The City of Dove Women: An Interview with Arpi Adamyan
by Knar Hovakimyan
Khabar Keslan and The Honey Pump are proud to present Dove City Motel at the Satellite Art Show. This dynamic exhibition features two emerging artists Arpi Adamyan and Vincent Cy Chen. In this interview, Arpi Adamyan discusses her new piece The City of Dove Women, her experience with multimedia art, and her involvement in queer activism. Please join us for the opening reception on October 3, between 5pm-12am.
Knar Hovakimyan: How did you start working in multimedia art? What attracted you to this medium as opposed to others?
Arpi Adamyan: My first medium was painting followed by photography and video. Even though I had a couple of attempts to mix media before, The City of Dove Women is the multimedia art installation that changed the direction of my art practice. I was going to build a model for a fictional city where my characters, the Dove Women, reside. The cityscape was considered as a prop for the video project at the beginning. Once I made my first object I new sculpting was my new love. At that point It was clear for me that this project was going to be a multimedia installation. Sculpting brought tactility to my working process. I could sculpt with my eyes closed unlike painting and video making processes; as if my eyes were also inside the palms of my hands. This is where I considered using a TV screen as an object as well. The video art playing represents the ocean, on top of which several islands form the City of Dove Women. From a conceptual point of view, it made so much sense to have this world half digital and half analog—a hybrid.
As the artist, you have this tactile connection with the sculptures but the viewers don’t touch it, right?
I had a chance to show this project three times already. Each time, I was surprised by how many people showed interest in touching the sculptures. About 95% of the time I let people touch if I felt that they would be careful. This is how I started learning about other people’s desires through my art. It was a new and wonderful experience for me.
Did you make all of the sculptures with your eyes closed?
Not as a rule. I didn’t control it; it just happened naturally.
I want to talk more about the piece “The City of Dove Women.” In your artist statement for this piece, you mention the “hybridization of multiple contradictions” as your method of art-making. And I know you’ve talked about it a little bit: the tactile element with your eyes closed versus the video screen. I’m curious to hear some more examples and why this is important in your work.
I initially wanted to create a complex fictional world with multiple concepts in it, layered with links to multiple historical periods. This is a project that speaks about queer sexuality and its traumatic historical past. It also brings together nature, architecture, and childbirth. To execute such complexity, I used hybridization as understood by Donna Haraway, merging binary contradictions into each other to create a third space. For example, I have hybridized modernist Soviet Armenian architecture with sex toys. During the Soviet Union, homosexuality was criminalized in all the republics. Queer people could only be open and out inside prison buildings. I reinterpreted the past and created a world where the structures of oppression became objects of pleasure; the buildings on the cityscape have the scale of sex toys and materiality that is more connected to building—clay and porcelain. I sand all the sharp edges of brutalist architecture so that all objects comfort the body.
Are all of the sculptural elements sex toy buildings or are there others as well?
Another hybrid is corals, fountains and flying machines, which I call Flying Fountains. Here I combined staticity with mobility. The central element in this project is an object called Placenta Jellyfish. As a young, queer mom I was thinking about the placenta a lot. The organism I created is a hybrid of placenta and jellyfish, it lives in the ocean near The City of Dove Women. It is responsible for the formation of the Dove Women underwater. This object is partially sculptural and partially digital as if an amphibian art object.
You call “The City of Dove Women” a feminist utopian city. Do the placenta jellyfish and other elements fit into this concept?
The term ‘utopia’ is a problematic one. I approach it as all other themes in my project, meaning—I hybridize it. On the one hand, it refers to the Soviet Union as a utopian project; it also refers to the colonial imagination of founding utopian societies in colonized islands. Historically, utopian projects are associated with limited land area and closed borders. I historically belong to that kind of state practice as well. On the other hand, José Esteban Muñoz defines queer utopianism as a criticism of the present, as something which is always on the horizon, in the future to come, not-yet-here. Having all that in mind, my utopianism is an attempt to hybridize them together. One half of my project engages with historical utopian projects by criticizing and reinterpreting them. Another half is engaging with sci-fi and queer utopianism of hope for the future. Placenta-Jellyfish and Flying Fountains belong to the latter one.
I’m curious about your overall trajectory as an artist. How have your goals, concepts, or methodology changed throughout your career and what has influenced these changes?
From today’s perspective, I could roughly define three main periods of my artistic life. The beginning starts when I was fifteen: expressionist paintings. My subjects were coming-of-age female figures which existed in non-space. At that age, I was reading many texts on feminism and questioning structures of oppression towards female artists. My subjects were screaming in search of belonging and space for their existence. At the time, I was a very emotional person. Making these paintings was the only way for me to express myself and feel alive.
