Neutral Witness: Caniaris at the 1988 Venice Biennale

by Emmanuel Mavrommatis

Leading on from his Emigrants series, Caniaris’s exhibition in Venice twenty-five years ago observed the economic relationship between North and South

Vlassis Caniaris’s work at the 1988 Venice Biennale operates on two levels. The first concerns painting and summarises the preceding processes of the artist’s inquiry into the relationship between the painter and his world. This is further enriched by a new relationship between the artist and his own self; he observes himself through a world in which he is the witness. The second level is sociological and summarises the artist’s critical processes during the observation of the interfaces between his artistic work and the problems of the relationship between North and South.

Here the artist once more applies himself to the theoretical substructure of his previous work, Emigrants, placing it within a new geographical, social and economic context. For the Emigrants series, workers from southern Europe were observed during the development of their relationship with the North as they become incorporated into the very heart of the economy of the northern countries to which they had moved. This stage in the relationship between North and South Caniaris now expresses through a new series of works at the Biennale. In this series, migration and corresponding geographical movements are replaced by a different form of relationship, wherein the South is the exporter, supplying the northerners’ tables with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

This new form of economic dependence is accompanied, however, by a visual and cultural change in the image of the protagonists in novel, unequal, social and economic process. The southerner is no longer the poor emigrant in second-hand clothing; he is now dressed more fashionably and has, in essence, combined his economic dependence with a cultural one. The artist, divided between the world he had once observed during the post-war years and, simultaneously, the present-day one, is a non-participating, neutral witness. He has no power over events and remains perched on his former plastered walls with their inscriptions. From there, he observes the economic process. These walls are gradually covered, concealed, by walls of new, modern constructions, bare and functional.

At the same time, the artist belongs to the modern world and is culturally endowed by it. Split as he is in a double, as it were, self-portrait, his only true substance, that of a simple spectator, is brought to the fore. He records his own being as one of the components of a social and economic process, but he also reminds us that he is to be found nowhere, except as a reflection of the images of his own being seen through the various worlds he has lived in. The compositional focus of his work contains a new approach to our times, to the problems of modern art being structurally and functionally incorporated into social and economic processes. The artist indicates that he is not in a position to apprehend the process of his work other than by recording the ways in which this work reports on, or offers a critique of, each form of the social mechanism. Thus, the artistic proposal takes on forms that reveal these mechanisms as social structures and as what constitutes both the form and the techniques of the work itself.

A version of this text was originally published in the catalogue Vlassis Caniaris: Grecia, XXXXIII Biennale di Venezia, 1988.

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