When she was just seven years old, Diana Markosian (b. 1989) moved to California with her mother and brother. Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, was raising her two children alone in Moscow after her marriage – and the Soviet Union – had collapsed. The Armenian parents had gone from being professors to selling their own clothes to make a living whilst the kids picked bottles off the street for cash.
Watching the lush, sun-drenched Santa Barbara (1984-1993), the first American soap opera broadcast on Russian state television, Svetlana imagined a better life for herself. She became a mail-order bride at age 35, subsequently moving to America to marry a man 30 years her senior. It would be another 15 years before Markosian saw her biological father again. It’s an astounding tale.
Santa Barbara is Markosian’s retelling of the saga, walking in her mother’s footsteps. Film footage, staged images and family photographs probe the deep disconnect between the American dream as portrayed by Hollywood and the bittersweet realities of the immigrant experience. The project is at the heart of her first solo exhibition, at SFMOMA, and monograph, published by Aperture. She found actors amongst hundreds who auditioned to play her family as part of an elaborate time machine of sorts, working with a screenwriter from the original American show, a set designer and a casting director for three years. Boundaries between “real” and fictionalised events are unclear in the work, akin to the unsettling accounts in Patrick Modiano’s novels.
The mother’s perspective of “coming to nowhere as no one” dominates the narrative, as seen through her hopes, aspirations, disappointment, despair and reconciliation after marrying a man she hardly knew, selling ties in a department store despite holding a PhD in economics or learning how to drive. Recreated and archival materials merge to form a single, deeply personal set of compelling memories.
SFMOMA, San Francisco. 3 July – 12 December.
Words: Olivia Hampton
1. Diana Markosian, from Santa Barbara, 2019; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. ©Diana Markosian.
2. Diana Markosian, from Santa Barbara, 2019; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. ©Diana Markosian.