Then, was the period of looking at archives. My non-space transformed into an archival space and art history book space. I was specifically focused on women sculptors since most discrimination happens in that field towards women artists in Armenia. I was interested in the politics of preservation, collecting, and archiving. One cold winter day during my searches, I accidentally found the abandoned archive of Aitsemnik Urartu (1899-1974, Armenian sculptor) in the garage of her former student. It was there since 1974. Black and white photographs of her busts of historical figures struck me with their isolation. Each bust was documented from two or three angles. I chose two photographs from each sculpture and edited them together like two different characters interacting with each other in the same space. I manipulated their identities by adding another transparent layer with a color brush by transforming their hair and clothing; I added a new layer of identity. This project was about multiplicity from the inside. It was the queer body “archived” from the public space.
The first period was about the present and lack of space, the second about the past, learning from historical figures and reinterpreting their archives. In the third period, I create new fictional spaces. Revisiting childhood fairy tales with fresh perspectives as well as reading feminist science fiction—such as Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler—became an essential part of my practice. In the third phase, I have queer-feminist subjects who are not residing in the past, not in the present, but in fictional, speculative spaces of possible futures. In this fictional reality, environments became more alive. Nature and architecture overtook the space to the extent that my subject matter shifted from identity towards the environment. As my teacher Saya Woolfalk noticed, “architecture is a character” in my works. Saya’s installations—“Empathics,” “Chimatek,” and “Chimacloud”—have taught me a great deal about combining video with sculpture. I was also inspired by Linda Ganjian’s series of “Carpets” cityscapes. Another inspiration was my dear teachers Aziz and Cucher’s series of “Chimeras” (1998) and “Plasmorphica” (1996).
My overall trajectory started with a focus on the human body, followed by identity politics in the non-space, and gradually shifted towards excessively represented environments with no physical presence of bodies.
When did you start working on sculpture?
It was exactly a year ago. One of my teachers was Phoenix Lindsey Hall who taught me how to work with porcelain and clay. Although when I look back, I see how I was interested in sculpture before. Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, and Magdalena Abakanowicz were my long-time favorite artists and sources of inspiration.
What are the differences between the art communities you have been involved within New York versus in Yerevan? How do the city and community impact your art-making?
In New York, art communities’ materiality and visual language are an essential part of discourse while in Yerevan conversations about concepts overrule the former. In diverse cities like New York, there is a variety of perspectives to read an artwork with—unlike in the predominantly monoethnic city of Yerevan. Here, my projects became more complex; somehow I drifted away from simplicity. When your viewers share multiple cultural, historical, and socio-economic backgrounds, it enriches the readings of your artwork, adding even more intricacy to it.
How much do you feel like people need to know about your identity or your history to fully understand or appreciate your work?
I don’t think that any work can be fully understood. Meanings can change over time and in renewed contexts. Every meaning is an interpretation. Since I am producing complexity I expect interpretations of my works to have the same freedom. Whether the method is formal, queer feminist, psychological, socio-economic or any other, they all speak about aspects of the same world I have made. So far my work spoke for itself. People connected to it without any explanation. Some people connect with sensuality, some with architectural landscape and its history, others see the sci-fi element in it and some see identity politics. How many more people need to know about me or my culture depends on how much they want to continue to explore the multiple aspects of the work; and if they do, the internet is a powerful tool for that.
You’ve worked with the organization Utopiana and co-founded Queering Yerevan Collective. Does your activism contribute to your artwork and vice versa?
Queering Yerevan Collective was co-founded by a group of art workers: curators, writers, artists. We defined our artistic activism as “slant activism.” Using the indirect language of art, our institutional criticisms—through performances, public art, and posters were forming a discourse of queerness in the Armenian art field that was previously silenced. It was hard work to reach the point when queerness was not undermined as a topic but a legitimate discursive theme. To do that, we turned a private garden, which was attached to two institutions, into an art space. One of the institutions was Utopiana where I was employed at the time. We named our events “What is to Take Place?” to indicate both the necessity of creating new spaces and making queer life happen. For many years, it was an amazing space for artists like us to be vocal as well. One of QYC’s public performances was in front of the National Art Museum. We did a performance with masks and reading texts as a protest against the museum, which keeps women’s work off display.
Criticism was an essential part of the QYC over ten years. Now, criticism is transformed into my driving force which leads me towards speculating a world that doesn’t exist.
What future projects are you planning?
I am working on a couple of queer world-building projects.
Arpi Adamyan was born in 1985, Yerevan, Armenia. Adamyan is a multimedia artist currently based in New York City. She received her BA and first MFA degrees from Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts in 2007. She was one of the board members of Utopiana Swiss Armenian cultural organization from 2006-2009. In 2007, she co-founded Queering Yerevan Collective with fellow artists, writers, curators and activists. Her works were shown at EV+A International Biennial of Contemporary Art “Give(a)way” (2006, Ireland), VI Gyumri International Biennial of Contemporary Art (2008, Armenia), FilmIdyll Festival (2009, Sweden), Decolonizing the City (2012, Germany), Take Place by VBKÖ (2013, Austria), “Suzanne Lacy’s International Dinner Party in Feminist Curatorial Thought” (2015, Switzerland), “Beneath Them Was Forever” (2019, USA), etc. She received her second MFA degree from Parsons School of Design at The New School in 2019.