Between Past and Present: Ivan Grubanov and Vangelis Vlahos discuss their project, ‘Current Pasts,’ with Daphne Vitali
Current Pasts is a collaborative project that brings together Greek artist Vangelis Vlahos and Serbian artist Ivan Grubanov. In their visual research, both focus on an exploration of history and the role of memory, recording latter-day sociopolitical and historical developments and attempting to offer relevant interpretations. They often probe their native countries’ recent historical past, aiming at a reexamination that may yield alternative narratives. Current Pasts was on view early this year at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.
Daphne Vitali - Let’s start from your artistic research in general. In your work, you both refer to the past and most specifically to your countries’ recent past in order to talk about the present. Vangelis, your constant effort to rethink the historical, social and political reality of Greece is visible throughout your work, whether you investigate the country’s relationship to the Balkans region or its own past. Could you talk about the parallelisms that you unravel between past and present? And Ivan, you have said that your artistic practice has emerged following “the formation of numerous counter-public spheres that opposed the nationalistic regimes and the wars in former Yugoslavia.” Could you expand on this?
Vangelis Vlahos - Archaeology, being understood as a practice of producing meanings out of material traces of the past, was always a good metaphor for my work process in order to appropriate different historical, political and social realities of the recent Greek past. I first engaged with subjects concerning these realities from the field of architecture, aiming mostly to a comprehension of its ideological and historical framework. Buildings like the American embassy in Athens, an emblematic modernist building designed by Gropius in the 1950s, or the Parliament in Sarajevo, a rationalist high-rise building from the 1970s, which was destroyed during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and renovated with Greek funds in the 2000s, were used as case studies to understand different aspects of Greek politics.
In the same context, my more recent projects take the form of collections of found photographs building up a network of references and relations to test the possibility of a more subjective way of seeing and understanding different events and conceptions of the past and the present outside the official narratives. An example is the fictional reenactment of Kurdish leader Öcalan’s route from Damascus to Nairobi before his capture by the Turkish authorities in February 1999 outside the Greek ambassador’s residence. The project, arranged formally on a 23-meter-long wall-mounted shelf, consists of 119 photographs-mostly landscapes and airport images-that were retrieved from the Internet and touristic guides of the late 1990s without originally having any relation to the actual event or Öcalan himself.
Ivan Grubanov - I aim at creating a dispute over what is visible in a certain image of the reality of the social structures. I construct embodiments of dissensus and argue what can be said and done about them. My artworks try to articulate a counter-stance to hegemonic thinking and its occupation of the single public sphere, the hegemonic thinking that is ordering the colonial and imperial tendencies at the core of the dynamics of history. The position of the Balkans is special in this sense, because it historically presents a colony within what is perceived as a metropole, and the gaze from within it overlaps with the gaze of the unprivileged, repressed and revolted ‘South.’
D.V. - Vangelis, your new work titled Foreign archaeologists from standing to bending position (2012), comprises 53 portraits of archaeologists who have worked in Greece over the last 60-odd years, which you discovered in the archives of various foreign schools of archaeology that are based in Athens. You focused on images whose chronology places them within the bounds of modern Greek history, which depict archaeologists on the job, studying, measuring, examining, surveying the progress of work on the excavations carried out in Greece. In this notion of the foreigner coming to Greece to undertake and supervise work on a certain project, Greece’s current status as a nation under scrutiny by foreign technocrats, economists and politicians is mirrored. Could you talk about the comparison that you are denoting between the cultural and historical reconstruction of Greece by foreign archaeologists and the country’s contemporary economic restructuring? On what level does this parallelism interest you?
V.V. - The time and place where a project is presented sometimes plays a crucial role in the way that it will be seen and understood. The project Foreign archaeologists from standing to bending position visually is pretty much just what it says. The process I followed was to investigate postures adopted by foreign archaeologists during individual activities in the archaeological field in Greece after 1950. The most frequent postures adopted by the archaeologists were taken into consideration. The selected images, originally produced to substantiate specific factual data, were removed from their original context and composed in such a way to create a sequence of movement based on the archaeologists’ postures. This was a way to interrupt the original narrative of the images and refashion the material, letting new meanings surface and opening it up to different interpretations like the one you refer to in your question.
The project’s reference to the role of the foreign archaeological missions in the European periphery and in Greece in particular is part of an academic discourse for some time now studying archaeology’s complex relationship to nationalism and colonialism. There is a vast amount of bibliography on the subject. My decision to put an order outside the material’s original context or ideological connotations (inviting the viewer to follow the sequence of movement of the archaeologists’ postures) was aimed at producing an open narrative that would be able to bring and contextualize all these references and aspects to the present local sociopolitical conditions.
