The exhibition Urgent Conversations: Athens–Antwerp is a collaboration between EMST and M HKA, a theoretical and visual dialogue, based on works from the collections of both museums, which includes more than 70 works structured in 22 topics of discussion.
This is an issue that came to mind when we paired the work of Luc Tuymans with that of Ilias Papailiakis and Wilhelm Sasnal.
How does the memory of an image relate to the image of a memory? Figurative painting has an affinity with memory, as both are constructs of mental activity, relating past and present. Images do not arise when a painter stops looking at an image nor at the moment the brush touches the canvas. They are mental constructs, determined by social and ideological filters and -in art- steered by artistic intent. Painting from memory and painting from life are more closely related than would be expected.
In Flemish Village Tuymans paints a sober image of the idyllic Flemish village of Lissewege. The church tower, which looks rather squat, has been cut off so that the space is even more claustrophobic. Similarly, but more in an attempt to capture things rather than in creating a distant echo of memory, Sasnal paints sea mines from a museum on the Polish coast, and the room in eastern Germany in which his father stayed as a guest worker. Papailiakis makes an attempt at painting a nocturnal landscape from memory from a trip to a place defined as the “East”.
This theme came about when investigating the work of Thierry De Cordier, Nicos Baikas and Ivan Kožarić.
Mysticism is theologically sometimes described as the negative path. Also philosophical investigations may not only begin but also end in the unknown. It is valid to focus on the unknowable, delineating the limits of science and technology that appear all too powerful in contemporary culture. Artists, in their capacity to oscillate between societal factuality and the space investigated by mysticism, can make sense of the need to ask questions that cannot be answered.
The torso in Cordier's Hoofdbreker [Head-Breaker] can be seen as expressing an awareness of the fact that profound happiness can only be obtained if man proceeds to a vegetation like state and loses all memory, for example by hitting ones head against a head-breaker. Likewise Kožarić's I'm Feeling Like the Belly of a Lion That Has Eaten Too Much evokes a roam beyond knowledge. Baikas' structured intensity reflects on forms of energy, vertical and horizontal, embodied in the depth of the gesture of the hand, action as reflection on visual and physical enigmas.
Dealing with Catastrophe
DEALING WITH CATASTROPHE
This capacity came to our mind while bringing together artistic addresses of horrors impacting societies, such as the present refugee crisis.
Catastrophe originally referred to the overturning of a narrative in ancient Greek tragedy, thus being associated with disastrous, violent and tragic conclusions that appear unavoidable as natural disasters or “acts of God.” How can art deal with catastrophe without resulting in a perverse and insensitive disaster-show that aestheticizes individual and collective ruination? One way is to understand and memorialize the catastrophe and the reasons that led to it, as means to ward off its reoccurrence. Another is to transcend the sense of finality, inherent in it, by going on to create out of that, much like a survivor who has to start again with the ruins of a former life as his only source.
François Curlet starts from the haunting horror story of Father András Pandy who murdered his family and dissolved their bodies in acid. The artist turns elements of Pandy’s house into open possibilities, centered on a series of birdhouses. N.S. Harsha deals with the often violent struggle that Indian farmers are facing against an increasing development of contemporary urban society. Costas Varotsos with Katër i Radës makes a small monument to a great tragedy, by using the actual propeller of a ship that was full of Albanian immigrants when sunk on its way to the Italian coast in 1997.
The fluidity of the body emerged as a notion after we saw the works by Vlad Monroe, Hugo Roelandt and Eleni Mylonas.
The body is fluid, rather than an entity with a concrete form and a stable meaning. The power of a body to transform as means of survival, communication, or even self-exploration is often forgotten because of chameleonic adaptation to social norms. Thus, when the body becomes a vehicle to implement state or religious power, acceptance of its changing nature is a de facto form of political dissent. Artists have embraced the body’s fluidity, often by applying that first on their own image, in order to bring themselves amidst the battlefield of identity politics, or simply for stepping into someone else’s shoes.
Monroe can be seen as the counterpart of Cindy Sherman; her identification focuses on the surface, his is one in which the subject takes over, as it would in icon painting. Roelandt modulated himself in a way that could be called hermaphroditic, if it were not more open than that; identity as a joyful vibration. Mylonas launches a dual investigation in the faces of Τahrir square protesters: by works inspired from images of their rough armor, published in the media coverage of the events and by trying to identify herself with them.
