“Having not planned the formation of a collection, I have over the years gathered these pieces without consciously following a predefined line, but one that my instinct and my capabilities allowed,” said Tassos A. Gkekas earlier in June 2015 about the works in his collection. Gkekas – whose gallery the Office lies on the edge of the old town centre in Nicosia, the last divided capital in Europe, where Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots live separated by a buffer zone – has over the years acquired a rare taste for works that may rightly be described as esoteric and even confessional: “Apart from some pieces that were given to me as a gift, the rest were gradually acquired, many times while secluded, away from the social environment, having built a special relationship with the work, that empowered me over time to ‘appropriate’ myself with it,” he continues. “Without always converging or identifying with the reality that surrounds me, a reality that cultivates a feeling of alienation, I have gathered them – while returning to a feeling of safety through them – as if they hosted me instead of them being hosted by the space.”
It is this peculiar intimacy and innerness of the works that Gkekas wanted to catch, laying bare their nakedness and poetic expression in a gesture of innocence that returns art to a way of life. Most of the artists Gkekas collected over the years did not have ambitions to see themselves as successful artists: “Like, for example, Francesca Woodman who took her own life at the age of twenty two, or Masahisa Fukase who did not edition his photographs – he frequently did not even sign them – but was making a living from his anthologies. Some, like Robert Montgomery, loathe biographies, or from a point onwards were not at all productive, like Charlotte Ballesteros. Günter Brus had decided to present his work over forty years later. This way, the collection of works is not one that came to be from me simply following the works of the artists, but in my opinion it is a collection of – as much as I could discern – some of their best moments. I tried never to follow artists blindly, for their signature alone. In conclusion, I fared, as much as I could, being in rupture with what is commonly called art market, and with artworks that are programmed to fulfil the needs of obvious public relations, a certain yearly quota – or to feed the vainness of the collector, the gallery or the artist.”
In spite of the private nature of his collection, which he had no intention to display, Gkekas decided to exhibit the artworks. But this was no ordinary exhibition: the space invites to an ambiental approach while the gesture to reveal the works also unveils a habit of mind. Charmed by the bareness of the VOLKS space, a former Volkswagen warehouse in Strovolos, the biggest municipality of Nicosia, Gkekas considered it a challenge to present the artworks “in a space that I find lends itself to their idiosyncrasy.” Opened from September 10 to October 13, 2015, the exhibition, intriguingly titled Investment Opportunities, was also accompanied by a special presentation, with works by Athenian artist Dimitris Merantzas. Curated by Christos Kyriakides and Antonis Minas, the exhibition presents works by Günter Brus, Nazgol Ansarinia, Charlotte Ballesteros, Pascal Bernier, Cali Thornhill Dewitt, Elizabeth Hoak-Doering, Masahisa Fukase, Yannis Gaitis, Kurt Hentschläger, Andreas Karayan, Glavkos Koumides, Robert Montgomery, Andreas Nicolaou, Nicholas Panayi, Carol Christian Poell, and Francesca Woodman.
“With the artist’s permission, I have extracted this title from Cali Thornhill Dewitt’s homonymous work (2015),” says Gkekas, a work that is seminal to the presentation. “It depicts a military aircraft bombarding, juxtaposed to the very text. This was an interesting umbrella that could freely interact with the rest of the artworks, defining more or less a political tone. From my side, it felt intriguing to showcase this selection under this theme in a fragile territory like Cyprus and especially the capital, Nicosia, the last divided capital in Europe. You know, during its centuries of history, the island was almost never ruled by Cypriots and has fallen prey to several conquerors, who envisioned Cyprus as an opportunity and would come to ‘invest’ here. The show is a reaction to loud words like investment opportunities, used often nowadays in Cyprus and generally in the Middle East. In parallel, I do not hide that the title could also work as a (self-)critique to the collectors fashion, using the ‘aura’ of the works as trophies. The selection is a mixture of international and local artists with radical work, who generally prefer to process quietly and to stay under the radar of excessive press attention. I find this kinder and more focused around a personal vision. To sum up, I would say that it is a sort of defence living within the realm of E.U. with predictable, leading capital cities, glamorous events and meaningless and banal, circular habits. Raw reality, humble artists with complex work, small, tortured countries like Cyprus, that function like radars for superpowers, true intentions – they unveil for me a more exciting universe to explore, the very world of investment opportunities. The motive to invest in something and how you do it over time, shows your true character.”
