Text by
Yorgos Tzirtzilakis
for the Catalogue of the Biennale


Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

“Thus is the heaven a Vortex passed already, and the earth a Vortex not yet passed by the traveller thro’ Eternity”
William Blake, Milton (15:21)

1. Borderlines
At a time of expansion and reorientation for contemporary art, the Greek representation at the 52nd Biennale of Venice is based on the potential of the different, on a critical renegotiation of the concepts of identity1, the repetition of the same as different, the new handicraft condition and the multiplicity of artistic practices. Nikos Alexiou is an artist who invests these characteristics with tension, demonstrating the alterity and hence the ambiguities of the local scene and its dormant potential for contribution to the international cultural discourse.
If there is one thing that characterises contemporary culture in Greece, it is the varieties of borderline. This is a cutting-edge condition, the porous frontier between the Western world and an oriental cultural idiosyncrasy, at the crossroads of three continents, bet­ween North and South. A culture like that does not stand out for its high technological achievement, but it is not exotic, either. This is why it hovers in interstices, in an undefined “third space”, as a paradigm of irresolution (like the movement of a pendulum). The artistic practices of the borderline do not belong exclusively to the culture of the East or to the highly developed West, although they draw elements from both idiosyncrasies. The fusion between high and low culture, urban and traditional aesthetics, rational and irrational, instinctive and intellectual, are among the advantages of contemporary art in Greece which generate collective instincts and neuroses, fusions and hybrids of all kinds.
So it would be no exaggeration to claim that the best things we have lie on these un­stable borderlines. The architect Dimitris Pikionis once described the varied elements which make up these contrasting zones as “alien”, “unequal” and “of different minds” (diha-fronenonta)2 – what we would call ‘schizoid’ in contemporary terms. Therefore, this kind of condition bears the traits of a cultural neurosis, as it contains a series of symbolic expressions of the conflicts and multiple fusions between desires and defences. Today we can understand in a different way what Roland Barthes’ was saying in the early 1970s: “mad I cannot be, sane I do not deign to be, neurotic I am.”3 In any case, such a condition generates identities, meanings and lines of escape. It possesses an active and retroactive character, a primary and “deferred” (Nachträglichkeit)4 imaginary which combine before and after, origin and repetition in strange ways.

2. The Minor
Let us see now how all this is associated with the Greek representation at the 52nd Biennale and why this attitude concerns us. Alexiou belongs to a generation of artists who in the 1980s extended art into the field of installations, i.e. in a highly sensual and evocative context, using diverse materials, constructions and techniques in reaction to the loss of the physical and tactile aspect of contemporary art as a result of the dominance of images. This premise was no exaggeration: the quantitative abuse of images led us to the brink of “blindness”, to having nothing to see. Alexiou turned from the outset to a fragile, ephemeral world which he brought into the artistic language, persistently using non-representational structures, decorative elements, grids and repeated motifs in a kind of existential metaphor. To be precise, Alexiou is one of those artists whose very existence –what philosophers call Dasein– manifests itself exclusively through a feverish gesture.
The etymological chain of the term is indicative: This kind of handi-craft is a repetitive, high-precision hand-gesture which results in a piece of handi-work. Thus he gradually cultivated an artistic idiom which is highly contemporary –without any phobic refusal of the past– and addresses the most fertile and neglected areas of our imaginary. Alexiou is one of the few Greek artists who urges us to rethink the potential meaning of a minor culture, historically famous, in today’s world. Under this prospect, what matters more is not what we will “preserve” or fearfully delineate but what we will share and risk in our encounter with the other.
His works thus discreetly converse with the most contemporary versions of the “postcolonial approach”, i.e. with the ability to “re-imagine our civilisation and our planet”5 away from the hang-ups and distortions of the Western model of the modern. Alexiou belongs to a generation which came against a series of cancellations of modernity and saw the need to process differently the relation between the “local” and what we call “modern” or contemporary world, investing them with the depth of a different combination and above all of an analogy. In other words, a “good adulteration”.
Going back to the symbolic processing of the hoards and pieces of an unattainable unity, Alexiou attempts an almost archaeological microscopic approach: as in the unconscious, today and yesterday coincide, the repressed returns; the non-visible finds an expression. We know that this archaeological microscopic approach assumed great importance for many contemporary thinkers and artists. It is a suitable term for describing structures, systems and spatial experiences which are not fully uniform but are formed through layers, sediments, juxtapositions and appropriations. And since the term is often abused, I must clarify at this point that it is not about a mere accumulation of elements but, on the contrary, a series of situations and atmospheres which make up a cosmology of their own.

3. The Fourfold
Alexiou focused early on on the ephemeral reed structures and the beach huts that reference Laugier’s “primitive hut” and constitute the most popular constituent myth in the architecture of Aris Constantinidis. This enables us to claim that his patient handicraft tends to become a space-creating experience of the dwelling of the artwork “on the earth and under the sky.” In Greek, the words poiein (to make) and poetry come from the same root. In that sense, one recognisable trait in Alexiou is his obsession with doing things and focusing on the artistic act itself (praxis), on poiein. One gets the impression that Alexiou thinks and feels through what he makes, and thus works on the return of the refusal and on what Hölderlin once put as “…poetically man dwells…”
In the early 1950s, Martin Heidegger described the regressive utopia of such a dwelling which “occurs as the fourfold preservation of the fourfold” [das Geviert]6: “in saving the earth, in receiving the sky, in awaiting the divinities, in initiating mortals”. Indeed, the oeuvre of Alexiou (already since his first reed structures on the beach) constitutes a kind of abode, a place of concentrated introversion and meditation which suggests a certain way of observing and behaving.
One might claim that this kind of attitude runs the risk of idealising the manual pre-industrial civilisation, approaching the most ambiguous aspects of Heidegger’s thought and above all his obsession with the archaic. Yet a careful observer will note how Alexiou gradually developed various ways of distancing himself from all that. For now, I shall focus on the domestic condition of the artwork, i.e. on the life-giving potential of a “poetic dwelling” which appears to be more oriented towards what is absent and brings the work closer to fragmentation and disjointedness.
There is some fetishist echo in this logic of the excerpt, which necessarily points to the lost Wholeness that “we cannot recover”. In short, we are dealing with a “work of mourning” (Trauerarbeit)7 which enables us to sidestep a series of disjunctions, such as between tradition (“our prior body”) and the “spectral” digital technology (which makes up a “new human body”).

4. The Finger
The precedence of the gesture (i.e. the process) acquires a new dimension and dynamic in our current post-industrial and post-fordist8 age. Alexiou elevates the gesture into a kind of incessant “writing”, which in Greek means “to sculpt, to carve” with a “wedge-shaped tool (stylus).”9 Yet how does the carving of “holes of the spirit” on a material, the sculpting of reeds or the patient cutting of paper differ from hitting computer keys and “reducing the hand to a finger (the ultimate handicraft technique)”?10
Such a question informs and prevails in the entire oeuvre of Alexiou, bringing to light a symbolic correlation between computer and loom, between design and weaving, and redefining our perceptions of tangible and intangible space. Any work can be seen as an act of weaving (texture), of handi-work. If a paper mesh or other woven material can be perceived by touch as well as by vision, the same can be true of a computer screen. In this case, the “holes of the spirit” are extended into “a finger that probes via the gaze”. The difference in etymology may not be negligible: in Latin languages digital comes from digitus (finger), whereas the Greek term comes from tessera (mosaic).
Commenting on some of his works, the artist himself talks about going beyond Euclidean logic. In Milles Plateaux, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari linked the idea of the woven material, the felt, with the passage from Euclidean geometry to the spaces of Riemann the mathematician. A patchwork is the ideal metaphor for such a space: a set of scrap pieces which can be joined in infinite ways. No less important is Alexiou’s innate tendency towards patient signification, which reinforces the continuity in his works and our own relations to them. I ascribe special importance to the fact that one contemplates his works with discretion and attention (prosoché). “Entrez Lentement” (Enter slowly): The sign placed in 1938 by Le Corbusier at the entrance of Eileen Gray’s E-1027 seaside house in Cap Martin seems to fit here, too. If we recognise a kind of aesthetic, it has not to do with the theory of Beauty or with the subjective nature of Genius (which Jacob Burckhardt associated with Renaissance artists); it is more about a formalisation of the experience, a sort of attention and askesis which is at once a result and a prerequisite for serene reception. Gradually we come to observe not only the details of the works but our own movements and those of the others as well. In short, we become attentive to everything. Attention itself becomes an artwork.
In this sense, the silence (hesykia) that accompanies these works is eloquent. Moreover, it induces an atmosphere of concentration which is perceived –both in itself and through its effect on our mood– as waves of tension. (“No one has heard the phrase a raging serenity”11) To be precise, it is only in the form of these tensions and fluctuations that these works go from signifier to meaning. This is why Alexiou processes matter, touch, light, the motifs, the grids, patterns and mantras of religious art in an ethereal way which “restores to human use”12 a series of sacred symbols. Giorgio Agamben claims that “this is the political duty of the coming generation”. Yet in Alexiou this “restoration” brings us back into a state of spiritual apathy and delight, a kind of reverie and idleness, around what we define as minor, fleeting, fragile, transpa­rent, immaterial, negligible: “the last crumbs on which the Shape survives.”13 The Western conceptual tradition is combined with hints of Mediterranean balmy weather, physicality with mysticism, the contemplative with the carefree, the representational with the non-representational, the satiation of Being with the incessant becoming, cosmos with dia-cosmos (decoration).

5. The Vortex (the Floor Mosaic)
The modular installation at the Greek pavilion was inspired by the floor mosaic in the main church of Iviron Monastery in Mount Athos (11th century). The artist has paid many visits to the Holy Mountain and stayed at the Monastery on many occasions from 1995 to date, where he was able to get to know the spirituality, the quickening of the soul and the strange interpersonal experiences of monastic life in a place full of insinua­tions, which Roland Barthes cited as a model on Comment vivre ensemble in his lessons at the Collége de France. The poet Takis Papatsonis has accurately described the beha­viour of visitors to Athos as a “state of incessant and almost always wild ecstasy”.14
During this time Alexiou kept ‘copying’ and redesigning the mosaic floor as he tried to grasp its mysteries and sought its semantic structure and its vortex. We must not forget that it is a floor, after all – the pinnacle of geological horizontality, hence of the primary corporeal condition, as opposed to the visibility of an upright, erect position. The cosmological system of the floor does not reflect something visible; it renders visible something without dimensions, which could therefore be infinite, complete and immeasurable, concrete and intangible. One could define the mobile immobility of this floor as a complex ideogram, a densely packed symbolic system, a condensation of the Whole or what we call ‘data storage’ these days.
Contemplating the floor today, one is sorely tempted to explain its symbolisms and riddles which inevitably move between the floor-cum-world and the world-cum-floor. However, I believe that its symbolic system excites us not because it lends itself to decoding but because its meaning remains open and unspoken. Why, one wonders? It needs no expertise in Eastern mystic traditions to suspect that such a symbolic system remains unexplained not just because we are rather incapable of experiencing its secrets, or because the inadequacy of its naïve interpretations disappoints us, but mainly so as to leave space for the experience of real life, where the universe (the Whole) is not just symbolised: it happens. This is what preserves the enigmatic character which permeates its mystery and its cosmological scale.
I suggest that we sidestep the theological connotations, in sensu stricto, and follow the redesigns of the floor as a kind of viewing that attempts to examine the aura of emotions around its secret and arrive at a certain awe. Talking about Pierre Klossowski, Gilles Deleuze described an approach which might prove useful: in one sense, he claims, our age is discovering theology. We no longer need to believe in God. We seek the ‘structure’, a form which could be filled by various religious constructs but does not need to be filled in order to be called ‘theological’; in our time, theology is the science of nonexistent entities.15
Yet the real paradox is that as soon as we elude the theological connotations we are obliged to go back to them, i.e. to the “quintessential reasoning” and the “ambivalence which is their power”. Anyone interested in the psychokinetic experience of the artistic practice cannot easily avoid referring to these “nonexistent entities” that are everywhere.

6. The Copying
If the mosaic floor of the Monastery is made up of patterns of coloured stones, the etymology of “digital universe” in Greek, as we saw it above, brings us back to it and creates our need to break free from such dipoles as tangible and intangible, potential reality and actual reality. Jacques Derrida claimed that this attempt brings us back against the “work of mourning” and “spectralisation”, which “forms, in a way, a new human body”.16 Yet the way in which Alexiou “copies” the monastery floor (and the drawings of 18th-century Ukrainian traveller and monk Basil Grigorovich Barsky) has a different significance. More than imitation, this is closer to communication. Alexiou “copies” in the way poetry is translated, with the aim of getting the transcript to coincide with the original: “Translation”, in this case, “is the transference from one language to another through a continuum of transformations”, as Walter Benjamin points out. So what we are called upon to evaluate is these “transformations”.17
What is the artist’s role in this translation, this “copying” (as the poet George Seferis called it)? At first sight, the artist aims to capture the duration, to transfer the continuity, but this is achieved by generating difference, by “authenticating the different”. Only through repetition can we understand the difference. This is why something reiterated is not a return of the same identical thing but the generation of difference. If “psychoanalysis has taught us that we were suffering from repetition,” we cannot but “heal ourselves through it”.18
We must remember also the affinity that has always existed in Eastern cultures between the intensive training in repetition and ec-static techniques. One cannot deny that “repetition itself creates bliss. There are many ethnographic examples: obsessive rhythms, incantatory music, litanies, rites and Buddhist nembutsu, etc.: to repeat excessively is to enter into loss, into the zero of the signified.”19
So, strange as it may sound, the repetition of the same thing as different ends up liberating the artist from the difference. This is why the “copying” (or even the “misreading”) of the monastery floor enables us to trace the characteristics of a broader change which many have attempted to describe in recent years, in various ways. The “postproductive”20 artist is not an entirely new phenomenon, but part of a model of cultural behaviour which has existed throughout the history of handicraft: it is the artist who –as per Nietzsche’s model– processes the tensions and the divergences of the “eternal return” of the same thing; the one who introduces us into “loss, into the zero of the signified”.
So it is no wonder that the associative allegories of “copying” push the already shaken boundaries between the abstract tradition of modern art (which hails from decoration) and the established religious tradition, between visible and invisible, between ephemeral sensibility and the transformative experience of ecstatic spirituality. This is an unfinished, repeated process which can acquire a social dynamic and even combine itself with the vertigo of expanded conscience, the cosmological imaginary, the visual elements of rave culture or the techno-psychedelic experiences. By intensifying the vibrant designs of the floor, Alexiou explores the limits of human vision at its intersection with the psychogeography of experience in the age we live in.

