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From East to West: Conversation with Vigen Galstyan

Our second 2019 East-West Resident Vigen Galstyan is back from Brussels with many stories to share

October 17, 2019  |  by Creative Armenia

Curator, art historian, photographer, and filmmaker Vigen Galstyan spent his September at the Villa Empain in Brussels as our 2019 East-West Resident. Now he returns to discuss fond memories, key discoveries, and why everybody should go to Ghent.

CA: You have curated over 15 exhibitions in Armenia and Australia. How do your practices in one country influence your work in the other? How does art-flooded Brussels contribute it?

VG: My curatorial approach took shape in Australia where there is a long and respectable history of art curating. The methodologies I’ve deployed in my practice were strongly influenced by the deconstructive thinking that prevailed in my university studies, as well as the practical experience during my two-year tenure at the Art Gallery of NSW. However, it is the content, the choice of subject and ideas that dictate the trajectory of one’s work as a curator, and in my case this was largely determined by my interest in the history of modern Armenian art and culture. When I say ‘Armenian’ that also entails the complex, transcultural networks that bind the cultures of the entire region.

Being able to navigate between different countries is an inextricable part of the job. It enables a wider perspective on one’s base and is necessary for keeping up with current thinking and experiments that are taking place throughout the world. Without such exchange it is very easy to be left out of the larger dialogues and stagnate.

In this regard Brussels is an amazing microcosm of the international art world. It is less extravagant and pompous than other major art centers such as London or Paris, but is current in every other way. I was happy to discover how interdisciplinary and innovative curatorial tactics are in the Belgian capital: from major museums to small galleries. But everything is done with taste and great attention towards the viewer’s needs. Most of all, Brussels allows you to get a panoramic view of contemporary art’s key preoccupations today, as well as the tendencies of the art market.

CA: During your month at the Villa Empain you aimed to develop your “philological” art project. Can you tell us more about the project and its progress over the month?

VG: I was an aspiring artist prior to becoming a curator, and had been tinkering with personal art projects over the years, though I had no intention of showing these publicly. However, some of the trickier aspects of my work as an art historian compelled me to seek other forms and methods for materializing my research outside of the conventional essays and exhibitions. The project I was working on in Brussels was a jumble of ideas, notes and findings that I had accumulated in the past three years. It is a “curatorial” artwork-installation comprised primarily of found images and objects, as well as my own photography, which looks at the way modern visual culture and technology have given birth to the idea of the “nation” – a subject that has preoccupied me for years. The residency in Brussels gave me the opportunity to construct a coherent framework for the work and finish three of the works that will form part of the installation. It’s a process that demands seclusion, total immersion and focus, and I doubt I would’ve been able to do this in the daily maelstrom that is my life in Yerevan.

CA: Tell us about the most memorable incidents during the program.

VG: I was astonished at the huge number of young gallerists and collectors I met during the Brussels Art Weekend – it’s a really thriving scene here. There were also two exceptional exhibitions at the Villa Empain and Brussels Design Museum, which inspired me enormously. I was fortunate enough to share my time at the Villa with the wonderful Lebanese artist Maria Kassab whose work is very of the moment and relevant, and I hope to include it in one my future shows. I should also mention the astonishing Jeu de Balle flea market – a true haven for collectors and artists who work with found objects. There was a heart-stopping moment when I found an absolutely gorgeous photograph by the Armenian-Egyptian photographer Aram Alban in one box stuffed with hundreds of old photos. Alban had a studio in Brussels during the 1930s and was an important figurehead of modernist photography at the time, but is lesser-known today. I’m working on his retrospective and this stunning portrait will find its rightful place there.

CA: Were there any challenging aspects during your residency?

VG: Realising how big cultural divides can be sometimes and how painfully I miss Yerevan.

CA: How are you going to use your experience as East-West Resident and how will you continue your work after returning to Armenia?

VG: The East-West Residency gave me immense confidence for continuing my artistic practice. Now that the project has concrete shape, I will strive to finalize and exhibit it within the next six months. My professional life has little routine, but after Brussels I’d love to be much more organized with my time. The residency provided ample opportunities for new contacts and connections and made it clear that there are many ways in which art from Armenia can be showcased in this context. So I am hoping that a number of collaborative Armenian-Belgian projects will emerge in the near future and will be working towards this goal.

CA: You seemed to be impressed by Ghent, the city of Flemish art. Can you expand more on why it inspired you so much?

VG: Ghent is the kind of city that I love – a small-scale urban environment with a rich historical legacy that hasn’t stopped evolving. It is the type of city that makes you think about its architecture, its periods of evolution, regeneration and even failure. Here, the specifics of Flemish identity come to the fore and I loved how expressive and joyful Ghentians seemed in contrast to Brussels, which is very officious and cosmopolitan. Ghent was built entirely out of humanistic considerations – from its scale to its culture of eating and socialising – and it shows: everyone appeared to be truly happy. What is most impressive is how cities like this can compete with capitals as unique cultural hubs with their own points of view that are no less vital than what goes on in metropolises. It is a model that Armenia MUST adopt for its future economic and cultural development as currently Yerevan seems to consume almost the entire intellectual resource of the country, thus polarising the entire nation.