It’s Grim Up North. It’s Grim Down South Too
by Kostis Velonis
Can the South be defined in different terms to those dictated by its geographical reality? If yes, wouldn’t one stumble across the rival definition of the haughty and hostile North? Yet the next question would be who owns the South and who owns the North?
Remembering one term can often lead to another, not necessarily because of any common etymological roots but because they are similar in form. This similarity may acquire a binding character and the symptoms of an obsession. My departures and returns to Greece are almost invariably associated with some journey, brief or longer, to a country up North – or at least more northerly than Greece. This means that nostalgia for home is also geographically defined as a yearning to return South. But is the reverse also possible – can you long for the habits and values of the North, especially when you feel that you are suffering in the South? What is important is that you find a way to determine what it is that you love in the South in order to understand what makes you miserable in the North.
In “My Best Holidays” someone could escape into the picture that hangs under the artificial palm tree. They could sit in the sitting room and let their gaze be absorbed by the point where the wooden fronds of the palm touch the wall. I am certain that visitors cannot escape the laminated picture from the photocopy shop in Strilingas, which shows some unspecified, dark Eden. This is, in fact, a view of Europe’s northernmost tip, the point where Norway meets the North Pole. Although I have visited that special place under the most extreme conditions, I opted for a ready-made picture like those in the accompanying booklets to viewmaster disks of Norway.
The important thing may not be what is South and what is North but the provision of a condition in which viewers, in their own present, observe another place in a virtual present – which is, indeed, the constitutional principle of the image, the symptom of the potential for geographic displacement. Such topologically-defined thoughts may provide a clear answer as to why sculpture remains fascinating, when the distance acquires the weight of scale and direction, and an environment is created that shapes this metric relationship.
The reproduced image of a landscape, whose exotic nature is underscored by an artificial palm tree in a sitting room, turns my mind to the trivial and unbearably mundane, everyday reality of a worker who fights the merciless monotony of the monochrome office by putting up the occasional poster of some landscape. These are usually photos that must have been distributed through the years by the National Tourist Organisation to ministries and other agencies, as well as pictures from calendars and other commemorative publications by various societies and unions.
I have met a lot of people whose dream was like that. Some will get to go to the northern or southern cape or to other distant places, but I am moved by the possibility of losing yourself in the idea of escape, inspired by a poster in the workplace. We are a human race full of illusions and yearnings, and the practice of this indirect denial of reality within the office corroborates the fundamental principle behind a personal utopia.
“Another Sun” is one of those works that are interesting because of their small size and the vague, shapeless yet hopefully attractive sense of depicting a world between an object, a still life and a landscape. Is it a mock-up of a monument to the Victory of the Sun, the triumphant course of some ideology or just an ‘interpretation’ of sunrise or dusk in a Greek landscape? Again, the specific fiction is not as important as the feeling of the impending birth of something new and bright, even if it emerges through a kind of springtime harshness like the one we all feel in Athens on sunny days after the spring.
It’s a pity that we are not silent or at least softly-spoken like a Bergman film; we are a rather loud and hysterical lot, yet at the same time fascinating and inventive to some. N’est ce pas? Le chat de la Méditerranée came from a sign designed by Βalthus for the La Méditerranée restaurant on the Place de l’Odeon in Paris. Βalthus had painted it in memory of a dinner with Picasso at the Golfe-Juan resort on the Cote d’Azur two years earlier. It is probably meant as the artist’s self-portrait, since in all the works the female nude is accompanied by the enigmatic presence of a cat. The elements in the painting are fetish points for many artists, and I hope that almost no one would flirt with the idea of depicting themselves as a dog; that would be regrettable and pathetic. The South has a justified fondness for the carefree, independent nature of cats and see them as the model and the symbol of a liberal attitude. My own cat in a three-dimensional interpretation of Balthus’s work is probably not sitting, but it is certainly quite excited and about to dive into the sea.
“It’s Grim Down South”
Even if we cannot escape psychological devastation in view of the impending death of a harassed society, a simple reference to Greek history — in the sense of a common geographic destiny, not necessarily a blood relation — can turn into an imaginative journey. The underworld can be attuned to these troubled times of crisis and riots. Everyone can fit on this half-opened chair: delinquents, strays, even the battered old timers from the political parties. Oedipus ultimately comes to terms with death, so why can’t we?
“The Fall of a Rooster at the Erechtheum”
History as a farce is no less enviable than its dramatised version, just as a tourist souvenir from the old Athens market may convey different and not necessarily academically useful information about the real object it replicates. I can reproduce the story of the effigy of the goddess Athena that used to be kept in the temple of Erectheum. I follow a tradition that showed the sacred statue as wooden and as rigid as the rooster wedged in the prostasis of the caryatids on the south side of the temple. The feeling it gives is at best that of an unfortunate event, in the sense of an unexpected combination, an error turned into a neo-platonic vision for a sculptor: it is a rooster, even if it is upside down and amidst a group of abducted and abused maidens.
“The End of an Autumn Day”
The autumn here is defined as a dwindling experience, a time when not only fruits run out but also when the moments of reflection – or abandonment, if you will – intensify. The peasant, the man of the countryside, leaves his land and goes outside the frame. In place of an epilogue I’ll resort to an ode by Pindar:
The pleasure of mortals grows, and soon it falls to the ground,
When shaken by an adverse will.
Creatures of a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow is man
—Pindar, Pythian VII 92-96