“Hello, Welcome” says Alexis with a big smile across his face as I, my husband Zohrab and our two-month old baby Kenzo enter the corridor of Plein Jour, an artist residency in Paris and Alexis’ latest project.
We follow him up twisting narrow staircases until we arrive at a kitchenette that opens onto several small but cozy communal rooms. The decor is sparse, but the space is luminous and ornamented with exotic objects – oriental rugs, an hexagonal Arabic coffee table, and dozens of vinyls that line the bookshelves of their lounge area. The furniture is all second-hand.
“Are these from your travels?” I ask, knowing of Alexis’ cultural research trips to Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Lebanon.
“No…I got these online in Paris” Alexis smiles sheepishly. “But it’s a great organization called Emmaus, it’s all used furniture and the proceeds go to support the homeless getting off the streets and into affordable housing.”
Plein Jour is like this furniture, it’s rough around the edges, but charming, well-kept, and the result of collective goodwill. An abandoned building in a blue-collar community, the city donated the venue to Alexis and his friends for one year (with the possibility of contract extension) for their artist studios.
Further down the hall Alexis shows us three studio spaces, one belonging to a painter, one to a musician, and another which is his own. A fourth space lies at the end of the hall intended for guest artists in residence.
“We renovated everything ourselves. It took us several months. This was my main work during the Covid confinement period. Now we’re happy to be opening the residency. Artists can use the space for several weeks, days, or even a few hours if they need a space to think or present something. If you know artists in Armenia who want to come to Paris for a residency, please tell them about us.”
We sink into the couches of the lounge, where Alexis offers us coffee and “chouquettes”, a typical French cream puff. Kenzo needs a diaper change, and Zohrab asks Alexis which table-top he can use. Alexis gestures over to the large black case in the far corner of the room.
“You can use my organ!”
I met Alexis back in 2016 when he came to Yerevan for an artist residency at the ACSL (Art and Culture Studies Laboratory). He plays a French 17th century mobile wind instrument called the Orgue de Barberie that was typical of peddlers, beggars or foreigners, essentially street musicians. Simply put, it functions by cranking a lever, which rotates an internal cylinder that plays music from punctured paper cards. For Alexis, this instrument is in some ways the very first computer (by way of perforated cards), an ancestor of computer-assisted music. In his compositions, he reinterprets this instrument with electronic music to create poetic melancholic soundscapes. He calls this project “Organ-Paysage”:
For Alexis, the project goes beyond sound creation to explore, resuscitate and even hijack folk traditions. On his various trips throughout Eurasia, Alexis has collaborated with local artists working in a combination of folk and experimental genres in order to create new meaning for this ancient instrument and revive its purpose as a social connector and music maker “of the masses”.
Alexis pulls out a box containing squares of white cloth covered in various embroideries. He explains that they are Afghan motifs, textiles which he acquired on a trip to Lebanon when teaching music to Palestinian refugees. He adds to the coffee table several books on Armenian textiles, embroidery and carpets and begins to share the idea for his next project.
His latest research aims to translate textile into sound by identifying and extracting “loops”, or repeating motifs, which he’ll manipulate and feed into his barrel organ via the punctured musical paper tape. Alexis plans to come back to Armenia in 2021 for a residency with HAYP/IN SITU in order to study Armenian motifs and textile patterns. As folk textiles contain symbols that tell rich stories and narratives, Alexis aims to give a new voice to these stories through sound.
We look forward to working with Alexis, and we encourage artists and interested collaborators in Armenia to reach out to us if you’re interested in meeting Alexis and contributing to his research project this spring. He is seeking fellow musicians, textile experts, as well as designers and fablab professionals to help him translate the motifs into the correct format for his organ.
text by Varduhi Kirakosian edited by Anna K. Gargarian
Busy rooms fill a long corridor leading to the IN SITU project space in Yerevan’s Malatia district. It’s the Gold’s Market building, serving as studio space for many artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs. Behind the doors of closely lined workrooms hide all kinds of arts and craftspeople deeply immersed into work that ranges from carpentry, wool spinning, metalwork to gold and silversmithing. One can also find storage units and even the odd food-producer on the fourth floor of this buzzing beehive.
Narek greets me warmly, walking me through the small but well-equipped room he’s called his studio for the past three months. Brushes line the tables, and paint splatters coat the floor. Lining one wall are shelves messily stocked with sketchbooks, masks, and other artworks. To one side, tools hang on the wall above his desk – wrenches, pliers, a hammer, more brushes. An oversized sofa sits across from the shelving unit.
“I tidy up the room quite often. Things are in their place,” Narek notes. He tells me about one of his favorite artists, Francis Bacon, who saw studio clutter as a kind of metaphor for the creative act. Behind the chaos of an artist studio, order is hidden; a bit of clutter doesn’t bother Narek.
Narek Barseghyan graduated from Armenia’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2015. Classically trained in the department of painting, Narek’s works are figural, though he has seen a movement away from realistic representation. Narek became a part of HAYP/ IN SITU’s artist community in April 2017, when he participated in the pop up exhibit, “DOWN_shift” with two artworks.
Since then, he’s participated in several HAYP exhibits including a solo show in the framework of the 2018 Armenia Art Fair called “The Leather Show”, HAYP’s 2018 retrospective “12,12,12”, and a residency program earlier this year entitled “Almost Human”. He has now taken over our Project Space at IN SITU art agency which offers various opportunities for artists to facilitate research, production, exhibition, and exchange around critical artworks. The studio is available on an application basis for a determined time frame dedicated to a particular project.
