Hell as pavilion / Hell as text / Hell as art practice / Hell as exhibition / Hell as method / Hell as modus operandi / Hell as modus vivendi / Hell as exodus
“Hell As Pavilion” is an exhibition that examines the question of “being contemporary” within a culture in crisis, hosted by The Palais de Tokyo contemporary art centre in Paris, curated by Nadja Argyropoulou, and realized, with the collaboration of architect Yorgos Tzirtzilakis (February 25 and April 4, 2013).
The exhibition is conceived as a strange fresco gone wild, an inhabited migrant wall of “horrible mixtures,” which brings together Greek artists from various generations, explores a neglected field of rhizomatic relationships and unexpected affinities, and urges us to “read history in unforeseen ways,” to imagine into existence new mobile and minor networks.
Nadja Argyropoulou: The exhibition “HELL AS PAVILION” starts with a clear allusion to the film Socialisme by Jean-Luc Godard (2010), which I think in turn references Jean-Daniel Pollet’s legendary Méditerranée (1963). Both films, besides constituting allegories of a Europe (the birthplace of humanities) adrift in history, mainly reflect their makers’ intention “to preserve the presence of things at any cost” (J.-D.P.) or to create a new republic of images beyond the reach of any droit d’auteur (J.-L.G.). Of course, the presence of Greece as HELL AS among places like Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Naples and Barcelona, made apparent through fragments of images, sounds and texts, is not the only thing that matters.
It is the ingenious, poetic, non-narrative form of a work that both invites and rejects all interpretations. “…going South, the latitude figures become negative; we are only left with the North, dear soul and friend,” we hear in the film. After the classic East-West dipole, the focus is now placed on the chasm between North and South, but also on their obligatory symbiosis, as pointed out in the “HELL AS PAVILION” exhibition by Vlassis Caniaris’s work Coexistence (1974), in which the Greek flag is sewn over the German one.
Yorgos Tzirtzilakis : So one of the things that interests you in the film is that the journey south depicts the feeling of descent that the title “Hell as” suggests: a downward course towards a “hell,” and an allegory of all Souths in today’s world. South as the weak side of the world. For Nietzsche, this southward journey represents a nostalgia for the shipwreck. The South begins as the great dream of the Hyperborean then turns into hell. Yet we must clarify the meaning of “hell” as we use it here. The version of hell in the Eastern patristic tradition differs from that of the West. Representations of hell in the Eastern tradition, in the Eastern Roman Empire—what we usually call Byzantium—are limited. In Western culture, on the contrary, hell plays a primary role and is prominent in the imagery. This is not only a religious matter; it also has to do with cultural behaviour and ways of living.
NA. Yes, the atmosphere of sin and punishment is prominent in the western culture.
YT. There is a different approach to death. In the East, death is not a threat, nor is there the same conception of evil, so hell is not a penance in the same way. The frightful depictions of hell come from the West, whereas the East is more reconciled to loss. So “hell as” seems more like a Western prejudice…
NA. Which is what we are interested in exploring through this exhibition: the way it is used about Greece in the current context. It is a paradoxical combination of attraction and repulsion, expressed in a scaremongering manner. What—and how—is “hell as”?
YT. The terrifying images of the Gothic and Roman-Catholic tradition are limited over here. First of all, there is a different relationship with nature, with outdoor living, with the landscape and the light—and hence also with darkness.
NA. This reminds me of how writer-painter Nikos-Gabriel Pentzikis (1908-1993) begins the Architecture of a Scattered Life (1963): “Optimism, or what I mean by optimism, is a necessary ingredient of life.” He goes on to explain—to go back to the imagery you discussed earlier—that the “chorus of saints” in eastern icons is not like that of Signorelli’s skeletons; it is a folk dance, the dance of a beautiful girl with a gown and a feather. Thus one marries death, lives with the dead and the fallen, and praises creation as a whole. It is what Andreas Embiricos means when he says that “the Greeks were the first to turn the fear of dying into an urge for life” in Oktana (1959-1965).
YT. This is a culture of mourning, which lives within the celebration that arises as part of the transformations that accompany loss. More than hell, we are hooked on things that highlight the question of our relation to others.
NA. This way of handling loss has been misunderstood, especially in the clichéd interpretations of Kazantzakis’s Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas (1946). The relation to others, as the way you put it, is crucial. “We cannot feel the glory without the idea of the multitude,” says Pentzikis, years before the current concept of the multitude was introduced. Indeed, he defines it physically and metaphysically as a multitude “of numerable and innumerable”. Europe seems to be in need of this understanding of loss, transformation and multitudes.
YT. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have written that Godard, in his films, makes a “minor” use of French as a spoken language, where such that the accumulated clichés and a strange paucity turn his conception of French into a minor language within French. This may well be the best introduction to contemporary Greek art and to the three conditions behind a minor culture such as ours. (A) A strong factor of de-territorialisation: One indication here is the extensive use of Greeklish, which goes beyond the language to affect all cultural practices and behaviours.; (B) The political significance of the personal, in the sense that in such a small place, all personal affairs are necessarily intertwined with politics. Therefore, the personal is inflated, and the relationship with to the past is not only an Oedipal fantasy but also a political agenda.; (C) The collective element: Since there is a dearth rather than an abundance of talent, all projects are collective in nature. This triptych is key for understanding the content and the curatorial approach to the exhibition.