We thought about this notion when bringing together the works by Marina Abramović and Ulay, Stefanos Tsivopoulos and Bernd Lohaus.
Are we an autonomous existence shielded by our skin and confined within the limits of our body, or is our psychical and mental space inseparable from the space of others? Is it possible to depict our entity as residing in an interpersonal space where we are defined by others and our in-between-experience as much as by our own will? We are relations between people, objects and concepts. The space of these relations ranges from the metaphysical to the linguistic and from the social to the erotic.
Ambramović & Ulay create a poignant image of the tension between themselves within a polaroid. In Land by Tsivopoulos the geographical space is the arena for a political-philosophical inquiry by three immigrants who find themselves on a bare island, each one asking questions in another language. Lohaus makes this interrelational space physical with three heavy wood blocks that occupy a space. The middle block is characterized by words handwritten in chalk; ‘while/as opposite/or/between the’. The blocks at the edges have the words ‘YOU’ and ‘I’ carved deep inside the wooden surface.
This title came to our mind when pairing the works of Charif Benhelima, Nina Papaconstantinou and Francis Alÿs.
What is the threshold, they made us ask, between what can be perceived and what is unobservable with our senses, that which happens too quickly or too slowly, that which is too small or too large to make any difference? Like Marcel Duchamp's “Infra-Thin”, liminal difference cannot be defined accurately but merely exemplified, by the speed of plant growth, the increase of water in an ocean after light rainfall or the distance between two sides of a paper sheet. Art dealing with these thresholds, the inconceivable stages in between different states, reflects on more than the limits of human perception. It questions the very construction of the human psyche because what we perceive determines how we define ourselves and the world around us.
Benhelima consciously overexposes polaroids to find barely visible the essence of iconic banalities around us. His series Black-Out question the nature of perception. Papaconstantinou made Sylvia Plath: The Missing Journal by using a pen with no ink, alluding to the story of a diary that has been written but cannot be read. Alÿs literally enacts his belief by having the surface of one side of a hill moved by a long line of people to the other; literally moving a mountain by faith.
Matter as Meaning
MATTER AS MEANING
This notion came to our mind when pairing works by Panamarenko, Nikos Kessanlis and Jan Henderikse.
Matter, in a natural state or shaped as an object, can be considered a bearer of information, by its natural qualities such as its shape, colour, texture, scent and weight; or by an image formed in its surface. This is a principle without which art would have not been possible in our culture. An object found by chance, a shape formed by chance or a material used by chance still convey specific information. Not unlike an archaeologist who makes a guess about a finding, or a geologist who theorises on events past in a geological time scale, a viewer can reconstruct the gestures that created an artwork. Art liberated itself from traditional formats in the 1960s, often celebrated matter as abundance accompanying innovative moves.
The early work of Panamarenko leading up to his famous airplanes, his Prova Car, is really only an initial ‘prova’, a test image materializing in an ephemeral way. Likewise Kessanlis's Gestures are sculptural notes on a variety of materials. In the same epoch Henderikse makes a wall filled constellation with a multitude of light-hearted fruit boxes.
This term, created by Luc Deleu, led us to pairing him with Allan Sekula and Dimitris Alithinos.
‘Orbanism’ can be described as the worldview which positions the planetary scale as the second relevant scale besides that of the human being. After decades of political, technological and social evolution towards the “global village”, global transport and information networks have increased in complexity, amplifying connectivity and freedom of movement. However, the outcome of this was globalisation, a homogenised regime of exploitation, which Sekula analysed poignantly as having started in the oceans, with the unflagging of ships. Artists developing other modes of engaging with this planetary scale may offer crucial alternatives as they restore the complexity of interrelations among people and between people and other components of the world, be it through a Shamanistic approach like in Alithinos’ Concealments, or through urbanism as in Deleu’s architectural projects that merge structural macro-decisions and the chaotic energy of life.
Sekula proposes an analysis from real life in this chapter of Fish Story, Deleu plans a trip around the world – he made one himself with a sailing boat – in 80 days, and offers an idea for a floating university, whereas Alithinos integrates the world through a webbing of real actions.
This notion emerged from a work by Sarenco when we were pairing him and Paul De Vree with Costis, during a reflection on visual poetry.
Poetical can be interpreted as the license to break, extend and ignore the pre-existing rules in the process of creating, primarily but not exclusively used in reference to literature. This license is the underlying precondition of all artistic evolution as it allows an artist to escape constraints and to add new paradigms. For authors working in the poesia visiva, poetical license became the vehicle for merging the written word with image and for the development of a new grammar that allowed signs from different origins. Poetical license as a gesture and symbol of limitless artistic freedom became a tool for political commitment.
