THOMAS EVANS | DATE 3/17/2017
Claudio Gobbi's Arménie Ville was one of the finest and most revelatory photobooks of the past year—revelatory for both content (the extraordinary designs and rich heritage of Armenian church architecture) and conception (its organization of the material). It's also a beautifully designed publication, as you'll see from the photographs below.
From 2007 to 2016, visiting more than 25 countries, Gobbi documented Armenian religious architecture from the Middle Ages to the present. Besides the photographer's own photographs, the series also includes images from archives, pictures from the Internet and from commissioned artists. We interviewed him about the making of the book.
THOMAS EVANS: Can you describe the origins of this project? How did you become interested in Armenian ecclesiastical architecture?
CLAUDIO GOBBI: I started thinking about this project in 2007. At that time I was artist in residence at Cité des Arts in Paris and it was the Year of Armenia in France; there were many exhibitions about Armenia so I had the opportunity to learn about its culture. In all my projects I'm basically interested in investigating the geographical and cultural borders of Europe, so Armenia—with its geographical position in the Caucasus and its status as the first Christian country in the world—was a very fascinating place to me. I went there for the first time the following year, 2008, and I discovered that, for the past 1,500 years, Armenian churches all over the world have been built along similar lines. This was an amazing revelation and the incentive to start my research.
TE: Before we delve into the specifics of the book, could you say a little more about what has shaped your concern with the “geographical and cultural borders of Europe”?
CG: I've traveled quite a lot across Europe since I was a child, and when I started thinking about photography, that probably shaped my desire to go deeper and investigate this sense of belonging to a transnational community, exploring its frontiers.
I consider all my photo-projects as posing questions about cultural identity, and I'm interested in what is hybrid and displaced.
TE: What you say highlights a tension in Arménie Ville between the diaspora of a people and the continuity and permanence of an architecture. The book opens with two maps: the first indicates all of the churches and monasteries portrayed in Armenia, and the second those in Europe and the Middle East. The extraordinary stylistic consistency of these buildings is highlighted in a key that identifies six architectural types: Round Drum, Octagonal Drum, Polygonal Drum, Umbrella Shaped Dome, Decorated Drum and Colonnaded Drum. (“Drum” conveys the rounded, broad structure of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture in general.) How did you develop this classification system?
CG: I developed this classification together with the graphic designer Rob van Hoesel. A few of the oldest churches work like prototypes for all the others. The process is without end, in the sense that even today there are churches under construction wherever there are significant Armenian communities, if the land and resources allow the construction of new buildings. These new churches are always inspired by one of the "mother churches." As much as possible, we tried to give our classification system scientific parameters, even though I'm neither an architect nor an archaeologist, and even though the book is just an artist's book. That's why there are some notes clarifying this point.
TE: This typological treatment of the subject and your use of documentation by photographers other than yourself foreground the anthropological dimension of this book—which in turn raises the specter of the Armenian diaspora and the terrible genocide preceding it (the repercussions of which continue to unfold). Presented in this typological style, the formal consistency of these buildings suggests the persistence of a culture that has been dispersed across the globe. How did visiting all these extraordinary buildings actually feel, over the course of the project?
CG: My first journey to Armenia in 2008 was actually very emotional; after this I returned every year with a growing sense of familiarity. Except for Yerevan, which is the only real modern city in the country, travelling across the countryside is a time-travel experience. At least as a European, it is difficult not to be moved by the virginity of a place that is still not damaged by mass tourism, and also at a human level. I loved this sense of intimacy, to feel yourself at home in a remote foreign land.
The condition of the buildings varies a lot. Few of them are visited by local or international tourists; the majority are fairly isolated and it was not unusual to be completely alone there.
Being inside some of them gave full rein to the imagination (in the Middle Ages, many of them were important cultural centers) and allowed one to understand how geography plays a major role in the history of a country.
TE: Were you able to get a sense of their current social function (which I’m sure varied from location to location)?
CG: In some cases the social function is evident, especially (but not only) for those churches that are built outside contemporary Armenia, which represent the expression of the presence of a large Armenian community, its vitality. In some cases the churches are associated with a cultural center. I think there are many churches today under construction in, for instance, Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East. The social function of those churches that are part of historical Armenia may be diverse. Many are just ruins and testify clearly to the history, of the struggle of a people to resist, to survive through the centuries. A few monasteries are today UNESCO heritage sites and are places regularly visited and protected.
TE: The images in Arménie Ville are reproduced at a fairly consistent size—more or less postcard dimensions—with a lot of white space around them. Can you talk about the layout of the images in that regard?
CG: In designing the book it was very important to me to keep it as close as possible to the original photo-installation, which is why I wished to have a layout where the images were "democratically" distributed with minimal differences in their dimensions and quality of reproduction. One main aspect of the project is to approach the seriality of Armenian architecture to reflect on how the photographic medium is changing today—in terms of vision, serialization and materiality. Both the installed work and the book strive for a dialectic approach, the comparison and dialogue between images of an architecture that is always the same in space and time but which is seen with different eyes.
TE: The emphasis on seriality and permutation makes the project ideally suited for book form. Were there any important precedents for you in that regard—artist’s books, photobooks, art-historical works?
CG: Not so much in term of books, but I could say that in a way I grew up with serial photography, which was really pervasive in the '80s and '90s, and with the practice of photography as a direct experience of the real. I wished to break out of this and deal with a more structured approach to photography where the meaning of the images comes not only from a simple concept of authorship. Today anyone is able to produce good photographs and even a camera is no longer needed, so I guess what the images recall, or where they project, is becoming more important. In this regard I can say that Lewis Baltz has been very important to me, for his great capacity to deconstruct his own vision.
TE: And where do you think this will take you next?
CG: I’m currently working on another long-term project in the Ural region in Russia. I traveled there for the first time in 2011. Historically the region is considered the geographical frontier between Europe and Asia. It's a very interesting multicultural place that, in recent years, has been going through a radical urban transformation, and searching for a new identity. This project will display for the first time different photographic genres within the same series and a collection of objects. Hopefully in a couple of years there will be a book too.
Hbk, 8.5 x 10.75 in. / 160 pgs / 125 color.