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.