7. The Trout
The creative skills of Alexiou are tested not only in the work itself but also, and particularly, in what one gets to feel via his work. This crucial peculiarity cannot be traced through logic or analysis, since it is an experience rather than a form. If we persist with the example of the monastic floor, we will find that his various appropriations and redesigns confirm the precedence of the observer’s experience. The multiple reworks of this mosaic perpetuate its enigmatic qualities and its recognisable character, i.e. the fact that it belongs to an “indivisible tradition of the world” which the artist attempts to cross upstream, “like a trout.”21
We saw earlier that in psychoanalysis this kind of ‘revisiting’ is called “deferred action”. Observing the eternal motifs and patterns of the floor, one can see that they belong to an expanded notion of the “tradition of the world” which makes them a bridge to other civilisations that lie “between East and West, North and South.” Through this expansion, the enigmatic quality remains the ideal vehicle for us to perceive their cosmological tension. The persistence in endlessly building this allegorical pattern can lead us to mystical practices and correlations of probing. And since what is changed through repetition does not die, the redesigning continues ad infinitum. Ε. Μ. Cioran has given a good description of the spirit of this experience: “to reach vertigo through probing, therein lies the secret.”
So this is why Alexiou persists with this ephemeral and fragile processing, and his work tends towards a refined eradication of mediation, to the gradual fadeout of the artist in the viewer. Yet this time the fadeout is milder, like a “good adulteration” which is verified through the patient copying –or ‘misreading’, ultimately– of the mosaic. The precedence thus goes to the observer, the interpersonal character, while the artist assumes the role of the one who tries to postpone the breach between the tangible (or earthly) and the spiritual, the modern and the obsolete. This comes to both reinforce and differentiate the postproductive dimension of the work and its interactive character, in the sense that these terms have acquired today.
This ephemeral and repetitive character creates a suggestive environment which promotes a strange intimacy and a cryptic value. The painstakingly crafted constructions, the assemblages, the fine screens, the diagrams, the cut-outs, the folds, the printouts, the doublings and the alternating projections become an almost weightless and gradually absorbed mediation. What prevails is the unreal, literal experience of the shape and the space, its viewing as a symbol. All those delicate constructions, even the hand itself which persistently shapes, are nothing but a referential parallel of reality, derived directly from it, i.e. from the world of experience.

8. Densities of Tension
The psychokinetic tension and the “raging serenity” that permeate these works are preserved in the “apparencies”, i.e. in the processed points and details and not in macroscopic visual narratives and ideological constructs. This seems to be the primary zero-signified which cannot be reduced to anything else. Alexiou has an affinity with artists in whom the plot (and the weaving) of minute details permeate the space and thus find their ideal architecture. The obsession with the shaping hand connects us with his work like wood with the carpenter and the metal with the ore which contains it. This kind of artistic practice is what makes “a good carpenter being good, being a friend of wood”; a friend of the material. Yet what is a friend if not “the one who re-establishes a vital relationship with someone [or something] else that we thought had been excluded from pure thought”? This friendship contains both a “competitive mistrust” and an “erotic tension towards the object”.22
The attraction of such a dexterity introduces us in the best possible way to the psychology of the space and the symbol. It is, after all, the same attention to signifiers that made Nietzsche describe the modern philosopher as a philologist, and many contemporary artists to exalt handicraft, decoration and bricolage. The artwork is above all the product of a sophisticated handicraft structured like a language which only the body can explain.
I am saying this because I believe that the body of the artist is always in a relationship of tension with his work, so much that we could describe it as a state of one mirroring the other. The manic handicraft activity of the body always carries a potential work. The hand itself thinks and determines the inner tone (Stimmung), which manifests itself as the specific gesture and turns it into artistic language. This renders the thoughts and sensations corporeal, i.e. it allocates them around the body. Of course, the aim here is not corporeality but the passage to a spiritual dimension which can only be articulated through the body. The tension of the body that creates is aimed at the tension of the spirit it carries inside. In this way the spirituality of the work is not trapped at an abstract intellectual level –as some might think– but recalls the tension of the body. Here, the rigorous structure of the mosaic and its physical rhythm are always perceived in an esoteric way. The artist himself says that “the work is a rhythm generated by the motions of the body as it makes it. This is the starting point for everything else”.

9. The Pain of Detail
Claude Levi Strauss focused on two anthropological models of cultural behaviour that describe us: the engineer and the bricoleur or ‘do-it-yourselfer’. The former prefers a rational order and so goes from a to b and thence to c, and so on; the latter follows the same sequence in a different, more flexible way, starting from a practical outlook. The bricoleur is the one who explores new and unpredicted ways, mild rifts and re-combinations.
This is what makes me believe that the cultural model of the bricoleur fits in with the rich oeuvre of Alexiou and invests it with historical depth. Clearly, what is at stake here is the expansion of the anthropological factor of modernity and the elevation of the horror vacui into a contemporary language. Our struggle with decoration –one of the greatest taboos of modern art, as we all know– seems inevitable.
All this allows us to claim that Alexiou explores in an almost melancholy way one of the core characteristics of our cultural idiosyncrasy: our desire to treat and process the object so as to hide the pain about their temporariness. If we wanted to be more precise, we would say that he expands the attention to detail into an atmosphere (hence he invests it with a theatrical and symbolic character). This subtle, soothing procedure is what adds even to the ‘humblest’ materials of these works a valuable character. It is an artistic processing sensitive to the reminder of death, which Takis Papatsonis defined in a raving way as a “study of death” (i.e. a precedence of life). It is not without significan­ce here that this pain of the temporary –which also references to some degree the “mal d’archive” – keeps us dependent upon experience, and hence upon hope.
As you will realise, we are in the territory of loss, in a “process of mourning” which is at the same time –and equally paradoxically– a liberating process because it turns the initial pain into the calm knowledge that we can extract some awe out of things. In a way, this attitude constitutes the more refined version of our artistic unconscious. Structured from the outset as a theatrical experience, this unconscious gradually becomes a place of mystery.
That’s why Alexiou touches the most repressed point of our cultural idiosyncrasy, investing his work with an international character as well as with the prestige of a cryptic value. The fragile visual and tactile pleasure from these works reflects our anthropogeographical status in an optimum way and converses with an existential dimension, i.e. with the very core of what we called as the “dwelling act of the artwork”.

1. In The Location of Culture, London, 1994, H. K. Bhabha says that many artists today turn to and process a series of repressed experiences and myths, testimonies of those countries and communities –urban or rural, in the North or the South– which were formed in non-modern conditions: expressive of a postcolonial anti-modernism, they can determine modernity by introducing discontinuities, antagonism and points of resistance against the oppressive and homogenising technologies, while they can also develop a hybrid culture which is inherent to their borderline condition.
2. D. Pikionis, “Η ανοικοδόμηση και το πνεύμα της παράδοσης”, Eklogi, vol. B, Sept. 1946, no. 9, p. 64. Repr. in D. Pikionis, Κείμενα, foreword by Z. Lorentzatos, eds A. Pikionis & M. Paroussis, Athens 1985.
3. R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang New York 1975.
4. Deferred action: “experiences, impressions and memory-traces may be revised at a later date to fit in with fresh experiences or with the attainment of a new stage of development. They may in that event be endowed not only with a new meaning but also with psychical effectiveness.”; J. Laplanche & J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Norton, New York 1973.
5. G. C. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of Vanishing present, Cambridge 1999.
6. M. Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, in Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1971.
7. S. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1915), in Δοκίμια μεταψυχολογίας, Greek trans. Th. Paradelis, Athens 2000, pp. 110-129.
8. A. Zanini, U. Fadini (ed.), Lessico postfordista. Dizionario di idee della mutazione, Milan 2001; P. Virno, Grammatica della moltitudine. Per una analisi della forme di vita contemporanee, Roma 2002)
9. V. Flusser, Die Schrift. Hat Schreiben Zukunft? (1987), Greek trans. G. I. Iliopoulos, ed. D. Kavvathas, Athens 2003, p. 23.
10. D. Kavvathas, “Λήμματα”, in V. Flusser, op. cit., p. 263.
11. T. K. Papatsonis, Άσκηση στον Άθω, ήτοι Πηδάλιον νηπτικόν για περιδιάβαση του Όρους, Athens 1963
12. G. Agamben, Desecrations (2005), Greek trans. P. Tsiamouras, Athens 2006, pp. 121-151: Inspired by the unfinished cultural programme of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Agamben claims: “If to ‘consecrate’ (sacrare) designates the removal of things from the sphere of human law, to ‘desecrate’ (profanare) is to restitute them to free usage by the people … Indeed, the passage from the sacred to the profane may take through an altogether improper and atypical use (or rather a new use) of the sacred.”
13. D. Pikionis, “Πρόλογος για τη λαϊκή τέχνη”, in D. Pikionis, Κείμενα, op. cit., p. 52.
14. T. K. Papatsonis, Άσκηση στον Άθω, op. cit., p. 191.
15. G. Deleuze, “ Pierre Klossowski ou le corps-langage”, Critique, 214, March 1965, Greek trans. As addendum in Pierre Klossowski, Πρόταση και απόδοση, ed. D. Ginosatis, Athens 2005, p. 53.
16. J. Derrida, “Mes ‘humanités’ de dimanche” (2001), in Πέραν του κοσμοπολιτισμού, Greek trans. V. Bitsioris, Athens 2003, p. 210.
17. W. Benjamin, “Sulla lingua in generale e sulla lingua dell uomo” (1923), in Angelus Novus, Italian trans. R. Solmi, Turin 1976, p. 64. George Seferis writes that translating from a foreign language reminds him of those people one sees in museums painstakingly copying the paintings of various painters, either as training or because they have been commissioned to do so: G. Seferis, “Προλόγισμα (στην πρώτη έκδοση)”, Αντιγραφές, Athens 1965, p. 7.
18. G. Deleuze, “ Pierre Klossowski ou le corps-langage”, op. cit., p. 63.
19. R. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, op. cit., p. 69.
20. N. Bourriaud, Postproduction.Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, New York 2002.
21. The Greek word for trout, pestrofa, comes from the Bulgarian ‘pusturva’, paretymologically linked with epistrefo (= to return). Cited in D. Pikionis, Παιδικός Κήπος Φιλοθέης 1961-1964, ed. Agni Pikioni, Athens 1994.
22. G.Deleuze–F.Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (1991), trans. S. Mandilaras, ed. P. Bourlakis, Athens 2004.

Yorgos Tzirtzilakis is an architect and independent curator, teaching at the Dept. of Architecture, University of Thessaly. He lives and works in Volos and Athens.

Text by Dimitrios A. Liakos for the Catalogue of the Biennale

The Byzantine opus sectile floor in the catholicon of Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos *

