Monthly Archives: April 2012

Composition–Construction–Production

View of the exhibition with works by Delight, Georgia Sagri and Yiorgos Efstathoulidis

18 March 2012: guided tour of the exhibition “Composition-Construction-Production” at The State Museum with the curators Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou

Conceived before the last edition of the Thessaloniki Biennale, which garnered part of its critical acclaim on account of The State Museum’s novel juxtaposition of contemporary artworks with pieces drawn from the Costakis Collection, the exhibition “Composition–Construction–Production. The Russian Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art” is the first show to explore this seminal collection’s “dynamic influence” on a younger generation of local artists and designers. As the curators Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou explained in their guided tour, the project began with a workshop that gave selected artists and designers – whose practice already shared certain affinities with this historical movement – the opportunity to learn more about the collection through seminars, lectures, visits as well as a privileged tour of the vaults. Following the workshop, participants were asked to produce new work to be exhibited alongside selected pieces from the collection, as well as existing works by a handful of contemporary Greek artists who have engaged with these historical pieces.

From the onset, one of the first questions asked during the tour regarded the selection of participants for the workshop. Some of the visitors noted the absence of a few artists and designers – including Kostis Velonis, whose internationally renowned work overtly references the Russian avant-garde – which prompted queries as to the curator’s unexpected choice of participants, given the commonplace tendency to recycle predictable names from one project to the next. Theodore and Angeliki clarified that their selection was not motivated by a desire to deliberately include less visible but no less significant emerging artists and designers from Thessaloniki ­– as other local curators and artists have tended to do of late in reaction to a perceived monopoly by Athens of the resources allocated for the arts. They simply invited artists and designers in whom they saw potential with regards to the project’s brief.

View of the exhibition with works by Kornelios Grammenos and 157+173 designers

Walking through the show, the curators explained how they organized the exhibition according to three terms of particular significance for the Russian avant-garde: composition, construction, production. In keeping with this idea, they deliberately chose to include lesser-known and more experimental works from the collection – namely, studies and sketches – to avoid, on the one hand, overshadowing the new works by including famous masterpieces; but also, more importantly, to emphasize the experimental side of studio practice.

In this regard, perhaps the most interesting aspect of our visit and conversation with the curators came about through our discussion of the pieces that resulted from the workshop. When asked if anything had surprised them at the outcome of the project, the curators answered that they had anticipated a much less “artistic” response to the brief. Although the majority of participants came from a design background, most of them created finished artistic installations that focused much more on the aesthetics, than on the ideological and political aspects of the works in the collection.

Of course, this might have been due to the fact that they were aware that their works would be shown in the context of the museum and enter into its permanent collection. It might also have been connected to the knowledge that most Russian avant-garde artists worked for the communist regime, thus perhaps calling into question, for some, the ideological and political dimension of their work. Alternatively, as one person suggested, this response to the workshop might also have resulted from a misguided but nonetheless widespread misconception that politically engaged art today must necessarily pass through a participatory intervention in the public sphere. Or perhaps, more significantly, given the current economic and political crisis in Greece, participants might have been particularly careful and inherently weary of claiming such ground for their work. Regardless of the reasons, the workshop and the exhibition’s attempt to further examine the possible influence of an important art collection on local culture as well as the significance of revisiting historical works today cut across to a number of urgent issues beyond the immediate scope of the collection, which we hope will lead to subsequent editions of the project in the near future.

Stephanie

We wish to thank Theodore Markoglou and Angeliki Charistou for generously agreeing to give us a private guided tour of their exhibition, especially on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  

Disappearing act

Discussion on Peggy Phelan’s essay “The Ontology of Performance: representation without reproduction”, from her book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (Chapter 7, pp. 146-166)
Thursday, March 8, at Ideal

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The essay’s two main topics revolve around the definition of the nature of performance and its documentation (mainly through writing), as well as performance’s gender connotations. I will try to sum up some of the main points, in an attempt to convey the text’s spirit, without however giving a detailed account of all the text’s fascinating and carefully elaborated twists and turns. Thanks to them, Phelan’s writing becomes itself performative (putting her own theory into practice), as she introduces her main points, sets out her rationale, goes on to the next point, comes back to the first one… a kind of choreographed, intertwined, concentric writing.