Speaking with Gkekas about the exhibition, I remarked this to feel like a ‘nostalgic’ exhibition that has more to do with curating feelings rather than curating works of art, and attending to one’s interior state. But I have also seen a deliberate transfiguration of the negative: that the works aestheticise the negative and, in doing so, they clear it to reveal deeply poetical, austere and subtle impressions. The space at VOLKS largely contributes to this feeling, as it imprints the visitor with a poetic graveness that most exhibitions can rarely come to express in such a coherent style. Gkekas claims to only partially accept the ‘negative’ character of the exhibition: “What I perceive as negative, is a Terry Richardson show or YBA’s exhibition – the tactics of this kind of star-artists and the institutions behind them is what I prefer to avoid. Moreover, no matter the fact that the subject of the artists might be stiff, demanding or initially not pleasant – the selected works function similarly to an ancient Greek depiction of events, like death showcased on stage in a subtle, symbolic and lyric way.”
“In ancient Greek drama,” explains Gkekas, “the dead body of the protagonist was presented covered; the very action of a murder was not shown but somehow insinuated. What is important is not to shock, but invite an audience to revisit and rethink a specific situation or to imagine it. To go further back to the origins of ‘nostalgic’ as a meaning – you have used this adverb, calling the exhibition ‘nostalgic’ –, Ulysses is the Homeric hero known for feeling nostalgic about returning to his homeland. The trip back to his island, Ithaka, was called ‘nostos.’ During his ‘nostos,’ he faced obstacles and other adventures. One of the most difficult is narrated in the tenth chapter of Homer’s Ulysses, titled “Nekyia.” Ulysses, at this point, is facing a severe delay on Kirki’s island and a dead-end on his returning quest, so Kirki advises him to go and meet the dead oracle Tiresias in Hades to ask for a prophecy. Ulysses had a good time on her island but now he has, on Kirki’s own words, to visit the dead and, being there, to die alive (δισθανής) so he could have access to the oracle’s prophecy. Visiting the underworld, besides the oracle Tiresias, Ulysses also meets his dead mother, colleagues and co-fighter heroes from the Trojan world; and in addition, his enemy Ajax, who stays speechless. Among others, Hercules is also present carrying on his activity, but in a meaningless way; and Sisifus as well, carrying his stone to a peak. All these once alive figures have now become mere shadows. Emotions, interest in life and passions are still ‘present’ but somehow quite distanced, dislocated, rigid in – I would say – a paradoxically elegant atmosphere. For the Homeric hero, several events which he encounters in Hades have already taken place, they are in the past; but Ulysses mainly visits Hades to obtain a prophecy, to learn about the future and solve basic matters that still concern him, as a means of completing his own trip. I find this perspective an interesting approach for someone to get in touch with the entire Investment Opportunities presentation. If this exhibition deserves to be called ‘nostalgic,’ as you suggested, I then welcome the viewer to approach the selection of works with ‘nostalgia,’ like in front of Nicholas Panayi’s photographs of vandalised faces, engraved in porcelain on the graves from his occupied homeland of Aphania, or the Self-Portrait by Dimitris Merantzas. The visitor, standing alone in front of each piece, is invited to interact with the works like Ulysses did with the dead figures. It is like a silent dialogue with the works and a short investigation case where the traces and evidence can be gathered like Günter Brus used to catalogue the tools that he would later use to perform a preplanned action.”
“Concerning the Iranian artist Nazgol Ansaria and her collages from the Reflections / Refractions series,” continues Gkekas, “regardless the fact that they deal with serious newspaper news on unpleasant topics, she manages through the double juxtaposition of the same topic, to find a getaway and escape from their own possible initial sadness with something geometric and finally beautiful. The sliced newspaper becomes a mosaic that surpasses the first flat meaning. Same for Dimitris Merantzas’s Embracement – the shovels cannot only be seen as a burial symbol or a cross: as it angles away from the wall, the blade stops to look flat and reveals a curvy structure that functions as a hug. That, in my understanding, may be perceived as a transfiguration of the ‘negative,’ used as a catalyst/medium from/for the positive.” It is precisely this idea, of a catalyst for the positive, that I wanted Gkekas to arrive at in our discussion, not lastly because Investment Opportunities could be understood as a profound, most personal yet inherently open form of recovery and recuperation. Seeing the exhibition as a deliberate transfiguration of the negative is a gesture to reclaim a tension that underlies artistic expressions and our aesthetic experiences. This tension is not necessarily curative, but it is subversive and invites one to renegotiate the structure and substance of meaning.
