Before the city awakes, the swallows of Yerevan swoop and soar among the spires and hilltops, over the crumbling ruins of Soviet-era housing projects that are turning to rubble and sand but that still sustain the half of the nation for whom European-style global wealth, conspicuous consumption, and postmodern condo-culture seem unattainable. And yet in these decaying dwellings and in the surrounding villages, we may find the heart of the culture, its connection to the millennia, perhaps to eternity. For local artist Gohar Toumasyan, the swallows of Yerevan represent freedom from arbitrary borders, the artifacts of state and empire, and the fidelity to place, to home. "The swallow returns every year to the old nest and at the same time is free. It does not need boundaries to keep faithfulness."
In Yerevan, we can discern two contradictory cultural impulses that in some ways define human society, as if in microcosm: the human need for freedom and transcendence, the desire to be free of the arbitrary map-lines of state authority.
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (Matthew 6:26)
And yet we also feel the gravitational pull, the critical mass, of the necessity of being rooted in the ground, the imperative to forge a new culture within established borders, a national heritage wrought in marble, steel, and granite--in a desperate attempt to stop the flow of time itself. Perhaps it is in this context that we can view the proliferation of massive sculpture in Yerevan, reflecting, I think, the complexity of national identity in an infant democracy. Yerevan, above all else, is a dream deferred. The realization of a sense of place that was always, in part, an imagined community, a deep sense of diasporic longing expressed in poetry, art, and even the rituals around meal preparation. How does one create a past to arrest the flux of the space-time continuum? Mineral figures, carved and cast, anchor Yerevan to the earth, like gigantic paperweights holding an ancient map in place against the winds of political change. Like stone ghosts, they conjure the past and confound the future. How does a community capture the shadow of a dream, the parabolic arcs of a thousand swallows in flight, or lightning in a bottle?