Dimitrios A. Liakos

The view on the floor of animal forms and other patterns formed by tesserae of various shapes attests to the craftsman’s admirable wisdom. It was with these words that Patriarch Photios described in his 10th Speech of 864 the floor of the church of Our Lady of the Pharos, built within the imperial palace of Constantinople between the years 864-8661. This description reflects the impression that viewers got from the luxurious and richly decorated floor of an imperial church and gives an overview of the subjects and the quality of contemporary church floor decorations.
The floor of Byzantine churches, often referred to in texts as πάτος2 [bottom] or ἒδαφος3 [ground], lends itself to the development of a decorative vocabulary with a rich variety of subjects (human figures, animal themes, geometrical motifs etc.) in various combinations, while the layout of the compositions accentuates the architectural structure of the church.4
One widespread type of floor decoration in Byzantine times is opus sectile5, a technique known since the 2nd c. BC.6 It involves cutting marble or other materials (e.g. glass) into human and animal shapes and floral or geometrical patterns and arranging or inlaying them over a background of different colour to create compositions on wall and floor surfaces or minor objectsof art7. In Greek bibliography an opus sectile floor is described as μαρμαροθέτημα [marble marquetry], although the term is limiting in terms of both the material and the version of the technique it specifies8.
In Roman and early-Christian times the technique coexisted with mosaic in floor construction9. After the 7th c., however, mosaic was used considerably less and opus sectile flourished in floor decoration during the mid- and late Byzantine periods10; by contrast, its use in wall decoration was limited11.
A main trait of opus sectile floors from the 10th c. onwards is a preference for geometrical subjects, particularly circle motifs which can combine with other shapes or form chains, creating various combinations12. However, some floors are also decorated with other elements such as animal themes13. The decorative effect is achieved either by removing bands from a solid piece of marble and filling in the gaps between them with small pieces of multicoloured inlays (marquetry) or by laying bands and inlays directly onto a layer of mortar (pietre dure)14. It is noted that these floors flourished greatly in Italy, where they are known as cosmati, after the name of the famous family of Italian marble craftsmen who worked on monuments in and around Rome in the 12th c.15.
There are some particularly illuminating references in written sources on floors of the period from the 8th to the mid-10th c., of which few specimens have survived, whereas the references about floor decorations in the centuries after that (11th-14th c.) are more sporadic16. This information complements the picture we have from surviving floors in various regions inside and outside the empire, dating from the 10th c. onward. The most important examples include the floors of Desiatynna church in Kiev (ca. 996)17, the catholicon of Ikossifinissa monastery on Mount Pangeon (ca.1000)18, St Sophia of Nikea (post-1000)19, Panaghia in Osios Loukas, Fokis (post-1033)20, the catholicon of the Nea Moni on Chios (1043-1056)21, St John the Baptist in Stoudiou monastery (post-1059)22, the Assumption Church in Nikea (11th c.)23, the church of Veljusa in FYROM (1080)24, the southern church of Pantocrator monastery in Constantinople (first half of the 12th c.)25, the three-nave church of Kokkino Nero, Kissavos (second half of the 12th c.)26, the Taxiarchis of Messaria, Andros (1158)27, the church of Zoodochos Pigi at Samari, Messinia (13th c.),28 and others. Floors from mid-Byzantine times can be found in the catholicon of Osios Meletios monastery on Mt Citheron, the Perivleptos church of Politika in Eboea, the catholicon of Lechova, the Vlacherna of Arta, the Sagmata monastery, Panaghia of Krina, Chios, the catholicon of Monte Cassino monastery etc.29
Added to the above indicative list are the opus sectile floors from mid-Byzantine times that survive in several Athonite churches: the catholica of the monasteries of Vatopediou (late 10th - early 11th c.)30, Great Lavra (1020-1060)31, Chelandariou (11th c.)32, Xenophontos (11th c.)33, Karakallou (11th c.)34, Iviron (mid-11th c.), which we are discussing here35, the main churche of the Vatopedian Skete of Aghios Dimitrios (11th c.)36 and the church of the Chelandarean small monastery of Aghios Vassilios (11th c.)37. Moreover, segments of an opus sectile floor from the late 10th or early 11th c. were found in the monastery of Aghios Pavlos, possibly remnants of the floor of the monastery’s first catholicon38. The floors in most Athonite churches follow the pietre dure version of opus sectile, while the marquetry technique is found in the surviving part of the floor of the monastery of Aghios Pavlos39. Their decoration generally consists of compositions of geometrical motifs based on rectangular and circular shapes; Prof. Mylonas rightly described this as the ‘classic’ way, in contrast with the Comnenian decorativeness of 12th c. floors as typified by that of the southern church of Pantokrator monastery in Constantinople40.
Attempting a brief overview of the development of forms and decorations on Athonite floors in post-Byzantine times, and given the erratic representation of examples from all periods, we note the floor in the catholicon of Stavronikita monastery, which must have been constructed between 1540-1545 as part of the refurbishment work commissioned by Patriarch Ieremias I 41. The incisions made in the central section form a simple geometrical decoration on the marble surface (a broad stylised rodax surrounded by alternating zones of radial and square motifs, a zone of triangular decorations, etc.) and are filled with marble inlays or lead. This decoration of Islamic inspiration forms part of the period’s prevailing artistic trends, and similar themes can be found in other art forms such as marble42 and wood sculpture43.
In the 18th and 19th c. the surviving Byzantine tradition is evident on the floor of the catholicon of Xeropotamou monastery (1762-1763), where the form and the overall layout of geometrical compositions recall the aforementioned Byzantine floors in Athonite catholica (Chelandariou, Vatopediou etc.)44. An entirely different picture is presented by another group of simple floors made of marble slabs, with no artistic pretentions and usually only decorated with a two-headed eagle in relief – a theme with both national and religious significance for Greeks in the years under Ottoman rule45. Typical examples of this type are found in the chapel of Panaghia Portaitissa of Iviron Monastery (1785)46, the chapel of St Andreas in Vatopediou Monastery (1788)47 and the exonarthex of the catholicon in the same monastery (second half of the 18th c.)48.
The floor of the catholicon of Iviron monastery, with its various exquisite and splendid marbles, as described by Ioannis Comnenos49, is one of the best preserved and most remarkable opus sectile floors in Athos, made as a pietre dure like most Athonite floors. It is preserved in the main church, the lite and the chapel of St Nicholas50.
The floor consists of individual compositions fully harmonised into a whole. The decorative composition is largely determined by the shape of the space and the positions of the structural elements of the church51. The central part of the floor in the main church, defined by the four pillars, is the most impressive in terms of the density of the composition and its many colours. As usual in that time52, the composition is made up of basic geometrical shapes (circle, square, rectangle) together with secondary motifs (star shapes, firewhirls etc.) in balanced, harmonious combinations. The basic principle lies in surrounding the central omphalion53 with three zones: intertwined circular diachora, segments (first zone), a simple band of rectangular pieces of marble (second zone) and alternating circular, rectangular and square diachora intertwined with one another (third zone). There is a characteristic chromatic contrast between the red marble that dominates over most of the composition and the white colour of the outer zone.
Central omphalion - first zone
The centre of the composition is taken up by a circular omphalion of red marble, possibly from Mt Taenaron, surrounded by a copper ring with the engraved inscription, in capital letters, εγω στερεωσα τουσ στυλουσ αυτησ · και εισ τον αιωνα ου σαλευθησεται γεωργιοσ μοναχοσ · ο ιβηρ και κτητωρ54, which copies phrases from psalms55. The copper ring is surrounded by a band of white marble with grey veins and a band with an inlaid ornamentation of consecutive circles formed by four almond-shaped pieces of red or green –and more rarely yellow ochre– marble. A square piece of red or green marble is placed at the centre of the circles. The four combined curvilinear/rectilinear triangles formed in between the almond-shaped elements and the central square are filled with pieces of white or yellow ochre marble. The combined triangles between the circles are filled with a central triangular piece of green marble surrounded by three triangular pieces of white marble.
The central omphalion is surrounded by a three-part band which is braided, under the system of seric wheels56, around twelve circular segments of different sizes. This three-part band is made up of two strips of red marble with light-coloured veins, possibly from Chalkis, that flank another strip with inlaid ornaments.
The decoration of this band comprises a variety of compositions. In some parts the ornament is the same as that of the band around the central omphalion, albeit in different colours.
In other parts the ornament comprise a triple row of triangular pieces of marble in various hues (light red, green, black, yellow ochre). The triangular spaces among them are filled with a smaller triangular piece of marble in the same hue, while the gaps are also filled with triangular pieces of white marble.
The anonymous floor craftsman’s ease of ‘playing around’ with shapes allows him to vary this composition, replacing the triangular ornaments for square ones. Thus in another section of this band the main ornament is a triple row of square pieces of green, red and yellow ochre marble placed along the diagonal. The spaces in between are filled with triangular pieces of white and green marble.
In a more analytical decorative approach, square pieces of green and red marble are placed in rows along the diagonal. The spaces in between are filled with a central square or triangular piece of green or red marble surrounded by triangular pieces of white marble.
In another section of the opus sectile band the main ornamentation is based on alternating rectangular and square diachora. The alternating segments comprise either a central square piece green or red marble –diagonally placed and surrounded by triangular marble pieces, mainly white and occasionally yellow ochre– or four meshed triangles of white, black, red and green marble.
In a more complex fashion, the main decorative element is a triple row of diamond-shaped pieces green or red marble. The diamond-shaped spaces formed among them are filled with two diamond-shaped and two triangular pieces of yellow ochre or white marble which enclose smaller triangular pieces of black marble to create a chromatic contrast. On the outer sides of the band, the spaces between the diamond-shaped ornaments are filled with simpler compositions of a central triangular piece of black marble surrounded by triangular pieces white marble.
The circular diachora that frame the central omphalion and around which the three-part band is braided are filled with disks of green marble, possibly from Larissa, and red, possibly from Mt Taenaron.
The marble disks are surrounded by bands whose inlaid decorations generally follow the same themes as the band that is braided around them. Thus there are matched triangular or square pieces of green or red marble laid out in rows, with the triangles between them filled by triangular pieces of marble, mainly white but also black, green or red.
One form of simple opus sectile decoration on the bands around the disks is with triangular pieces of marble in various colours (yellow ochre, white, black, green, red) arranged into zones. The spaces that emerge between them are sometimes filled by a central triangular piece of marble, usually green and more rarely black or red, surrounded by three triangular pieces of white marble. The filling of certain points of these in-between spaces with larger triangular pieces of marble is probably due to some late repair work.
The four smaller disks are surrounded by star-shaped ornaments formed by zones of triangular pieces of green, red and white marble arranged alternately in a pyramidal layout. The triangular spaces around the stars are also filled with triangular pieces of marble, albeit in other colours, green and yellow ochre, to make a contrast.
Two circular diachora carry a characteristic ornament of nine crooked lines made of pieces of green, red, yellow ochre and white marble cut to an oblique parallelogram shape.
The spaces between the circular diachora that surround the central omphalion are also filled with opus sectile decorations. Again, some basic motifs are repeated, such as the serially arranged circles of almond-shaped pieces of marble that surround a square central piece and four combined curvilinear/rectilinear triangles around it, or the rows of triangular pieces of marble in various chromatic combinations.
There is also a pattern of serially arranged and diagonally placed square motifs made of rectangular pieces of blue, green and red marble which surround square pieces of the same hues, also diagonally placed, while the triangular spaces formed between the rectangular pieces and the square they surround are filled with white marble.
Finally, in some areas the spaces between the circular diachora around the central omphalion are decorated by polygonal pieces of red, yellow ochre and black marble, arranged in fours of the same colour to form simple four-leaf ornaments.
Second zone
The second zone is simple, consisting of rectangular slabs of red marble with light-coloured veins, possibly from Chalkis.
Third zone
The third zone of the frame comprises alternating circular, rectangular and square diachora filled with red marble, possibly from Mt Taenaron, green, possibly from Larissa, and white with multicolour veins. These diachora are meshed in the seric-wheel fashion with a three-part band whose two strips of white marble with grey veins flank a band with opus sectile ornamentation, as in the first zone that frames the central omphalion.
The decoration of this band and the band that surrounds the circular, rectangular and square diachora, follows the same principles as regards the layout of the composition and the form of the ornaments. The themes are largely the same as in the first zone around the central omphalion (star shapes, consecutive circles, triangles and squares in rows, etc.), with any differences serving to add liveliness and prevent the overall design from being monotonous. In this spirit, the craftsman’s inventiveness added one more theme, the firewhirl57, as a frame around some circular diachora. This results from a curvilinear arrangement of chromatically uniform zones made of triangular pieces of white, red and black marble.
The circular, rectangular and square diachora are filled with marble – white with grey veins; green, possibly from Larissa; and red, possibly from Mt Taenaron. Some repair work carried out at an unknown time due to wear in the original band decoration around two rectangular diachora is shown by the insertion of larger pieces of white, red and green marble, but it does not detract from the harmony of the composition. Besides, more repairs can be seen in other parts of the floor and are perfectly justified given the normal wear caused by daily use over the long history of the church.
This rigorously structured composition at the centre of the floor in the main church is surrounded by simpler and looser layouts in both the same space and the other parts of the catholicon; they consist mainly of rectangular sections of white or red marble surrounded by bands with opus sectile ornamentation which repeats forms and patterns similar to those in the central part of the floor. For instance, around a rectangular diachoron with slabs of red marble we find rows of diamond-shaped pieces of red, yellow ochre, green and black marble, the gaps of which are filled by small triangular pieces of marble ­– mainly white, but also black or red. In another floor section, the inlaid band is decorated by two rows of diagonally arranged square pieces of black marble. The gaps in between are filled with square or triangular pieces of mainly black marble surrounded by triangular pieces of white marble.

The floor of the catholicon of Iviron monastery was constructed around the mid-11th c.58, as part of the ‘‘renovations’’ commissioned by George the Athonite during his highly creative office as abbot of the monastery (1045-1056)59. The fact that the floor rises to cover a large part of the pillars’ tiles leads to the conclusion that it was laid on top of an earlier floor. The founder George cited in the inscription on the copper ring around the central omphalion60 is most probably George I, who carried out renovations to the catholicon as its abbot between 1019-1029. Indeed, it has been claimed that the inscription which commemorates the repair works under George I is more recent than the floor and may date from the second half of the 11th c., a time when his memory was strongly revered in the monastery. However, it remains unclear whether this is the original inscription or a later copy61.
As regards the decorative composition of the central part of the floor, we can recognise a reworked version of the theme of “five loaves” or the pentaomphalon of Byzantine texts, which was usual in floors from that era62. The theme is associated with the miracle of the multiplied loaves of bread on the Sea of Tiberias63; another view is that it represents the plan of an inscribed cross-in-square five-domed church whose mesomphalon lies directly under the central dome with the image of Pantocrator so as to emphasise the correspondence between earthly and celestial world64. In the Iviron floor the variation –or, better, the evolution– of the five-loaf theme into a more complex form attests to the artistic liberty of the craftsmen and helps to shed all symbolism and acquire a purely decorative function. Moreover, the resultant dynamic and impressive composition corroborates the written sources which liken the floors of this kind with fields in bloom65.
A central omphalion framed by three-part bands that intertwine and enclose circular diachora is a pattern that appears on various other floors on Mt Athos, as in the catholicon of Chelandariou66, combined with other themes such as the heart-shaped sections in the main church of the Vatopedian Skete of St. Dimitrios67. It also has many parallels in contemporary sculpture68. The broad zone of alternating, intertwined circular, rectangular and square diachora can be seen also on the catholicon floors of Chelandariou69 and Vatopediou70, while the varied ornaments of the opus sectile bands around the central omphalion and the other geometrical diachora can be found, identical or in variations, on Athonian floors such as that of the catholicon of Vatopediou71.
The central omphalion of red marble is what attracts the viewer’s gaze, being larger and triply delineated by the copper ring with the inscription, the zone of white marble and the opus sectile band. All this points to its significance as the centre of the church –what the texts call mesonaon72– and recalls the Omphalus of the Earth in Delphi or Jerusalem73. The use of red marble points to the purple omphalion in the accounts of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, on which stood the emperor in certain official ceremonies74, and highlights its special liturgical and ritualistic function as attested to by the Russian traveller Anton’s description of St. Sophia in Constantinople: in St. Sophia, to the right of the altar, there is some red marble on which a throne is placed. It is on that throne that the emperor is crowned. And that part is surrounded by copper so that no one can step on it75.
It has been claimed that this special use of the omphalion at the centre of the church alluded to the idea of an imaginary axis that goes through that point to join the sky (dome) with the earth (floor), recalling the familiar symbol of the archetypal image of Axis Mundi76. This serves to make clear the correspondence between the worlds of the sky and the earth; in daily religious practice, the same meaning is conveyed by the fact that this is the point where the Sacraments are held (Baptism, Matrimony) that are associated with the descent of Divine Grace, i.e. with the communion between celestial and earthly world77.
In post-Byzantine times the symbolism of the omphalion in Byzantine churches focuses on the two-headed eagle, a frequently represented theme on church floors albeit with a different content, as a national and religious symbol associated with the hope for the liberation of the Greek Nation and the resurrection of the lost empire78.

