a loop, a line, a limbo:
Vasiliki Vayenou & Cornelia Mittendorfer
• The exhibition a loop, a line, a limbo deals with the notion of the visible as well as invisible borderlines and its extensions. This search was developed from the previous photographic series green line (2013-17), about the bisected Cyprus. Which are some of the facets of this notion that the works of the show address?
I worked on this project extensively, which held me captive for almost five years. During this time I noticed in people, who have entrusted in me with their stories or who have helped me in other ways, a mixture of never ending mourning, desperation, resignation and repression, only to mention a few ones (as well as I noticed the possibility of big-heartedness and courage). Or they were just settling into their daily lives, as a sort of big tiredness. I could feel this tiredness, too. I identified mainly three mechanisms, which seemed for me to be results of the situation at hand:
These are the points in which I wanted to further develop my work (I was pushed gently but persistently by Stratis Pantazis – I am grateful for this). I wanted to create space beyond memory, a new resonance space that allows us to experiment with changeability. I wanted the viewer to perceive with their senses and not only to look at art works, but to delve into their own experience and possibilities to overcome their ever known ways of thinking. I hope that the entirety of works in the exhibition creates such a resonance space.
• In your catalogue text you mentioned that one of the possibilities and duties of art is the dedication to the reflection of the unthinkable. Could you elaborate on this view?
For me, aesthetics, beauty, fun or entertainment in art are only means of transport, though important as well for the essential which we/I are searching for. It is difficult to talk of the unspeakable. My interest always circles around the “conditio humana”, with all contradictions and fractures, also with the change of focus with time. In this sense, art for me is a kind of investigation, different from the rules and regimentation of other disciplines (like nature sciences, or law, which was my other profession). This allows to give place to ideas, which at the beginning are not yet really ideas. There is something on which I “meditate,” by going on with my work, and it can take a lot of time to work out or to find out what IT IS. There is a part in art, which cannot be described with words (and therefore it cannot be “thought”). But very interesting discoveries can happen here.
My intention was to use appropriate materials, which offer the possibility for various connotations and interpretations. They should not be too explicit. But there are pragmatic reasons as well.
The rescue blankets nowadays seem to recall almost only refugees. When I used them, I new them for their lightness, for purposes like mountaineering and sports, and as a highly technical tissue which contrasts to nature or traditional garments. I used them when I stayed on an island, where I could bring only small luggage. So the lightness was an advantage (I did also another work with them: airy sculptures https://www.cornelia-mittendorfer.at/works/airy-sculptures/). I took analog long time exposure photographs during the night: The golden surface allowed me to photograph it better, because it reflects more of the available light.
The green wick yarn: it was thick enough to envelop me (until I almost could not breathe anymore). Of course I was looking for something green and long, but my intention was not an allusion to candle production. Yet I find this aspect, which Stratis Pantazis saw in it, very interesting.
I will use for the performance also a “tablecloth” which I sewed out of handkerchiefs from my wardrobe, which is an allusion to the tears shed for these conflicts. At the same time I will introduce something which was used for the tears in my life as well.
But there are also materials present in the exhibition which are used in the videos which you cannot touch. For example, the green Bengal Fire, which is burned down in a loop – a hand is coming again and again with a “new” fire (video “untitled”). Or the video “uncertain ground”, where I “scanned” with my camera banana leaves, which grew near to the Aphrodite Baths in Cyprus: For me it was a place which reminded me of the strict division between the touristic Cyprus and the political and historical Cyprus (in the sense of the conflicts), which is a sign for me how far Cyprus is from processing its own history. The aim of this video is to make you FEEL the uncertain ground, with the way of cutting the video you can get dizzy while watching it.
• In your catalogue text you refer to a discussion with the media artist and theorist Gerda Lampalzer that brought you in contact with the notion of the ceremonial, and helped you realize your role as a shaman-performer. What are the special elements and/or consequences that such a perception (the role of the artist as shaman) brings to the relation between the artist and the viewer?
As I will explain in the next paragraph as well, the “role” of the artist/shaman allows me and also the viewer to see my person as an abstraction, especially when performing. It is not me that it is about and neither about my body, but rather about the “condensed content”, about the generalizable content. I will also wear a particular dress, which underlines the change from myself as a person to me as a figure.
Doing very research-oriented art works over the years I noticed, that people tend to perceive mainly the research-side of the works, and sometimes less so the art-side of my works. That is why I started discussions with Gerda Lampalzer. I think that getting more personal with the approach to the viewer might help to understand the multi-faceted and often complex contents – and what is all behind them. The same goes for the viewer. This “all behind” is also part of my work. On the other hand I did not want to get too prominent as a person, which would not fit with my understanding of a researcher. I did not want to give up my method of working. Maybe this is also a personal attitude, especially in times of general narcissism, and maybe it is also due to my layers of identity as a jurist. At the moment I substantially agree with this status of an“artist-shaman”, allowing me to reach out better to the senses and emotions of the viewer, but at the same time not allowing to expose myself in a exhibitionistic manner. I find the ritual or ceremony appropriate for my way of working as a part of communication.
