ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Rebecca Topakian as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Rebecca Topakian graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie of Arles in 2015. With a background in philosophy and geography, she questions notions of identity in her work. By exploring the in-betweens, the mythologies and fictions of identity, she consistently attempts to shed light on the crucial role it plays in our time. For Rebecca Topakian, identity is articulated in the relation between poetry, intimacy and politics. She has participated in many exhibitions in France and abroad. She published her first book, Infra-, in 2017 and it was shortlisted for the author book prize of les Rencontres d’Arles. She was shortlisted for FOAM Talent 2019 and was a laureate of the national commission “Regards du Grand Paris 2020.” In 2021, she was a laureate of the Fondation des Artistes grant and the CNAP grant for documentary photography, the Blow Up Press Award, the Bourse Transverse for a duo consisting of a photographer and a fine artist, and the Fénéon Prize. Her book, Dame Gulizar and Other Love Stories (Blow Up Press) is forthcoming.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Rebecca Topakian: I consider myself an artist who uses photography; my primary medium is photography and image, although my work can easily drift away from the medium. Since my first forays in photography, I have worked among communities and worked towards establishing the link between the individual and the collective. My first works were documentaries, in a classical sense, that focused on alternative communities. Growing up as an artist, my concern focused more and more on the idea that individual’s identities were built in the community through history and stories, mythologies, and fiction. Some themes I work with are recurring: archeology, ruins, archives. In recent years, the majority of my work has been linked to my Armenian identity.
AE: Can you elaborate on the intersection of mythology, archeology, and the personal within your photography?
RT: As a hobby, I am a grammar nerd. Sometimes, I spend hours on grammar forums online, especially as French grammar can be tricky, and my favorite thing is what we call the “concordance des temps,” the sequence of tenses. I am amazed by how tricky it can be to formulate the right sentence to express the entanglement of tenses. I think I try to do the same thing in my work playing with images. I know comparing photography to literature is overdone, but I really feel as though I work with my image material like sentences.
In attempting to understand community through the lens of collective history, I found it challenging to convey how we are the result of the past, family history, national history, and stories we have heard or haven’t heard; these all give shape to our sense of identity. That is why I often include pictures I made with archives, symbols or lexical fields of the past, ruins and archeology.
I also include myself a lot in my work, not necessarily through being physically present (as in self portraiture), but by involving myself as the photographing subject and the investigative subject. This is something that developed in documentary photography as a whole; the recognition that objectivity doesn’t exist, and that photographers should consider and include their position within their work. As for me, I try to give a lot of myself to the viewer: I want to give them full access to my imagination, my way of seeing, and where I come from. In exchange for this trust I give them, I expect the viewer to do some brain work: not to simply look at images, but to figure out something through their own imagination, by connecting the dots between the photos, the other materials, and the blanks I’m leaving. I would feel like I failed an exhibition if people walked through quickly and just said it “looks good.” I want people to be a bit startled, to frown their eyebrows, and to go back and forth between different images. Of course, there’s always a balance to find: I don’t want my work to be served on a plate, but it shouldn’t be too opaque either.
AE: You recently completed Vordan Karmir (2022), a collaborative project with Araks Sahakyan. Tell us about its inception and the stages of production for this multi-layered project. What was your experience like collaborating not only with Sahakyan, but also with the weavers in Tsovagyugh village?
RT: Araks and I wanted to work together on the 2020 Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabagh) war. We come from different backgrounds of “Armenianness” (she was born in Armenia, and I was born in France). We met online during the war, both understandably traumatized from this event. As I was setting up a charity print sale during the war, I was targeted and, as a result, was being sent images by DMs – photos and videos – of torture, beheading, dead bodies etc. These were often accompanied by death, rape and genocide threats. These images shocked me, and I decided to keep them on my phone so that mental images wouldn’t haunt me. Araks never saw these images, and we decided to transform this raw material and perform a kind of collective healing.
Since the war, I had a strong feeling in my gut that I wanted to make a rug (many of my ancestors were in the rug business). Araks was also working a lot with rugs, so it was very natural for us to make woven work. When you think of it, the rug is a long process of knotting: the rug itself is the result of making knots, and weaving is an art of connection. Connection was clearly what we needed after the war.
I transformed the images of torture and mutilation through the process of glitching, and we included theses glitched images in the three main medallions of the carpet. We used different traditional patterns, and included small drawings inspired by XIX° century carpets depicting daily rural life. Here, we illustrated different elements of the war: a Turkish Bayraktar, a man with an AK, a computer, phones, a tree on fire, a house on fire and so on. We decided to use two types of dyes for the carpet: non-natural ones for the glitches in the medallions and natural ones for the rest, including a lot of “vordan karmir.” Vordan karmir is red pigment derived from the red cochineal bug. There’s a red cochineal indigenous from the Ararat valley, however, it is endangered and disappearing. Instead, we used another red cochineal dye from Mexico. The disappearance of the indigenous red cochineal is also a parallel to the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Karabagh.
We published a book that documents the process of transformation from the images to the final carpet, and this book is really part of the piece since the process itself of transformation is core to the project.
This was a true collaborative work, not only between Araks and I, but also with Astghik Amirbekyan, the manager we worked with, and the two weavers in Tsovagyugh, Liana Gevorgyan and Gayane Gulanyan. Making a carpet is not only making a drawing, it’s choosing the techniques, the threads, the dyes; it’s the emotion the weavers put into their weaving.
