Painful stories, powerful work from Egoyan and Ataman

June 5, 2007
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)




Created by: Kutlug Ataman and Atom Egoyan

At Artcore in Toronto until June 10.

In Atom Egoyan's films, there's often a scene when a character is interrogated, required to offer their version of the truth and convince someone else. Specifically, he used such a scene, between a customs inspector and a young man suspected of importing drugs, as the pivotal moment in Ararat, his 2002 film about the Armenian genocide.

He approaches that same legacy in a fresh way in the new collaborative video installation, Auroras/Testimony, with Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman. Presented at Artzone in the Distillery District as part of the Luminato Festival (in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Ontario), this world premiere piece explores opposite responses to the legacy of the Armenian genocide.

In the first room, Atom Egoyan's Auroras, seven different young women, projected on video screens, tell the same story. In the second, Testimony, a 105-year-old nanny shot in her own kitchen with a video camera can't remember a central event in her life.

The story behind Egoyan's Auroras starts with a moment in early Hollywood history. In 1917, a teenaged Armenian girl named Aurora Mardiganian arrived in the United States looking for her brother, her only surviving relative after the Armenian genocide of 1915. Her story hit the press and she was encouraged to write a book about her experiences, which was adapted into a play and then a movie,Ravished Armenia (also known as Auction of Souls) in 1919. These events were chronicled in Anthony Slide's 1997 book Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian, which was Egoyan's source material.

One detail in the story that seems to have twigged the imagination of Egoyan. On the eve of a promotional tour for the movie, Mardiganian had an emotional breakdown. Since she couldn't promote the film, the producer hired seven Aurora look-alikes to go around the country.

In a sense, to recreate these seven emissaries of catastrophe, Egoyan cast seven women (Sarah Casselman, Tammi Chau, Robyn Thaler Hickey, Isabella Lauretano, Mina James, Assumpta Michaels and Amelia Sirianni) across the racial-ethnic spectrum, to tell a portion of Aurora's story. Each woman's face appears, projected from a DVD image, on seven panels on three sides of the room. (The fourth side features a text account of Mardiganian's life.) Initially, they begin reciting sentences from the monologue in apparently random order, then complete each other's sentences and occasionally overlap with an almost musical design.

Their story begins on June 8, 1915, when 15,000 women and children were ordered to march. After chronicling deaths from the heat and abuses by local villagers, the narrative culminates on the evening of that day, when Turkish soldiers attack, leading to the rape of a girl and the death of her mother.

Throughout, the readings are dispassionate, except for those of one actress (Casselman), who begins to perform the material emotionally, and at the end (after about seven minutes) brings up a green shawl and covers her face.

The textual material is horrific, even through there is a certain purple quality to the language. But as long as the performers sound detached, Auroras has the quality of a vigil, a solemn witness to lost lives and suffering, recited in a constant loop like a prayer cycle. Casselman's emotional performance is jarring: Is it wrong to wring emotions out of horrors? Or, on the contrary, is it legitimate to remain dispassionate about them? All this, of course, is by design.

Egoyan's films are filled with questions of the legitimacy of different kinds of testimony, and how the legacy of loss is passed on. But his piece doesn't achieve its full impact until you make the trip into the interior room of the gallery to see Ataman's Testimony.

If Auroras is an excess of horror, of emotion, of detail, Testimony is a void, a complete failure of knowledge caused by denial and secrecy. Ataman is a Turkish video artist with an international reputation who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004. He met Egoyan through Bruce Ferguson, the Art Gallery of Ontario's director of exhibitions, and the idea of Auroras/Testimony was hatched.

Testimony is apparently a simple thing: a video of the artist's now 105-year-old nanny, who had also been Ataman's father's nanny. Ataman, who was born in 1961 (a year after Egoyan), discovered in the 1970s that the woman who was his nanny, named Kevser Abla ("Abla" means "older sister"), was "Ermeni" or Armenian. He was told by his mother never to talk about it.

In the video, he visits his nanny and brings old family photographs to ask her about the past. She remembers some pictures but others seem to confuse her. Questions about her Armenian background seem to be deliberately ignored.

"God knows when I'll remember," she says amiably. In his artist statement, Ataman says: "Testimony expresses my own darkness, with the voice of Kevser Alba guiding me. It is about me as much as it is about her."

As you watch the old woman looking in confusion at the pictures, the voices from the Auroras gallery leak in, detailing the kinds of atrocities that she cannot or will not remember.

The paradox is acute: In one room, we have a surfeit of simulated testimonies, with one woman's story splintered out in seven directions. In another, we have a living witness to history who cannot remember anything.

Auroras/Testimony continues at Artcore in Toronto until June 10 and will be shown at the Istanbul Biennial in September.