• What is the concept and the aim of the performance commands?
In the performance commands, I deal with the attempt to make the horror of an enforced boundary tangible and discussable by naming it, measuring it, analyzing it and returning to it again and again.
I take the role as a “shaman/artist” to perform this type of ceremony, which consists of a quasi-scientific investigation of the green wick yarn but also by wrapping myself with the green yarn. Taking this role allows me to bring something more personal into the work. I put myself in a position of a form of confinement, with this addressing my own feelings. I am a medium, a translator of what happens. The aim is to involve the viewer with their senses and emotions, if possible. When I did a first version of this performance in Linz, one man started to cry – this was a great feedback for me, because it showed that it had worked.
• In the interactive installation ballgame, the viewer is invited to throw balls made of crumpled maps into a basket. What is the political dimension and interpretation of this action-participation on the part of the viewer?
In my opinion, the interpretation is up to the viewer/participant. I hope this playful element allows you to observe your own feelings or thoughts when you throw away a geographic/political map while standing behind a green line marked on the floor. The basket will be at a distance from this green line, so that you need to concentrate (or be skilled enough) to hit the basket.
• What are some of the conclusions you were led to through the experience of your research and artistic production on the topic of the border, the “line”? It is understandable that the divisions, which are imposed and separate the people, are censurable. Under which possible conditions could divisions be necessary or acceptable?
This is a very challenging question, and almost impossible to give an adequate answer to.
Of course we need the concept of boundary for understanding ourselves in space. No house could give us enough shelter without walls. We need the nomination of boundaries for locating ourselves, putting us in (space-related) relation to others. Non-material boundaries are also necessary for us, such as, where does the public sphere end and where begins our intimacy?
The human rights expert Dieter Schindlauer gives one good answer in the video “comments”: The “red” line, to protect us from mistreatment (not the green line), needs to be enforced again and again. View various other statements on the line in the video “comments” as well. They deal with artistic issues as well as ecological or aesthetic ones. Some of them one can find in the catalogue.
A division itself is not necessarily harmful, like organized but fair, transparent and movable divisions. The question is, which concept is connected with the division. If it is about a concept of “we and the others”, then problems might come about. If I see the other as someone different from me, this could be an including yet realistic, recognizing and respecting vision. But if I see the other as someone unwanted, who does not merit the same respect/who does not have the right to be here/or to have the same rights/or to breathe the same air/or to live/or..., then we are on the way to a conflict, which might end up in a massacre or even a war. The “othering,” a notion which is used often in terms of discrimination, is not intended to clarify my necessary integrity, but to mark the other as someone inferior, unwanted, and in an extreme sense, as non-human.
This is what we really need to unlearn, immediately.
• One of the aspects that your works reveal is the powers and the weaknesses of memory in the ways they form our reality both on a personal level and collectively. Memories, even though fragmentary and fleeting, shape often our perceptions about ourselves and the world. In what way can art help us create a more expanded field of perception and experience of our lives?
In my eyes, it is not the task of art to help us. I do not agree with any sort of instrumentalization of art or through art, even though I am aware of a political will in my art. Often yes, but maybe not always.
That said, I admit that the imaginary dimensionality of an art work (the potential possibilities of an intensive further spinning of the work's reality by the recipient) can set in motion a process in the viewer, which leads to an expanded perception and a process of reflection. This depends very much on the viewer, and very much on the “quality” of an art work. Last but not least it depends on the communicative quality of an art work, whether first of all it is thought to increase the fame of the artist (like a boomerang, which is returning back to the artist without lingering longer with the recipients), or if the artwork actually does communicate with people.
• How has your professional background as a human rights lawyer influenced your work as a professional visual artist?
I was a jurist (not precisely a lawyer) with a focus on public law, including human rights and ethnic discrimination, and was exercising this profession for over 30 years.
This certainly has shaped or contributed to my methods, to my way of working and thinking, to my interest for socially relevant issues, my structured way of working and to my abilities in research.
In my photographic research on divided Cyprus for example, I succeeded to photograph inside the Anthropological Laboratories of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) as well. For this purpose I needed the authorization with one unanimous vote by the UN-Member, the Greek Cypriot Member and the Turkish Cypriot Member, which is something very rare to obtain. I am sure that my background as a jurist guided me how to argue, how to move and how to declare my impartiality.
As a jurist I also wanted to reflect the legal situation in Cyprus while taking the photographs. I worked only with authorizations, which were difficult to obtain (with 2 small exceptions, which were not at all clear). I did not want to “steal” photographs, but to reflect the politics of visibility (If you want, view more on the project-website of this research: www.green-line.at).
In the poetic parts of my work, of course, this is less relevant and less visible. But the duality of analytical and poetic approaches runs as principle through my work.
Interview for CultureNow by Vasiliki Vayenou, art historian and curator, Athens-Berlin-Vienna, May 2023