The spirit of Sarenco’s iconic 1969 work Poetical License, is abundant also in the works of the other poets: in De Vree’s engagement with revolution and the need for it to remain in perpetual movement, in his concern about the population’s increasing mistrust of democracy and of the politicians’ power play and in exposing the sensationalism used by the media to manipulate facts and emotions; in Costis’ work where the people become an expressive mass and the word is transformed in a very physical silence.
Politics of Experience
POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE
This subject entered the discussion in relation to the works of Guy Mees and Rena Papaspyrou, Rustam Khalfin & Yuliya Tikhonova.
Their works bring direct experience in the forefront -as opposed to distantiated observation. In this way they lure the viewer into an intuitive position. These are not artworks to look at but art that proposes us how to see, to optically feel and to behold rather than read the image as a surface willed with signifiers. They trust that our gaze is endowed with a haptic sensibility that may retrace the experiences of the eye of the artist.
The Imaginary Ballet of Mees is a late variation of his classical works approaching colour and shape in the most fragile and powerless way imaginable, simply with pieces of coloured paper. In Water to the water Mees theorizes his vision of art as a finely distinct area within the wider world. Papaspyrou’s almost invisible penciled shadows alter the image of an urban ruin which through a public displacement enters the gallery space. Khalfin focuses on the haptic gaze in two videos with Julyia Thikonova that are based upon Chinese stories about Kazakh nomads.
This notion came to mind when pairing Vlassis Caniaris, Jef Geys and Cady Noland.
Rage is often perceived as a blinding feeling, and rightly so, when its cause nor aim are understood. But rage can also become an explosive creative social power, reversing feelings of helplessness. If this hitting power is translated into artistic mediums and practices, it may offer not only a shared focus but also a shared intensity; art as a combustion engine.
Aspects of Racism by Caniaris combines a narrative dimension – colours of skin – with ta shocking line up of feet, that appear to have been cut off, Geys evokes the primary colours and lets the biblical warning of God fall from them, Noland punctures an iconic image of Kennedy murderer Lee Harvey Oswald and stuffs an American flag in the hole made over his mouth.
Recalibrating the Public's Image
RECALIBRATING THE PUBLIC'S IMAGE
This notion came to our mind when bringing together the work of the sculptor Theodoros, Wout Vercammen and Goshka Macuga.
The notion of the public became over the last decade a contested term. It might be seen as a vital and active space of encounter, an ancient Greek agora, or as a passive assembly of an abstract majority, and especially nowadays, as a statistic conclusion. Cultural institutions have always assumed that their public is rather passive: in the past by providing a program based on a dominant narrative, today by offering experiences based upon up to date communication strategies. On the other hand, post-war artistic practices have often advocated critical engagement by viewers, allowing for an individual to become part of a collective subjectivity. When artists address images floating in the public sphere, this can be seen as a complement to that aspiration.
In Test No III, 1970, Theodoros provokes the viewer into a mental act of resistance, foreshadows the Manipulations, a series of works that strongly engage the public through open ended questions cast in a variety of media. When Vercammen remade in 2015 his 1972 pairings of telling images of monsters and monstrosities, they had regained an uncanny sense of contemporaneity. When Macuga publicly reactivated in London the UN owned tapestry of the Guernica of Picasso, she saw another patchwork emerge in front of it, with a prince, architects, organizers and an arts-sponsoring arms producer.
Reflections on Cultural Complexity
REFLECTIONS ON CULTURAL COMPLEXITY
This title originated from talks on the work of Kostis Velonis, Jimmie Durham and Danny Matthys.
Artists are not merely dealing with symbols, signs and shapes. Their material also includes unsettling cultural references ranging from the phantasmagoric understanding of a culture by its conqueror to the subcultural artifacts understood by from the original population, from a story lost in history to the wounds of collective traumas. Complexity is a characterization rooted in the incomplete understanding of intertwined forces. Can art help to unravel this?
Velonis makes a parallelism on monuments of love, the stone theater built in 161 by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife and the song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face written in 1957 by Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger, who later became his wife. In Dead Deer Durham starts with the cliche expectations white people have about Indian crafts, he then transforms these cliches into a powerful interaction with the material. In Himmelfahrt on the other hand, a piece of wood alludes at a tiny bit of Christian transcendence. In Vivre d'Abord Matthys recuperates photos from the interwar German naturist movement which would have been suppressed by the Nazis.
