Pasa Dynamis Adynamia*

by Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

When the use of crisis becomes the stage of existence: The particular character of contemporary art in Greece

Aris Konstantinidis, Attica, 1947

Aris Konstantinidis, Attica 1947, Photographs, Drawings, Aris Konstantinidis, Manos and Eppi Pavlidis Collection, (Rethymno Centre for Contemporary Art, 2000)

Could this be the time – kairos, or the right point in time, the ‘crucial moment’ in the ancient Greek meaning of the word – to talk about contemporary ‘Greek art’? If so, what is it that gives us this opportunity today? What is it that makes it timely or untimely?1 Finally, what is it that makes it a ‘special case’?

One almost self-evident answer to these questions is that ‘Greek art’ – which we should call ‘contemporary art in Greece’ if we were to observe the terms of post-national correctness – begins to acquire international interest today because Greece is in the throes of an extended crisis; that is, not because of a sudden attraction exerted by its social preoccupations, its aesthetic idiom or its territorial conceptual framework, however weak it may be, but because its geopolitical trace and its territorialisation are shaken to the core.

One does not need to be particularly stochastic to suspect that a country’s attraction is usually heightened at a weak moment, which it strives to conceal or repress in every possible way. As always, however, a repressed weakness always returns to exact its revenge. Indeed, I would add that it accrues interest until the day of its ‘bankruptcy’, literal or symbolic.

The weak moment, however, denotes not only a country’s ‘dark side’ and ‘inferiority’ but also the scandalous imaginings and translations that other societies and countries build for it through a peculiar correlation of knowledge and power. In a certain way these are constructs of the ‘other’, charged with spectres and primordial fears and feeding on the colonial and the earlier past. Yet all this shapes the psychopathology and the behaviour of large sections of the population.

So what comes upon us from all sides is not just the crisis but also the use of the crisis, which becomes the stage of existence. Its anthropological and social conditions are linked together in a single chain of meaning and tend to evolve into a stereotypical, normative discourse which is not of an economic nature. I have listed here some oft-cited anthropological conditions behind the ‘Greek crisis’ to shed light on the pragmatic and ideological edges of the issue: inertia, delays, emotionalism, black economy, vagueness, procrastination, inefficiency, nihilism, sloth, apathy, rash impulsiveness, lack of competitiveness, irrationalism, waste, suspended modernisation, mystical relics, Oriental propensities, focus on the past, remnants of orthodox spirituality,2 and so forth.

I should make it clear, lest I be misunderstood, that I am describing the phenomenon of constructing contemporary representations, which we all know and spontaneously recall as soon as we hear the word ‘Greece’, and I certainly do not intend to justify it. This kind of list makes up the cultural anthropology of crisis and describes the mental behaviour of its victims, who are often described using medical terms. Indeed, the word crisis itself has, in addition to its ancient Greek origin, a prominent medical meaning as well. This is the critical moment, the threshold at which the patient ‘either dies or follows an entirely different course’,3 and ‘the body gets healed after it has come out of the crisis’. The sêmata that preceded it are not recognised as warning signs until after the event. Of course, the question here remains which of these anthropological traits will be suspended or changed after the critical moment of the crisis and what will replace them. In other words, what shall we be like after the crisis? And can we really talk about after the crisis?

For the moment, in any case, anyone who has these traits in an adequate combination is vulnerable to the disease of the crisis at any moment. The more easily perceptible among them – hence the most translatable – are also the most popular ones in a debate, lending themselves to long-winded media reports, stochastic or scientific interpretations, calculations and statistical analyses. As with every ailment, the suffocating spread of fear concerns not the symptoms themselves but the ultimate end they may bring (bankruptcy, regressing into conditions similar to those in the Balkan states that emerged after the fall of Eastern European regimes, underdevelopment, poverty, the end of the welfare state, uncontrollable conflicts).