The composition of the floor of Iviron, with its dense pattern of geometrical themes, the variety of motifs in the opus sectile bands and its variety of colours, probably makes it the most impressive Athonite floor, of an exquisite aesthetic and quality which cannot be compared to any other. The sophisticated composition in comparison with other Athonite floors, where the treatment of ornamental themes is simpler, comes to reinforce Prof. Mylonas’s dating of the floor around the mid-11th c.79 Moreover, given the connections of George the Athonite with Constantinople and the imperial court80, it seems highly probable that the floor was constructed by craftsmen from the Byzantine capital who were experienced in projects of that scale. This hypothesis is supported by the meticulous, high-quality work which points to an imperial workshop.
The aesthetic outcome of the ornamental composition of the floor of Iviron monastery, unique and of incomparable artistic merit, is summarised in two main principles: harmony and inner motion. The latter is achieved through the dense and varied range of themes, the carefully studied combinations of motifs and the alternating colours. In this way, and within the atmosphere of mystagogy, the floor is in total harmony with the spiritual alertness of monks and worshippers during the administration of the Sacraments, which is meant as a spiritual ascent towards God, i.e. as the incessant course which culminates in the Last Judgment and condenses the entire essence of Orthodox Christian thought.
ΑΒΜΕ: Αρχείον Βυζαντινών Μνημείων Ελλάδος [Archive of Byzantine Monuments of Greece]
ΔΧΑΕ: Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας [Bulletin of the Christian Archaeological Society]
AnalBoll: Analecta Bollandiana
RÉG: Revue des Études Grecques
DOP: Dumbarton Oaks Papers
CahArch: Cahiers Archéologiques
* My thanks to Dr. Ioannis Tavlakis, Head of the 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, who urged me to take up this subject.
1. V. Laourdas, «Φωτίου Ομιλίαι. Έκδοσις κειμένου - Εισαγωγή και σχόλια», Ελληνικά, Appendix 12, Thessaloniki 1959, p. 102. See also V. Kydonopoulos, «Παρατηρήσεις στην ταύτιση του ναού της Θεοτόκου της 10ης Ομιλίας του πατριάρχου Φωτίου με το ναό της Θεοτόκου του Φάρου. Νέα στοιχεία υπέρ αυτής της ταύτισης», Vyzantina 23 (2002-2003), pp. 143-153.
2. See the term in the description by Constantine Rhodios (10th c.) of the St. Apostles church in Constantinople (640-676): Κωνσταντίνου ασηκρίτη του Ροδίου, Προοίμιον της εκφράσεως του ναού των Αγίων Αποστόλων και μερική τις διήγησις των της πόλεως αγαλμάτων και των υψηλών και μεγίστων κιόνων, ed. E. Legrand, «Description des oeuvres d’ art et d’ église des Saints Apôtres de Constantinople, Poème en vers iambiques, par Constantin le Rhodien», REG 9, 1896, p. 56.
3. The term appears in Procopios’s description of the church of St John Theologos in Ephesus; Προκόπιος, Περί κτισμάτων, ed. J. Haury - G. Wirth, Procopii Caesariensis Οpera omnia, IV, Leipzig 1964², V, α΄, 6
4. St. Pelekanidis, Σύνταγμα των παλαιοχριστιανικών ψηφιδωτών δαπέδων της Ελλάδας, Ι, Νησιωτική Ελλάς, Vyzantina Mnimia 1, Centre for Byzantine Research, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 13.
5. See the exhaustive study by P. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Η τεχνική opus sectile στην εντοίχια διακόσμηση. Συμβολή στη μελέτη της τεχνικής από τον 1ο μέχρι τον 9ο μ. Χ. αιώνα με βάση τα μνημεία και τα κείμενα, Vyzantina Mnimia 6, Centre for Byzantine Research, Thessaloniki 1980.
6. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Opus sectile, p. 49.
7. On the definition and the variations of the technique, see: ibid., pp. 3,4.
8. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Οpus sectile, p. 18.
9. On early Christian mosaic floors see Pelekanidis, Σύνταγμα, passim.; P. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Σύνταγμα των παλαιοχριστιανικών ψηφιδωτών δαπέδων της Ελλάδος, ΙΙ, Πελοπόννησος-Στερεά Ελλάδα, Vyzantina Mnimia 7, Centre for Byzantine Research, Thessaloniki 1987.
10. N. Nikonanos, Βυζαντινοί ναοί της Θεσσαλίας από τον 10ο αιώνα ως την κατάκτηση της περιοχής από τους Τούρκους το 1393. Συμβολή στη βυζαντινή αρχιτεκτονική, TAPA, Athens 1997, p. 113, with bibliography.
11. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Opus sectile, p. 151, with bibliography.
12. Ibid., p. 152.
13. See for example the sections from the floor of the three-nave church at Kokkino Nero, Kissavos, with champlevé animal themes combined with opus sectile; Nikonanos, Βυζαντινοί ναοί της Θεσσαλίας, p. 111, tab. 53.
14. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Opus sectile, p. 152.
15. Ibid., pp. 152, 153.
16. Assimakopoulou-Atzaka, Opus sectile, pp. 157-161.
17. C. Mango, Byzantine Architecture, New York 1974, p. 324. Ο. Ζ. Pevny, «Kievan Rus», The Glory of Byzantium, Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A.D. 843-1261, edited by H. C. Evans and W. D. Wixon, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1997, p. 288 (no. 193).
18. M. Kambouri, «Νέα στοιχεία από τη μεσοβυζαντινή φάση του καθολικού της μονής Εικοσιφοινίσσης», Epistimoniki Epetiris Polytechnikis Scholis Panepistimiou Thessalonikis 5, 1971, p. 138 ff. and ill. 2, 3.
19. S. Eyice, «Two Mosaic Pavements from Bithynia», DOP 17 (1963) 373-374, ill. 1, tab. 2-10.
20. R. W. Schultz- S. H. Barnsley, The Monastery of Saint Luke of Stiris in Phokis and the Dependent Monastery of Saint Nicolas in the Fields near Skripou in Boeotia, London 1901, p. 30, ill. 19 and tab. 30, 31.
21. A. Orlandos, Monuments byzantins de Chios, I, Athens 1930, tab. 21. Ch. Bouras, Η Νέα Μονή Χίου, 1981, p. 51. Α. Missailidou - A. Kavvadia-Spondyli, «Παρατηρήσεις και συσχετισμοί στοιχείων στο καθολικό της Νέας Μονής Χίου», Vyzantina 25 (2005), fig. 1.
22. A. H. Megaw, «Notes on recent Work of the Byzantine Institute in Istanbul», DOP 17 (1963) 339
23. O. Wulff, Die Koimesiskirche von Nicäa und ihre Mosaiken, Strasbourg 1903, pp. 157-164, tab. VI, X, XI. Th. Smith, Die Koimesiskirche von Nicaa, Berlin 1927, p. 14 ff., tab. III, IV, X, XI. Π. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου. Η διαμόρφωση του ναού Αθωνικού τύπου σε χορούς και λιτή στο Άγιον Όρος», Αρχαιολογία 14 (1985) 71 and n. 46.
24. P. Miljkovic-Pepek, Veljusa, Skopje 1981, p. 141, ill. 25. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 71 and n. 48.
25. P. A. Underwood, «Notes on the Work of the Byzantine Institute in Istanbul», DOP 9/10 (1956) 299-300 and ill. 115-116. Megaw, «Notes», 335-340. Th. F. Mathews, The Byzantine Churches of Istanbul, A Photographic Survey, University Park-London 1976, p. 88, ill. 10-25. Ch. Bouras, «Βυζαντινές “Αναγεννήσεις” και η αρχιτεκτονική του 11ου και 12ου αιώνος», ΔΧΑΕ, per. Δ΄, 5 (1966/1969) 259.
26. Nikonanos, Βυζαντινοί ναοί της Θεσσαλίας, pp. 111-114.
27. Α. Orlandos, «Βυζαντινά μνημεία της Άνδρου», ΑΒΜΕ Η΄ (1955-1956), p. 17, ill. 8.
28. C. von Scheven-Christians, Die Kirche der Zoodochos Pege die Samari in Messenien (doctoral thesis), Wuppertal 1982, tab. 35-38.
29. Kambouri, «Νέα στοιχεία», pp. 141-143.
30. St. Mamaloukos, Το καθολικό της μονής Βατοπεδίου. Ιστορία και αρχιτεκτονική (doctoral thesis), Faculty of Architecture, National Technical University, Athens 2001, pp. 39-43, 53-54, 72-73.
31. P. L. Mylonas, «L’ architecture de Mont-Athos», Thisavrismata 2 (1963) 40, ill. 2. Idem, «Le plan initial du catholicon de la Grande - Lavra, au Mont Athos et la genèse du type du catholicon Athonite, CahArch 32 (1984), pp. 93 (ill. 5), 104.
32. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 71. P. Mylonas, «Remarques architecturales sur le catholicon de Chilandar. La formation grandualle du catholicon à absides laterales on chœurs et a liti au Mont Athos», Hilandarski Sbornik 6, Belgrade 1986, pp. 13-19.
33. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 71.
34. Unpublished.
35. P. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Ιβήρων», Πέμπτο Συμπόσιο Βυζαντινής και Μεταβυζαντινής Αρχαιολογίας και Τέχνης. Πρόγραμμα και περιλήψεις ανακοινώσεων, Athens 1985, p. 66. P. Mylonas, «Notice sur le catholicon d’ Iviron», Archives de l’ Athos, XIV, Actes d’ Iviron, I (ed. J. Lefort, N. Oikonomides, D. Papachryssanthou, H. Metreveli), Paris 1985, p. 64.
36. F. Hatziantoniou, «Το κυριακό της βατοπεδινής σκήτης του Αγίου Δημητρίου», Ιερά Μονή Βατοπεδίου. Ιστορία και Τέχνη, Athonika Symmeikta 7, National Research Foundation, Institute of Byzantine Research, Athens 1999, pp. 172, 179 (ill. 2). Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», pp. 70 (ill. 13.9), 71.
37. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 71.
38. I. Tavlakis, «Νέα ευρήματα από το αρχαίο καθολικό της μονής Αγίου Παύλου (10ος-11ος αι.)», Η Δεκά­τη, Ενημερωτική έκδοση έργου της 10ης Εφορείας Βυζαντινών Αρχαιοτήτων για τις χριστιανικές αρχαιότη­τες της Χαλκιδικής και του Αγίου Όρους, 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, vol. 1 (2003-04) 44-47.
39 Ibid.
40. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 71. About the floor of the S. church of Pantokratoros monastery, see ibid., fn. 25.
41. On the church floor see indicatively, Ιερά Μονή Σταυρονικήτα, pub. Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos 1998, p. 70. Ν. Charkiolakis, Παράδοση και εξέλιξη στην αρχιτεκτονική της Ιεράς Μονής Σταυρονικήτα, pub. Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos 1999, p. 41. On the repair work by Patriarch Ieremias I see ibid., p. 22.
42. D. Liakos, «Ο γλυπτός διάκοσμος σε κρήνες και φιάλες των αγιορειτικών μονών», Vyzantina 26 (2006) 349.
43. See for instance the wooden ceiling of the catholicon in Vitouma monastery, S. Voyatzis, «Η μονή Βητουμά στα Τρίκαλα Θεσσαλίας», Εκκλησίες στην Ελλάδα μετά την Άλωση 5, National Technical University of Athens, 1998, p. 42 (ill. 8).
44. Μ. Polyviou, Το καθολικό της μονής Ξηροποτάμου. Σχεδιασμός και κατασκευή στη ναοδομία του 18ου αι., pub. ΤΑΠΑ, Athens 1999, pp. 106-107.
45. On the theme of the two-headed eagle and its meaning in post-Byzantine art see D. Liakos, Τα λιθανάγλυφα του Αγίου Όρους (doctoral thesis), Faculty of Architecture, University of Thessaloniki 2000, vol. A, pp. 105-107, with prior bibliography.
46. Liakos, Λιθανάγλυφα, p. 42.
47. Ch. Chilas, «Το παρεκκλήσι του Αγίου Ανδρέα στη Μονή Βατοπαιδίου», Εκκλησίες στη Ελλάδα μετά την Άλωση 3, Technical University of Athens, 1989, p. 70 and ill. 13. Liakos, Λιθανάγλυφα, p. 43.
48. Liakos, Λιθανάγλυφα, p. 43. Mamaloukos, Το καθολικό, ill. 418.
49. Ioannis Comnenos, Προσκυνητάριον του Αγίου Όρους του Άθωνος (reprint of the 1st edition of 1701), Panselinos, Karyes, Mt Athos 1984, p. 62.
50. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Ιβήρων», p. 66.
51. See also the floor of the catholicon in Vatopediou Monastery, Mamaloukos, Το καθολικό, p. 39.
52. See here fn. 12.
53. On the omphalion and its meaning see below, pp. 12-13.
54. “I erected these columns and they shall not be shaken by time. George the Iberian, monk and founder” G. Millet, J. Pargoire et L. Petit, Recueil des inscriptions chrétiennes de l’Athos, Première partie, Bibliothèque des ΄Εcoles Françaises d’ Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 91, Paris 1904, p. 70, no. 231.
55. Psalm 74.4 (I bear up the pillars of it), Psalm 111.6 (It shall not be moved forever and ever).
56. On seric wheels, their origin and symbolism see Th. Pazaras, Ανάγλυφες σαρκοφάγοι και επιτάφιες πλάκες της μέσης και ύστερης βυζαντινής περιόδου στην Ελλάδα, pub. ΤΑΠΑ, Athens 1988, pp. 107-108.
57. About the origin and the symbolism of this motif see Pazaras, Ανάγλυφες σαρκοφάγοι, pp. 111-112.
58. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Ιβήρων», p. 66.
59. On the life of George the Athonite see P. Peeters, «Histoires monastiques georgiennes», AnalBoll 36-37, 1917 - 1919 (1922), pp. 69-159 (Latin translation of the Georgian biography).
60. See on this fn. 54.
61. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Ιβήρων», pp. 66-67. Archives de l’ Athos, XIV, Actes d’ Iviron, I (ed. J. Lefort, N. Oikonomides, D. Papachryssanthou, H. Metreveli), Paris 1985, p. 62. On the work of George I, see M. Matchkhaneli, La Vie grecque de Jean, Euthyme et Georges les Athonites, Tbilisi 1982, pp. 47-67.
62. G. Prokopiou, Ο κοσμολογικός συμβολισμός στην αρχιτεκτονική του βυζαντινού ναού, Athens 1980, p. 130, n. 124.
63. John 6, 11.
64. Prokopiou, Ο κοσμολογικός συμβολισμός, p. 130.
65. Kambouri, «Νέα στοιχεία», p. 141.
66. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 70 (ill. 13.6).
67. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», pp. 70 (ill. 13.9), 71. Hatziantoniou, «Το κυριακό», p. 172.
68. See indicatively, Pazaras, Ανάγλυφες σαρκοφάγοι, tab. 59. Idem, Τα βυζαντινά γλυπτά του καθολικού της μονής Βατοπεδίου, Thessaloniki 2001, p. 42 (ill. 47).
69. Mylonas, «Παρατηρήσεις στο καθολικό Χελανδαρίου», p. 70 (ill. 13.1). Mylonas, «Remarques architecturales», p. 18 (ill. 7).
70. Mamaloukos, Το καθολικό, fig. 25.3β and ill. 147, 148.
71. Ibid., fig. 25.2α and ill. 152.
72. Ε. Antoniadou, Έκφρασις της Αγίας Σοφίας, vol. Β΄ Athens 1908, p. 38.
73. Prokopiou, Ο κοσμολογικός συμβολισμός, p. 128.
74. Ibid.
75. Ibid., p. 129.
76. Ibid., pp. 130-131.
77. Ibid., p. 130.
78. Liakos, Λιθανάγλυφα, pp. 105-106.
79. See on this fn. 58.
80. D. Papachrysanthou, Ο Αθωνικός μοναχισμός. Αρχές και οργάνωση, National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, Athens 2004, p. 232. On the life of George the Athonian see fn. 59.