NA. I should add here the introduction of a new understanding of our responsibility, as per Giorgio Agamben’s definition of the “contemporary.” We have to become those “who, dividing and interpolating time,” are capable of transforming it and relating it to other times. This is the very process of representation, according to Pentzikis. He describes murals as the places of dreams in a fully alert state, where “small things become great, the past becomes present, and the future is yesterday.”
YT. This is about personal expressions that cannot really be distinguished from the collective—tensions, rather. The individualism of a Mediterranean culture like that of Greece is weaved into a collective web. What does this mean, and how is it depicted under the conditions of a generalized crisis? The idea of a mural, a fresco or a mosaic becomes a curatorial reading of this collectivity. Herein lies the hypertext of the exhibition’s works. The past here coexists with the present, a past which, it must be clarified, is used in order to talk about the present.
NA. This is what all great works of Greek art do, in my view. Indeed, the Greek surrealists such as Embiricos with his “Tektainomena” (this paradoxical-political manifesto about the flow of time), Engonopoulos with his absurdist, often Kavafian hellenocentrism, Valaoritis with his sardonic “My afterlife guaranteed,” or the poet and art critic Nicolas Calas with his radical work “Foyers d’incendie,” each did this in an acute fashion and with a particular sense of black humour. It is worth noting that this metaphysical conscience of the Greek surrealists is what brought them close to the French.
In their case, it was the “psysique métaphysique” (as Valaoritis pointed out) that was extremely important: This was about the metaphysical as the experience of what lies “outside reality,” not about metaphysics as a conceptual construct; it was about the relationship with the “folly of matter,” which is driven by language and its archaic structure. I was thinking that, if this exhibition were a book (and books are very important in its synthesis), I should like it to be Dionysios Solomos’s The Woman of Zakynthos (1826–1829) because it is a work that “breaks time out of joint,” to use an expression coined by the artist Paul Chan. It is a work of heteroglossia and dialectic conflicts: historical, yet with an associational narrative; national, yet written in a highly idiomatic language. A work of an unresolved genre, hard to classify yet always readable, within its time frame as well as beyond it.
YT. I think we are called upon to explain this change in recent years of the Greek attitude towards the archive of the past in cultural rather than historical terms. I believe it has to do with the magnitude of the crisis that Greece is going through. After all, it is in times like these that we revisit issues of cultural identity that continue to scandalise certain people. Greek culture, having spent years feeling inferior to the major metropolitan centres of the West, is now revising the past in a dynamic as well as critical way. And this reflects an attitude towards the present: neither an incubator of the nationalism of “Greekness,” nor an outpost of some international trend—just reconnections and remixes.
NA. So it seems to acknowledge the trauma—the complex, as you say—and assertively absorb the poison like a medicine. Cornelius Castoriadis has described what is really at stake here in his 1989 tract, which we have included in the exhibition. It in, he acknowledges Greece and Europe as “the historical birthplaces of a project of autonomy, both social and individual”—a project far from being achieved. Castoriadis warned his readers about pseudo-collective postmodern commemorations and urged for a radical and lucid change, a revolution without teratogenesis, society’s entry into political action—“to open a path in the sea,” as he wrote.
YT. Instead of the disjunctive “this or that,” which is ideological and divisive, we need the conjunctive “this and that,” which multiplies the connections. It is strange how the culture in this part of the Mediterranean went from idealisation to junk. Deceptive superiority (of the past) and decline (of the present), resilience and fatigue coexist in our cultural present. This dizzying and schizophrenic differentiation is a special trait that complements the triple condition of minority of Greece’s contemporary culture. This instability and uncertainty generate some of the post-colonial syndromes that lie at the core of contemporary Greek culture. The surrealist artists in the exhibition are among those who systematically attempted to establish a different, mixed approach to the past.
NA. And it is interesting to see how younger artists, as they appear in this exhibition, present this elliptical, associative discourse that is open to the world. How they try to avoid sensualizing tradition and negotiate, within the problem-context de type grec, their relation to language, history, myth, the environment, even to the “prostitution” of the Greek word “democracy” as per Castoriadis’ concerns; how they strive to answer the broader question of what kind of poetics is persuasive today.
The uncertain, the unresolved and the non-feasible character of their quest are what constitute the core of their identity. “To experiments and masterpieces we must oppose icons,” said Nicolas Calas. Calas’s “magic icons” are the quintessence of reality as it is actively perceived through inspiration (of artists and viewers alike), and at the same time the incarnation of a poetic “in-between”.
Indeed, this exhibition begins with two such post-Byzantine icons from the 18th century, which are part of the collection of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens: St Christopher the Dog-Headed, and the Archangel Michael Sternopthalmos [with eyes in the chest]. Likely made by self-taught folk painters in Cappadocia and brought over by refugees, these icons lie outside the norm. It is interesting how the literature around such works sees in their existence the chasm between the official, western-like language and the oriental folk idiom that preserves examples from a magic-religious milieu on the fringe of the official Medieval Greek culture of the Byzantium.
