Contemporary Art in Nautilus: Navigating Greece

Almost 100 ancient Greek and Roman artefacts rendering the cultural past of Greece – ranging from sculptures, pottery, frescoes, funerary, and other decorative everyday items – have been brought together in a vigorous dialogue with the works of 23 contemporary artists in a Brussels- based exhibition marking Greece’s EU presidency. A collaboration of the Greek Foreign and Culture ministries, the exhibition, entitled Nautilus: Navigating Greece, will be hosted at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels (BOZAR) until 27 April 2014. Many of the ancient objects on display are on show for the very first time outside Greece. The contemporary works featured range from painting, sculpture, video and site-specific installations. Participating artists include Alexandra Athanassiades, Vlassis Caniaris, Emmanouil Zacharioudakis and Opy Zouni, among others.

Divided into seven thematic categories (genesis, ecologies, sea routes, odysseys, hegemony, ecumene and faith), the show endeavours to engage visitors in a journey through the imprints of past and present.

The Greek expert committee that organised the show has carefully chosen a site specific installation by artist Aemilia Papafilippou, Salt Testament–Chess Continuum, to represent and introduce the first chapter of the exhibition, Genesis, as the leading artwork. I was honoured to be part of the entire creative process of Papafilippou’s work and felt privileged to have contributed towards the authorship of the accompanying catalogue text.

For the benefit of the readers of this article, this text is cited below followed by my conversation with the artist.

Papafilippou’s installation signifies the universality of the concurrent doctrines by Heraclitus “..you cannot step twice into the same stream” [Plato, Cratylus 402a:fr.41] and Buddhism’s Impermanence (anicca), channelling pre-Socratic philosophy and Asian spiritualism into the poetic realm of Ovid’s omnia mutantur [Metamorphoses XV.165].

The constant state of flux interpreted through the ever-present change in the universe, transmits infinite multi-dimensional pulses; a continuum.

The ubiquitous nature of the continuum semiotics in ancient Greek iconography is abundantly attested. From as early as the Geometric Period, patterns such as chequerboard, zigzags, nets and meander systems, are extensively employed. During the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian eras, the use of ‘continuum’ motifs engage widely in pottery, architecture, mosaic embellishment, wall decoration and jewellery. Highly sophisticated designs, like cymatia, braiding, interlocking circles, imbrication, guilloche, interweaving sigillum Salomonis (Solomon’s knot) (reminiscent of the atomic mass that Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus had hitherto proposed), and even the ivy scroll, are all descendants of a deep-rooted and firmly embedded cross cultural intercommunication practice.

Exploring and evolving the trajectories of her ‘continuum-in-progress’, Papafilippou unveils the unfathomable possibilities of wave mapping parallelised and simultaneously juxtaposed against her chessboard grid platform. Viewers are encouraged to corporeally navigate around a locus of diverse heights and depths. Following the course of palpable waves, whose orbits eventually develop asymmetrically, they witness their subsequent shoaling, refraction and diffraction.

Time consumption versus time expansion is a game of the senses. Natural conflicting forces participate in a pandemonium of immutable battle, only to result to a state of unconditional balance. Their distribution is -by universal law- equilibrium. They are the system of competing influences coiled together, spawning the archetypal DNA.

Solely deposited throughout the human hypostasis, it is ciphered in every single blood cell and registered on our body. A gesture of crossed hands reveals from one side the contour lines of a grid, and, its reverse, the wave line qualified to be inscribed within it. The magnification of human skin divulges a concealed network satisfying an equation of the relation between coordinates, analogous to a liquefied chess continuum projected on to the sea surface.

The natural disseminative behaviour of sea kinesis encounters its metaphorical counterpart in the successive evolution of the World Wide Web. Multitudinous waves become carriers of data agents on a vast matrix of sources existing in abundance. With non-geographical implications, omnidirectional augmentation is permeated by a migrating intricacy. Synchronised pixels of information synthesise the genesis of a multifaceted virtual domain. Its acceleratingly evolving complexity forms dynamic and propagated oscillations. These abstract environs do, in fact, emerge as an initiated non-abstract actuality; a digital DNA.

