With her latest series Song of Fruit and Contention, which focuses on modern-day Armenia, the Franco-American photographer Sabine Mirlesse looks beyond the genocide to explore the foundational role of myth in the Armenian people’s powerful sense of collective identity.
Before she first visited Armenia, Sabine Mirlesse had no connections in the country and knew little about it beyond a few stories she had heard from friends. When I asked her what drew her there in the first place, she explained, “I think everyone has a list of places they want to go to for some reason. Sometimes it can be because you heard a song or read a novel, or because someone told you a story about that place. Armenia has always been on that list for me.”
Shortly after completing an artist residency in Iceland, a “very positive experience” that led to her first book, As if it should have been a quarry (Damiani, 2013), Mirlesse decided to look into residencies in Armenia. After having been accepted to what appeared to be the only Armenian artist residency, she made her first trip to the country for a period of six weeks in late 2012.
Beyond her instinctive attraction to the region, Mirlesse was intrigued to discover that Armenia is said to be the hypothesized location of the Garden of Eden. Having completed an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and English Literature at McGill University in Montreal, she was fascinated by this idea. “This story raised so many questions. Do the Armenians really believe it? And what if it’s true? Who am I to say that it isn’t?” While she didn’t yet know that it would later become the spine of her project, Mirlesse was curious to see just how that myth would manifest itself on the ground.
Arriving at the airport in the capital, Yerevan, Mirlesse remembers being immediately struck by the overwhelming presence of Mount Ararat, the mountain that overlooks Yerevan. “When you get there, the first thing you see is Ararat. The mountain is even on the passport stamp: that mythology is present from the moment you get off the plane.”
Although it is located in neighbouring Turkey, the Armenians see Mount Ararat as their own, a powerful symbol of their national identity. The potency of the symbol stems from the fact that Ararat is said to be the place where Noah’s Ark landed after the flood. In fact, in the Armenian language, the country not is not referred to as Armenia but as Hayastan or land of Hayk — Noah’s great-great-grandson, according to legend.
Over the course of the next six weeks Mirlesse travelled across the country, visiting sites of national importance, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to those that were in some way related to biblical times. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says. “I was curious about these biblical references, but I wasn’t sure how present they would be.”
Mirlesse compares her photographic approach during this time to that of a “travel diary.” Rather than a studied documentation of the locations she visited, her images are more like a collection of fragments of her experiences, moments gathered along the way that appeared significant to her.
Having returned to New York at the end of the residency, Mirlesse felt concerned that the trip would have been an interesting cultural experience but that she “was going to come out of it with nothing.” While she was unsure of what shape the project would take, she recognized that, “In my process, I need some distance to figure out what it is that interests me.”
Back in New York, she decided to visit the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection, a pre-Internet image archive founded in 1915 that has provided creative inspiration to many artists, from the Mexican painter Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol. Most recently, the archive became the basis for the eponymous project Picture Collection by the American photographer Taryn Simon, a series of composite pieces in which multiple overlapping images question the ways in which we catalogue and hierarchize images and culture.
The archive is made up of over 1 million items, including photographic prints, postcards, posters, illustrations and printed images, many of which have been cut or torn from magazines, books or encyclopaedias. These items are organized according to a complex system made up of over 12,000 folders, each on a given theme or subject.
While the archive cannot hope to compete with the accessibility and scope of online image libraries like Google Images, it has been able to differentiate itself in another way. Unusually for a picture library, it has allowed library-goers to contribute items to its collections over time, and so its folders often stray beyond the realm of the visual encyclopaedia to present a far more subjective take.
Wanting to further explore the question of Armenia’s hypothetical links to the Garden of Eden, Mirlesse decided to explore the Collection’s folders relating to the Bible. She remembers being “delighted to see that there were folders for each of the Bible stories: the Flood, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, etc.” Going through the contents of these folders, she was intrigued to see that in many of the pictures there were details that were reminiscent of the things she had seen in Armenia.
As the resonances piled up between the archival images and her own photographs, Mirlesse began to question the relationship between myth and reality. She recalls asking herself, “Did I shoot what I already had in my head, because these are stories that we all know, or are these things just part of the fabric of Armenian culture?” By combining these representations of biblical stories with her own photographs, the photographer felt that she could explore “the grey area between what is truth and what is fiction, what is real and what’s not. That is when I felt that the magic started to happen.”
