‘Polyglossia’ – the existence, use or knowledge of multiple languages – brings together 31 Greek artists, as well as those of Greek origin, including American-Greek Lynda Benglis and Italian-based Jannis Kounellis. From Christina Dimitriadis’s deconstruction of the family unit to Vassiliea Stylianidou’s investigation into coincidences and systems in architecture, the exhibition stages conversations around a variety of discursive threads. Each explores the theme of identity, but none reach a simple conclusion.
Inviting questions about how artists are shaped by geographical influences and cultural origins, the show’s understanding of identity is exemplified in Miltos Manetas’s painted collages Internet Paintings II, 1 and Internet Paintings II, 2 (2009–11). Reflecting a copy-and-paste culture, the paintings acknowledge cultural identities that shift continuously within a globalized context. Of course, self-definition can be liberating as in Lucas Samaras’s masterful manipulations of his own image in the series ‘Photo Transformation’ (1973–6). Yet Dimitris Tzamouranis’s painting of immigrants shipwrecked off the coast of Italy in Clandestini (2008) reminds us that the experience of redefinition can also be forced and torturous.
Like the artists on show, Greece has been formed as much from outside its borders as from within. Chryssa’s ‘Cycladic Books’ (1953–7) – 20 plaster casts of a cardboard box – explore the transmission of cultural origins from an international perspective. A meeting point between US Modernism and Greek classicism, stylized Cycladic forms fuse with the replicated imprint of a disposable cardboard box. The use of cardboard and plaster negates the marble-carved image of ancient Greek civilization cultivated by Western scholars (and 20th century fascist movements) as a symbol of superiority, authority and perfection, while in their referenced classical form, the cardboard boxes are rendered ritualistic icons for a modern, consumer culture. Perhaps Giorgos Gripeos’s print Facing West (2009) has the same intention by literally turning Athens on its head and presenting the contemporary city – without the Acropolis – in its over-crowded, cluttered chaos.
In this context, George Drivas’s video Sequence Error (2011) analyzes power relations and labour divisions through the lens of a system verging on collapse without making overt connections to culture or place. Speeches originally delivered by Che Guevara and George Marshall are spoken by symbolic figures: a 1960s-looking man in a turtleneck sweater; a presidential figure in a brightly lit boardroom; and a woman officiating over the dismissal of workers. A microcosm that echoes Greece’s current economic crisis set inside a glass-and-steel administrative building where everyone is identified by barcode badges, the work exposes Greece’s situation within the framework of a system that turns people into numbers.
Throughout Sequence Error, a silent woman icily presents equally silent employees with notices of their dismissal until she is finally dismissed herself. Her astonishment recalls the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller’s question to German intellectuals during Nazi purges: ‘When,’ he asked, ‘they come for you, who will speak on your behalf?’ As such, although ‘Polyglossia’ appears as thematically unified as shattered glass, there is a moral to the show that speaks to a world in flux. At the beginning of a century characterized by upheaval, where the individual must navigate reality on local and international levels concurrently, it’s better to have many voices than none at all. The challenge is to discover meaning amidst the cacophony of the collective, while never losing sight of who you are in the process.
First published in Issue 140