This notion came to our mind when pairing Koen van den Broek, Apostolos Georgiou and Marlene Dumas.
Is devotion an inherently religious activity? Can someone express such dedication ungoverned by religious doctrines? Can religious cultural objects be appreciated in terms outside the world-view that created them, redefined in secular, popular or even commercial terms? Religion, by its close relation to most of western art history, has created an intricate visual language that is still prolonged into various means of visual communication, from contemporary art to cinema and advertising. It can still connote saintliness, purity and martyrdom into any context and still lure the viewer into “idolatry”. After all, the worship of images may have to do with the underlying messages pictures always contained: not only that of the Madonna being a woman, but also of the beauty of the blue and red of the angels and that of the tension between colours.
Georgiou makes a painting of a painting, as a multiple act of belief to the purposefulness of art. Van den Broek departs from the famous Madonna (1452) by Jean Fouquet. As in Dumas’ colourless and troubling Sacrifice a female subject resonates in what becomes a painterly conversion of someone else’s lens-based image.
The idea of Spiritual Form emerged from discussing the work of Philippe Van Snick, Stephen Antonakos and James Lee Byars.
It may seem like a paradox, to have the informal experience of spirituality translated into form. But then, is not in some way any representation – even any word – a paradox, trying to catch something that is always inexhaustible and performative? Art may offer forms that transform the essence of ritualistic capacity into images that allow connection with the intensity embedded in experience. Disengaged from religion, crosses, halos, auras, colors and light may become pure capacity, retaining their ability to stir our inner dimensions.
Van Snick evokes the sensitive logic of the universe through simple means, blue and black for day and night, ten colours for a cosmic order. Byars writes a letter in the shape of a golden man and offers us the perfect philosophy; a golden needle. It is complemented by a wooden toothpick saying TH FI TO IN PH. (The First Totally Interrogative Philosophy). Antonakos hides the technological elements of neon allowing only the light to emanate from a geometrical shape, introducing spiritual elements in minimalist forms.
This notion came to our mind when pairing Guy Rombouts with Nikos Alexiou and Yael Karanek.
The encounter with the world through their sensibility may for artists be a paradise of possibilities, a continuous firework and equivalent to a hallucinogenic phantasmagoria. Any such fleeting moment may offer enough contentment in one’s life. How then, to enshrine artists and bring them into the space of societal conversation where art belongs? Sometimes art seems to celebrate this abundantly vital possibility of human sensibility, merely searching a way to not only let it materialise into experience – implying continuous fragmentation and loss - but to let it become the tissue for our human world.
Rombouts questions the systemic by realising a line in a multitude of components that are both straight and attractively specific. It is an X or a Y axis, the title says. The strength of Alexiou’s work emanates from the concentration of endless minute manual gestures that verge on the ecstatic, whereas Kanarek’s ribbon, born in a digital narrative, merges the structure of digital code with the sensibility of a love letter.
The Flow of the World
THE FLOW OF THE WORLD
By looking at the work of Danae Stratou, Ria Pacquée and Kimsooja we thought about the Flow of the World.
This idea is about the world as a singular entity where on its surface nature and civilization are constantly flowing. We might conceive of objects as related to one place of origin, but in reality, from the molecules in a glass of water to the fabric of our clothes and the circuits in our devices all prove that matter is in constant flux around the world. The works of the artists in this group remind us of the spiritual and material, natural and man-induced transit of our environment. Indeed, you can never step into the same river twice.
The one channel video Inch 'Allah by Pacquée, interweaves experiences in different parts of the world such as sand blown by the wind in the desert and on a Belgian coast. Stratou’s River of Life shows a unified vision of earth's major rivers as the veins of the Earth. Kimsooja's Bottari, both sculptures and containers of other objects, encapsulate the migratory flow of people.
The Space of Grounded Imagination
THE SPACE OF GROUNDED IMAGINATION
This description came to our mind when discussing the possible proximity of artists such as Jan Fabre, Maria Papadimitriou and Almagul Menlibayeva.