For Narek, the studio is a convenient walk from home and offers him large wall space for his oversized canvases, which can range from 3 to 4 meters in width. I ask Narek for his thoughts on artist residencies and their benefits. He explains that an artist residency grants new opportunities for exploring new settings, contexts, formats, and mediums that can be supported by new environments. This is Narek’s third residency, and second private studio residency. In 2016 Narek spent two weeks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine (USA), thanks to the support of the former Luys Education Foundation. One of the highlights of that experience was his discovery of a deep interest in watercolor, a medium he used to hate. Narek believes that artist residencies widen the scope of an artist’s interests and expand their chances to explore and try new methods and techniques. Regardless, he can spend hours working on his own and without distractions, for him, it’s not a question of concentration. His style keeps evolving and he never stops learning. His inspiration comes from texts or lectures that he listens to while painting. For Narek, the process of painting is a good moment for him to digest the food for thought from philosophical, historical, and spiritual programs he follows on the radio. The only challenge to artist residencies, he tells me, is getting over his experience of attachment to a particular place.
“The studio is not just a room for artists to make stuff, it’s a very intimate place where you live with your heart and mind,” Narek explains. “And once you finally integrate into a space and make it yours, you become attached to it, and leaving becomes challenging.”
No matter what Narek does – he does it obsessively. His direction may not be clear in the very first canvas of each series, but he trusts the process. For Narek, capturing ideal details in painting used to be at the core of his early work. But in his third year at the Academy of Fine Arts, Narek started exploring new themes and forms that lead to a drastic shift in style away from realistic representation. He turned away from the classics and his original heroes, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and towards American Pop Art and Neo-expressionist movements from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
From 2016 onwards, Narek began abstracting space and perspective to create collage-like compositions that incorporate elements of popular culture. Most of his recent work incorporates multilingual stream-of-consciousness text, vivid colors, and always a figural component (however distorted).
Narek tells me that his figures are conceptual, characters inspired by Heidegger, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Nietzsche, and other German philosophers. His latest series are contemplations of fantasy inspired by his dreams and spiritual folk tales, that invite us to explore an alien world dominated by an ultramarine color palette. His “monsters”, distorted characters that are usually bodiless, are inspired by Kali, the Hindu goddess of death associated with sexuality and violence. In art, she is often represented as a fearful fighting figure with a necklace of heads, a skirt of arms, and a lolling tongue. A mask of Kali hangs on the wall of Narek’s studio.
Narek’s Monster obsession has spanned the past two years, and he’s explored them in different media. Always fascinated by fashion, for a period Narek created masks inspired by Gucci and their performative runway shows.
His interest in fashion grew further when he visited New York – its museums, and even more so its design stores with their extravagantly designed shop windows.
“Zara shop had more art in it than most of the museums,” Narek explains. “Clothes there weren’t just placed for sale, everything in these shops was well thought out for visual impact.”
His interest in fashion led to a series of artworks and a fashion partnership with local designers called “Leather Show” an exhibit and fashion performance curated by HAYP Pop Up gallery in 2018. The Leather Show fashion collection was later featured at Armenia’s MADE boutique, and Narek went on to collaborate with other designers including the “Dare to Wear” brand where he was featured as a designer-painter. For now, Narek has taken a break from the fashion world, but he’s open to coming back to it in the future.
Having difficulty finding a studio space for the past year, Narek had been working mostly in digital art up until his IN SITU Project Space residency.
He tells me that he had to confess to himself how much he missed the real process of working with the sense of touch; colors and paints. He’s made some sculptural work in studio, but points out that mastering a new medium takes years. He hopes to explore new materials, and looks forward to the chance to work with other building residents, which he hasn’t gotten around to yet.
Narek shows me some of his recently completed canvases, which he keeps rolled up, either leaning against the wall or atop a large storage unit. One by one, he unrolls the works, taking care to remove the dust and check the paint surface. As he does so, he talks about different topics in art from theater to performance, fashion, and writing. He tells me that he’s recently been doing a lot of writing, and in particular, in recording his dreams. He is as enthusiastic telling me about this as I imagine him when waking up in the middle of the night to document his nightmares. He stresses that he’s a vivid dreamer, and that his writings are so detailed that upon rereading them he sometimes wonders how much of it is recollection and how much is speculation or interpretation.
Narek tells me he doesn’t consider himself a writer. He explains that writing his dreams occurs at a subconscious level; it’s the outcome of his immediate imagination and an exercise for better knowing himself. He’s fascinated by dreaming, and thinks of the struggles one passes through during nightmares as symbolic. Narek plans on turning his dream “adventure stories” into an artist book that would combine his writings with symbolic visuals that you can find across all of his canvases. Whether a “pause” sign, a projected tongue, or a combination of the two, Narek signs his works in his own hieroglyphics, a visual language he believes also stems from his subconscious mind and dream world.
IN SITU is currently working with Narek to produce his artist book as part of the IN PRINT program. While at Project Space, Narek will be developing his book concept in parallel to his Kali-inspired canvas series. Post-residency, Narek hopes to share this body of work through a solo exhibit.
“I just love watching people enjoy what I’ve created in the right environment, with live music, and among interesting visitors. It feels awesome. Even if they don’t know I am the author, I am just glad to share the positive vibes, and it fills me with a renewed power to create.”
The application for IN SITU Project Space residency is open on a rolling basis. To learn more about the Project Space and how to apply, visit our website here.