By Gayane Haroutyounyan
Vahe Berberian, a modern day “Renaissance Man” – an artist, playwright, actor, and a man with a heap of creative ideas, the realization of which takes his whole existence, becomes a cultural icon of classic proportions, an Armenian Don Quixote – combination of nobility and desire to defend his beliefs.
A recognized artist, writer, comedian, and (as if that was not overwhelming enough) – journalism major honors graduate, dear Vahe should have been intimidating, but was not. When two paint-covered hands gathered my entire being in a warm embrace and were accompanied by a big, gentle smile, I knew I was “home”. His hospitality is grounded in more than impeccable manners, it is his philosophy. In Vahe, hospitality takes on a more elaborate form; he “welcomes” people, ideas, and concepts into his mind and heart. He assimilates and incorporates all of this into his art to produce something intangible and beyond definition, as art should not be defined, for it seeks no definition (and on this point, Vahe and I are in perfect agreement).
I entered his studio. A massive, dark brown canvas waiting to enter battle with the multidimensional, charismatic artist stood in a void, while everything around it screamed of life and art. A side room held Parajanov’s photo; numerous ethnic nick-knacks, and a massive green statue of Buddha on the bureau caught my eye. The background was good old Rammstein.
The imported Lebanese coffee, fetched by Vahe himself, and cigarettes followed. And as dear Vahe grew philosophical the foreseen “intellectual jousting” adventure took its course, and I realized that what I would learn there nobody could take away will be a treasure always. Charged with so much passion and anger, in this case without negative connotation, Vahe spoke. Later I was welcomed into another room to watch a Serj Tankian video, “The Sky is Over” where Vahe “penetrates” the canvas transferring a blank into a sky that Saint-Exupéry’s “little prince” reveled in. Among his many gifts, he is an entertainer… The dialogue started when Vahe addressed me in beautiful western “barbar” and, as sad and ridiculous as it may be, I acknowledged that I speak Russian better than Armenian. That is to say the dialogue started with an answer to a question that had not yet been asked…
I think for me becoming an Armenian, it was a conscious decision. I decided to be an Armenian. As I traveled among hippies I realized that I have something – a cultural depth, a perspective that adds richness to my identity. My being Armenian adds certain dimension to my personality. The more languages I speak the more dimensions I have as an individual.
But when you talk about hippies, isn’t that about something universal? How did you maintain your national identity in that environment?
Not only did I maintain my identity, I discovered it. I realized that by sticking to my identity I have a “gate” that opens to particular knowledge, wisdom, and cultural treasures. This is transferred to me through my identity, and if I do not claim it, it will be lost. Being an Armenian never held me back. It doesn’t mean you have to be a conservative person who lives within the norms of society. I think, I owe a lot to my cultural identity.
Tell me about Armenia, anything there is to say…
Very old nation, old history, and depth. One of the things that captures me about Armenia is the sense of history, especially for someone who lives in LA, which is completely devoid of history or sense of history. History is important to one’s identity; you realize that you have a reference point. It is just as important as knowing your mother, it is a clue to who you are. You have to discover your own history to know who you are now, today.
Well, you are a writer, a performer, a playwright, a comedian, an artist, an Armenian, a husband, a brother, but there has to be a word that captures you.
I would say I am first and foremost a human being. All my life I have done three separate things that feed off each other – painting, writing, and entertainment. And I have been lucky that I have been able to pursue all three in a way where none of them lagged because of the other. My father always said that I cannot do all three things and still be successful, and, possibly, if I chose one direction I would have gotten to where I am lot sooner, but I think my art has the maturity that only comes from these three art forms working together.
You refer to the term “human being”. It is the most beautiful term I know, but what does it represent to you?
I think a human being is an organism, and we share that organism with billions of others. Greeks have a word “persona” which means “a mask”. We all wear different personas, create distinct identities in order to acknowledge our existence and in order to be acknowledged by the others. But deep down inside we are all one.
Perfect harmony then?
Yes, exactly. But it took me a long time to achieve this. I am 52 years old.
Are you a hard worker or a lazy student?
I am a very hard worker, I create constantly, and I am neurotic. If I am not creating I am so hard on myself. I am the king of guilt. My neurosis comes from my guilt. I am also lucky because I have a great following as a painter, especially for the past ten years. I have numerous celebrities who collect my work, and I am very comfortable as far as making a living. I am not a starving artist. I think the “starving artist” concept is a myth that we grew up with. If as a kid somebody asked me who I wanted to be and I said that I wanted to be an artist, in the back of my mind it was the image of an artist that creates enormous amount of work and dies hungry. And later, once his work is discovered, he is truly appreciated.
In one of your performances I heard you refer to marriage as a “state of mind”. What did you mean by that?
Well, I have never believed in the institution of marriage and, strangely enough, neither has my wife, yet we have been married for 26 years.
So you still got officially married. We are a traditional, conservative nation after all…
We got married for practical reasons. However, we were madly in love with each other. And we were very young, I was 24, she was 22. We became the closest of friends, and after all these years we are still best friends. We have gone through a lot of rough times. Probably, one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long, is because we are never alone, we are constantly bombarded by people.
But don’t you think that real intimacy can be achieved even when you are surrounded by people? It is an inner state, nothing external can jeopardize it.