Phelan identifies performance as the (subjective) Presence of living bodies (here and now), as negation of representation, disappearance of the object, rejection of the economy of reproduction, escape from art’s commodity dimension… Performance artists –“Maestros of the Ephemeral” as Phelan calls them during her talk at Tate’s Live Culture Symposium: Performance and the Contemporary (2003)– invite spectators to fully consume performance, so that no trace is left behind and value is given to nothingness and emptiness (the ever-repeated cycle of life and death). To remain faithful to these inherent characteristics, performance inevitably rejects all kinds of documentation – the only documentation possible being the recounting of performance in one’s memory. Performance’s tense is always the present – even if repeated, in reality or in one’s mind or writings, it will never be the same, always affected by the distortions of memory and personal perception.

The examples of Sophie Calle’s series of works where specific art works, mainly famous masterpieces, are replaced by their viewers’ description, materializing Presence through memory, clearly and poetically illustrate the point. They also highlight the “performative quality of all seeing”, as a purely interactive experience that can be revisited through memory and ultimately resist the omnipotence of institutional authority and control over art’s reception and interpretation.

Coming back to performance’s resistance to documentation, a question is raised: how can someone write about performance if documentation is excluded? The answer is found in J. L. Austin’s “performative utterance”1: instead of writing “toward preservation”, one should write “toward disappearance”, re-marking the performative qualities of writing. Roland Barthes’s texts are called upon as examples; I can mainly refer to the intimate “Camera Lucida”, where indeed the author investigates the nature of photography through personal, sensitive writing that reveals his personality, leading to the experience of a shared subjectivity between writer and reader.

Phelan’ description of Angelika Festa’s performance “Untitled Dance (with fish and others)” (1987) might also serve as an illustration of performative writing. She comes back to it again and again throughout the text –giving us various (but in a way always the same) fragmentary descriptions and interpretations of it– as a whole and for its various elements, as if the reader is actually watching the performance and becomes gradually aware of its various elements and their significance, as if her thoughts unravel while she watches the performance. (Perhaps indicative of this is that after a few references to the performance, Phelan switches to the present tense and the first person –“as I watch…”.)

Phelan uses Festa’s work as a starting point to demonstrate also performance’s rejection of the metaphor of gender – metaphor identified as a vertical hierarchy, which negates difference and dissimilarity, in contrast to metonymy, which creates a horizontal relationship of contiguity and displacement. (“The kettle is boiling – the kettle is boiling because the water inside the kettle is.”) In this sense, performance artists disappear during the performance – the performer’s body becomes a metonymy of Presence, disappearing into a representation of something else (movement, voice, action), even if seemingly it is the protagonist. But the “mute body” is the female body, so the performer has no choice but to always assume the female quality; a quality that renders her weak, regardless her overpowering disappearing Presence, since the speaker/performer is always in a disadvantaged position in relation to the listener/spectator (reference to Foucault’s “History of Sexuality”). Performers are therefore called upon to redesign the dominant power relations’ model – through the redesign of the theatrical exchange model.

Interestingly, our last (for the moment at least) discussion on Performance happened a few days before Tate launched its new program BMW Live: Performance Room, a series of performances created specifically to be broadcast live online – a format which certainly raises a series of questions, among the most significant perhaps this: if performance is the “Presence of living bodies” (as Phelan puts it), how is it affected when the “living” is abolished? And can the redesign of the dominant power relations’ model be achieved if the medium is  so dramatically affected?

Lydia

1. In “How to Do Things with Words” (1962), J. L. Austin, attributes to speech a constative element (it describes things in the world) and a performative element (saying something is to do or make something – I promise, I beg, I bet).