Between Direct Democracy and Socialist Politics / An Interview with Kostis Velonis
Kostis Velonis was born in 1968 and is considered one of the most important Greek artists of his generation. His sculptural work often refers to historical events and art-historical movements, and the focus is on political utopias and the failure of ideology. Velonis, pivoting himself on the language of Modernism and the theoretical pursuits of the avant-garde, deals with both the significant objectives of the previous century and the impossibility of their realization. His entire oeuvre is characterized by his persistence in sentiments such as desire, love, passion, failure, loneliness, loss, defiance, uncertainty and melancholy.
By Daphne Vitali
Daphne Vitali - The tendency towards a utopian consciousness, and in particular towards the utopian politics of modernism, is present in your sculptural work. The title of your recent work, Memorial to Collective Utopia, condenses your artistic pursuits and alludes to the Russian avant-garde, the Bauhaus, the May ‘68 movements, and other particular collective utopian moments in history and art, with which you deal in your work. Could you talk about your interest in the utopian consciousness and historical political failures?
Kostis Velonis - Sometimes I get confused with utopias since they signify a refusal to face the particular conditions of the present, but mainly because in many cases they represent a kind of an inversed nostalgia for the future, which is an apotheosis of an idyllic past. I wonder why I do this. It could also signify a certain narcissism, a way to escape from contemporary capitalist ethos, and finally to negotiate your own failures as a virtue. I would prefer the last one. Movements, ideologies, and modernities are usually used as the background of personal contradictions. Sometimes I’m tired of utopias and, at the same time, I’m tired of myself. Indeed, in the Memorial to Collective Utopia something changes. It is homage to the people that were denied in the name of revolution when no one yet knew exactly what those ideas were. No one knew exactly how they would be developed…
D.V. - Your solo exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens focuses on some recent political works. The sculptures on view take the Russian avant-garde and ancient Greek democracy as their subject matter. However, you do not attempt to examine these ideas in their historicity, but rather rethink several timeless social and political issues. You engage in a dialogue between the ideas of direct democracy and social ideals. Why do you choose to juxtapose these particular issues?
K.V. - It is worth noting that, despite major differences in approaches and interests between the two different models of power, I found some similarities that are related with the nature of authority. It happened rather gradually from the fact that I was thinking about analogies in all forms of political systems. The Athenian democracy and October ‘revolution’ both tried to demonstrate a ‘constructivist’ zeal. There was a similarity between the five-year plan of the Soviet economy with the ‘building’ plan of Pericles that guaranteed a great number of craftsmen, artists, and traders for the construction of the Athenian empire. There is a ‘constructivist’ paradigm around the foundation and the regulation of authority from which democracy is not the exception. Also, the circulation of speech and thought is an extremely important part of the collective consciousness, and definitely for the emergence of the public space as something that belongs to everyone. The revolutionary years of the October movement were logocentric talkative. That was common to the revolutionaries, the communist intelligentsia and the citizens of Russia, but more than this, it was a principle of the Athenian democracy while the citizens themselves decided such matters as whether to go to war or put generals to death.
D.V. - In the work How to Build Democracy Making Rhetorical Comments (After Klucis’ Design for Propaganda Kiosk, Screen and Loudspeaker Platform, 1922), the ideals of direct democracy encounter the ideas of the revolution and the Communist visions through the Constructivist practice. This work has a participatory dimension, since the ‘propaganda kiosk’ that you set up is an empty, practical construction directly intended for the audience, for expressing ideas around the notion of direct democracy. Tell us about the importance of the participatory aspect of this work.
K.V. - There is something cynical about the way that direct democracy expresses itself. The construction of the kiosk has the function of the gulag tower, one of the constructions that correspond to the permanent visual experience of the militant, communist artist Klucis in the last years of his life. There is no doubt that sometimes a citizen pays the cost if he is involved with public matters. There is an aspect of political cannibalism within public manifestations. But the question is what people actually do with these rights, and this installation with the tower and its platform refers to the intentions of the decisions. This helps us to understand that the contemporary notion of democracy has another frame of focus than the original one. Decisions on common affairs in the way that citizens met on a hill (Pnyka) and voted by a show of hands directly is different from contemporary architectural devices of how someone is allowed to intervene in the public sphere in democratic states. The Athenians never let a citizen become so powerful that he could take complete control of the city, but the problem was that in some cases the involved citizen took the risk of being ostracized for reasons that were justified or unjustified.
D.V. - “Loneliness on Common Ground: How Can Society Do What Each Person Dreams.” The title of your exhibition suggests the individual’s relationship to society, one of the topics that you treat in your work. In many of the works of the exhibition, you subsume the individual into the collective. Could you explain your interest in this relationship?
