanted to make, almost always this was realized with input from the entire audience. This happened completely naturally with no suggestion from me. I was very pleased about this because I knew the whole project would fall apart conceptually if it was my gaze and direction behind each image. I set a rule for myself to be more of an assistant and camera operator for each participant’s vision.
Each day’s mood was remarkably different. The first day was only one sided, and we essentially started with all the props on set and people more or less took away and rearranged as the shoot moved on. While the party atmosphere of the first day was most welcome, for the second day I wanted to test the double-sided set to give people that initial choice. Also, we cleared the set after each shoot so the selection of props became another defining moment. The images from the second day have a sparser, more deliberate and critical feel to me for these reasons. The third day was somehow a happy mix of both-there was a boldness and confidence to the image-making that made me wonder how this project could evolve over a longer period.
The Odalisque 
A classic trope in 19th century Orientalist painting in which a female, typically non-Muslim, member of a haram reclines luxuriously. Usually these were painted by Western European men in their own studios embellished from scraps of fact into a speculative fantasy of a place east of them which they may never have visited. Sarah Ahmed explains:
The Orient is not an empty place; it is full, and it is full of all that which is “not Europe” or not Occidental, and which in its ”not-ness” seems to point to another way of being in the world – to a world of romance, sexuality and sensuality . In a way, orientalism involves the transformation of “farness” as a spatial marker of distance into a property of people and places. “They” embody what is far away. Thus “farness” takes the direction of a wish, or even follows the line of a wish. The “far” often slides into the exotic, after all. The exotic is not only where we are not, but it is also future oriented, as a place we long for and might yet inhabit. […] This fantasy of lack, of what is “not here,” shapes the desire for what is “there,” such that “there” becomes visible on the horizon as “supplying” what is lacking […] Desire directs bodies toward its object; in desire, we face the desired and seek to get closer. Desire confirms that which we are not (the object of desire), while it pushes us toward that “not,” which appears as an object on the horizon, at the edge of our gaze, always getting closer even when it is not quite here [emphasis added.] 
The visa stamp
“Rather than ‘eastern’ or ‘western’, Armenia was imaged as a borderland, ‘in-between’ East and West. The image of the Armenians, therefore, was characterized by ambiguity.
The Armenian population was dispersed across the borders of the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires, a region frequently portrayed as the boundary between civilization and barbarism or Europe and Asia. It was also perceived as a religious borderland, the meeting place of Christianity and Islam. Armenia was problematic as it seemed to straddle these borders.”-Jo Laycock
This occidental/oriental fantasy seems to operate over vast expanses of land and sea and across continents. Armenians, on the other hand, experience a distinctly local fantasy of east and west all our own which hinges entirely and precisely on the geographical marker of Mt Ararat: the terms Western and Eastern Armenian are contingent on which side of the mountain, the west or the east, a particular Armenian’s family is originally from. The entry and exit visa stamps of the Republic of Armenia depict Sis and Masis, the two peaks of Ararat, though they are entirely outside of country borders. This implies you are now entering or exiting two countries at once: the Republic of Armenia and an Other [Odar] Armenia. The other being, as Ahmed put it, a ‘not-ness’ or all that is not here.
at the center of Oda[r]ique was a woven tapestry of a screenshot I took from Google Maps of the view of the western side of Mount Ararat looking directly east to Armenia. This is the other side of the mountain, with Sis on the right and Masis on the left.
The 2.7×1.3m tapestry was woven using a digital jacquard loom, which translates a digital image into binary code which is then read by the loom and each row of threads is set automatically and then advanced by hand. Because of this, the other side of the weaving reveals the colors which were hidden on areas of the front, creating something like a negative image. Additionally, of course, the image itself is flipped. In this case the reverse of the tapestry has Sis on the left and Masis on the right, as one sees it from the RA.
On the second and third day of Oda[r]isque, both sides of the tapestry were lit creating a double-sided set. Each subject/collaborator first had to choose which side they wished to work with, decisions could have been made based on eastern/western Armenian identity, nationality, fantasy, longing, aesthetic preference, whim, or some combination of these. Whatever the deciding factors were, once this choice became the first step of the process the images began to take on a more deliberate and critical tone as there was now an invitation to take a side and define it.
Research Bibliography for Oda[r]isque:
Ahmed, Sarah. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Akomfrah, John. 2013. The Stuart Hall Project. DVD. United Kingdom: Smoking Dog Films.
Boone, Joseph Allen. The Homoerotics of Orientalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Epstein, Mikhail. “On Transculture.” Academic Exchange 7, no. 5 (2005). http://www.emory.edu/ACAD_EXCHANGE/2005/aprmay/sidebar.html
Laycock, Jo. Imagining Armenia. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Peltre, Christine. Orientalism in Art (New York : Abbeville Press, 1998).
Razlogov, Kirill. “Parajanov in prison: an exercise in transculturalism.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 12, No. 1 (2018): 37-57. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503132.2018.1422223 .
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
I consider the live photoshoot to be the main piece and the resulting images as a kind of glorified documentation. However, seeing the results of everyone’s extremely thoughtful and playful work I think they would function quite well on their own. I’m starting to plan a physical publication with pieces of writing accompanying each image in collaboration with the participants. Until then, the Instagram catalogue, @odarisque, is a placeholder and you’ll find any/all updates right there.
- Another Armenian friend from Tehran confirmed that this idiom is regularly used in in the Persian-Armenian dialect.
- Christine Peltre, Orientalism in Art (New York : Abbeville Press, 1998).
- If you wish to get in touch, you can e-mail me at aramatamianstudio[at]gmail[dot]com.
- Which caused its fair share of problems: most orientalist imagery can be read as a biproduct and tool of colonization and imperialism. See Edward Said’s Orientalism for more on this.
- Famous interventions with this trope include Manet’s Olympia, where instead of imagining a sex-slave from a foreign land he appropriates the pose and composition exactly but with a sex-worker and her maid in a contemporary Parisian setting. Also of note is Sylvia Sleigh’s The Turkish Bath (1973) after the Ingres painting of the same name, which borrows certain compositional elements from the Ingres (particularly the cloning of one of the bodies) but with contemporary men in her circle including the performance artist and sculptor Scott Burton posing.
- sandsardsak/սանձարձակ again comes to mind.
- Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 114.
- Jo Laycock, Imagining Armenia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 28-29.