As the Picture Collection allows users to borrow up to 60 items at a time, Mirlesse began to bring pictures home to scan them. Focusing around the story of the Garden of Eden due to its mythological relationship with Armenia, her scans not only show the biblical representations themselves, but also the annotations surrounding each item, which might include the author, the title of the work, a reference number, and often the stamp of the NYPL. By doing this Mirlesse is not only inviting us to consider the visual similarities between these illustrations and her photographs, but also to question how we develop a collective understanding of myth and other foundational stories through iconography.
Mirlesse arrived at a new edit which made equal use of the scanned items from the Picture Collection and her own photographs. Wary of this dual approach becoming “a visual game or gimmick,” rather than compiling a series of juxtapositions, she focused on creating a “natural flow” which helped to bring these biblical stories to life and explore their relationship with contemporary Armenian life. In doing so, Mirlesse projects the questions she began to ask herself onto the viewer. Seeing her images alongside representations of the Garden of Eden, the viewer is struck by the presence of recurring subjects or motifs, from potent symbols such as Mount Ararat itself or the mythical serpent of the book of Genesis, to subtler manifestations such as a young girl’s arms stretched by her side echoing a scene from the Expulsion from Eden, or the simple structure of a birdcage which resembles an illustration of Noah’s Ark.
As with her previous Icelandic work (featured in the British Journal of Photography in April 2012), whose title, As if it should have been a quarry, was drawn from a Robert Frost poem, the title of this Armenian series also has literary origins. Song of Fruit and Contention is drawn from a book of poems by the Armenian poet and essayist Gevorg Emin that has been translated into English. In his poetry, Emin describes his country as a “lyrical nation” and as having been an “apple of contention,” a phrase which both encapsulates the country’s biblical mythology and its hard-fought history.
Mirlesse explains, “Armenia has always been Armenia. The country stretches back to the age of Mesopotamia, Assyria or Babylon. There are very few places like that and that is very important to the Armenian people. Historically they have been taken over many, many times. They have a ‘we’re still here’ attitude that is obvious in the pride they take in their heritage.”
In fact, she believes that the country’s struggle to fend off outside influence, is one of the “reasons why a lot of photographers are drawn to that part of the world. Armenia is a crossroads between so many different influences: the ‘Orient,’ the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, Soviet Russia. It can also feel quite European at times, and there are even American influences” due to the significant Armenian-American presence there.
Naturally, the story that remains the biggest draw for those photographers that visit the country is the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians during and after the First World War. While Mirlesse recognizes the importance of the genocide to Armenian history and identity — she visited the country again for the centennial of the genocide in 2015 — she did not want her project to focus on that issue. “If you tell a photo editor or a gallery that you have done a project on Armenia, they immediately expect it to be about the genocide. I think that is unfortunate, because Armenia is so much more than that.”
As with her previous series As if it should have been a quarry, Mirlesse seems to be using photography to go beyond the surface of the contemporary world to explore its deepest roots. When I asked her about this interest in the pre-historical, she told me that as a child she remembers dreaming of becoming an archaeologist. “Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to sit in the yard at school in Los Angeles and dig up rocks, thinking that I was going to find pieces of Egyptian mummies.”
Whether she is exploring the local relationship to the land in an Icelandic village that was rebuilt in the wake of a volcanic eruption, or the broader collective understanding of myth in defining the Armenian national identity, Mirlesse’s photographs of the contemporary world act primarily as windows onto the past.
While she still intends to return to Armenia once more to finish photographing certain locations, Mirlesse has already started thinking about how the project could become a book. She told me, “I think this project is really suited to the form of the book, not only because of the rhythm that I am trying to create between my images and those I collected from the New York Public Library archive,” but also because the book is the form both for the Bible and for the travel diary that she sees as representing the approach she took to photographing this series.
With Song of Fruit and Contention, Mirlesse hopes not only to tell an Armenian story that is not that of the genocide, but also to achieve something more universal. “While it is a very Armenian story that I’m working on, the idea of this legend giving you a sense of strength to keep going as a people, is also a microcosm of the human condition. There is something universal about this idea that the story of who we are is what keeps us going.”