AE: Your ongoing work, Il faut que les braises de Constantinople s’envolent jusqu’en Europe, is a project incorporating archival, personal, investigative and documentary elements. What are some of the specifics of this project, and why did you choose to use documentary as a tool within this work?
RT: Il faut que les braises… is a work at the intersection of documentary and personal investigation: I investigate my own family’s history in Turkey, that was not transmitted and lost, and simultaneously I investigate the condition of Armenians in Turkey today, and the psychological and pragmatic consequences of state denial of the genocide.
At first I intended to work as usual, in a purely poetic way, but I soon realized that this subject has such serious consequences on the lives of people that I needed to involve a bit more of a documentary approach.
State denial of the genocide committed against the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians in Turkey relies on fiction. It is a fictional story fabricated by the government from the time of Atatürk’s modern republic to erase the truth. Therefore, it wouldn’t be fair to the people who still suffer the consequences of this denial today, for me to also use a fictional tone. I try to balance different types of images: very documentary ones, that are accompanied by text and interviews, alongside more poetic ones. Through these more everyday life and poetic images, I try to convey the feelings of uneasiness and hostility Armenians can feel in Turkey. The investigation about my family has a very political and almost performative meaning: it resists one of the core intentions of the genocide, to erase history, and familial ties to the past. I refuse to live with this blank spot and I commit to finding out my family’s history. I don’t like documentary work that is too direct, or that gives too much information without asking viewers to question or decipher the content. I know I don’t appreciate documentary work when I think to myself: “I could have read a book.” So the challenge of this work for me is to give facts, information, but not too much, and to leave enough space for the viewer to feel what it is to be denied your own identity and your own history. They can then do further research on their own if they are curious.
Let’s take an example: I often saw these seagulls eating meat from trash in Istanbul. They have a kind of pervasive scavenger energy that echoes the sense of hostility that Armenians can feel from nationalists or casual denialists. I spent an entire afternoon with my assistant throwing meat at seagulls in an attempt to get the one photo where the bird looks hostile and menacing. This poetic approach is a symbolic construction, and I was actively looking for these symbols, metaphors, and scenes that could convey the feelings I wanted to give to the viewer.
AE: Tell us about your (n=6–9) (2020-2021) project commissioned by Ateliers Médicis and the CNAP. How was this project received by locals in and around Paris?
RT: (n=6-9) was a work made for the national commission called “Regards du Grand Paris,” which is documenting Greater Paris over the course of 10 years. I worked on the wild parakeets of Paris, a species that appeared in the Parisian sky after around 30 specimens escaped from a cargo plane at Orly airport in 1974. They bred and are now around 8,000 or more. A lot of parakeets fly near my home in the evening because there is a group of trees in which they go to sleep. I was always amazed by their beauty, their color, and their reluctance to be photographed (they fly very fast). They were very poetic to me since the first day I saw them.
During my research, I read that they were an invasive species that posed a danger for other local species; they were even killing squirrels! Then I discussed the subject with researchers specialized in urban ecosystems, and I learnt that they are not dangerous at all, but rather that people project their own human and xenophobic perceptions of territory and what/who should or should not be where on birds.
So I decided to photograph them with an instant camera, and have poetic, blurry and small pictures of them flying in movement, and juxtapose their beauty and freedom with the comments that people write about them online. I went through the comment sections of different articles and YouTube videos, gathering ambiguous sentences where people talk about the parakeets. Taken out of context, it could be any sentence that a racist or xenophobic person would say concerning immigrants. I printed the photos on large silk pieces that I hung from the ceiling of the exhibition space, and printed these sentences in corners of the images.
I also collected their feathers, which give them all this poetic power, but also their “exoticism,” since it is what makes them identifiable as an exotic species. I put the feathers in a frame, as if in a scientific order, also in an attempt to expose the absurdity of trying to organize things beyond the simple beauty of the feathers themselves.
(n=6-9) is the generic structure of the psittacofulvin pigment, which gives the unique color of parakeets and parrots.
AE: What or who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
RT: It might not reflect in my work, but I would say I’ve been influenced by Wolfgang Tillmans, for the simplicity and poetics of his pictures; and Taryn Simon, for the preciseness, and radical approach of her documentary work and scenographies.
My favorite movie is Close-Up by Kiarostami, and of course, you can easily see why: it’s a mix of pure documentary with fictional reenactment, as the actors play the roles of themselves. I actually cry over the beauty of this film every time I see it.
I am also a big fan of the director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for his extremely raw and poetic way of filming, and magical realism.
In terms of literature, I have been very influenced by the magical realism of Amos Tutuola, and by Virginia Woolf and her poetic, colorful descriptions of perceptions by the characters, especially in The Waves. All of these probably reflect my interest in fiction, magic and poetry.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
RT: I just finished a national commission in France where I worked on statues and the representations of memory in the public space. In the project I addressed the problematic statues like those of colonizers, but also the ones that acknowledge the memory of people and communities who have been oppressed and whose history the state recognizes. This work will be shown in 2024, and Vordan Karmir should be shown in Yerevan in April 2023.
As for projects, I hope to finish my work in Turkey soon and am in the process of looking for more funding from foundations and art patrons. My book Dame Gulizar and Other Love Stories should be published soon too, with publisher Blow Up Press.
REBECCA TOPAKIAN ONLINE: