Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"New Sensations, Strange Sensations" in Armenia

Sweets shop on Mashtots
I was not initially drawn to Armenia. Yerevan has nothing of Tbilisi's beauty or mystery - although, apparently, it has plenty of Farsi advertisements for strip clubs and women in six-inch heels - and the austere stone style of the churches (stark, unpainted, resisting any distraction from the adoration of God) less to my fanciful/baroque tastes than the mosaics of Byzantium or the frescoes of Rome. The city centre of Yerevan is small, ruthlessly modern, and relentlessly cool in a manner not unlike the less salubrious, oligarchs-playing-pool bars of Chardini Street. The much-vaunted "cafe culture" I was told was a hallmark of Yerevan's social scene turned out to be infinitely less charming than that of Sololaki or Kala.

Cafesjian Museum
I don't like to use the phrase "European" on this blog - it's silly and reductive and largely meaningless. But whatever magic Tbilisi has - smoky and melancholic and filled with boulevards and alleyways, in some cultural communion with cities like Vienna or Budapest - Yerevan lacks it. It's infinitely shinier and more "modern" and possesses more chain stores (and a Debenham's, for goodness' sake!), but there's very little sense there of a shared (art nouveau, dreaming gargoyle, crumbling facades) aesthetic with that part of Europe to which I, at least, am most drawn. It's that peculiar contrast that does it for me in Tbilisi - not a facile mix of East and West so much as a fusion between fairyland and melancholy, between the rosy sunrise pastels of the Betelmi houses against the hard emerald of the Narikala hill, the sense of bright promise that comes from waterfalls and carpet-shops and the balconies of the Old and the lonelier, richer walks I take through Mtatsminda and Sololaki, listening at splintered windows to out-of-tune pianos, looking for gargoyles.

I couldn't find that in Yerevan. There were a few excellent things in Yerevan - a dried-fruit-and-nut shop about halfway down Mashtots Avenue (on the right, facing the Opera), the Cafesjian Museum, which rivals the Museumsquartier in Vienna as one of the most impressive uses of art-museum-public-space I've seen, a sculpture exhibit above a souvenir shop on Abovian Street - haunting, puppet-like mechanically moving sculptures by Karen Baghadasarayan, who is, along with Merab Abramishvili, one of my favourite post-twentieth-century artists (the Caucasus overall, I've found, is infinitely superior to the US/UK when it comes to innovative, exciting, well-crafted contemporary art). Also, Armenian pomegranate wine (and Easter fruit pilaf, cooked by our excellent guesthouse hostess, who seemed to be under the impression that my friend Caitlyn and I were having a torrid lesbian affair).

But the most striking part about my visit to Armenia - that which makes the country a necessity to visit - was my trip to Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple (the former, a largely thirteenth-century cave monastery; the latter, a rebuilt Roman-era pagan temple), both of which were overwhelming, overpowering, striking in their austerity.

Geghard - with its stone lions, echoing chambers, secret doors, and slices of sunlight - hasn't suffered the way Georgian churches have from the decay of frescoes - it's been continuously bare since its construction. The divine presence here, for me, was very much the Old Testament God - enormous, awesome and terrible in the oldest and best senses of the world: wrathful and yet just. (The Jew in me responds all too well to that conception). It's rough and uncompromising and great in a way that puts all my High Church smells and bells to shame.

So too Garni - the sort of quasi-pagan ruin that - situated overlooking what can only be a vast Romantic chasm, fills me with giddy faux-classicist delight (there's even ruins of a house with mosaic floors!). It's one of the few places in all of the Caucasus where I've felt something...new. Not the melancholy of Mtatsminda, not the glorious ugliness of Perovskaya, not the all-too-easily-won beauty of Betelmi - where I do, sometimes, feel like I'm in a self-indulgent holding pattern - but some strange communion with everything atavistic and ancient and prophetic.

I'm always looking for that in the Caucasus. Something to get me outside myself, to free me from my mental repository of comparisons, from that endless self-reflection that separates me from geniune, immediate experience.


I could say I found it there, but it wasn't quite by chance. The Armenian government, apparently, was piping in gloriously subtle Armenian folk music via loudspeaker. I may have been subliminally brainwashed towards ecstasy.


Fleur's Verdict: Yerevan worth it for a half-day of modern-art-scouting; Geghard and Garni unmissable sights of a lifetime.

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