Before understanding the context or even reading the name of Hrair Sarkissian’s ‘Execution Squares’ (2008), one of the first things you notice are the presence of palm trees in many of the 12 large scale colour photographs on show. The second thing you notice is that something is not quite right with them.
This series of photographs, which currently forms part of the Transforming Visions display on Level 3 of the Tate Modern, documents the sites of public executions from three different cities – Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia – in Syria, the artist’s country of birth. Each photograph was shot at sunrise, the same time the executions would have occurred. Sarkissian’s own experience of seeing the dead bodies left on show as a boy was the motivation for this series. He had hoped that if he photographed the site again, empty, then that would become the dominant image he held, erasing the recurrent memories of the dead. Unfortunately it didn’t work (see Tate video below), and once you know the backstory and see the photographs it is easy to understand why. Each piece is rather haunting, but not for what you do see, rather for what you don’t. You find yourself asking questions of the image such as: Where were the bodies? How many were there? What did they look like?, And who were they? When you don’t come up with any answers you look to the trees and they start to hold what you cannot see – a loss of innocence, a sadness, each one a silent witness to horror, each one weighed down by the violence that transpired, each one an analogy of the missing body resurrected.
If you come to this exhibition after experiencing the joy and wonder of Matisse’s Cut-Outs one floor below, you are in for a major come-down. Yet just like the great man’s work, these artworks have significant emotional impact, just a different one.
Hrair Sarkissian was born in Damascus in 1973. He lives and works in London.