Sarkis, Red stained glass series No:1, 1/2+1 ap, 2020, glass, lead, steel, LED, 19 3/8 × 28 1/2 × 4". From “Red stained glass series,” 2020.

Sarkis, Red stained glass series No:1, 1/2+1 ap, 2020, glass, lead, steel, LED, 19 3/8 × 28 1/2 × 4". From “Red stained glass series,” 2020.


In 1928 German art historian Aby Warburg reflected on how humanity’s “treasure of suffering” becomes a human possession. Warburg’s term—in German, Leidschatz—crystallizes the aesthetics of Sarkis, a pioneer of contemporary art in Turkey. Sarkis’s grandparents had settled in Istanbul in 1915 after the horrors of the Armenian Genocide led them to flee Eastern Anatolia. His father was a butcher, and one day, while helping him work, Sarkis noticed a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, on the paper used to wrap a piece of meat; his immediate feeling of identification with the howling figure led him to become an artist.

Settling in Paris in 1964 at the age of twenty-six, Sarkis became a fixture of the city’s cultural life. Among his early works is Ikona, 31.12.1986, a tribute to his favorite auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky. He produced this work after attending the director’s funeral, attaching a votive candle to a framed death notice in a manner suggesting an icon. For “Çaylak Sokak” in 1986, his first show in Istanbul as a mature artist, Sarkis re-created his family home on the eponymous bystreet, displaying their bathtub and his father’s shoes (stolen during the opening night) bearing the words SCHATZ and KRIEGS, respectively. Leidschatz and Kriegschatz, the treasure of suffering and the spoils of war, can be seen as defining Sarkis’s practice since then, but his movable archives of suffering soon attracted animosity. The 1990 Armenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale spurred protests by Turkish nationalists who accused the artist of “profiting” from his identity; and in 2015, the centenary of the Genocide, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime intervened in Sarkis’s installation in the Venice Biennale’s Turkish pavilion, halting the distribution of an accompanying booklet that featured an essay mourning the atrocity’s victims.

Sarkis’s latest body of work, “Red stained glass series,” 2020, continues his project from the 2015 Biennale, in which stained-glass panels depicted subjects including the slain Armenian writer Hrant Dink, a woman in red gassed during 2013’s antigovernment protests in Gezi Park, and the gravestone of Sarkis’s parents in an Armenian cemetery. In the current exhibition, Red stained glass series No:1, 1/2+1 ap portrayed cars overturned and papers scattered on a sidewalk—the aftermath of a 1955 government-organized pogrom against Istanbul’s Christians. Others in the group included images of a stray dog, a Turkish fast food franchise next to an Orthodox church, several works of street graffiti from Istanbul’s walls, and a reproduction of Turkish artist Aliye Berger’s watercolor Fire, 1955, painted in the year of the pogrom while her studio was on fire. For Sarkis, Berger’s watercolor (whose original he owns and which was exhibited in an adjacent room) evokes the distress of Munch’s The Scream as well his own traumatic experience of those riots. To create these nine stained-glass panels, Sarkis used the Japanese pottery-fixing art of kintsugi: Hebroke each into about ten pieces, put them back together again with lead, applying lacquer and gold to the fault lines to highlight the repairs as elements in theirhistory.

Red reappeared in Spring of Khosrau, 2020, an installation that considered wounds and healing. A fourteen-minute video component to this piece, red punctum, 2019, showed a red watercolor mark Sarkis made with the tip of a wet brush in the process of drying. A shelf next to the plasma screen carried a new version of the image, on canvas rather than the paper seen in the video. Morton Feldman’s atonal composition Spring of Chosroes (1977) accompanied the work. Feldman’s music was inspired by the asymmetrical geometric designs of a legendary Persian garden carpet, no longer extant, which Sarkis represented in the show with a rug that had been loaned to him by an antique carpet dealer. Sarkis’s rug, measuring nearly fifteen by ten feet, featured scenes and lines from Persian poet Ferdowsī’s eleventh-century epic Shahnameh concerning Khosrow Parviz, a Sasanian king who ruled Iran from 590 to 628, and for whom the sumptuous carpet to which Feldman referred was woven. Sarkis’s imaginary reproduction spoke to Feldman’s music and, with its vivid colors, patterns, animal and tree motifs, and embroideries, created a sense of chaos balanced by order, a violent energy viewed through artistry. It was another Kriegschatz processed into a Leidschatz.