D.V. - Ivan, the title of your new series of drawings, Smokescreens (2012), is a military term describing a cloud of smoke used to conceal the movements of troops from the enemy. The visual effect of the drawings is achieved through a use of liquid acrylics to saturate the paper, which is in turn exposed to thick black smoke. Each drawing comes with a short phrase, usually of a sociopolitical content, which is in some way related to the current global crisis and which attest to a revolutionary spirit. The work, although abstract, poetic and beautiful, conceals a strong critical undertone. What does the ‘smokescreen’ signify for you?
I.G. - The official sovereign, being the state or dominant authority, seeks infinite visual reproducibility to conquer and hold all the common spaces in order to continuously legitimize itself. Visual legitimization is the occupation of the image of authority and its adjustment to the general circulation of discourse so that it always appears contemporary, proving that in every given moment the official sovereign is the most adequate authority over the common. The dominant sovereign needs to constantly refresh its image, to constantly reproduce it, so that the inherent dynamics of the common can always find their reproduction within the images of representative space. Therefore, the arrangement of the field of the visible is conceived as a diversion in which the common gaze is guided, led and misled to see precisely what the authority wants it to see. The military effect of ‘smokescreen’ is applied to literally hide the movement of realities behind phantasmagoric phenomena that occupies the gaze. Smokescreens are the favored tactics of the military-industrial visual complex: to release a phantasmagoric image artificially created to invade the field of the visible, while a complex movement of truth and reality is operating behind it, unseen. When pieces of evidence behind the smokescreen that point to the truth of the hidden are scattered around and destroyed, a documentary account of them may not be sufficient. Painting, on the other hand, is engaging the imaginative to connect absences and establish continuous presence-continuous presence in terms of historical continuity and in continuous challenge to the official visuality.
D.V. - Also featured in the exhibition is the work Dead Flags (2011), an installation consisting of the old and faded flags of the communist party in what was formerly the Republic of Yugoslavia, as well as those of other former socialist republics, which you collected through various institutions for culture and education dating from the days of socialist rule. Over and above its implicit reference to the failure of communist regimes, the work comments on the demise of political ideologies, the inadequacies of contemporary democracy, and the range of possible repercussions these have had. What are the main questions that you ask yourself about contemporary politics and ideology?
I.G. - The contemporary political arena presents a vivid range of attempts to depoliticize politics, to eliminate political dissensus as the drive of disrupting the existing politico-economical order. Para-politics in effect in the U.S. brings a beauty contest of two similar representative agencies, while in Europe we have post-politics of technocracies that negotiate interests and establish consensus in disguise of universal ‘moral’ values. The political conflicts, dispute and dissensus that are removed from the representative space inevitably come back as violent outbreaks in the real. Democracy is not a fixed form of government; it needs to be a set of relations under constant negotiation in order to incorporate dissensus. My work is rooted in painting as the most democratic means of picturing the reality of the social, one that has no authority over the truth content and therefore possesses the ability to democratize the image of reality, one whose continuity runs parallel and overlaps with the image of history and hence is able to inscribe alternative stances into the visualizations of history.
D.V. - The works on show create a platform for debating the relationship between politics and archaeology, starting from classical archaeology in Vangelis’ archive to arrive at Ivan’s notion of a political archaeology of the present. In Dead Flags, Ivan acts as an archaeologist of the present, unearthing those long-obsolete, ‘buried’ flags in order to reconstruct history and deal with the current crisis. On the other hand, in Vangelis’ work, the weight attached to archaeology as a signifier of Greek identity is something that is an integral part of the work. Vangelis, did you decide to work with an archaeological archive in order to examine the role archaeology has played in the development of Greek national identity?
V.V. - I am interested in archaeology as an official device producing social and political representations and narratives. There is a vast conscious and unconscious repository of representations of Greece’s past in relation to its ancient ruins and artifacts determining, in a way, how we see or should see and understand Greece’s national identity.
D.V. - You are both dealing with and presenting the ‘ruins of a nation’1 both literally and symbolically. What are you aiming to address?
I.G. - Transnational, global capital, invested with the power of the military-industrial complex that became independent from democratic control, is inventing new forms of political and social order. To counter it, we must point out the invisible realities behind the smokescreen and inscribe alternatives into the continuity of the field of the visible. We must enable these alternatives to contest the hegemonic thinking and to compete for recognition.
V.V. - The question is how these ‘ruins’ or traces of the past operate in the process of imaging the nation. Any attempt to understand the nation and its fragments (literally and metaphorically), avoiding at the same time political pitfalls, is possible only through the ‘act of the imaginative’-a phrase that was used in the exhibition’s text contribution by Peter Vermeersch (Democracy: The opportunities of Incompleteness, 2012) in order to suggest a creative process for someone today to think outside the current political conditions in Europe and reconceptualize democracy.
1. To paraphrase the title of Yannis Hamilakis book The Nation and Its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Daphne Vitali is curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), where she has organized numerous exhibitions and projects, including “In Present Tense: Young Greek Artists,” and “Expanded Ecologies: Perspectives in a Time of Emergency.” She holds a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Camberwell College of Arts and a Master of Arts in contemporary art theory from Goldsmiths, University of London.