What does all this show? That the weak moment comes inescapably when a country’s culture is literally different. This means the kind of vagueness and irresolution that flourishes at geographical and cultural borders and is seen as the scandalous relic of earlier processes – authentic and precious when promoted as a tourist attraction, a purulent abscess when it comes to implementing fiscal bail-outs. This is the very moment at which the country differs not in the established, stereotypical way but by following routes that deviate from an acceptable, generic and dominant model.

Aristotle in Metaphysics links “impotentiality” with its opposite, “potentiality,” the “non-being” with “being”. This symmetrical interdependence gives a different meaning to our perception of “impotentiality” as well as of “non-being”. The philosopher defines “impotentiality” as “a privation contrary to potentiality. Thus all potentiality is impotentiality of the same and with respect to the same.” (pasa dynamis adynamia)4. In other words, “potentiality” is always the relationship with its absence, i.e. with “impotentiality”.

This is why what we see as impotentiality is also our truth, the ultimate social and cultural condition which may mean something. Strange as it may seem, therein lies its ‘innovation’. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben starts from Aristotle’s definition and focuses on the structure of ‘sovereignty’, in which adynamia (translated as ‘impotentiality’, ‘weakness’, ‘inability’) and inoperativity (désoeuvrement) are excluded in order to produce an opposition where potentiality is represented as something absolute. In this spirit he proposes the concept of the ‘irreparable’, which we can recontextualize and introduce here: “Irreparable means that these things are consigned without remedy to only their thus; […] but also means that in their being-thus they are absolutely exposed and absolutely abandoned”.5 Just like “the insalvable that renders the salvable possible, the irreparable allows the coming of the redemption”.

“Impotentiality” and the “irreparable” function here as a metaphor, a “substitute of the signifier”, since, in psychoanalytical terms, they denote one thing through another. This is why the crisis brings out a collective truth which reveals, in its own way, that “we have never been modern. […] Modernity has never begun.”6 Therein lies the special character of contemporary art in Greece.


* Aristotle, Metaphysics, Theta, 1045 a, 31. Excerpt from a more extensive paper on “Crisis and Mourning in the Contemporary Greek Culture”, on the occasion of the exhibition Ντέρτι Humanism, curated by Nadja Argyropoulou, Faggionato Fine Arts, London, July-August 2010.


1 The untimely is a Nietzschean term for something that opposes the hypertrophy of the hegemonic historical knowledge and the constructed time we have got used to: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Untimely Meditations 1873-1876, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, 2nd edition, 1997. The ancient Greek meaning of kairos – what we call ‘opportunity’ today – manifests itself as the ideal balancing of the parameters in a situation.
2 Stelios Ramfos attempted an anatomy of the roots of crisis by exploring a “modern-Greek anthropology” in Αδιανόητο τίποτα. Φιλοκαλικά ριζώματα του νεοελληνικού μηδενισμού, Athens, 2010. The “Philokalia” cited in the title refers to the anthology of ascetic texts by the “Neptic Fathers” of Oriental Christianity; it was printed in Venice in 1782 and, according to Ramfos, shaped the “empty self” of modern Greeks. Cf. the same author’s Ο καημός του ενός. Κεφάλαια της ψυχικής ιστορίας των Ελλήνων, Athens, 2000, and Ni kolaos Loudovikos, “Από τον διευθυντικό ή συγκρουσιακό εκσυγχρονισμό στη διαλεκτική της πραγματι κής ιστορίας. Με αφορμή τον Καημό του ενός του Στέλιου Ράμφου”, Indictos, 17, 2003, pp.116-131.
3 Michel Serres, Le temps des crises (2009), Greek ed. Καιρός των κρίσεων, trans. Laokratia Lakka, ed. Vangelis Bitsoris, Athens, 2011, pp.15-16.
4 Aristotle, “Metaphysics”, 1046 e25-32, trans. W.S. Hett (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA 1986)
5 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, Minnesota 1993, p39.
6 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (1991), trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard Univ. Press, p47.

Tiziano, Ninfa e Pastore (Nymph and Shepherd), c.1570, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna LOW

Tiziano, Ninfa e Pastore (Nymph and Shepherd), c.1570, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


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