It is not easy, because after only three months of marriage wife and I were sitting and having supper. She said, “do you realize this is the first time that we are alone?” I was always with an entourage, always. But one of the greatest things about us is that there is never a dull moment. At one point we did not see each other for one whole year – she was living in Europe, and I was here. We are always apart one way or another, but, at the same time, I think that is what makes it more interesting. We never suffocate one another, and in the end we really miss one another.
Does your humor have an identity? And is it Armenian?
The spring of my humor, the well of my humor comes from Armenian sources. However, I hope my humor is universal. There have been times when I translated some of my monologues into English. It has been received incredibly well. As a matter of fact, a lot of Irish people, or Jewish people, or Middle easterners would come and say “it is just like my mother”, or “this is just like our culture!” We are all so much alike. And in the early stages I thought “really? I thought we are so unique…”
But we are unique, aren’t we?
We are in many ways. Our very existence has so much to do with the idea of annihilation. Because of the massacres, because of what we have gone through historically. We’re in this defensive mode all the time. That is something that became a national characteristic. I am not saying that there are not other nations like that, but nations are like people, your background dictates who you are, and your DNA dictates what you are. And we are not an easy people to deal with: we are tough, at times xenophobic and very hot-tempered. But I think, all of these traits have helped us stay alive.
In one of your performances you talk about the “happiest nation” survey which was very funny of course. But do you think we are a happy nation?
No, I do not think that we are a happy nation. I think the survey is right. Armenians and Ukrainians came last. It is not because we have all the reasons to be sad, but because we love that sadness, that drama. We love to revel in it – “aman, vai, vyi”.
Well, we may not be a happy nation, but we are a lot of fun. And everybody knows us for it.
Yes, well, there is a huge difference. We have a fantastic sense of humor. However, we do not laugh at our own jokes. Even laughter for us is a macho thing. We do not laugh openly and loudly, carefree.
Are there your personal distinctions in humor for you?
There are all kinds of humor. For instance, “slap-stick” and physical humor never interested me. Humor has to have a certain sophistication, and also, I do not like laughing at people. I like seeing the comedy in situations. I give myself the opportunity to laugh at myself. Others – don’t. I think only weak people find joy in laughing at others. Humor is a test. If you make fun of something and it stays strong, does not crumble – it was meant to last. If it falls apart it was not meant to last anyway. Anything that does not withstand humor is useless. I also hope that humor can make people think.
I think that artwork that a writer produces is a very specific kind of art. I think you write with your imagery. You write with your brush.
Yes, I do. But see, what I say with my painting I cannot say in any other way. It is like what Robert Frost said when he was asked to explain his poetry, “why should I use worse words when I already used the better ones?” If I was to explain my art I would have written instead of painted or I could get up and talk. There is a lot of humor in my artwork as well. And I think paintings are what translate my moods better than anything else. When I paint, I put my music on and I paint. And I do not care if there are a lot of people. There are always people here, and they all know that this is my working mode. They are the ones who make my coffee and take care of me as I work.
What do you think is art and what is not?
Art is something that you do in order to preserve an idea, a story, a mood, and a concept, any experience or thought. There are different variations – good art, bad art, pop-art, etc. and the sophistication of the art depends solely on the sophistication of the artist. The artist is like a blender. Everything that happens to the artist goes inside – he falls in love, listens to some fascinating music, reads a book. The blender is constantly working, and everything that comes out of it is art. It is never one thing or the other. It is the combination of everything.
What about things that inspire you?
There are two different sources – anger and profound love. For years, I think, they came together. When America attacked Iraq for months I was painting stuff that was horrendous… However, the older I get the more I realize that I am more moved by love. Love is the most important force of my life. I fall in love million times a day, I fall in love with trees, I fall in love with my cats, fall in love with women, I fall in love with everything. And that gives me a sense of bliss, especially when I put my music on and paint. Without Rammstein my art would seriously suffer. Their music energizes me. Music is my source of inspiration as well. In my early teens I thought I was going to become a musician. I used to play guitar, flute, and I used to sing. But I quit when I was 24-25. I thought of all the art forms music is going to consume me completely.
What are you working on right now?
Well, this is a very interesting time for me. The play Baron Garbis is finally over. We put so much time and energy into it. We broke records as far as Diaspora theatre. 47 performances!!! First 38 performances were sold out, every single one of them. The response was amazing. Now we have invitations to take the play to other cities. So, there is the touring of Baron Garbis. The next is the May 3rd exhibition, very important for me. And one of my novels was translated in Turkish. It just came out in Istanbul. Yes. And it was translated as is after months of deliberation. It has been getting very good reviews with Turkish publications. I have also been invited to twenty different cities to do a monologue, and I have agreed to every single invitation without an actual monologue. There are two different scripts I have to work on as well. And I promised the theatre company that I will write another play.
Tell me something to take home with me, a wish, a phrase, anything.
There is something that I also have to remind myself all the time – “The journey is the destination.” Every time I enter my studio I tell myself, “I do not need new pieces, I am just going to have fun painting I pleasantly surprise myself”. Instead of constantly trying to get somewhere, one must realize that “this is it.” It is not about the destination, but about a journey.
What would you say to us, Armenians?
I would say we should lighten up. I think that would make a lot of difference. I think humor is like fiber, without fiber you are constipated. Oscar Wilde once said “I have put my genius into my life”. All I have put in my art is talent. To be able to put genius in one’s life, to be able to live your life like an artwork, to be able to embrace people with love, make a positive dent in their lives, is far more important than any other artwork you can create.