press release

Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence
October 30, 2021–January 30, 2022

The first mid-career survey of work by London-based Syrian-Armenian artist Hrair Sarkissian—one of the foremost conceptual photographers of our time—is now open at Sharjah Art Foundation and runs until January 30, 2022. Taking audiences on an expansive journey through the hallowed squares of Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus, across the skies above Palmyra and over the snow-covered post-industrial landscapes of modern-day Armenia, The Other Side of Silence brings together two major new commissions by the artist and more than a dozen of his most significant bodies of work from the past 15 years.

Captivated by the possibilities of the medium, Sarkissian has long worked with analogue photography, using a large-format camera to produce life-sized photographs—a medium that Sarkissian has noted enables the thrill and experience that “chance” plays in capturing time in an era of hyper-saturated digital image culture. Spanning photography, moving image, sculpture, sound and installation, Sarkissian’s practice creates meditative dreamscapes in some moments; deathscapes in others—sites where the muted voice, absent from the frame, is temporarily offered space to breathe.

The Other Side of Silence reveals the artist’s timely exploration of the histories of disappearance; the architecture of violence and that which exists in the interstices, withheld from official record or history. In his earliest work in the exhibition, Unfinished (2006), Sarkissian presents, for the first time, his long-researched photo-serial on the decaying and uncompleted monuments of the contemporary Middle East. Presented alongside this is Last Seen (2018-2021), the artist’s most ambitious project to date. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, these 50 photographs represent the lives of families whose loved ones unexpectedly “disappeared” during times of conflict. Sarkissian’s composite archive seeks to resuscitate the memory of those individuals “lost” to history—withheld from life or death, in Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, Kosovo and Lebanon.

In Between (2006), a series of 16 images of Armenian landscapes blanketed in snow reflects the artist’s attempts to reconcile the memories passed down from his Armenian grandfather and his life as a refugee in Syria, where he would learn the practice of photography working in his father’s photo studio as a youth—a subject explored in the work, My Father and I (2010). Held in the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection, the series Execution Squares (2008) depicts public squares in three Syrian cities which were historically used for public hangings. While the aftermath of one such execution, witnessed by the artist as a child, remains as a memory ingrained in his mind’s eye, Sarkissian revisits and photographs these sites of violence in the stillness of dawn revealing the fragile paradox between the physical beauty of these spaces, as well as the political and social realities, which they obscure. The resultant works act to both mark and erase the horror.

The exhibition also includes Final Flight (2018–2019), his multi-media commission for Sharjah Biennial 14, which explores the story of the endangered Northern Bald Ibis through print, film and sculpture. Efforts to conserve the last colony discovered in the Syrian desert near Palmyra were constrained by the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The birds finally disappeared around the time Palmyra was destroyed in 2014.

Deathscape (2021), the artist’s first sound installation, commissioned on the occasion of British Art Show 9, documents the work of forensic archaeologists as they excavate mass graves in Spain and unearth the legacy of the country’s civil war and its fascist dictatorship. The collective threads throughout the exhibition aim to foster an inclusive emotional space. Constructing a sense of solidarity around collective traumas—Sarkissian argues for a form of social justice that compensates for the miscarriages of official history, which far too often, fail to narrate the stories of the dispossessed.

Exhibition organization and additional venues
Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence is organized by Sharjah Art Foundation, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, and the Bonnefanten, Maastricht. The exhibition is curated by Dr Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation; Dr Theodor Ringborg, Artistic Director, Bonniers Konsthall; and Stijn Huijts, Artistic Director, the Bonnefanten. After its presentation at SAF, the exhibition travels to Bonniers Konsthall, where it will be on view 26 April to 19 June 2022, then to the Bonnefanten, where it will be on view from November 27, 2022 to May 14, 2023.

The Sharjah presentation of Hrair Sarkissian: The Other Side of Silence marks the release of the artist’s first major monograph published by Bonniers Konsthall in collaboration with Lenz Press.