While the works were not intended for display, Gkekas says his decision is based on belief that “it’s not not right for someone to always keep works for himself/herself – it is like not letting children grow. I also felt that I owed this to the artists because of me guarding their work on an island.” The former warehouse, with its grey concrete space and austere atmosphere, acts almost as a concrete underlying stratum or groundwork. “VOLKS is a new, beautiful space,” says Gkekas. “It is like a squatted area where one might find that the works are better viewed – maintaining their own aura – rather than in a more conventional museum space. I preferred to show them at this very moment, before the space gets codified in a way that I am not sure I will continue to admire later. I wanted to take advantage of its virginity. At the opening, it was summer time, still very hot, humid when a sandstorm came from Syria just before the opening. It may be considered as not being the best season to open a show – but for me it was the perfect timing.” It is, in fact, the space that prompted this exhibition, as Antonis Minas explains: “Anastasios [Gkekas] had seen the space and that, in turn, led to the decision to show his collection, something that he was not planning on doing. When I first saw the space, I agreed that this would be an ideal place to show the collection. VOLKS has to offer a sort of charm in its bleakness. At the same time, you can’t help but notice that the space carries its own history. Being left, for the most part, untouched from when it was used as a warehouse, you can see handwritten notes on the walls, signs of weathering and decay that, in a way, humanise it. This comes in contrast with the cold emptiness that one first experiences entering the space. Like the works shown in the exhibition, the space itself also offers layers of meaning and interpretation.”
The large warehouse allowed all works to be exhibited in what Minas calls their own “personal space” and, most importantly, not interfere with each other’s energy and character. “Being in close collaboration with Anastasios for the past five years,” says Minas, “I was intimately familiar with the majority of the works in this collection. Undoubtedly, this had an impact on my perception of the collection as a whole. Of course, leading to, as you mentioned, relating to it differently than I would have otherwise. This familiarisation facilitated the display of the collection in a way that hints to some of the nuanced relations between the works themselves, as Anastasios sees them.” This feeling of familiarity is nevertheless rounded by a certain defamiliarisation. According to Christos Kyriakides, “VOLKS is a challenge on its own, one made out of its own poetics. The place has a story to tell, suggesting a busy past through constant marks on its general surface that create an endless overall texture, a reaction similar to the one of the collection. In other words, we had to masterfully build a story upon a story and make it sound like a brave, new one. To build a place within a place, to be more frank. Both VOLKS and the collection are acts of a very sensitive balance: to dare turning a poem of concrete into a concrete poem. Talking about poetry, I have met Tassos [Anastasios Gkekas] through his published poetry books long before I met him through his art collection, a fact that helped build a strong bridge between myself and the works. I felt comfortable and then confident, right away. I saw it as words, reflected as images since his poetry references are similar to the collection he just built.”
Dimitris Merantzas had a special presentation as part of the exhibition. When asked to describe his presentation, Merantzas offered a poetic and meaningful response that translates the exhibition’s expressive charge. “As all my works were chosen by Tassos Gkekas for presentation in this special exhibition, and are part of a large and open (ongoing) series of works entitled Reality is an informant of imagination, I would prefer to give you an indirect answer to your question, with a text that I have written in August of 2000 which describes in a poetic manner my approach on human violence:
“Reference to the extremes.
A long-term note on violence and tenderness.
Watching from the highest mountains the depths of the oceans.
The nostalgia of flight.
Startling contemplation of fall while floating at the highest point.
The Executioner’s schizophrenia falling in love with and desiring the Victim.
– I want you so much I can die for you.
SELF SACRIFICE-SELF DESTRUCTION – SELF CONTROL
– Talk to me a while, at least.
The hardest point is sitting and looking wisely at the opposite – the softest one.
