The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents Hrair Sarkissian’s (born 1973, Damascus, Syria) debut solo exhibition in Texas. Featuring three major works, FOCUS: Hrair Sarkissian explores how violence can be made invisible, histories of erasure and restitution, and the sediments of conflict. At the heart of the show is one of the artist’s most recent works, Final Flight, 2018–19. Here, Sarkissian investigates the story of the endangered northern bald ibis, one of the rarest birds in the world and the living descendants of birds depicted in the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although these birds were declared extinct in 1989, a surviving colony of seven was discovered in 2002 in the Syrian Desert near Palmyra. The onset of the war in Syria in 2011 severely constrained the conservation program, and the birds disappeared again around the time Palmyra was destroyed in 2014. Sarkissian employed new technologies and age-old techniques to create sculptures of the birds’ skulls. These works were produced through high-resolution photogrammetry 3D technology.
The exhibition also presents Sarkissian’s most iconic work, Execution Squares, 2008. The fourteen photographs that comprise the piece were taken in three Syrian cities - Aleppo, Lattakia, and Damascus - in the early morning, the time of day when criminals are executed. In Syria, this form of punishment is still carried out in major public squares that are commonly found in the heart of the city, where the community gathers. Occasionally, a certain square is selected for an execution because it is near the scene of the offender’s crime. This serves a twofold purpose: it allows the public to see the sentence one would incur for a particular crime, such as murder, rape, or treason, but it is also a means of revenge on behalf of the victim and his or her family. These executions are public events, where people who pass by become witnesses - willingly or not - to the extinguishment of life.
The third work in the exhibition is a two-channel video entitled Homesick, 2014. On one screen, a model of a four-story apartment building fills the frame. The building slowly but violently disintegrates; as each minute goes by, another floor collapses until all that remains is a pile of gray rubble. In the second channel of the video, the wreaker of this destruction is made visible: the artist himself. With sledgehammer in hand and his face a mixture of anger and desolation, he bashes the scale model of the Damascus apartment building where he lived until 2008 and where his parents continue to live; they have refused to leave Syria despite the unending violence. The model serves as a source of comfort and longing but also a prison of memories that have become ensnared in the extreme trauma of the present.
Hrair Sarkissian was born in Damascus and currently lives in London and The Hague. He earned a BFA in photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam, in 2010. Sarkissian’s work has been the subject of many solo exhibitions internationally, at institutions including the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Massachusetts; Sursock Museum, Beirut; KADIST, San Francisco; Fondazione Carispezia, La Spezia, Italy; SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul; and the Museum of Photography Thessaloniki, Greece. He has exhibited widely in group shows at Tate Modern, London; New Museum, New York; Darat Al Funun, Amman; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Imperial War Museum, London; Sharjah Biennial; Istanbul Biennial; and Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, among others. Sarkissian won the Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2013.
FOCUS: Hrair Sarkissian is guest curated by Dr. Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah Art Foundation.