The manifestation of the eternal journey in Salt Testament-Chess Continuum narrates a reality that sees no change, decay or demise. The whispering “Είμαι Εγώ” (= I am) is a declaration of harmonised selfhood and non-selfhood, a statement of a perpetual identity with no fixed nature, body or existence.

Aemilia Papafilippou gives us an insight into her work:

Kostas Prapoglou: Your installation marks the beginning and the end of the entire exhibition. What are the commitments and responsibilities of a leading artist i
n such an important show?
A.P.: It is indeed a very great honour that the organising committee and the curators, Spyros Makkas, Maria-Xeni Garezou, Maria Lagogianni–Georgakarakos, decided to place on me and my work.
I was truly moved especially when the team of archaeologists and conservators started unwrapping these artefacts I have been admiring all these years in the museums. There they were, “breathing” next to me while I was working, weaving space and time through my own string installation, realising even further that we are but a continuum. We all are part of this process, where indeed no beginning or ending can be delineated per se, where all is in constant change, as Heraclitus taught us, and humanity keeps weaving culture as meta-nature. In this sense, all I was called to do is do my work in the best possible context!

K.P.: What were the challenges in integrating, adapting and transforming elements of the existing space in the production process of your installation?
A.P.: I have a consistent working philosophy: what might seem to be a drawback can be revealed to be -if treated creatively- a blessing in disguise. In this sense designing the adaptation of the piece in the given space, I realised that the space, narrow as it was, could work towards our benefit. Since I was called to design the first impression not only of my piece but also of the entire exhibition, I felt that I ought to create an initiation passage as entrance, and a birth canal as exit. To do so I kept things to a minimum, erasing the superfluous so as to make the spectator aware that they are in the centre of this experience. In this sense having the navigate in space and time, marks corporeality as the basic way of being in the world while at the same time it gets to be challenged and formed anew by culture. Hopefully one realises that navigating in a fluid landscape which keeps changing all the time, ‘the sea’, is actually an everyday encounter with life…The difficulty is that the piece entails a lot of work and precision. In achieving this I was supported wholeheartedly by the supervising architect Alexandros Xenakis and team of constructors headed by Emmanouil Lignos.

K.P.: ‘Salt Testament – Chess Continuum’ is the product of an on-going project, whose earlier versions have been presented to numerous worldwide audiences in the past. When did you first conceive the idea and how did you begin to progress it?
A.P.: I work evolving my ideas and methods gradually through time. I first conceived ‘Salt Testament’- nature’s legacy if you want – at about 1987 and exhibited in 1989 a video installation with the same title that dealt with the similarity of the organic with the technological. Later on, I worked upon the similarity of chaos and order as witnessed in the semblance of the glittering sea to TV’s ‘snow’, which is a chaotic phenomenon. Gradually through the 1991 ‘Chess’ or ‘Playing in the fields of Time there is no winning ever’ and 1992, ‘Logos Scheme-What a burden to travel light’ I came to understand chess as a game of interdependence. Gradually I become aware -while weaving the chess map in space as if being geographical coordinates- that I could draw the chess map in one single line: the ‘Chess Continuum’ ideogram was devised to be redesigned later on, in its cymatic present form. The present piece has all these elements intertwined.

K.P.: What has the response of the Brussels audience been so far?
A.P.: Very moving! One said that entering my piece made him feel instantly transported ‘elsewhere’ leaving the city behind and some other talked about the spirituality emanating and linking ancient artefacts and my work. A woman who did not speak English (while I do not speak French) held me in her arms in tears. In all I felt that there were people touched. I couldn’t be happier!

K.P.: How do you see your work evolving in the future and following the Nautilus exhibition?
A.P.: I believe that we are ‘the game, and the game’s game’ to use one of my titles, meaning that we create and yet at the same time we get to be created by our own artwork. In this sense I do not foreplan. Somehow the work itself, and its affiliations, get to be revealed and create new situations.