The most beautiful inn of Creativity is Despair.
SELF ABASEMENT – OBSERVATION – SELF ESTEEM
The wildest commotion harmony’s cordial friend.
– Let me see your secret smile. Take your hands away from your mouth when you yawn and feel ashamed.
The excellence of the minimal.
The exceptional quality of the spoiled.
The uniqueness of imperfection.
FAR FROM ANY RULE THAT AIMS TO REGULATE THE IRREGULAR.
The power of freedom.
The luck of unexpected happiness.
– Let me come close to you.
– GO AWAY. DON’T. STOP.
The Lawyer, the Judge and the Accused,
locked in a room of mirrors.
Their images fall on each other.
Who? Where? Who? Where?
With a gun I will pass Judgement.
The easiness of Violence.
The difficulty of Transcendence.
The rawness of Nothing.
– I want you so much
that if you try to leave me
I will leave you lying dead on our bed.
The trigger, a curve.
The barrel, a straight line.
The Act so simple.
– DON’T DO IT. R E S I S T A N C E
The magic of self restraint.
The importance of self criticism.
The immeasurable sweetness of refusal.
– If it’s so easy for you to kill me,
you could also try the unbearable easiness of suicide.
– THINK STUPID, THINK.
With a gun in your hand.
Psychological victim of the Industrial Revolution.
You think you’re holding a factory in your hands.
You think you possess the power of domination.
You’re nothing but the worker of Violence.
You’re nothing but the worker in the factory of Violence.
A LOSER, YOUR BOSS MAKES SURE YOU THINK YOU’RE ALWAYS THE WINNER.
– Whatever you do, I’ll love you forever.
This is reality my baby,
and do not forget,
that Reality is the Informer of Imagination.”
It is rawness and violence, refusal and resistance, and power of freedom that make Merantzas’s Self-portrait by stoning a remarkable work and a powerful statement, in all its possible interpretations. The artist describes his work as “first of all a comment regarding the miserable, inhuman and vulgar sentence of death by stoning. In addition, the piece expresses the need and demand for self-judgement in a society going through a crisis. It talks about the self-destruction bulimia yet the need for creativity. By throwing a stone against the mirror, you dangerously injure your head. A crucial detail regarding the presentation of the piece is that the viewer first sees the back of the piece – meaning that his first gaze is the back of a painting easel that probably supports a painting surface. The viewer is then surprised when he discovers that in place of what was expected to be a painted artwork is an intensely vandalized mirror. One last detail is that the mirror has undergone a blurring procedure. When you stand across it, it’s not clearly YOU. The Ego expands. The presentation of my works in Cyprus has been a pleasant experience. My works relate with the rest of the artworks in the collection through Tassos Gkekas, who apart from a gallerist and a collector is also a friend.”
I was interested to find out whether Minas and Kyriakides, as co-curators of this exhibition, related differently to the works, but also how they interpret the collection as exhibition and what makes it special. “Both Christos and I understood the underlying links that form this collection, allowing us not to get discouraged by the differences between the works,” says Minas. “On the contrary, viewing the collection as interconnected links, rather than individual works, helped us to navigate through the challenges that come with curating the collection and, in particular, curating the collection within the VOLKS space – as the space has an overpowering presence that can be quite challenging to work with. I do not find that highlighting particular works is what gives the collection a special feeling, but it is the collection as a whole. How the artists interpreted the stimuli around them, creating the works that they did, brought together this collection. Anastasios managed to draw to himself works that convey a fragility on the part of the artist. A number of works in this collection are the result of the artist’s self-examination and self-exploration. Perhaps this collection of works is the result of his own self-examination and self-exploration. That is what gives the collection a special feeling.”
Kyriakides explains the exhibition by emphasising the relation between the title of the exhibition and the space at VOLKS: “The VOLKS space is actually divided in four open plan major rectangles followed up by the screening room, which makes the exhibition an easy physical experience for the spectator to navigate around. The much space provided also helped the visitor to get the attention of the artworks and, at the same time, it’s also covering the needs of the artwork in itself. I would rather keep an overview angle and see the exhibition as a whole. I would only highlight the title of the show.”