In daily life we tend to put imagination aside, as a luxury, or as something that is empty and unrelated to reality. But isn’t imagination one of the basic fields of art, perhaps the most important one in its capacity to help us? Art offers an imagination that remains grounded in our experiences and endows art objects with sense. While we have a tendency to group artists thematically, it may be good to pull together seemingly diverse positions in order to discover that works depicting the horror of our world, dreaming mankind or reflecting on one’s position in between future and past horizons, may in art actually imply one another. Imagination encircles the world, as Albert Einstein once stated.
Fabre here sculpts out of jewel-beetles the ultimate form: the anthropomorphic. Papadimitriou evokes collective horror, therefore implies humanity just as well. Menlibayeva powerfully depicts the position of her people; with Tengri, the ‘eternal blue sky’, but with a horizon punctuated with power pylons . Her native Kazakhstan is the location of both Tengrism and of the Soviet Gulags.
The Unstable Self
THE UNSTABLE SELF
We thought of the Unstable Self while discussing the works of Jacques Lizène, Lucas Samaras and Douglas Gordon.
Unlike in the myth of Narcissus, in real life we rarely fall in love with ourselves. Looking at a reflecting pool one can encounter the abyssal unknown or come face to face with a chimaera: a monster composed by more than one animal. The randomness and transitional nature of what we are, the constant internal battle between opposing tendencies within us and the fluidity of what we often perceive with certainty as our anchor to existence is revealed with deep introspection, psychoanalysis, chemical substances and mind affecting diseases. Maybe it is this knowledge, that self is not a topos but a journey, which saves us from the vengeance of Nemesis.
We are monsters, Lizène states, accidental mixtures of two sources of genetical material, he therefore took a vasectomy not to procreate, after that it is joyful to be a “cadavre exquis”. Gordon confronts in Self Portrait (Kissing with Scopolamine) his own reflection by kissing another face with a truth drug on his lips. Samaras makes with Self what amounts to an autobiography through his body.
The Vibrating Image
THE VIBRATING IMAGE
This idea suddenly come into our minds when looking at works by Wim Delvoye and Costas Tsoclis, which we then combined with images by Hicham Benohoud.
What do artists do, in the simplest terms? If they were craftsmen then they could be seen as image smiths, as they simply play around with our capacity to conceive images and offer us marvellous finds. Look at them: works of art between two and three dimensions, that have the shape of one object and the image of another and that in some way integrate discord in the field of vision. In this way, images pulsate between different meanings and oscillate between interpretations. They remain, in this way, true possibilities.
In Sky Tsoclis works with trompe-l’oeil to create a scenery that is both down to earth and high up in the clouds. Delvoye presents a work that has the functional form of a concrete mixer yet is hand carved and decorated with light blue and white colours that remind of ceramics. Likewise Benohoud repositions pupils in a classroom through simple visual effects.
The notion of visual thinking was strongly apparent in the works of Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Alevtina Kakhidze and Bia Davou.
Thinking can also take place in visual registers; complex ideas, emotions and situations can be expressed clearly and holistically by visual means combining primordial pre-linguistic reasoning and sophisticated media literacy. The primacy of codification into signs and symbols has been reversed by digital media allowing for immediate creation and exchange of images. Visual art is an outcome of the mental capacity of visual thinking.
Van Kerckhoven offers her services as a ‘head-nurse’; she believes visual art – as a form of thinking - may have a healing role in a world grounded in images. Kakhidze likewise takes drawing as a primary mode of thinking. Here, it is the backdrop for samples – selected by the EMST staff - of the three types of ‘news’ she made for the 6th Moscow Biennale (2015), were she produced every day “past news” (mainly about the war in Ukraine) “present news”, about what was happening around the biennale, and “future news”, a horizon of hope. Davou departs in an associative journey from serial structures based on mathematic sequences that transform into sails and Homeric references.
This notion came to our mind when pairing Chryssa, Guillaume Bijl and Johanna Kandl.
Landscape is a term rooted in nature and its unspoilt depiction, whereas Urban refers to the manmade structures and behaviours governing city life. In a strict sense, Urban Landscape is an oxymoron, or a joke term describing the architectural mega structures that negate the view to the land. Yet, Urban is factually the landscape of the period starting with modernity. The idea of an Urban Landscape, littered with signs of its inhabitance, not only illustrates the shift of population from rural to urban centers, but also exemplifies the paradigm shift in art, from a representation of the ideal to a depiction of the real.
Chryssa constructed her light sculptures from her experience of New York China town, Bijl brought into being experiences uncannily close to societal space and Kandl here reorients the gaze to the scanty towns on the borders.