K.V. - It is not possible fully to understand problems and facts in society without considering its members. It soon becomes clear that society and individuals are really two sides of the same coin, and the problem begins from an ethical question: to what extent should one try to convince an individual to be ruled? Is moral autonomy a virtue or not? If it is, one can easily understand why sometimes anarchism and liberalism are very close, more than any other political doctrines.
D.V. - Your political works have at the same time a very personal aspect. You create narratives characterized by the linking of personal stories with the re-working of historical events. How do you bring together your personal experiences and reference points with your political concerns?
K.V. - I am trying to put individual against history, against its “principles,” because if the law is not given by God, then we can take the risk to avoid or to reject it. The line of demarcation between individual and obedience to collective norms is continually being redrawn. We are collectively responsible for our personal freedom, and the contribution to democracy means this permanent involvement for the ‘common good.’
D.V. - In your work Gaining Socialism While Losing Your Wife (After Popova’s Set Construction for “Le Coçu Magnifique”, 1922), apart from your interest in the industrial structure of Popova’s Constructivist set, you have also been inspired by the play’s idiosyncratic plot. You associate the destructive and tormenting love felt by the husband of the story with the utopian and passionate objectives set by the artists of the avant-garde. In this work, you question the relationship between domesticity and revolution. Do you think that collective political ideology shatters individual consciousness?
K.V. - I would like to affirm a kind of social solidarity for the private world of citizenship, and in the case of the October revolution, domesticity was a negative term usually identified with the values of bourgeoisie. Cromelynk’s narration for the ‘Magnanimous Cuckold’ is based on the concept of a family comedy, but Russian constructivist-through the mise en scene of Meyerhold and the set design of Popova-systematically decomposed the domestic aspect of the plot. For me, this architectural installation is a chance to understand how sculpture partakes in the daily reality of domestic space. Can we finally ‘reconcile’ with it? And how is that possible to require historical changes through revolution in abstract terms without any serious regard to our domesticity? Freedom begins from privacy.
D.V. - Although the work Révolution essentielle belongs to a series of works in which you allude to the May 1968 uprising, it epitomizes your primary theoretical and artistic pursuits for an ‘essential revolution.’ What form, do you think, ought a revolution to have today?
K.V. - I am very suspicious about any idea of revolution, since in most cases revolutionary groups conclude to be the victims of their own phantoms. To take one of the most well-known: the practice of the revolutionary state in Russia. Is there is anything revolutionary in the use of concentration camps, the massive extermination of people, or the slaughter of the peasantry? What is at issue is not so much the precise idea of a fighting definition of life’s experience. This option cannot function as an intellectual and sensational evolution of ourselves that inevitably guides us to a certain generosity for others. That’s why the May 1968 poster from which the work is inspired is different from other ones in the Atelier Populaire group of the fine arts students in Paris. It represents something outside the usual political and conflicted language of the group; it is a political poster with a red sun behind the branch of a tree, which cultivates the concept of ecology and comradeship in the family life and community. This statement escapes from the usual forms of conflict. If the state is viewed in the modernist mythology like Kafka’s castle then it should be finally replaced, but not only by a rational protestant capitalistic tower. West societies cannot survive following the current political model.
D.V. - Notions such as the revolution, democracy, freedom and utopian ideals that you treat in this exhibition are for you an awakening, a demand to seek ideology and social change. Does your sculpture constitute for you a political action?
K.V. - Contemporary sculpture replaces the meaning that theater had in ancient Athens, raising the question about the practice of power through tragedy or comedy. The reasons for arguing all this, however, is not just because the plots by the writers are the only important points. The same social practice of the theatrical performance is equal with the displayed character of sculpture. The real importance of those changes in the sculptural field opens the way to understand sculpture as an architectural construction for the public forum that confronts discussions and actions. Sculpture is becoming the estia koine (common place) for politics, not only in the institutional sense but politics in a sense that there is a site for reflection and re-evaluation of what a political society is.
The exhibition “Kostis Velonis. Loneliness on Common Ground: How Can Society Do What Each Person Dreams,” organized by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, and curated by Daphne Vitali, is taking place from May 11 to September 5, 2010.
Daphne Vitali is an art historian and curator based in Athens, Greece. She has worked at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) since 2005. Her recent curatorial projects include the group exhibitions “In Present Tense, Young Greek Artists” and “Expanded Ecologies, Perspectives in a Time of Emergency,” the solo show of Kostis Velonis and the new program EMST Commissions 2010.