YT. It is worth comparing the different representations of St Christopher and the respective connotations in the two versions. In the western Catholic tradition, we see a handsome, robust man carrying Jesus, whereas in the eastern Orthodox version he has the head of a dog; in other words, a reconciliation of the Saint who carries and protects Jesus with the monstrous physiognomy of an animal-like human. A man who can hold Christ exactly because he is dog-headed and not idealised. The differentiation is as much anthropological as it is religious, promoting reconciliation with the ugly, the repulsive, the crossbred and the humble.
NA. This is a saint of obscure origins, whose secular name was Reprobus, i.e. “the condemned,” the outcast. A creature that incorporates different identities, myths, traditions, geographies, and histories. A line of relationships stems from this source in the show.
YT. The combination of works thus assumes the character of an expanded archive, which turns into a mechanism for generating meaning. The unresolved issue, however, is the participation of a minor local culture in the international debate on the future and its technologies. The “future” as a term was idealized by modernism, but these days it is undergoing its hardest test. It becomes increasingly hard to talk about the future, even for politicians in whose rhetoric it has always been a main ingredient.
And if it is hard in the major hubs of Western thought, it is unthinkable in a place like Greece, where the notion of the future has been banished from every debate. This is why the architect Takis Zenetos’ proposition for a City of the Future and Electronic Urbanism (1962-1974) spreads itself all over the exhibition, almost like a rash. It is the study of a deterritorialized, suspended city, which marks the passage into intangible forms of post-Fordist biopolitical production and returns to the exhibition via its processed archive of references.
NA. Then, through this simultaneously made and unmade project by Zenetos, let us introduce another concept which is important in the exhibition: what it seeks is not so much the future but what the ancient Greeks called kairos—chronos which is complete, full of meaning; a critical point in time, a rupture catalyzed by human will in order to create potentials. So let us bear in mind this meaning of kairos when we talk about opportunity and topicality.
Nadja Argyropoulou works as an independent curator based in Athens. Among others, she has curated “Hotel Paradies,” the 2nd Athens Biennial (2009), “Investigations of a Dog” (FACE-DESTE Foundation (2011), and co-curated “The Marathon Marathon” project with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (2010). She is working as curator at the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art and was the assistant curator for the Greek Pavilion at the 2005 and 2007 Venice Biennials. She has curated reviews of Greek art, such as “What remains is future” for Patras-Cultural Capital of Europe (2006) and recently “Ντέρτι Humanism” in London (2011) and “Lustlands” in Greece (2012). She has written reviews and texts for solo and group exhibitions. She is the curator of the exhibition “HELL AS PAVILION”.
Yorgos Tzirtzilakis is an architect who teaches in the Department of Architecture at the University of Thessaly, Greece, and works as advisor to the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art. He lives and works in Athens and Volos. He has curated a number of exhibitions on art and architecture and written extensively on relevant matters. He participated in the architectural design of “HELL AS PAVILION”.
“HELL AS PAVILION,” exhibition as part of Modules – Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, from 27/02/2013 to 04/04/2013, at the Palais de Tokyo.
The discussion has taken place on November 23, 2012
Malvina Panagiotidi, Vassiliki-Maria Plavou, Yorgos Rimenidis
List of artists : Alexis Akrithakis, Loukia Alavanou, Vlassis Caniaris, Savvas Christodoulides, Costis, Dimitris Dimitriadis, Antonis Donef, Andreas Embiricos, Nikos Engonopoulos, Haris Epaminonda, Stelios Faitakis, Takis Giannousas, Hollow Airport Museum (Nikos Charalambidis), Lakis & Aris Ionas (The Callas), Vassilis P. Karouk, Andreas Ragnar Kassapis, KavecS(VanaKostayola& Kostis Stafylakis), AnjaKirschner & David Panos, Panos Koutrouboussis, Blind Adam (Thanos Kyriakides), Konstantinos Ladianos, Stathis Logothetis, Andreas Lolis, Panayiotis Loukas, Rallou Panagiotou, Nikos-Gabriel Pentzikis, Kostas Sahpazis, Saprophytes, Kostas Sfikas, ChristianaSoulou, Thanassis Totsikas, IraTriantafyllidou, Souzy Tros (MariaPapadimitriou), Iris Touliatou, Nanos Valaoritis, Marie Wilson-Valaoritis, Jannis Varelas, LydiaVenieri, Vangelis Vlahos, Kostis Velonis, Tassos Vrettos, Takis Zenetos
Appendix Film : Antoinetta Angelidi, Costis, Constantine Giannaris, Alexis Damianos, Nicos Papatakis, Angelos Prokopiou & G.Hoyningen -Huene, Thanassis Rentzis, Kostas Sfikas, Eva Stefani, Stavros Tornes, Athina-Rachel Tsangari, Christos Vakalopoulos & Stavros Tsiolis
With the support of Messieurs Philip & Spyros Niarchos, Outset Contemporary Art Fund in Greece, DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, AEGEAN AIRLINES and the Centre Culturel Hellénique de Paris.