Dialogue and Vulnerability: Interview with Araks Sahakyan

The last course of the “How to survive as an emerging artist?” curriculum will be one to remember for the program participants! During her two-day workshop, Araks Sahakyan, transdisciplinary artist based in Paris, shared with them an “Artist’s Survival Kit” inspired by her training in acting, dancing and singing. In the interview below, Araks presents her workshop approach and tells us more about “Borderline Ornaments”, the group exhibition she co-curated at the Folk Arts Museum in Yerevan.

In what consisted the “Artist’s Survival Kit” workshop you gave at ICA Yerevan?

Araks Sahakyan - During the first part of the workshop, we worked on the presence of the body through group dance and different exercises with music. I usually start my workshop with this because one of the issues young artists have is that they are boiling with ideas, but are actually “up in the air”, they don’t know what they really want to do. It is very important for me that artists – but also people in general – understand better what’s going on in their body, so they can make more appropriate decisions in the real world. When an artist explores his body and discovers his weak or strong sides, she/he can protect himself better and go deeper in the creative process.

During the second part, we worked in groups of three. Each participant was talking about his/her work while two others were listening and taking notes. After that, the two participants would retell in the first person what the first participant said. It’s a “mirror exercise”. Since artists are very vulnerable – that’s why most of them do art – it’s difficult to tell them the truth to their face, so to say. But when you do it through someone else, it’s easier. And by presenting someone else’s work, the “listener” participants also learn how to present their own work.

Before the workshop, you asked each student to record and send you a short video presenting their work and discussing their creative block. What’s the idea behind this exercise?

A. S. - These short videos are a good way for me to understand their practice and who they are. You can generally understand someone by listening to what she/he says and to what she/he doesn’t say. Of course, this is a collective workshop, but every participant is different. Artists are very vulnerable and I need to understand the way I’m going to work with each of them on a personal level. During the workshop, we watched each participant’s presentation and discussed the differences that arise between the artworks, the participant’s oral presentation, and the short video. The other reason why we’re doing this exercise is that nowadays, art institutions often ask for short videos in the applications. Artists might be asked to record an answer to a question or to give a two-minutes presentation during a Zoom call. During our workshop, participants had the opportunity to make mistakes and to open up. And after this little training, they will know better how much they can open up and what they have to say.

It was the first time that you gave this workshop in Armenia. What did you retain from your interactions with the participants?

A. S. - Some students are more closed off than others, maybe more than in Europe. In Armenia there are different types of issues, especially when it comes to the body and to how girls or boys should behave. Anywhere in the world, it’s always a challenge to show vulnerability. But by working slowly, with understanding, and explaining things, we usually get there. That’s why it’s important to work as a closed group, with no outside gaze. When a participant sees that another one is opening up, she/he is less afraid to also open up, for she/he can see that there is nothing to be afraid of. This is a collective contagion with individual side effects. But this is only possible if we create a safe place for the participants.

What advice would you give to emerging Armenian artists?

A. S. - In my workshop, I usually give four main advices to young artists: work with what’s there, talk about what you know, let yourself be surprised, and explore things that are outside your area of interest, like talking to a physician, going fishing, etc. This is a good way to better understand your own reality. If you stay in your comfort zone, you’ll find it more difficult to have a fresh look on your reality. If I had to sum up my approach in one sentence, I would say that an artist should be like a donkey. You should progress slowly, while listening to everyone who’s on your road, and decide for yourself what you take or leave behind. Of course, you can also go very fast, like a horse, but things might get out of hand. When you go slowly, even if you make a mistake, you still have time to correct yourself. And you also have time to get interested in other things without losing your essence.

A few words about the concept behind the « Borderline Ornaments” exhibition?

A. S. - Over the years, I have created many works using the carpet weaving technique. It’s interesting for me to revive these old techniques and to adapt them to contemporary art. Since I knew several artists that work with textile, rugs or ornaments, I decided to organize this exhibition, in collaboration with Irena Popiashvili*. It is actually the first time that I work as a curator. That’s why I call myself a “curator by accident”! The concept is driven by different ideas. First of all, I wanted the public to come visit the Folk Arts Museum of Yerevan, so they can both understand the old artworks and appreciate the new ones. Also, most of the exhibited artists came for the first time in Armenia, and thus had a chance to interact with local artists. For me, dialogue is very important. I think our problems – whether individual, familial or even collective – mainly come from “broken dialogues”. This is why it’s essential for me to talk to people from different backgrounds. There is a time for working on your art process and focusing, but also a time for dialogue. And by dialogue, I don’t mean only talking with words. Dialogue can be going to an exhibition, listening to music or dancing to a concert, for it activates all senses through the skin.

Interview conducted in Armenian and translated into English by Achod Papasian

*Independent curator, dean of the Free University of Tbilisi, and co-founder of Kunsthalle Tbilisi. Along with Araks, Irena also gave a workshop within the framework of the “How to Survive as an Artist” program.

The “Borderline Ornaments” exhibition will be open until November 20th, 2023. More details here.

Photo credits: Lolita Siad-Guilleray