Dimitris A. Liakos, Dr. of Archeologist, 10th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. He lives and works in Thessaloniki.

Edited by Yorgos Tzirtzilakis

“You smile to flowers and you are beautiful, black chasm of the rock”
Dionysios Solomos, «Ο Πόρφυρας» (1847), Ποιήματα, Icaros Publications 1901.

{Collecting remmants}
The bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s’ means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type.[…]
The example of the ‘bricoleur’ helps to bring out the differences and similarities. Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury* is composed to discover what each of them could ‘signify’ and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts. A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal - which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of manoeuvre. And the decision as to what to put in each place also depends on the possibility of putting a different element there instead, so that each choice which is made will involve a complete reorganization of the structure, which will never be the same as one vaguely imagined nor as some other which might have been preferred to it.
The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources. The existence of an ‘interlocutor’ is in his case due to the fact that his means, power and knowledge are never unlimited and that in this negative form he meets resistance with which he has to come to terms. It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture. Again, Information Theory shows that it is possible, and often useful, to reduce the physicists’ approaches to a sort of dialogue with nature. This would make the distinction we are trying to draw less clearcut. There remains however a difference even if one takes into account the fact that the scientist never carries on a dialogue with nature pure and simple but rather with a particular relationship between nature and culture definable in terms of his particular period and civilization and the material means at his disposal. He is no more able than the ‘bricoleur’ to do whatever he wishes when he is presented with a given task. He too has to begin by making a catalogue of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1962.

Celestial Dome
The astronomer led him up a spiral staircase to the observatory and then to a circular tower on the open terrace. A crystal-clear night, bright and sparkling with all its stars, surrounded Wilhelm who believed that he had just seen for the first time the celestial dome in all its grandeur. [...] Moved and awed, he shut both eyes. Immensity ceased to be sublime, surpassing our capacity to comprehend.
J. W. Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Opere vol. 4, Florence 1951.

{the artist as compiler}
The ancient literature is an imitative literature, where imitation is not by definition the opposite of creation. At the time, originality could be expressed as the novel rearrangement of traditional subjects. Instead of dismantling the mechanisms of imitation and concealing its sources, they were happy to divulge and advertise it; for those in the know could always appreciate the differences between the new and the old work, the inspiration and the originality behind a clever reshuffle of the copied pieces. The copies of copies could often –but not always– present a more genuine reality. This practice reached a peak with the invention of centrons. The centrons were patchworks – clothing items made by many different pieces sewn together. They were fashioned from serviceable scraps of old clothes and had various applications. Centrons were used to make clothes for slaves, quilts and bed sheets, as padding under animal saddles, covers to protect war machinery from enemy shots or covers to be worn under the helmet to protect the head from the constant friction with the metal. They were even drenched with vinegar and used to put out fires. The term was eventually extended to describe the poems made by compiling well-known versions from the poems of various poets, and also the prose pieces made in a similar way. The borrowed excerpts are not inserted sneakily into the text; on the contrary, they are its sole constituents. The quintessence, the originality of the centron lies in the layout of the ‘stolen’ fragments. It is not the pawns that make a game, but their positions on the chessboard. Thus rearranged, the excerpts take on a totally different meaning to that of the original. […]
The method, the viewpoint may be hiding something new, but not the ideas. All ideas are old. Everything we discover was there already, and we just didn’t know about it. The new lies in the way the old ideas are written up and arranged and has little to do with conception.
Of course, I am not divulging anything new here; several people have realised this before. One example is Pentzikis, a writer who attracted me rather late, when I discovered in him some interesting similarities with my beloved Milorad Pavić. For instance, the use of folk tradition in Pentzikis’s Fairy Tales from the City and the District of Drama reminded me of Pavić’s style, while both of them practise a non-linear kind of writing. […]
Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis believed that there was no outlet for expression other than copying, as it was written in an article in the Bibliothiki supplement of ELeftherotypia on February 22, 2002. […] We are taught by copying out the ready answers we pick from the heap. Our mind makes a patchwork, putting together loans from other texts. So, as Pentzikis readily admits, a writer like himself is essentially a compiler.
Stavros Cretiotis, Το Μηνολόγιο ενός απόντος [Menologium of an Absentee], Polis Publications, Athens, 2005.

Death I
I am trying in vain to find the words to paint the extent to which Death has bloomed on this mountain. Here they adore the idea of this plant whose flower enjoys the honour reserved for the rarest of species – the flower of Death, who would have thought it? Anyone who hears me talking of Death as a rare thing will scorn me! I had to live to experience this; to such an extent has God addled my brain that I find myself before Death as if it were something unknown to me. And yet, here it is grown in greenhouses with care and adoration, and as I lean to peer through the opaque glass of the greenhouse I see Death in wild, fantastic growth and bloom, with those dark colours, in wavy variations – it’s like an orchid. Lustily does the sun strain its light down those vaults.
Τ. Κ. Papatsonis, Άσκηση στον Άθω, ήτοι Πηδάλιον νηπτικόν για περιδιάβαση του Όρους [Ascetic Life in Athos, or a neptic guide for touring the Mount], Ikaros Publications, Athens 1963.

Death II
{the maturity of “non-existence”}
Growth never ends. Life is ours. Death is ours, too. We live to die: we live in order to expand, to be able to marry death, demise, the loss of everything. Thus we get to earn all things. We find them. We enjoy them. We exist with them and for them, we are absent, remote, nonexistent.
Our struggle is to attain the maturity of “non-existence” –to become worthy of this honour and summit; to attain the freedom of constant progress and presence through total immobility and absence.
Archimadrite Vassilios, Αββάς Ισαάκ ο Σύρος. Ένα πλησίασμα στον κόσμο του [Abbot Isaac the Syrian. An approach to his world], Karyes, a Publication of Iviron Holy Monastery, Mt Athos 2003.

{the community of Athos}
Fantasy (at least what I call that): a return of desires, of images that drift about as you search for them inside you, sometimes for a whole lifetime, and are often capture in a single word. The word, a major signifier, is derived from the fantasy as we explore it. Its exploration among the various fragments of knowledge = research.
A fantasy is exploited like an open-air mine.
To me, the fantasy I was looking for was in no way associated with the subject of the last two years (the “erotic Discourse”). It wasn’t about the exploitation of a fantasy (≠ Living Together). Here, it is not the living-together of two persons, a quasi-marital Discourse, that follows –miraculously– upon the erotic Discourse. It is a fantasy of life, of lifestyle, of regime, of diet. It is neither dual nor plural (collective) number. It is something like a solitude interrupted in a regular way: the paradox, the contradiction, the puzzle of a commune of distances – the utopia of a socialism of distances (Nietzsche speaks –in eras that are strong, not random, such as the Renaissance– of a “pathos of distances”). (All this is still approximate.)
So this fantasy, triggered by some reading (Lacarrière, Greek summer), encountered the word which put it in operation. In Mount Athos: communal convents + monks, at once isolated and linked under a set structures (the elements of which will be described in due course) = peculiar agglomerations. Each individual has its own rhythm.
We need to realise that a fantasy presupposes a scenario, a locus. Athos (where I’ve never been) offers a mixture of images: Mediterranean, terrace, mountain (in the fantasy we erase certain things: in this case, dirt and faith). It is essentially a landscape. I see myself there, on the edge of a terrace, whitewashed walls, I have been given two rooms for myself or for some friend + an opportunity to get together (a library). A crystal-clear fantasy that removes the difficulties which will spring up like spectres (this is more or less the object of the lesson). “Idiorhythm”, “Idiorhythmic”: the word that changed the fantasy into a field of knowledge. This word gave my access to things I could learn. [...].
Until the Attican period, rhythm had never meant rhythm, was never used to describe the regular movement of waves. It meant distinctive form, proportionate depiction, disposition; a similar concept to ‘schema’, but not identical. Schema: a fixed, realised form, posed as an object (a statue, an orator, a choreographic figure). Schema ≠ form, when used to describe something in motion, mobile, fluid, the form of something without organic cohesion. Rhythm = the pattern of a fluid element (a letter, a veil, a fluid), an improvised, modifiable form. In theory, the particular manner in which atoms move; an unfixed configuration, not necessitated by nature: a ‘flow’ (in the musical, i.e. modern, sense: Plato, Philebus).
This etymological track gives us:
1. Idiorhythmic – something of a pleonasm, since rhythm is by definition individual: interstices, ways of escaping from the code, the way in which the subject fits into the social (or natural) code.
2. An allusion to the refined ways of living: the moods, the unstable morphologies, the temporary depressions or elations; in short, the diametrically opposite of a crushing rhythmic succession, merciless due to its rhythm. Since rhythm acquired this oppressive sense (i.e. the pace of life in a commune, whose members must respond within a quarter of an hour), it required the addition of ‘self’, idios: idios ≠ rhythm, idios = rhythm.
In its archetypal place (Athos), idiorhythm signifies the analogy of a fantasised community – this is its advantage, its motive power (to me). Analogy = an ontology of the object. Architecture. Cezanne / de Staël. [...]
Roland Barthes, Cours et Séminaire au Collège de France (1976-1977), Paris 1977.

{the necklace and freedom}
“Laying down a grid should be a mapping of the possible, not restraining order. A grid is a necklace, folded in a certain way, which at any instant can be pulled apart and shifted dramatically – a moveable feast, not necessarily serious, fixed one moment, vanishing and refigured in the other. Each point on grid is allowed a charm life.” (Cecil Balmond)
While the grid is traditionally seen as a more or less regular Cartesian structure or repetition that generates static and rational forms, for some contemporary approaches to design it is a means of coming up with unpredictable and mutable forms and spaces. Brought to life and rendered malleable through the use of increasingly advanced computer programs, such meshes are deformed and moved around to materialize complex relationships and connections.
The grid is certainly not a story, it is a structure, and one, moreover, that allows a contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism. Rosalind Krauss writes: The grid promotes the silence, expressing it moreover as a refusal of speech. The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of centre, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but - more importantly – its hostility to narrative. The grid has collapsed the spatiality of nature onto the bounded surface of purely cultural object. For those for whom art begins in a kind of originary purity, the grid was emblematic of the sheer disinterestedness of the work of art, its absolute purposelessness, from which it derived the promise of its autonomy […] And just as the grid is a stereotype that is constantly being paradoxically rediscovered, it is, as a further paradox, a prison in which the caged artists feels a liberty […] And thus when we examine the careers of those artists who have been most committed to the grid, we could say that from the time they submit themselves to this structure their work virtually creases to develop and becomes involved, instead, in repetition. Exemplary artists in this respect are Mondrian, Albers, Reinhardt and Agnes Martin.
But in saying that the grid condemns these artists no to originality but to repetition, I am not suggesting a negative description of their work, I am trying instead to focus on a pair of terms – originality and repetition- and to look at their coupling unprejudicially; for within the instance we are examining, these two terms seen bound together in a kind of aesthetic economy, independent and mutually sustaining, although the one –originality- is the valorised term and other – repetition or copy or reduplication – is discredited.
Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1906.

{a difficult Greek word}
Athos, the holy mountain of Eastern Orthodoxy, is a plurality of loci, a perfect union made of relations and contrasts. That’s why one has to proceed slowly, going on foot from place to place, from one monastery to the next. The distances must be crossed carefully, deliberately. There is no repetition in Athos, no “stop” in the tour repeats another, in terms of architecture or rules. Now we are on Russian ground, at the monastery of Panteleimonos. Further down, the Greek monastery of Dochiariou, and at the end of the trek the marvellous Serbian monastery of Chilandariou. Next, on the coast, rising from a Tuscan-like setting, Stavronikita. On the other side, perched over the sea like a Tibetan monastery, the imposingly large Simonos Petra.
In the rocks, the mores and customs, in the landscapes we discover the key-word of Orthodoxy: “symphony”. A harmony of different things, a fundamental union of many elements. Yet this union is possible because everyone knows how to be “at peace” deep inside. That’s the second keyword of Athos: hesychasm. Athos is the land of hesychia, stillness – a difficult Greek word of unknown etymology, not even included in the vocabulary of the New Testament, but here it becomes the symbol of Orthodox mysticism. Here it means peace, albeit peace as maximum concentration, attention. It suggests a state of serenity, but serenity as incessant activity of the heart. It means silence, but the silence of an endless inner prayer.
This aspect makes Athos unforgettable: a peace that feels to throb with prayer and anticipation, a silence and a serenity which are attentive to the beauty of the place, the pictures, the architecture. A miracle takes place here: just as one returns to himself, one can regain the gaze to appreciate the beauty that is generously provided in the surroundings.
Massimo Cacciari, Espresso, 17 July, 1997.

