Respiro, an installation by the influential conceptual artist Sarkis (b. 1938, Çaylak Sokak, Istanbul) is now on view in the Pavilion of Turkey at the 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia. Curated by Defne Ayas (Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art), the Pavilion of Turkey’s exhibition Respiro is organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), and is located at Sala d’Armi, Arsenale. The installation can be seen till 22 November 2015.
“In Respiro, I will be reaching out beyond geopolitics, to a more expansive context of a million plus years, going back to the creation of the universe and the beginning of time, back to the first-ever rainbow—the very first magical breaking point of light. Instead of binding ourselves to specific instances within the histories of politics, religion, philosophy, and the arts, we will be embracing contemporaneity of both the present and the distant past in our continued attempt to defy stagnation.” Sarkis, 2015
Of all the works that Sarkis has produced to date, Respiro is personally the most challenging. Revealing his profound engagement with the concept of Kriegsschatz (the spoils of war) and acknowledging art historical canons such as The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, and The Tempest by Giorgione, the installation consists of two site-specific neon rainbows and two large-scale mirrors with fingerprints applied in watercolour by seven children, Abay, Anna, Aren, Helin, Karla, Claudia, and Linda. In addition, it brings together several of Sarkis’s iconic sculptures, including an altar made out of red glass cut to the exact size of the one surrounded by Caravaggio paintings in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Thirty-six stained glass panes created with a medieval technique thread the installation. These illuminated panes feature images that encrypt pain, war, eros, and autobiography through a pictorial orchestra so as to point to a deft but subtle critique of humanity: the palm of a hand cups a flame, a seraph peeks through high on the wall of Hagia Sophia, Hrant Dink smiles against a background of pomegranates, a sleepy Sergei Parajanov gets caught off guard, and the Great Architect Sinan’s embrace of Mihrimah Sultan comes together with an image of Sarkis’s parents’ grave, just to name a few.
“Respiro”, meaning “breath” in Italian, is complemented by a musical composition by Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi, which is based on the artist’s rendering of the rainbow’s seven colors as a system of partitions. The music is played day and night, together with the neon works breathing in and out for the duration of the exhibition. Respiro took its first breath on 3 April and became fully alive on 23 April 2015.
“Few artists have combined artistic ingenuity with such a subtle critique of history as deftly as Sarkis. This undertaking opens up a space in which the potential of art is reanimated. Against the current landscape of deep uncertainties, our intention is to unfurl a proposition that reveals Sarkis’s profound concern for humanity. With and through his intense and perfectionist oeuvre -especially with this magnum opus of his- and thanks to his rich arsenal of visual, architectural, and musical apparatus, we are able to tune into hidden signals and frames encrypted in mediated images and visions; dig deeper into our contemporary lived experience; most likely hurt but also hopefully heal. The focus is the transformative power of his art, and both the timelessness and the timeliness of his oeuvre.” Defne Ayas, 2015