Mamikon Yengibarian’s strange relics
One of my friends recently sent me some photos of Californian-born Japanese sculptor Ruth Asawa’s exhibition in Norway, titled Citizen of the Universe. Indeed, the world can be traversed back and forth now – more easily than ever before – but genetic information, our native land and our early experiences, are all built into our ways of thinking, even when we’re trying to assimilate into universal values and culture and become part of the local environment. Almost always inherent in the details are our origins and a sense of uncertainty: will I manage?
The eternal questions of “Where do we come from? Who are we? and Where are we going?” are discernible in virtually every one of Mamikon Yengibarian’s sculptures, including his early cat sculptures, whose elongated, slender figures already bore the stylistic features that later became his signature, although the animal figures reflected his state of mind at the time, the outcast existence of vagabonds. The language of form he used as a young sculptor has also remained a combination of cultures, between which he can travel freely: the legacy of ancient Mesopotamia and the Etruscans, as well as the twentieth-century innovators, and above all the ethereal quality and slender forms of Giacometti and Brâncuși’s sculptures. However, contrasted with the upward-striving, static etherealness in the works of Giacometti and Brâncuși, Yengibarian’s sculptures are often in motion, unstable and can be easily tipped out of balance. While people strive to show themselves as strong and self-confident on the outside, on the inside they are full of doubt about life’s greatest questions and their own lives: living in the shadow of the ever-increasing threat of climate change, we regularly see news about pandemics and wars at our doorstep, the media tells us of victims of senseless terror attacks and our private sphere is also complicated by conflict, fragile relationships, existential anxiety and the fear of illnesses. Such instability and uncertainty, akin to the balancing of a ropedancer, is built into Yengibarian’s floating and precarious sculptures, also bearing a complex cultural heritage that defines a sculptor of Armenian origin who has lived in Hungary since the 1990s and has been travelling the wide world.
The sculptures exhibited in the Műcsarnok start out from both organic and inorganic elements: houses, balloons, apples, chessboards with chess pieces, clouds and fragmented birds, fish, rams and human limbs. The latter are all incomplete or truncated, with the removed parts covered with beeswax coloured blue or red, reminiscent of healing bandages. It is always very important parts that are missing: a bird’s wing, a fish’s tail, a ram or sheep’s head (we do not know which since it cannot be said with certainty without the head and horns that are missing), fingers and toes. These truncated sculptures are strange and unpleasant and at the same time are imbued with Weltschmerz and symbolic references.1 The points at which the tiny metal plates are welded together have a peculiar aesthetic value with their network and structure lending elegance to what could be described as rather morbid images. A duality is also intrinsic to the materials Yengibarian uses: poisonous lead and curative beeswax. There is an interesting contrast between the sculptures and the objects that inspired them: while in reality a house is a massive and heavy block, an apple or balloon is light and a cloud is an ungraspable, disperse atmospheric phenomenon, all these are reversed here. Yengibarian’s tiny houses stand on long and thin metal legs (one is covered with feathers, referring to lightness), while the real size of apples and balloons are significantly different from their massive and block-like versions seen at the exhibition. The sculptor’s ambition is to convey his message symbolically and philosophically, akin to a poet, and to do this he lifts his objects out of space, virtually making them float by suspending them and placing them on high and thin stands, thus discarding the requirement of the distribution of points of gravity in classical sculpture, regarding this as a kind of gravitational challenge.2
The other type of sculptures at the exhibition feature amputated limbs and animals differently but exude the same uncertainty and instability, except that these animals are coupled with extensive historical references and symbolism.
Each one (fish, bird, ram/sheep) is a symbol of Christ, although in this case the fish and bird do not belong to specific species but are generic, even though a dove, an eagle and a swan would evoke entirely different connotations. When discussing an artist of Armenian origin, it must also be remembered that Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion and besides being a sacrificial animal, the ram had been featured as a totem animal in the era before AD. on numerus funerary monuments.
While striving for universality and freely moving between cultures, Mamikon Yengibarian has retained his sensitive origins, even subconsciously, despite having lived thousands of kilometres away from his native land for more than thirty years. His sculptures speak about the present day of humanity without giving firm answers; on the contrary, they call attention to the continuous change of life: what is seen as stable today might be different tomorrow; we lose things important to us but will we find something different or better instead? This never-ceasing uncertainty and doubt inspire us, viewers, to think. Reality is never simply good or bad (that is why he placed his chess pieces on colour squares instead of just black and white ones), anything can hold truth but it is our knowledge and moral stance based on which we decide what we accept and how we select from the flood of information what is true or false, cheap or valuable. In the end all things will find equilibrium, despite their precariousness.
Marianna Mayer, curator of the exhibition
(1) Bruce Nauman exhibited a spatial ensemble of head- and hand-fragments under the title of Topological Gardens in the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennale of 2009, but the bizarre tone of these compositions was combined with some grotesque humour and aesthetic playfulness. This exhibition won the Golden Lion Award that year.
(2) There is an artist who thinks a lot like Mamikon Yengibarian: Eva Pusztai, an Austrian artist of Hungarian origin. The spatial movement of her compositions made from long iron rods also refer to both physical and psychological instability.
He lives in Budapest and Vienna, works in Etyek.
He was born into a family of artists in Armenia: his mother and sibling are musicians, while one of his uncles is a pantomime artist. He graduated from the Yerevan Academy of Fine Arts in 1987 and studied on a scholarship at the art academy of Saint Petersburg, then called Leningrad. After his first solo show, held in 1987 in the centre of the Association of Armenian Writers in Yerevan, he flew to Kiev, and then he travelled on to Berlin, from where he came to Budapest in 1990. He had to build up his life here from scratch, but his talent helped him to soon become part of the Hungarian art scene. Between 1995 and 1998 he won the Derkovits Scholarship, and this was followed by one exhibition after the next, both in Hungary and abroad. Included among them was his solo show organised by Kunsthalle Budapest but held in the Dorottya Gallery in 1996, his large-scale sculpture exhibition titled Helyzetkép (State of the Art) in 1995, and the international exhibition of sculpture titled Fémjelzés (Metal Signal) in 1999, where his works were exhibited alongside those by leading domestic artists as well as by Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, and Bernard Venet. His signature cat sculptures were also displayed at the Venice Biennale. His works can be found in public spaces (Park of Nationalities, garden of the Bartók Memorial House) and public buildings (Thermal Hotel, Erste Bank, Four Seasons Hotel) in Budapest, as well as in Hungarian, American and Italian private collections.