Martin Heidegger in The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1984, p. 208) makes explicit the idea that the horizon is an enclosure, but also quickly dismissed the primacy of vision implied in the familiar sense of horizon: We understand ‘horizon’ to be the circumference of the field of vision. But horizon, from «ορίζειν», is not at all primarily related to looking and intuiting, but by itself means simply that which delimits, encloses, the enclosure. Before vision, the horizon is a boundary, an enclosure, an installation. Acceding to Beatriz Colomina, in talking about horizons, and in condemning their displacement by modern technologies, Heidegger, was elaborating Nietzsche’s claim that “a living thing can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon ... A man ... sickens and collapses [if] the lines of his horizon are always restlessly changing.”

{the vacuum illuminated by a ray}
Thus, then, the All that is is limited. In no one region of its onward paths, For then ‘tmust have forever its beyond. And a beyond ‘tis seen can never be
For aught, unless still further on there be
A somewhat somewhere that may bound the same –
So that the thing be seen still on to where
The nature of sensation of that thing
Can follow it no longer. Now because
Confess we must there’s naught beside the sum,
There’s no beyond, and so it lacks all end.
It matters nothing where thou post thyself,
In whatsoever regions of the same;
Even any place a man has set him down
Still leaves about him the unbounded all
Outward in all directions. […]
Besides, were all the space
Of the totality and sum shut in
With fixed coasts, and bounded everywhere,
Then would the abundance of world’s matter flow
Together by solid weight from everywhere
Still downward to the bottom of the world,
Nor aught could happen under cope of sky,
Nor could there be a sky at all or sun-
Indeed, where matter all one heap would lie,
By having settled during infinite time.
But in reality, repose is given
Unto no bodies ‘mongst the elements,
Because there is no bottom whereunto
They might, as ‘twere, together flow, and where
They might take up their undisturbed abodes.
In endless motion everything goes on
Forevermore; out of all regions, even
Out of the pit below, from forth the vast,
Are hurtled bodies evermore supplied.
The nature of room, the space of the abyss
An image, a type goes on before our eyes
Present each moment; for behold whenever
The sun’s light and the rays, let in, pour down
Across dark halls of houses: thou wilt see
The many mites in many a manner mixed
Amid a void in the very light of the rays,
And battling on, as in eternal strife,
And in battalions contending without halt,
In meetings, partings, harried up and down.
From this thou mayest conjecture of what sort
The ceaseless tossing of primordial seeds
Amid the mightier void- at least so far
As small affair can for a vaster serve,
And by example put thee on the spoor
Of knowledge. For this reason too ‘tis fit
Thou turn thy mind the more unto these bodies
Which here are witnessed tumbling in the light:
Namely, because such tumblings are a sign
That motions also of the primal stuff
Secret and viewless lurk beneath, behind.
For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled
By viewless blows, to change its little course,
And beaten backwards to return again,
Hither and thither in all directions round.
Lo, all their shifting movement is of old,
From the primeval atoms; for the same
Primordial seeds of things first move of self,
And then those bodies built of unions small
And nearest, as it were, unto the powers
Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up
By impulse of those atoms’ unseen blows,
And these thereafter goad the next in size;
Thus motion ascends from the primevals on,
And stage by stage emerges to our sense,
Until those objects also move which we
Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears
What blows do urge them.
In these affairs We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.
On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, Written 50 B.C., translated by William Ellery Leonard, The Internet Classics Archive, http:/classics.mit.edu

{the shadow of the objects}
In order to understand the “work of :mourning”, which is often abused as a term, we must necessarily start from Freud who defined mourning as the acceptance of a loss as opposed to “pathological melancholia”, the narcissistic identification with what was lost.
It is worth shedding light on the small but crucial differences between the two attitudes, and first of all to make it clear that there is nothing macabre or menacing about this “work of :mourning”, which signifies a symbolic victory over the fear of the loss. Mourning is linked with the removal of an object on which the melancholic behaviour remains attached so that it resists being removed. We could claim in a schematic way that the first attitude marked mainly the modern and the second one the post-modern. The former was exercised to explore temporality, and the latter to condense time into a constant present. In its creative form, the “work of :mourning” enables one to recall the historicity of the lost object۠; the melancholia of preservation traps it within representation. In melancholia, according to Freud, libido withdraws from one object without transferring onto another. On the contrary, “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency as though it were an object, the forsaken object.” In short, melancholia is a deep failure of self-understanding. Freud did not envisage a culture in which melancholia and the “work of mourning” would be the prevalent condition. In his own relatively optimistic era, a melancholy painting of someone like Gustave Moreau was a marginal work. A major melancholic artist can only emerge when memory weakens and historical conscience is disrupted; when a long tradition no longer seems possible. Abbot Isaac the Syrian puts it differently: “And when warmth is given to the soul, the mourning is crushed”.

I feel ecstatic like the kids that go crazy here, like the monks who read the Philokalia, the great Neptic, and fall into deep trances. So much so, that Varlaam the Calabrian called this condition ‘omphaloscopy’, because monks were told that if they read the Philokalia for thirty hours in a row they would get to see with their own eyes, like Moses, God holding the Ten Commandments, His hand among the clouds, with horns of glory sprouting from the forehead.
Τ. Κ. Papatsonis, Άσκηση στον Άθω, ήτοι Πηδάλιον νηπτικόν για περιδιάβαση του Όρους [Ascetic Life in Athos, or a neptic guide for touring the Mount], Ikaros Publications, Athens 1963.

Repetition I
{source of pleasure and impulse of death}
Each fresh repetition seems to strengthen the mastery they are in search of. Nor can children have their pleasurable experiences repeated often enough, and they are inexorable in their insistence that the repetition shall be an identical one. This character trait disappears later on. If a joke is heard for a second time it produces almost an effect no effect; a theatrical production never creates so great an impression the second time as the first; indeed, it is hardly possible to persuade an adult who has very much enjoyed reading a book to re-read it immediately. Novelty is always the condition of enjoyment. But children will never tire of asking an adult to repeat a game that he has shown them or played with them, till he is too exhausted to go on. And if a child has been told a nice story, he will insist on hearing it over and over again rather than a new one; and he will remorselessly stipulate that the repetition shall be an identical one and will correct any alterations of which the narrator may be guilty- though they may actually have been made in the hope of gaining fresh approval. None of this contradicts the pleasure principle; repetition, the re-experiencing of something identical, is clearly in itself a source of pleasure. [...]
But how is the predicate of being ‘instinctual’ related to the compulsion to repeat? At this point we cannot escape a suspicion that we may have come upon the track to a universal attribute of instincts and perhaps of organic life in general which has not hitherto been clearly recognized or at least not explicitly stressed. It seems, then, that an instinct, is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life. [...]
It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet be attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads. If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons – becomes inorganic once again- then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’.
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII, Vintage, London, 2001.

Repetition ΙΙ
{the restitution of possibility}
What is repetition? There were four great thinkers on repetition in modernity: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze. All four demonstrated that repetition is not the return of the same identical thing. The power and the grace of repetition, the novelty it brings, lies in that it makes possible again what had existed before. Repetition restores the possibility of what existed, rendering it possible again. To repeat something is to reinstate it as possible. And herein lies the proximity between repetition and memory. For neither memory can render what once was in exactly the same way. That would be a nightmare. Memory restores the possibility to the past. It was the sense of such a theological experience that Benjamin saw in memory when he said that it makes the incomplete complete, and the complete incomplete. Memory is in a sense the organ for modifying the real; it is what can transform the real into possible and the possible into real […]
What is an image which has been processed this way by the powers of repetition and interruption? What changes in the constitution of the image? Here we need to go back and revise our whole traditional views on expression. The current perception of expression is dominated by the model of Hegel, according to which expression is effected via a medium (an image, a word or a colour) which eventually dissolves into the full expression. The expressive act is completed when the medium is no longer understood as such. The medium must vanish into what we see, into the absolute that appears and is reflected on it. By contrast, the image which has been processed through repetition and interruption is a medium which does not disappear into what we see. It is what I would call a “pure medium”.
Giorgio Agamben, “Il cinema di Guy Debord”, Guy Debord (Contro) il cinema, ed. E. Grezzi, R. Turigliatto, Milano 2001.

Repetition ΙΙΙ
{protection and reproducibility}
The human baby protects itself by means of repetition (the same fairy tale, one more time, or the same game, or the same gesture). Repetition is understood as a protective strategy in the face of the shock caused by new and unexpected experiences. […]
The childhood experience of repetition is prolonged even into adulthood, since it constitutes the principal form of safe haven in the absence of solidly established customs, of substantial communities, of a developed and complete ethos. In traditional societies (or, if you like, in the experience of the “people”), the repetition which is so dear to babies gave way to more complex and articulated forms of protection: to ethos; that is to say, to the usages and customs, to the habits which constitute the base of the substantial communities. Now, in the age of the multitude, this substitution no longer occurs. Repetition, far from being replaced, persists. It was Walter Benjamin who got the point. He dedicated a great deal of attention to childhood, to childish games, to the love which a baby has for repetition; and together with this, he identified the sphere in which new forms of perception are created with the technical reproducibility of a work of art (Benjamin, Illuminations). So then, there is some thing to believe in the idea that there is a connection between these two facets of thought. Within the possibility of technical reproduction, the child’s request for “one more time” comes back again, strengthened; or we might say that the need for repetition as a form of refuge surfaces again.
Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Derive Approdi, Roma 2002, translated from the Italian by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson; http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcmultitude3.htm

Narrow strait, straitened life = a form of exile, like xeniteia [expatriation], but an exile so internal as to be invisible to others. A wisdom that remains unknown, a non-divulged intelligence, a secret life, ignorance of the others about my aims, refutation of glory, an abyss of silence. I point out stenochoria because it is close to xeniteia, and also because it corresponds quite closely to the ‘narrow space’ in Taoism: a conduct which allows you to go unnoticed.
Roland Barthes, Cours et Séminaire au Collège de France (1976-1977), Paris 1977.

St Mark
{and the Eastern Church}
Since you added theology among your interests, you have been under suspicion of being ‘converted’. I am going to ask you directly – have you become faithful?
Faith is not a human virtue, it’s a virtue that comes from God. To me, it hasn’t come. What may have come to me from God is a nostalgia for the infinite, the unconditional. But this is a philosophical nostalgia, not one of faith.
So what were you doing in those monastic retreats, starting from Mount Athos?
Thinking, meditating. Over those years I explores all religions, but how can a Venetian not be passionate about the Western Church above all, with a church like San Marco in the city? In Athos the experience is exceptional, the meditation ideal.
Excerpt from the interview of Massimo Cacciari to Stefania Rossini.

The dialectical image does not draw a painterly copy of the dream—it was never my intention to assert this. But it does seem to me to contain the instances, the moment consciousness dawns as one awakens, and indeed to produce its likeness only from these passages just as an astral image emerges from luminous points … The dialectical image is a lightning flash. The Then must be held fast as it flashes its lightning image in the Now of recognisability. The rescue that is thus - and only thus - effected, can only take place for that which, in the next moment, is already lost.
Walter Benjamin, quoted by S. Rozanis in Walter Benjamin. Η ιεροποίηση του αποσπάσματος, Metaichmio Publications, Athens 2006.

{the death of the author}
The do-it-yourself spirit has obviously conferred certain credibility to the death-of-the-author theme. Concurring with the inspiration of the punk movement, it encourages creative self-management and bricolage, abandoning at the same time the idea of ex nihilo creation. […] One may of course suspect that many of these practices merely extend the romantic figure of the genius in a different form. But anonymity is not some posture of coquetry of the author when the latter disappears completely behind his sound system, or when he makes the label into his emblem. […]
If the dj is a “craftsman of the cut”, the electronic musician participates to an ever greater extent in a “craft-based industrialization of the digital world”, which seems “to generate its own needs, its own rhythm, its own communications circuits;” an economy of niches, made up of multiple pressings in small quantities and the transfer of MP3 files. However, this sort of artisanal system is not so much the name of an industrial or electronic system as of a particular regime of authorship. One might say that, today, it is the independent labels that often fulfill the author function better than the artists themselves. The artist-author was father and owner of his work; today, it is the workshops that guarantee the product.
The figure of the techno craftsman finds, moreover, further confirmation in the curiously anachronistic character often assumed by the hagiographies of DJ’s and electronic musicians. One cannot but be struck by the particular interest which is shown for the gestures, figures, aesthetic innovations based upon the use (and often the misuse) of the technological medium, as well as by the role played by the chance and ingenuity. […]
The conventions which dominate in this genre of literature are much closer to those of the lives of artists of the pre-modern-era, retracing the invention of techniques and styles, than to the life-of-the-author genre. Here “biographism” is entirely subordinated to the concern for bringing out the way in which the artist fits himself into a technical framework by working with some material or medium - his art, therefore, more than his genius. As in the thought of Pliny, Vasari, and even Winckelmann, anecdotes cannot be separated from a discourse on the origins of art and its techniques. More than the works themselves, it is the operations, the ways of doing -in short, the craft - which define the operator. And the work is less the product the vision or the designs of the artist than the prolongation of his gestures.
Elie During, «Appropriations: Deaths of the Author in Electronic Music» at Christine, Von Assche (ed), Sonic Process, A New Geography of Sounds, Actar Barcelona, 2003.