Gkekas had previously adverted me to the special section dedicated to Günter Brus that is part of the exhibition. The Starrkrampf (1965-2010) and Selbstverstrickung (1965-2013) series have not been previously shown, making both the collection and the exhibition more unique. When inquired about his personal story behind collecting the works of Brus and what they mean for him, Gkekas recounts: “By coincidence, I have heard in the past that Günter Brus might have influenced the Austrian designer Carol Christian Poell. Some years later, a person that works for a Viennese gallery which represents Brus, had re-introduced me to his work, one of the pioneers of performance art. At this Viennese gallery, another world was revealed that was far from the fragmented work that someone can find on the Internet and that, for me, does not give a correct profile of the artist. The Starrkrampf portfolio is being considered the most esoteric of his actions, reaving a sensibility and rare poetic qualities. I like this rawness and I respect that no matter how intense he was in his actions, as per principle, this only affected himself and not others or animals, in contradiction to other members of the Viennese actionist movement, like Hermann Nitsch. I somehow feel that Günter Brus, together with the Japanese Masahisa Fukase, are the ‘godfathers’ of this show for the younger generations of artists but, of course, in an indirect way. I feel the show was an opportunity to trigger the curiosity among the living for the rest of the participating artists.”
Most of the works in the exhibition relate intimately to one another. The few that may seem radically different, like Kurt Hentschläger’s instalment from the Cluster series, provide the very contradictions that bind the exhibition together and offer such a conflicting perspective. In Hentschläger’s case, the conflicting perspective on the human body pushes our sensory experience into a meta-organic cluster whose movements and collisions reference both an inescapable void and the complexity of Romantic expression. Knowing that he had previously taken interest in Hentschläger’s work, I asked Gkekas how he relates to the artist’s work. “If you suggest that Cluster is providing perspective on the human body, I agree with you,” says Gkekas. “ Hentschläger’s Cluster X, the special, a version of Cluster, is a breathtaking work that I felt lucky to show in a central part of the VOLKS space. Its sound gives a tone to the space. Carol Christian Poell’s 2kg silver weight chain is a few meters away from Hentschläger’s installation. Behind the wall of the installation, Nazgol Ansarinia’s metal chair from the Private Assortment series, with her hidden personal belongings underneath its seat, not visible to the state’s supervisions, provide a direct getaway to someone’s self. I believe these three works speak to me the most about the human condition nowadays. Moreover, I felt a relation to Cluster’s enigmatic choreography since during my early youth, I have taken classic ballet classes. The sense of form and defined shapes that prevails in the show is even more visible in Cluster, with its anthropocentric elements. I do not think it is possible to tell you more due to the esoteric character of the works. If I was able to put everything on paper, there would be no need for the artist to use other means. What is of an esoteric nature in art, resists to be theorised and manifested in a satisfactory way; it can possibly be, partially, accessed after some serious effort.”
I have also asked Dimitris Merantzas to tell me whether there are any particular works he would highlight since, as an artist, he may have a different sensibility to some works than a collector. “There are works in the show that I like more than others but, in my opinion, this doesn’t really matter,” he says. “During the preparation of the exhibition and a day before the opening, I took a walk around in the exhibition space and what was of great importance to me is that all of the pieces had something between them that united them and that created affinity conditions. There was this invisible binder, like a perfume, that left me with a magical taste. The ‘chef’ to this recipe is Tassos.”
Discussing about his current and future projects – the current proposal Coincidence and Sunday Afternoon (Sunday Noon) in particular –, Merantzas says: “Coincidence is a proposal for the creation of a sculpture for a public space. The subtitle for the specific work could be ‘Beyond the Obvious.’ It is also a work with life which, when it’s actually done – I believe it won’t be long –, a course of wear and life will begin. While the years will go by, the olive tree will fill with blessed stains the area around the tank. This is about a continuous, active and hard cohabitation. The maximum ambition of this specific work is to make give ‘plantings’ with different olive cultivar in five different tank types and in different points in the Mediterranean basin, from Cyprus and Israel to Gibraltar. With Tassos, we have already initiated some contacts with the Cyprus government and it will truly be a great joy for me, for the first Coincidence to be achieved in Nicosia, Cyprus – the last divided capital in Europe. Regarding the installation entitled Sunday Now, I would like to say that it’s a work that is yet not presented. A few days ago, some details were completed on the surface of the vandalised table. It is a work that speaks for every form of authority. Family authority and, especially, the ‘soft’ violence that hides behind love. The political authority and the failure that often accompanies the plans of humans.
