essay

57446 yerevan

Yerevan, like cities elsewhere in the world, has a pattern to its days, rising and falling, tension and release, doldrums and dramatic peaks, a natural drama unfolding with the cycles of the earth. At midnight, people are still on the streets, going out for amusement, coming home late from work, but these motions gradually subside as the night deepens. Hours later, there is what we call the dead of night, a few taxis trawl the lonely streets on mysterious errands, but the quiet of darkness is in command, and most of the city’s lively motions have shrunk back into slumber, a retractive phase needed to gather up and strengthen the energies that will be expended later. In the pre-dawn, animals are the first to awaken. Dogs bark, and the incipient anxieties to which they cry out rallies other anxious dogs, gradually rippling out from various centers, and joining finally into an ambience where the sound of dogs comes from all directions. Crows call, restlessly moving from perch to perch, and flocks of them sweep the sky as its western edge slowly lightens, revealing the horizon. The tension mounts with excruciating patience, seeming to languish always at each stage, concealing the true force of its continuous movement, as the sun comes up. When the sky gradually brightens enough, people leave their homes to go to work or school, and the arrogance of cars and trucks overtakes the abashed sounds of nature. During much of the daylight time, this is what is heard all around.

I get up, too, and go out to explore, observe and absorb. When I reach the city center, I find that in the ancient city of Yerevan the streets do not generally coil and narrow into disorienting networks as the streets do in other cities of a similar age. In the 1930s, under the influence of a raging fever for modernization, the city planners of Yerevan destroyed the (I presume) more authentic old city center, and replaced it with a grid of avenues, fitted rationally within a geometrically perfect arc that grows eastward from the ravine of the river Hrazdan. Precious few hints of the old city remain, the elaborations of the ages apparently having been pushed aside with complete indifference. I find in their place the broad boulevards of some Armenian Hausmann, with wide foot pavements lined with stone facades in the Stalinist baroque style, the remnants of a Soviet world that lives on even in later buildings that went up after 1989.

By late afternoon, people emerge from their daytime roosts, and are on the streets again, many of them with shopping bags from the market, or briefcases, or book bags. I suppose many of them are on their way home to have dinner with their families. I also suppose many of them are going home alone, to a private sanctuary where they can uncoil from the tensions of the day. I am watching their faces and postures, trying surreptitiously to capture a sense of who, collectively, the city of Yerevan is; trying to divine, with little hope, a summary quality of the city’s character, and some sense of what makes Yerevan distinctive from all the other cities of the earth. I do not wish to make some grand pronouncement, or declaration of a mythical truth, but rather to make something for me, a souvenir if you will, that I can take with me when I inevitably leave. Visits are always temporary, travel is is a chain of transitions from place to place. I want something to hang on to from these experiences.

I make these images, and I will study them later, and in them, I hope to understand the chaotic experiences of the moment, and distill these confused essences into a richer form of memory.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 17th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“