{cosmic alarm}
A large underground hall. The walls and the ceiling are draped in such a way as to make it plain that they are covered – with an ‘artistic’ lining, in this case– and that there is something else behind, at once visible and invisible. A curtain painted like the sea, a vast open expanse of water, divides the room almost in the middle like a curtain, starting from one wall and reaching the opposite one. In height it does not reach to the ceiling The space before the curtain is laid out like a full theatre hall: a stage set up like a beach, where there is nothing but sand; large screens on either side form the wings of the stage; and a pit large enough to take a regular audience.Everything in the room is –and has to look that it is– an add-on, covering things that must not be seen. The aim is to give as soon as possible the impression that an entire theatre has been rigged up in a space which appears to have to do nothing with the theatre. This element is not just a trick of the stage designer or the director: it is an element of the drama, therefore a dramatic one. Exactly the same is true of the proceedings in this theatre: both the events and the actors’ lines –especially the lines– are meant to cover up things, they function just like the screen: they are done or said to conceal things until the moment when it all comes apart and reveals everything.The two fundamental modes of this drama, the everyday/ethographic/realistic and the oneiric/symbolic/transcendental one, must be acted out in the most extreme way so that both provide an exhaustive typological representation. [...]
[At the end] the entire depth of the underground opens wide to reveal the firmament in a state of cosmic alarm, amidst a pandemonium of deafening noise and shapeless forms. The universe is revealed in a state of utter disorder.
The most gigantic and hideous of all the creatures rises to the top of the dome.
Dimitris Dimitriadis, Η νέα Εκκλησία του Αίματος. Μια θεατρική ανάσταση [The New Church of Blood, A theatrical resurrection], Agra Publications, 1983.

The End
{at the boundaries of space}
So I was in my boat and gliding on the waters. I didn’t have to row, the ebb was carrying me out. Anyway I saw no oars, they must have taken them away. I had a board, the remains of a thwart perhaps, which I used when I came too close to the bank, or when a pier came bearing down on me or a barge at its moorings. There were stars in the sky, quite a few. I didn’t know what the weather was doing, I was neither cold nor warm and all seemed calm. The banks receded more and more, it was inevitable, soon I saw them no more. The lights grew fainter and fewer as the river widened. There on the land men were sleeping, bodies were gathering strength for the toil and joys of the morrow. The boat was not gliding now, it was tossing, buffeted by the choppy waters of the bay. All seemed calm and yet foam was washing abroad. Now the sea air was all about me, I had no other shelter than the land, and what does it amount to, the shelter of the land, at such a time. I saw the beacons, four in all, including a lightship. I knew them well, even as a child I had known them well. It was evening, I was with my father on a height, he held my hand. I would have liked him to draw me close with a gesture of protective love, but his mind was on other things. He also taught me the names of the mountains. But to have done with these visions I also saw the lights of the buoys, the sea seemed full of them, red and green, and to my surprise even yellow. And on the slopes of the mountain, now rearing its unbroken bulk behind the town, the fires turned from gold to red, from red to gold. I knew what it was, it was the gorse burning. How often I had set a match to it myself, as a child. And hours later, back in my home, before I climbed into bed, I watched from my high window the fires I had lit. That night then, all aglow with distant fires, on sea, on land and in the sky, I drifted with the currents and the tides. I noticed that my hat was tied, with a string I suppose, to my buttonhole. I got up from my seat in the stern and a great clanking was heard. That was the chain. One end was fastened to the bow and the other round my waist. I must have pierced a hole beforehand in the floor-boards, for there I was down on my knees prying out the plug with my knife. The hole was small and the water rose slowly. It would take a good half hour, everything included, barring accidents. Back now in the stern sheets, my legs stretched out, my back well popped against the sack stuffed with grass I used as a cushion, I swallowed my calmative. The sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands closed in and crushed me in a mighty systole, then scattered to the uttermost confines of space. The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.
Samuel Beckett, The End, The Complete Short Prose, translated by Richard Seaver in collaboration with the author, Grove Press, New York, 1995.

Thlivo: to crush, to press, to tighten, to oppress, to cause anxiety. A trial imposed on xeniteia, a rupture of xeniteia, the return to tender thoughts about the world. You abandon yourself to the fascinating memory of your parents, you let yourself be drawn, amidst your solitude, to compassion about the father, the mother, the tenderness for children, the desire of a love affair, etc. Thlipsis = the benevolent demon who returns from xeniteia, the repatriation through tenderness. Thlipsis: on the part of nostalgia; the pain of returning to some specific place (≠ spleen: the pain of an indefinite, purposeless return, an exile without a positive fantasy; spleen = closer to acedia, absence of caring).
Roland Barthes, Cours et Séminaire au Collège de France (1976-1977), Paris 1977.

{the indivisible tradition of the world}
When I was commissioned to design the Playground in Filothei I must say that my mind wandered to all kinds of thoughts. […] The architectural tradition seemed to me unquestionably and fundamentally uniform, despite the individual differences […]I studied the large and excellent book of Perrot and Chipier in the library of the Technical University and I saw this similarity of everything in the broadest sense, this inevitable match in the general structure; as I say, for all the individual differences the hidden ‘principles’ were the same everywhere. Thus I came to treat tradition as a uniform thing that heeds the eternal principles (the principles of tradition are constant, the forms vary).[…]
The prevailing feeling inside me was to go back to the one indivisible tradition of the world. I had already discerned its universal unity which holds true throughout the planet. I wished to go back towards it along its flow, to swim upstream like the trout. Of course, the individual differences are not negligible, but behind them you can make out a universally applicable constant. […] Between Phrygia and Persia or Caria, between China and India you can discern the latent unity as well as the latent differences. Between East and West, North and South you can see the difference and the mythical concurrence. This constancy was fundamental. The differences are immaterial, the deep inner connection is the essence.
Dimitris Pikionis, «Παιδικός Κήπος Φιλοθέης 1961-1864», ed Agni Pikioni, A. Bastas - N. Plessas Publications, Athens 1994.

Tossing and twisting
{perhaps my brain was a little addled}
“It could not have been more than two minutes afterward until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in its new direction like a thunderbolt.
At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek – such a sound as you might imagine given out by the waste-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl ; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss – down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the amazing velocity with which we wore borne along.
The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the horizon. “It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.
“It may look like boasting – but what I tell you is truth – I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make ; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man’s mind in such extremity – and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a little light-headed. […]
Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.
Edgar Allan Poe, “A Descent Into Maelstrom”, Grahams’ Magazine, Philadelphia, 1841.


