Summary

Execution Squares comprises fourteen large colour photographs mounted on aluminium, depicting the sites of public executions in Syria, Sarkissian’s country of birth. Together the photographs form one work and it is the artist’s intention that they should always be displayed together. The images were taken in three different cities in Syria – Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia. Each one shows a square where public executions have taken place, for civil rather than political crimes. Sarkissian took these photographs early in the morning when the streets were quiet, around the time when executions are carried out in Syria. The subject of an execution will usually be brought to the square at 4.30am, but their body is routinely left there until around 9am, so that passers by can witness the evidence of the act. Sarkissian’s first personal experience of an execution was as a child when he passed one of these squares on his journey to school and saw three bodies hanging in the street. The sight left a lasting impression.

Sarkissian produced Execution Squares when he was living and working in Damascus. He used a large format film camera, rather than a digital one, with no post-production manipulation. The work has been produced in an edition of three with two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is number three in the edition. Execution Squares was exhibited at the 11th Istanbul Biennial titled What Keeps Mankind Alive? in 2009, and in Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates in 2009–10.

Sarkissian typically examines one theme or place through an extended body of work. The subjects of his photographs are often unpopulated spaces that evoke the traces of history, simultaneously exploring what is seen and what is not seen. In Execution Squares the apparent calmness of each scene, free from traffic or passers-by, is perceived in stark contrast to what has occurred there. The cumulative effect of all fourteen images displayed together gives an added pathos to the work.

Memory and the traces of history underlie other works by Sarkissian; for example, the series In Between 2007 examines his family history and issues around migration. The photographs in this group depict the white snow-filled landscape of Armenia, where the artist’s family originated, and which the artist considers to be his ‘home-land’, despite never having lived there. In a manner similar to the early morning calm displayed in Execution Squares, the pervasive blanket of snow pictured in the In Between series masks the darker realities beneath the Armenian landscape: its history of war, poverty, and annexation by the Soviet Union remain unseen on the surface.

Further reading
Jack Persekian (ed.), Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities, exhibition leaflet, Sharjah Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates 2009, pp.10, 32.
11th Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive?, exhibition catalogue, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) 2009, reproduced pp.236–7.

Kyla McDonald
September 2010