In “Santa Barbara,” Diana Markosian explores her mother’s life-changing decision to move to Southern California after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Seven decades after the October Revolution, the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse as internal unrest threatened to dissolve the once stalwart nation that had risen to global dominance. With Moscow losing control, the country dissolved as 10 republics seceded during the last quarter of 1991, that Christmas. President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, no longer having a country to run.
In an instant, Diana Markosian’s world was turned upside down. Born in Moscow in 1989, her parents’ dream for their family was wrested away and their PhDs couldn’t save them in an economy with no jobs. As a child, Markosian and her brother took the streets to pick bottles to make enough money to buy bread. Her father made painted matryoshka dolls to sell to tourists visiting the Red Square, while the stress of destitution eventually broke the marriage apart. “I saw in my mother the sadness of ‘this can’t be my life,’” Markosian recalls.
On January 2, 1993, the radiant light of escapism came from the most unlikely of places. The daytime soap opera, Santa Barbara, was ending its ten-year run that month, and would become the very first American television show broadcast in Russia. As a young girl, Markosian idolized the show, which chronicled the dramatic intrigues of the Capwell clan, who embodied the glitz and glamour of 1980s Southern California.
But these images of wealth and prestige led Markosian to believe that America wasn’t a place she and her family belonged — which made her move to the actual Santa Barbara all the more a shock to the system after her mother decided to marry an American man and immigrate to the United States in 1996 in order to provide the best possible life for her children.
The Past is Never Past
Thrust into a world that made her feel like she was now living inside a TV show, Markosian struggled to make sense of the changes she was going through. Twenty years later, she embarked on a journey of her own, into the new exhibition and book Santa Barbara, which unveils her experience.
“I don’t know if I saw it as a project in the beginning, it was just a discovery. I was learning about my Mom, starting to understand her version of how we immigrated to America,” Markosian says. “I find that painful because you can’t imagine that this is your story. How do I process this? How do I love my Mom through all of this?”
To make sense of the characters, the plot, and the drama that would unfold, Markosian moved between the liminal space of art and artifact, bringing together staged scenes, film stills, and family photographs accompanied by a screenplay she wrote in collaboration with Lynda Myles, one of the original Santa Barbara series writers.
Through the Looking Glass
Santa Barbara unfolds like an Alice in Wonderland tale, going through the looking glass into a strange and unfamiliar world. Markosian remembers feeling as though she was living in a fantasy. “It felt like this is America — everybody is so cultured they are going to eat pizza with a knife and fork the way my mom taught us to eat it because that’s what Americans would do,” she says. “There was this culture difference that we projected on America, that it was above us and we were never going to be able to mingle with Americans.”
But the glitter would eventually tarnish and fade away, revealing more complex realities of a nation that beguiles itself into fantastical notions of the American Dream, and the price to be paid for such naïveté. Markosian struggles with her own personal cost: the loss of her father, her culture, and her family in Armenia.
“I grew up with a woman who sacrificed everything for the American Dream,” she says, understanding she can never know the road not taken and what her life might have been were she to have stayed behind. Santa Barbara provides Diana Markosian with the opportunity to not only revisit her past, but to see it through the eyes of Svetlana, “a woman who had the courage to change the cards she was dealt for all of us.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
"Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara", July 3–December 12, 2021, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA. More information here.
Book Published by Aperture, $65.00, available here.
Exhibition also on view September 24, 2021–January 10, 2022 at The International Center of Photography, 79 Essex St, New York, NY 10002, USA. More information here.
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