A conversation between Nikos Alexiou and Christophoros Marinos

Christophoros Marinos: Let us start with your points of reference. What were the early influences, from your family as well as from the broader artistic environment, that shaped your aesthetics?
Nikos Alexiou: I was born in Rethymnon in 1960. One early childhood image is from the art festivals organised by the writer Andreas Nenedakis, with many exhibitions held in galleries and in the coffee shops on the waterfront. So for two or three summers between the ages of 13 and 15 I saw the entire era of ‘Greekness’, from Karagatsis, Sike­liotis and Vassiliou to Moralis, Migadis and Kanakakis. It was all warm and fresh at the time. It was also when the first blocks of flats were built in Rethymnon, the first ones in my own neighbourhood. It was impressive to watch the structure of concrete and bricks rising to 4 or 5 floors, and kids playing around the construction sites. I remember myself walking in and out of an architect’s office full of drawings and blueprints, taking down from the shelves copies of Orestis Doumanis’s Themata Chorou ke Technon magazine and leafing through them.
My family house in Rethymnon is next door to the Xenia Hotel of Aris Constantinidis, the lace where I grew up: everything there –seats, sliding doors, beach facilities, the umbrellas, the deckchairs– were designed by him. I took my first steps barefoot on the red floor tiles of the Xenia, and then at my mother’s home village. So we are talking about modernism, a true Greek modernism. When I arrived in Athens in 1979, my gallery was “Desmos” ­– the place I had known from the issues of Themata Chorou ke Technon. The magazines I used to buy in Athens not about art, they were scientific: Scientific American and OMNI. Indeed, I got Scientific American for a decade, though my English was not good. Now I see that all this talk about chaos, grids and fractals, etc., the drawings in Scientific American that interested science in those days were all mixed together with the blankets woven by my mother: the drawing in Scientific American and the blanket I still use today carry the same grid. The years have gone by, and all this seems like a perfect fairy tale. I still remember the floor in our house, made by my father of compacted concrete. The ‘veins’ formed on the black concrete when it’s clean and polished are like the sky.
The first artists I came to know and like in those years, 1979-’80 –and whom I saw later in Europe– were Fontana, Takis, Tinguely, all that gang with the ‘space’ works.
CM: Weren’t you influenced by Arte Povera? Its impact on the Greek art of that time must have been quite strong.
na: No, I don’t think so. A cheap material is not cheap. Masking tape or gold foil are equally valuable.
CM: So you kept your distance from that dominant trend.
na: Not really; it just wasn’t my style.
CM: Which Greek artists do you see as fellow-travellers, stylistically and emotionally?
na: Stylistically, I don’t know. They are the people who live in this city and with whom we do things together. Those who leave, those who were active for a while and then left, those who remain, the ones you really appreciate, the ones you love. Yorgos Lappas, Thanassis Totsikas, Manolis Zacharioudakis…
CM: Nikos Baikas?
na: A different generation. We never met with Baikas in the same events, whereas with Lappas we were together in many exhibitions early on, around 1986-87, although our styles were different. Among the older artists, I feel some stylistic affinity with Bia Davou. I also liked a lot some works of Nafsika Pastra, as well as the experiments and drawings of Pantelis Xagoraris. That was until I understood the work of Nikos Kessanlis, the greatest Greek artist –of all times, perhaps. The screen, the shadow, the playfulness are what fascinate me in all his works. That Great White Gesture, for instance, is a top work for me. That photo of Chryssa on the stairs with the sheets is astounding.
CM: Among foreign artists, whom would you single out?
na: Yves Klein had fascinated me with his blues and his gestures. He was rediscovered in the early 1980s with the major exhibition Paris-Moscow in Paris. Now, that show had everything. The catalogues from Paris-Moscow, Paris-Paris, Paris-New York were like gospels. They are still very important. Later, when I went to Austria, I liked Hermann Nitsch and all those performance artists.
CM: It seems strange to me that you like the Viennese actionists, as they don’t seem to relate to your work.
na: They don’t, but they fascinate me. I like them. Of course, then I realised a very important thing that has to do with street artists, folk artists and pageant events in the countries of Central Europe. It is this ‘well’, this primary source that spawned the contemporary artist – performer, dancer, actor or visual artist. The roots of contemporary theatre and today’s performers are to be found in folk artists and folk events. And it is no accident that we still see a lot of this thing in Yugoslavia.
CM: Do you feel that you have something in common with Japanese or Arab artists? Your art seems to converse with motifs we find in Asian painting.
na: I like Issey Miyake, and Hokusai’s Great Wave, a work that bridges the gap between Western and Oriental thought. But you see this in Miyake, too: he is not interested in the ‘clothing’, I think. He cares for the grid first of all, the fibre; the rest will come. His whole research around the industry and modern materials is about the grid, that’s their tradition. Then there is this book which was like a gospel to me: Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects. It shows you through earlier settlements how habitation is organised, which is one and the same thing – in Asia, in New York or in Athens. That is, there is no difference between now and 3,000 years ago in terms of how habitation is organised.
CM: When did you come across Rudofsky’s book?
na: I was 18 or 19. Later, in Vienna, I saw some contemporary architecture in Europe, I got to know some architects whom I loved. Richard Neutra did some wonderful projects in California. At the time I was impressed also by Luis Baragan, but not so much later. The ones I still like are Neutra and Alvar Aalto, who remains at the top even now – I adore him. He is an architect to whom we owe much: modern Scandinavian design was based on Aalto’s research! Among the Greeks, Aris Constantinidis was and is the top.
CM: I don’t know whether you agree that between the anonymous architecture of Constantinidis and the vernacular architecture of Rudofksy there are some striking similarities. These two references helped me to ‘unlock’ your new work, the modular installation inspired by the mosaic floor of Iviron Monastery on Mount Athos which you are presenting at the Venice Biennale. Moreover, Constantinidis’s perception of buildings as ‘vessels of life’ summarises admirably your own work.
na: Certainly. But then there is also Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and The Shining. The work for the Biennale, which I’ve called The End, carries everything I’ve worked on all these years, from the 1980s and a little earlier to this day. All refe­rences in my work, from rainbows, lights and galaxies to marble, prisms and the ‘psychedelic’ stuff, are all in it. All my work since the early 1980s is like an ongoing project, although in recent years some things have faded into a more contemporary environment. In my works of the 1980s the basis was very often Kubrick, and specifically two of his films – 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is my favourite, and The Shining. My first show at “Desmos” in 1985 was also a reference to Kubrick, with four works showing four views of the lunar monolith in Odyssey: the screen, the doorway to another dimension, that boundary.
CM: The metaphysical aspect of the Monolith.
na: “Natural” I could understand better, meaning that these would be natural phenomena. For instance, the specific animation in this new work is a direct reference to the film, to the scene where the protagonist goes on his last trip.
CM: True, this kaleidoscopic animation does remind you of the famous star gaze sequence in Odyssey, which describes the journey through time.
na: Yes, it illustrated the whole era of psychedelia, LSD and all that. It was after the magic of those journeys to the Moon. It is the eye of HAL from 2001.
CM: And why do call this work The End?
na: The title The End came as a ‘coincidence’, as a working title when the basic design was finished. The title, just like the work, brings together all my loves. There are two texts as well. The one is “The End” by Beckett, another favourite. His hero is released from the asylum and goes to live in a hut off the town, by the sea. One evening before dusk he walks to the town. It is dark by the time he reaches the port, gets into a boat, unties it and lets it be drawn by the current. He turns to look at the town, which is lit up by then. He shrouds himself with the tarpaulin that covered the boat, and once he is out of the harbour, pulls out the plug and the water comes in. If I remember correctly, Beckett describes the end as a ray, as a spear shooting towards the stars.
The other text is the second major play of Dimitris Dimitriadis, The new church of blood (1983). In this play the entire building of the theatre –the stage, the pit– takes part in the drama. In the end the whole theatre is torn down and at the very back of the stage appears a ‘projection’, as he calls it ­– a cosmogony, like a black hole which either sucks everything in or regenerates it. To me, my own work, The End, could be the picture of the end in this play of Dimitriadis.
CM: Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature –a book translated in Greek by Dimitriadis, incidentally– begins with the phrase: “It seems that we learn something about art when we experience what the word solitude is meant to designate”. Has solitude taught you anything about art?
na: Yes, you can only do this alone. Even our contact with artworks begins from a solitary, private experience. It is a relationship only you know, it’s yours, it can’t be shared. We read, we learn, we spend time with other people, but the key we must find for ourselves, and we proceed alone. A museum, in other words, is something you see on your own.
CM: And what is your experience of this work?
na: I like to tell this as a fairy tale, like the Gerontika or the stories of Nasreddin, because I feel it helps the work itself to communicate, not just with experts but with the public as well. This means a lot more to me than analysing and expounding theories. So, it’s the winter of 1995… It was a hard year personally –a ‘bad life’, you could call it– with a lot of exhausting work. In addition to the exhibitions, I had designed the sets for seven plays. In the autumn I am asked to do the new play by Loula Anagnostaki for Theatro Technis: it was called “the journey far away”. When I finish, after the dress rehearsal, completely knackered, I go home –I didn’t even have a home, I was staying with a friend in Petroupolis– and go straight to bed. And as I am lying down, half asleep, I feel this thing… a darkness, a burnt land with charred stone, something like volcanic rock. And I am trying to focus on the black, it’s very strange. At some point I realise I am under water, an almost completely still water. I understand it is water because my eye catches a minute movement like that of a tiny hair – like the micro-organisms you see under the microscope; it was this that made me think it was water. The next day I left for Mount Athos. So this work I am making now is a dark, black work.
CM: In a negative sense, you mean? Didn’t you say in a recent interview that your work is positive?
na: Not in that sense … look, life is a fantasy. There is no reality. One gets to know the glass, the house, the street, the people, and then builds a fairy tale in which he is the central hero. And this tale includes the glass, the ashtray, the robbers, the loved ones. That’s it. In which case the end is the end. So, black is black, coal is coal and darkness is darkness. And it’s in this darkness that the fairy tale is spun.
CM: Yet this fairy tale, this magical and mysterious “Figure in the Carpet” ­–to use the title of Henry James’s famous novel– has also something utopian, in the sense of the peculiarity which Roland Barthes referred to in his lecture How to live together. Besides, it is significant that the primary inspiration of Barthes was the Athonian way of life. The End is a work derived from your sojourn in Athos. Its processing, both the gestation of the idea and the rendering of the floor plan, resembles the fieldwork carried out by anthropologists, who then write down their experiences. Now you are at the final stage of this process.
na: The work is autobiographical, so it has not reached the end yet.
CM: What could be missing? Other experiences, you mean?
na: Not experiences as such. I believe that as one grows older one can understand things better, and has information that a twenty-year-old does not have. It is not a question of knowledge but of biological information, of memories known only to worn matter.
CM: More like astro-biological knowledge...
na: Yes, something like that. A cell that wants to develop has a different kind of energy to a cell which is constantly deteriorating – in that sense. So this is what’s happening now.
CM: But why do you believe it doesn’t complete you? To me you seem happy and enthusiastic, and I think this bliss is reflected in the work. That’s why it strikes me as odd when you describe it as dark.
na: It’s something I haven’t grasped. Monastic life is like a grave: you learn to see your bed as a grave, your cell as a grave. If you read the epistles of Father Paisios, which are instructions to monks, they are very interesting. What he describes in his ‘alpha’ to a new monk is an installation. He says, for instance, “black tablecloth”, but it’s not something I know. You have to cross to the other side to find out, so I don’t know what it is. I suspect it’s love of death; it means to fall in love with this darkness, with death, and all these things happening, all those fireworks, perfect things, everything bright, everything magical, everyone beautiful.
CM: But why do you feel you can’t grasp it? You must have come very close to this experience, having lived for a long time there and having watched the monks’ behaviour.
na: I saw them, but I didn’t see anything extraordinary; I didn’t see any …extraterrestrials. It’s just a different structure of life. You and I have to work, to interact socially – to lead a normal life, that is. Monastic life doesn’t have these things. A monk’s profession is just to observe. You observe yourself through the others, through the faces of others and this way you get to learn your self. The mirror is the other one’s face; there are no actual mirrors in monasteries. And this constant ‘in and out’, where no one wakes every morning in the same mood, happens to all. Of course, they describe this ‘oscillation’ as a Fall. You accept this and become impassive. ‘I have suffered, but it’s no big deal.’ ‘I am a saint, but it’s no big deal.’ The interesting thing is to watch this oscillation. First you see it in other people, in each of them separately, you discern it in the community and then you are ble to see it in yourself, exactly because it is now an experience. And if you feel awful you say ‘alright, I feel awful but I’ll be patient, it will be over’. It’s just a phase. This is what teaches you. But this oscillation, personal or collective, is not just in monasteries – it’s true everywhere. You will see it in the city, for instance, in taxi drivers. You go out, night or day, and everything is perfect and you can see that cabbies can feel it, too. Or nothing goes right and they feel a mess. And sometimes I ask them to confirm this, and they do: ‘It’s true’, they say. There are great days, and days of pure hell.
CM: They are like the sponges of the metropolis.
na: They come into contact with the traffic, with people, and they sense whether the atmosphere is positive or negative. The same happens in Athos. The difference is that a monk’s job is just to watch, to observe.
CM: So an artist could also play this observer’s role.
na: Anyone can. If an artist decided to abandon everyday life and become faithful, he would have no problem how to live. “I won’t worry about how I’ll live. That isn’t the issue, it’s not my job. My job is different.” If he could forget this, this worry about having to work, to do this or that, he would become a true artist. It’s the same with faith: it means getting absorbed in my issue, not caring about other things. If I start mixing them up, I’ll be confused and I won’t be any good on either.
Recently, when I came back from Athos I went with my friend E. to the café-restaurant of Takis Gigourtakis. We dined and wined well, and then I said to her ‘listen, there are two kinds of people who lead a luxurious life: artists and monks, as long as they are faithful and poor’. And so it is: you get the very best in this way.
CM: Have you ever thought of a musical accompaniment to your work, a soundtrack?
na: No. Music is an emotional thing, and The End is not emotional. Music addresses your emotions, it helps; there is no ritual without music. But here it doesn’t fit. The work is a fairy tale. I could say that the only kind of music that would fit would be a slow tsifteteli song – that’s exactly the right rhythm.
CM: It is a work with astro-biological properties, just like the rosaries that monks make to help them pray and meditate: a means to calm the soul and the spirit. How do you see it – is it a painting, a large installation?
na: I don’t know. I am not good with terminology. I do know that it has lots of things. It’s a good thing that the Greek pavilion in Venice is like a church; it is perfect for this layout. There are two axes which provide two different possibilities. One is the screen. The screen is a big thing – it always was. It’s fascinating, and in the 20th century we had some great examples, the mirror of Cocteau and much more. Kubrick’s Monolith is a screen: it’s a window from which you enter this other dimension, of the journey. And once you are in the screen there is the second axis, the spaceship “galactica”. Now you are in the vehicle, travelling. I think that these two axes are clear.
CM: It also flirts with the Sublime, doesn’t it? There is something hypnotic and mystical about it.
na: Yes, rather. I think it will be like a sacrament. And then there is another relationship I have with the works. It’s an oblique relationship. I can’t stand and gaze at a work face-on, directly. Someone has spoken about the oblique gaze. In Epidaurus the plays were performed at daybreak. And the orientation of the stage is interesting. I think it’s Yorgos Chimonas who says something about the oblique gaze, in his foreword to Medea.
CM: How do you mean, exactly?
na: Two experiences. The first time I went to Olympia and walked around the museum, I suddenly felt I was before the room where Hermes was. I went in, walked around the room, didn’t see the statue and walked out. That is, I did see it but only for a fraction of a second. I was telling this to Tzirtzilakis yesterday, and he said I was too shy to look at it. Another experience was years later, in Madrid. That was where I realised the meaning of museums, art, love, true painting. It was my second time in Madrid, for the sets for the play Memoria de Olvido by Denny Perdikidis, and I visited the Prado every day. I had a schedule: I would say, ‘today I’ll look at portraits’. I had them all marked out: there was one single and one double portrait by Peter Van Dyke, Greco’s small portraits with the little collars, a self-portrait of Dürer. On other days I would only see Goya. So, that day I’ve gone to walk past those works and I am in a trance, and then I realise that there is this guy who’s following me around, watching me. He is not looking at the works – he is watching me being in ecstasy. It is a similar trance I am in now, with the Venice work: it is caused by the work itself and by the fairy tale I have built around it. When I was working on Barsky’s drawings I had become Barsky myself; I fantasised that I was Barsky, that I looked like him, even. He used to play around with imitations, and there are two or three examples of this in his biography… One year after he had entered the Jesuit academy in Poland he was found out to be Orthodox and was kicked out. Or he would dress up as an Arab to enter the Arab shrines in Damascus. In his letters, when his brother asks ‘are you a monk?’ Barsky replies evasively, as if to say that his wearing the habit was not important – it was an act… But it may have been a trait of the times. Years later, for instance, Lord Byron used to dress up like General Makriyannis.
CM: When did you make the Barsky works?
na: I repainted Barsky’s drawings with this technique before I went to Athos.
CM: Where did you find them?
na: In a book. These drawings were what made me go to Athos, to see them in earlier editions. I’d first found them in 1985-’86, in the second volume of a book by Olkos publications on drawings by foreign travellers to Greece. After that I carried them with me everywhere. In the early 1990s I made the first attempt, as part of the staging of a fairy tale in Trikala with a troupe of amateur actors. We enlarged them, turned them into stage sets and painted them. It was a good piece of work.
CM: And how did this idea of a work based on the mosaic floor of Iviron Monastery come about? Since it’s an autobiographical work, I’d like you to tell me about your experience of staying at the monastery and of the floor.
na: I first visited Iviron Monastery in the winter of ’95, in early December, and stayed there for several months. I was just trying to figure out the whole setup. And no one talks to you about faith there. Each one tells you his own story. But this church is the hub of monastic life. This square of monastery floor has been functioning every day for ten centuries, and not just once but two or three times a day. Without it, there’s no monastery. If the church doesn’t open, the monastery does not exist.
CM: What does this floor symbolize for the monks?
na: They are not interested in symbolism. It doesn’t symbolize anything – it’s their home, their parlour. To me, it’s a ballet mat. Not a stage for the actor – a ballet floor, because it is used for a specific choreography, the same movements again and again. It was incomprehensible to me. I’d go to the church and watch them – I couldn’t follow the steps. This must have gone on for three, three-and-a-half months. Halfway through Lent there is a wake called the ‘Veneration of the Cross’; the service starts at eleven in the evening and may go on till dawn, according to their mood. So that night, about halfway through the wake the Father Superior comes out of the sanctuary with a small wooden cross on a tray lined with basil. He walks to the exact centre of the floor and rests the cross on a low hexagonal table they’ve placed there. He genuflects three times, then another three, and walks away. Then all monks do the same in hierarchical order. I have been there for so long but have not taken these ‘steps’. I am just sitting there, crossing myself. Seeing how it was going like a chain, one by one, I say to myself, ‘tonight you’ll do it, too – there is no getting away this time’. I go to stand at the left-hand corner of the floor, and I am ready to take the steps.
P. approaches and says, “Niko, afterwards we must go to the kitchen and peel the beetroots for tomorrow”. “Now?”, I ask, and he says “no, you worhisp first and then we’ll go”. Perfect! The grand chandelier is on ­– an atmosphere of devoutness. An incredible, fairytale moment. It felt like Heidi flying over Switzerland and looking at the rivers and fields below; suddenly time slowed down, I rose into the air and the floor became Swiss fields, and I was Heidi. And that’s what I think faith is, after all. It’s nothing else.
CM: And is it this sensation of faith that you want to convey through the Biennale work?
na: Faith to me is to perform the ‘steps’ properly: to breathe correctly, to walk correctly, to make a movement – imitation. In there I realised that this ‘imitation of an admirable, complete act’ is not dead; the Holy Mass may be the only place where it still holds true. The difference with Greek tragedy is that the ‘audience’ join the ‘orchestra’, the priests, and can also act out their own part.
CM: Still, the way you felt it has to do with your experiences from the theatre, right?
na: That, too, obviously. Of course, I don’t know how I would look at it if I were an actor or a dancer. Still, my experience from the theatre makes me sure that this kind of environment would provide actors and dancers with much better training than, say, doing tai chi or yoga or God knows what other technique that comes from the Orient via New York. In there, as one watches all that mythology written on the walls, the body and the head tends to look up, to look ahead – but the usual thing is to look down.
One of the things I brought back with me from Athos was all those patterns, the triangles, circles and squares. In the new work I saw them all at once. Not just saw them – I had had this personal physical experience of them. I used elements and motifs from this floor pattern in a show I did in the gallery of Rebecca Camhi in 2003. I made my own drawing of the surroundings of the monastery, the river and the aqueducts; the work I sent to the Breakthrough exhibition in Madrid the following year was an enlargement of this one. At the same time I was working on this project, drawing and designing it, and I knew that at some point I would make The End, as long as I designed it; It is a work that involves some 100,000 tessserae. Some motifs were repeated, so they needed careful counting. I am fussy, you see, and must do the same thing 500 times. I am saying this as an anecdote, and it’s something I firmly believe about the way I work: as we learn from physics, a work is produced by friction. It is like two parts approaching each other: the body and the material you have chosen. The contact, the friction that generates this energy transfers information from one part to the other, and what is born carries information from both parties. The material knows better than I do how it should be made, how it must be in order to exist.
CM: You mean that at some point it goes out of the artist’s hands, so to speak?
na: Not exactly. This is an act of birth. The outcome has its own identity, but it still carries the memories from those two parties. It is this chemical reaction that spawns it and turns it into an entity which remains free and alive through time; an entity which needs renewed contact to remain alive. A work that’s been in a museum for 300 years doesn’t stay the same. It is reborn by the new people who see it. Isn’t it so?
CM: Yes, by the new gazes.
na: The new gazes.
CM: …which change through history, they are different.
na: Precisely. That’s why the new is always new. Nothing is old. The pieces of the puzzle, the pieces of man’s art history, remain always current as the primary material – in our hands.

Christopher Marinos is an art critic and independent curator. He lives and works in Athens.