Asked about his current projects and what follows after this exhibition, Antonis Minas says “I am currently working on some personal projects that have been on my mind for quite some time, deserving to finally get my attention. These verge from photography to design and small mechanical engineering projects. I find that my mind needs to satisfy its ‘cravings’ in a myriad of different ways. This is why I am always inquisitive and interested in pretty much everything around me. I hold these projects under my umbrella term – creative playgrounds. Play is such an integral part of creation that I find it absurd that, as a person grows, they are discouraged from play as a sign of immaturity. Art, as one exception, demands this process. This is perhaps why artists are perceived as ‘free spirits’ and are ‘allowed’ their eccentricities, but this is a conversation for another time. I am looking forward to the materialisation of said projects and what those in turn will lead to. As Kavafis said in his poem Ithaca, we should wish that our journeys are long because that will imbue us with wisdom and knowledge.”
Christos Kyriakides is also aiming to complete several projects: “I am currently designing my third Guerilla store, an ongoing project of temporarily transforming random places into gallery spaces, showing works for five days, then disappear. I am also building a website in the event of the police breaking down and confiscating the Paola Revenioti (Greek royalty of the underground, trans, poet, prostitute and also editor of the 80’s gay zone ‘kraximo’) show, which I curated showing photographs of her naked encounters during the 70’s and 80’s, all posing to her lens for the needs of her magazine. The attorney general eventually dropped the charges and the freedom of expression in the arts came up as a subject matter from scholars to artists to the parliament of Cyprus.”
“I haven’t decided on anything new yet,” says Anastasios Gkekas when inquired about his current projects at the Office, the plans for next year, and his interest in specific works that could be acquired or presented at the gallery. “I cannot follow a conventional gallery’s calendar that I should always keep,” he continues. “It is impossible, because I cannot find interesting works to present and I try to stay responsible for what I introduce to a cycle of individuals that I respect. For this reason, following my principles it was inevitable for me, that my activities would also span to other fields, like I did with no regrets in the case of Carol Christian Poell. I have safe indications that his studio works harder than the artists I know. Moreover, in order to try stay correct with responsibilities already confirmed, it is difficult to have new entries, not only because time is limited, but also in order to be able to maintain an acceptable, decent average level. The Western world has enough specialised, successful people and I would not like to be added on the huge list. What I realised a while ago, is that it is more challenging for me to try my best in combining elements of various sectors and sometimes placing efforts to connect them, by bringing them together in a holistic way; participating in something like a triathlon. What I am interested in, is for the citizens to be able to have a firm opinion about the society as a whole – I find it depressing and sad, an individual’s knowledge to be restrained in a specific sector and their activities focused in one direction while ignoring the rest. There are many things going on in our society and it is hard for me to understand how true human passions can be self-centred, while there is so much beauty to explore and share in this world. in other words, it is getting difficult for me to focus in just fine arts, sometimes this might end up too still or ‘Apollonian.’ To be honest, literature and dance as forms of art are very exciting for me at the moment. Short explanation: for example, contemporary dance and its people are rather underestimated comparing to other art sectors, dance involves the human body in its process and is more difficult to invest, like investors invest in art or film producers in Hollywood. To conclude, I much prefer traveling rather than to focus on giving growth to a ‘collection’ – it was not even in my intention to start anything. As an afterthought, no matter the fact that gathering some pieces can be a true escape to someone’s solitude, I find it easier to commit ‘hubris’ by collecting rather than just wandering, I still feel that I belong on the road. Collecting is for more older people, as statistics show around sixty years plus… so it would be wiser for me, after this adventure, to concentrate on something new.”
– Exclusive interview with Tassos A. Gkekas, Christos Kyriakides, Antonis Minas and Dimitris Merantzas by Sabin Bors, curator and editor-in-chief of the anti-utopias contemporary art platform. All information and interviews presented by Sabin Bors based on a number of materials made available by Tassos A. Gkekas, Christos Kyriakides, Antonis Minas and Dimitris Merantzas, whom I would like to thank for their amiability.