Reality as a strategy, observation as destiny

Reality as a strategy, observation as destiny

per Maria Papadimitriou

1. THE CORKSCREW In recent years we have witnessed an increasing interest in society, the suburban landscape and the domestic aspect in contemporary art. I think this switch is a result of the demand for natural, comprehensible relations with our surroundings. The uncontrollable layers and contrasts of this landscape are no longer a passive ‘receptor’ but an active ingredient of the artwork. The principle of reciprocity is fully applicable here, and the meaning of art depends on that. The dominant element is not an aesthetic demand but a functional prerequisite.
In 1953 the most mysterious figure among the situationists, Gilles Ivain wrote under the name Ivan Chtcheglov about the cities of the future: “between the legs of women walking on the pavement the Dadaists would like to find a corkscrew, the Surrealists a crystal bowl. But all that is gone … The next culture will be more flexible, more cheerful. We saw how necessary it is to construct situations. This need for absolute creation had always been closely associated with the need for playing around with architecture, time and space.”

2. PIED-A-TERRE Maria Papademetriou is an artist whose work of the previous years revolved around the notions of parody, the paradox and personal identity. As she started to apply her past experiences to social matters, the artist’s interest was attracted by the locality of Avliza in Menidi – a shabby area in western Athens used as a pied-à-terre by migrant populations such as the gypsies and the “Vlach-Rumanians” from Veria. Papademetriou was immediately struck by the irrepressible dynamics of the area’s changeable ‘emotional topography’ and the secret awe which is implicit in the tense relationships developed around there.
Yet why is it that we are interested today in the images and human situations unfolding in such areas and bring the planet’s remotest regions into contact? There may be various answers to this. British sociologist Anthony Giddens claimed (in 1989) that if we do not idealise living conditions we shall see more clearly that most of our own ‘sophisticated’ institutions are anything but natural to human life: the world created by industrial civilisation does not necessarily reflect progress.
Of course, these people are associated with an almost primitive model of life and dwelling, always temporary and under a state of persecution. Yet this same state promotes the ‘otherness’ and the mythologies of a population still accompanied by secrets and spirits. I am aware of the objections to ‘dirty living’ and the demands of rationalism, but we must admit that these areas contain worlds and myths (like the spectre of ‘Carmen’, for instance) which we love and hate at the same time. Worlds and myths which provide a recognisable (exotic) identity as much as they perpetuate exclusion and marginalisation. That’s why we are interested in these images.
Maria Papadimitriou processes these contradictory elements through discussions with her friends and associates. In Avliza the power of the metropolitan tornado most people today call ‘nomadism’ defies all those who described as the dominant model of the future and asserts itself as a vulgar local peculiarity. Indeed, what we have here is the concept of a makeshift settlement – a kind of mobile, post-urban city which serves its inhabitants’ temporary housing needs and economic activities. Above all, however, this transient town subverts all prefabricated images.
I would pick out at least two of the many prejudices. First, those who have long treated such areas as a hideous mess which is bound, sooner or later, to be eradicated by the cold elegance of western urban standards (a boundless Oslo). Second, those who, bewildered by the uniformity of the modern world, hasten to push these places into a soppy, hedonistic interplay with the kitsch which soon becomes tedious. They are both unable to understand these realities, so they attack them and project on them their own preconceived images.
Yet Menidi does not propound any aesthetic theory but the notion of randomness: the disparate visual and anthropological elements fuse together through tolerance and co-existence. Everything forms part of this town – landscape, clothes, interiors, unfinished, gaping buildings, streets, cars, the sky, the people.

3. TAMA Papademetriou launched in that area a collective project under the general title ‘Temporary Autonomous Museum for All [TAMA in Greek means religious offering]. The project comprises architects, sociologists, anthropologists, filmmakers, local people and artists, with Papademetriou acting as liaison and general coordinator. The subtitle describes in a dry but precise way what the project is about: “Social Facilities for Itinerant Populations”. The starting point is the set of relationships which will develop, and the aim is not to produce ‘new images’ but to process the visual and empirical data of Avliza, which concerns more people that the idle visitors of a gallery. What is really attempted here is a new system for artwork production.
Today, everybody proclaims that in post-industrial societies production loses its prevalence to knowledge and communication becomes the prerogative of art. In this sense, “TAMA” promotes relationships rather than the picturesque aspect exalted by tradition lovers or the regime of sensational breaches exalted by modernity. What unfolds here is a new perception of space and time, with the aesthetic outcome emerging almost spontaneously. Such an attitude agrees with the "Greek Idiosyncrasy" which is not characterised by a tendency towards rational models of understanding reality but by existentialist implications and particularly by the experience of relationship. The significance of the experience of living is always greater than that of rules.

4. HOLY DOMESTICITY It is worth noting here the way the project reintroduces the concept of the Museum as ‘Social Facility’. This view has had some mighty predecessors, from Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades which subverted the convenient uniformity of museums – the ‘security of the eternal, in the words of Seferis – to Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional museum (1972). I believe that our generation, torn between the mass culture of pop and the critical tradition of modernity, was surprised by the manic occupation of the museum by two seemingly opposed ‘camps’: the incoherent, hypocritical obsession with ‘sublime’ values, and the feast of consumerism with the new, hysterical totems of merchandise. As it was to be expected, the two ‘camps’ eventually fused into one. What was pushed aside in the process was the intellectual touch, the warmth of creativity and the genuine beauty of those areas of the world which stimulate the emotions and the powers of human observation. The true danger for museums lies not in commercialization but in the ousting of real life. One might wonder why I have gone into all this. It is because the first refreshing thing TAMA attempts is to show respect for diversity and do a positive reconsideration of domesticity. Art becomes again a product of relationships and the artist, as Hakim Bay puts it in TAZ, “is not a special type of person … each person is a special type of artist”.

* The phrase ‘observation as destiny’ was used by Antonio Tabucchi to describe the work of Fernando Pessoa.