Opera Aperta: A Pedagogical Performance for Adults (Maria Karavela, 1980-1985)

A recent conversation that took place in London while with a friend on one of last May’s chilly afternoons, was inspired by the failures in remembering and documenting critical practices by people once attempted to build public awareness, thereby the spectator failing as a conscious agent. It is this failure that provides the backdrop of this blog following my return from a visit to Greece where I met and interviewed artist and filmmaker Mary Zygouri to talk about her latest film.

Maria Karavela (1938-2012), a 1962 graduate from the Athens School of Fine Arts, whose extensive biography of studies in art, film and theatre, work and activism is unknown to the majority of people in Greece, is an instance of national neglect. Although she is not the only example of forgotten figures, what distinguishes her is a body of work that challenged the consciousness of a close-minded society by unveiling grandiose social problems and the military junta of 1967-1974 in her native country, Greece. Her direct voice as a pioneer performance artist was not just impossible to be understood by the fearful civilians. She was criticised, censored and refused entry back to her country following the strong political approach of her participated work during the 7th Biennale of Young Artists in 1971 in Paris.

Like so many artists of my generation, I was also ‘unaware’ of the life and work of Maria Karavela until 2009 when Mary Zygouri spoke to me about her first performance re-enacting Karavela’s own of 1972 at the Gallery Astor in Athens. Zygouri’s performance took place in the busy rail station at Thessaloniki, bordering north-southern Greece, the Balkans and Turkey, immediately after the 2008 Greek riots and wrote, “Help, 1972-2009” on the ground.

Since 1995, when she initiated her studies also at the Athens School of Fine Arts, thirty three years after Karavela, Zygouri’s work addresses individual identity and social crisis in the contemporary world. In 2003 she received her MA in Fine Art from the Chelsea College of Art & Design in London and two years later in 2005 she met Maria Karavela for the first time. Since then and alongside her involvement to the artist collectives including the Filopappou Group and Osservatorio Nomade, international exhibitions and performances, part of Zygouri’s work is researching, documenting and reenacting the performances that strongly distinguished Karavela’s manifesto.

A component of Zygouri’s research was recently presented in the group exhibition ‘What Would I Say, If I Had a Voice’ (Part I of the series ‘Archive Rights’) at the Contemporary Greek Art Institute (ISET) in Athens (March-May 2013) with the screening of her fifteen-minute long film Opera Aperta (2013). The film is a re-assemblage of Karavela’s archive, the majority of which was burnt in 1996, with interviews from her students and friends, actor Giorgos Biniaris, Alekos Xanthakis and Karavela’s assistant Aggela Stathi. In this blog we are excited to host a teaser from Zygouri’s film together with our conversation with her latest work.

Guest Editor | Georgia Korossi – writer & curator based in London & Athens

Artist and filmmaker Mary Zygouri talked to REVma -/+ about her work:

REVma -/+: What was your first impression when you met Maria Karavela eight years ago?
M.Z.: I visited her in her studio, the same space where her work and archive was burned in 1996. She was still working. Her signature, words and thoughts were imprinted everywhere in her studio, with writings and slogans on the walls that were constantly changing by her, like a public artist. Initially I felt scared but as I was learning about her work I could understand it more and more.The whole body of her ‘performative’ achievement was characterised by the concept of an open work. What she did was an opera aperta (open work) and consequently her archive became an opera aperta. In my film ‘Opera Aperta: A Pedagogical Performance for Adults’, I tried to adopt an expanded and investigated method of research inside Karavela’s output. I tried to connect the missing elements through interviews and testimonies and then as performance artist myself, I re-enacted the aesthetics of Karavela’s own performance that took place at DESMOS in 1985. The film will eventually take the form of a feature-length documentary and as an artist I’m trying to give it a form.

REVma -/+: How did your film project take shape?
M.Z.: I wanted to discover and learn about my ancestors. It’s important for me to claim my inheritance, like trying to reconstruct who was there before me. In essence, I’m trying to prepare my future viewers. As I’m working with Karavela’s archive in connection to history, I also speak about the presence and prepare for the future.

REVma -/+: How your own practice relates to Karavela’s work?
M.Z.: Through researching Karavela’s archive I’ve realised that I’m closer to her activity than the action of Marina Abramović for example or any other performance artist since the 1950s. Which I’ve only come to realise recently that it relates to identity. Part of Karavela’s research from 1974-1976 was the making of her film titled ‘Resistance’. She did a survey and took interviews from people with memories of the resistance [National Liberation Front (EAM)] during the occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers (1941-1944) and the Greek Civil War (1945-1947). In June 1979 she illegally screened her film (banned by the Greek government’s censorship) in Kokkinia and in 1981 she produced ‘Hunged Men’ at Zappeio, in the heart of Athens, a performance where she used parts from Yiannis Ritsos’s poem, Diary of Exile (Ta Makronisiotika). Through my own research of Karavela’s work that took place at the height of the Greek military junta and the years immediately after its fall in 1974, I also studied closely about the dictatorship from 1967-1974. So there’s a continuation of historical research. Until now I was the only one who had access to her archive and with my film I bring to light part of Karavela’s work, which is never seen before. But I’m not sure what will happen next. History becomes integral in the film and the rest of my work, which also means today’s history and what we live now.

REVma -/+: When Maria Karavela eventually returned to Greece from Paris in 1980 she moved to a provincial city in Greece, Korinthos, where she opened the Korinthos Research Centre. She once wrote that everything she did was not enough for Korinthos. What did she mean?
M.Z.: Together with Maria Karavela a generation of artists who were Left supporters moved to Greece’s provincial areas willing to educate the locals. Karavela’s diversity is that she did it alone without the support of the state or local authorities. Her autonomous initiative and work in a close-minded society during this period was isolated and not accepted. She taught freedom of conscience but unless she agreed and coordinated with the institutional power, even several years after the dictatorship’s fall, she was not going to be accepted by her country’s political hegemony, needless to say her hometown.

REVma -/+: Who exactly were the people who didn’t accept her?
M.Z.: Since 1970 Karavela started working on a body of art projects that were public, relational and participatory performances. Those who fought against her where people who were not able to understand her work. Ironically some of them were from the arts environment of that period. They didn’t know how to read it, therefore they didn’t have the understanding of how to judge her work. Instead they fought with her by attacking her fortune, specifically her land using legal action.

REVma -/+: You have studied in Greece and UK and you’re currently working both in Greece and internationally. How does this feed to your work progress?
M.Z.: I think the language of art itself is international but the present economic situation in Greece is very difficult to non-existent to let you do what you want to do. So it is necessary to leave in order to survive and continue your work. Since everything in this country is set to a standstill it is unavoidable that we become like cultural immigrants. On the other hand Greece at the moment is for me the centre of ideas. It is the most inspiring place to work because things are transforming and happening fast on a social level. Through this process we learn how to react and how to reposition our art practice and when there’s production we become more educated and more developed. The difficulty of the situation in current Greece is however crucial and needs to be communicated abroad. What we experience now the rest of Europe might experience it later and since we’ve walked this road already, we have the knowledge of political attitude, the ‘ethos’ of how to fight against the loss of enthusiasm and energy through ideas and practice.