Secret Equals, Mika Vatinyan

Over the twenty-five years of his creative practice, Mika Vatinyan has developed an artistic vision defined by unruly irreverence – a characteristic that captures some of the aspects of Armenian contemporary art scene today. Being a multidisciplinary artist, Vatinyan has made a significant contribution to cinema, theatre, music, design and photography. Thus, his works are unapologetically discursive in their outlook which makes sense when considered in the context of Armenian cultural economy. Like most of his colleagues, Vatinyan has to reconcile his position of total artistic freedom with the reality of economical and political insignificance where there are no infrastructures that support contemporary art and give it social resonance. The acceptance of these ambivalent circumstances is what imbues his work with a sense of urgency and relevance.

In his prior artistic experiments, Vatinyan has explored the possibilities of photography as a form of writing. Looking at the ways images turn into socialized codes, Vatinyan showed a fascination with common and sometimes vulgar offshoots of popular culture that find aesthetic redemption through photographic re-inscriptions. Leaving aside the ‘multiplicities’ of photographic mediums, Secret Equals addresses the singularity of painting instead. Fifteen canvases, 200x150cm each, greet the viewer with loosely painted rows of simple mathematical equations. These painted variations of equations are scratched away or scribbled over by layers of paint, thus making way for the processes that generate seductive mysteries and myths.

Thus, the ‘veiling’ of the numbers becomes a repetitive process through which the painter incessantly returns to the question of painting itself. Examining the subject from multiple angles, Vatinyan’s canvases hover between the categories of infantile and the sublime. All these variations have aesthetic affinities that refer to the history of the twentieth-century avant-garde movements, from Dada and Malevich to Rauschenberg and Kabakov. Yet, finding a parody of minimalist trends in contemporary art of the 20th century in Vatinyan’s elegant and very painterly allusions would be inaccurate. As a dialogue between some of the key tenets of modernism and early conceptual practices of the 1970s, the central question the paintings ask is inevitably a political one. What is the promise of art which lures us with so much expectation only to leave us puzzled and mystified after the encounter? Art, Vatinyan seems to say, is not a history lesson or a ‘tweet’ on the state of current affairs. But it is a space that offers an opportunity for thinking about the different ways we can relate to the radical transformations in our perceptions of reality.

Like pages from a school work book, Vatinyan’s paintings remind us of the underlying systems that make us part of a socialized circuit. Perhaps, one might view this series as the artist’s gently ironic ‘homage’ to his Soviet education whose rigid determinism was meant to induce a society of homogenized citizenry. The formulas hidden beneath the layers of paint perhaps stand in for these vanquished paradigms and ideas that are no longer required by society.

Yet the paintings provide few clues. They are imbued with the mysterious aura of medieval iconostases. However, there are no profound metaphysical or spiritual revelations here. The artist’s intense focus on creating the ‘perfect’ blobs makes the intent of the paintings both absurdly funny and poignant all at once. One may go even further: with their monumental scale and the angry brush strokes, the works hint of profound frustration at the incessant changes and transformations required by our technocratic society. Thus, it would not be far-fetched to see Secret Equals as a particularly bitter metaphor for the constant ‘updates’ required by our technologized, device-ridden lives.

Not incidentally, the last of the Secret Equals paintings features a photograph of Vatinyan as a child. Multiplied and arranged into an invisible grid, he looks back at us from a moment in time that stands for blissful ignorance. And yet, the artist’s adolescent face is already riddled by anxiety about the future. It is an uncanny effigy that provokes us to critically examine the ways our respective ‘viewpoints’ have been and continue to be determined by forces of historical circumstance.  

Like the silent, defiant gaze of the ‘artist as a young man’, the paintings frustrate the viewer’s longing for disclosure only to reward them with the pleasures of aesthetic and philosophical inquiry.

Vigen Galstyan
Curator, art historian
Lusadaran Armenian Photography Foundation


Mika Vatinyan (b. 1972) is an artist practicing in the fields of cinema, acting, music, design and photography, often representing cultural-economic context in Armenia through his projects. Mika graduated from Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinematography with Bachelor of directing. Among the group exhibitions he participated in are: The 8th Gyumri Contemporary Art Biennale (2012), Changing the Place of Encounter: Fragments of Armenian Contemporary Visual Art, Berlin (2012). Lives and works in Yerevan, Armenia.