4 April 2012: guided tour of the exhibition “Mysteria” at the Contemporary Art Centre of Thessaloniki with the artists and curator Anna Mykoniati
The exhibition’s starting point is a series of photographs taken in the late 19th century at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, by neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (teacher of Sigmund Freud) to depict the symptoms of hysteria; a condition, which Charcot studied and identified as a –mostly female– psychological disorder. The photos, supposedly the proof and unbiased record of a certain psychological disease, are more accurately described as staged representations of the symptoms of hysteria bearing a clear sensual and sexual quality where the female subjects under observation play the role assigned to them. (Hysteria was anyway connected to sexuality since antiquity, when it was considered a female sexual dysfunction.)
The two artists, Chryse Tsiota and Vasilis Zografos, use the specific photos and other archival material included in the show as a starting point to convey their own, contemporary “hysterical” reactions to issues connected with a variety of themes, that appeal both to the wider public and the specialized audience, such as the female and male stereotypes imposed throughout history or the comparison of methods that both medicine and art use to document, represent and interpret aspects of reality. The later takes on particular dimensions when associated with Charcot’s photographs, taken at a time when photography takes its first steps as a tool for the exact documentation of reality.
Even though the greatest part of the works has been created especially for the show, those who are familiar with the two artists’ previous work will recognize certain recurrent themes and possibly interpret the whole process of creating the exhibition as a psychoanalytical exercise; a valuable exercise for both artists that seem to have devoted themselves to the process, especially through experimentations, mostly in the elaboration of the archival material. Chryse Tsiota uses photography to create uncanny scenes in which she, or an infinitely cloned version of herself, is the star. Her images could be scenes from a movie; a movie, which no one knows if it’s a comedy, drama or horror. Vasilis Zografos depicts (macho) male symbols and objects through an almost monochromatic painting, which renders everything pale and hazy, ultimately feeble and uncertain.
The two artists conceived the overall installation as a theatrical environment, having in mind CACT’s space. The ground floor, with its main hall painted black and the corridor around it white, hosts the two artists’ works, while the archival material is presented in the upper floor –essentially an indoors balcony which “crowns” and overlooks the ground floor.
Apart from the Salpêtrière photos, the archival material includes news photos from the BBC archive (taken to document events such as the launching of the first zepelin) and photos of men and women posing as ideal male/female models from a variety of time periods; a sound and video installation (in a separate, completely dark room), where a selection of readings from literary and poetic works (by authors such as Sylvia Plath, Dimitris Demetriadis, Edgar Alan Poe, Roald Dahl and Haruki Murakami) are heard, while video images of the 1940 bombing of Coventry are projected. Finally, the archival material also includes a screening of Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary “The Century of the Self” (2002), which discusses how those in power (corporations and governments) have used Freud’s thories to analyze and control people; archival videos on war neuroses from the Netely Hospital in Southampton and an excerpt from the documentary «Carl Jung: Wisdom of the Dream» (1989, directed by Stephen Segaller, with Carl Gustav Jung and Max von Sydow).
The archival material is used to highlight the extent to which artists and spectators have been affected by the symbolic language of psychoanalysis and how, in Slavoj Zizek’s words “we have the tendency to treat aesthetic artifacts as symptoms of the culture in which they were produced. Whether or not one employs the vocabulary and methods of psychoanalysis to do so, this approach to aesthetics has become so widespread in the humanities that it qualifies as a contemporary critical norm”.
The dialogue between the artists’ works and the rich archival material becomes fertile, offering the viewer a series of useful tools to interpret the works and the possibility to form connotations that permit the viewer’s more personal engagement to the show – especially since the spectrum of issues with which the exhibition engages can be both personal and wider-socially oriented.
Unfortunately, my rather laconic writing can hardly convey the pure poetry of the exhibition that seems to have all the qualities that I (at least) look for: works that you can both see and feel, combined with useful information, presented in what seems an effortless installation but in reality is a very well thought-through scenography of the artists’ intellect. Through this masterfully arranged whole, the spectator can truly connect with the artists and have an experience that is valuable both aesthetically and intellectually.
Warm thanks to Chryse, Vasilis and Anna for the great show and for speaking to us about it. All exhibition view photos by Chryse Tsiota.