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What the city remembers
If there is something that is still worth remembering from the Classical period, it is that the ideals of civic life should be embodied in the poise and skin of its citizens. The structure of the city is often written on the body, and the body formed by the city. In the Hellenic polis the idealized relationship between city and body was represented through the figure of the kouros. However, the Classical celebration of the body has not endured well in history.
Barbarians have ransacked the temples and neophytes have perverted the ideals. What is left of the kouros after the Nazi's appropriation of the Classical body as a symbol of Aryan racial supremacy? Where is the civic virtue of healthy and well sculpted bodies locked in the agona of the Olympic Games when it is 'always' Coca Cola which is sponsoring the 'real thing'? The cult of purity and permanence which is central to the classical conception of beauty is revisited in Eugenia Raskopoulos's recent exhibition, with(out) voice.
This exhibition brings together two themes which are central to Raskopoulos 's practice: the significance of Greekness, and the measure of a migrant's life. lt is based on a series of photographs taken in the National
Archaeological Museum in Athens, and video footage also taken in Greece. Parallel to this work are some very personal photographs of the artist's grandmother: a woman who fled her village in northern Greece during the civil war, finding refuge in the Communist state of Czechoslovakia, briefly returning to Greece, and then migrating to Australia.
The exhibition comprises ten large format black and white iris prints, all untitled, and a two minute video called Closing My Eyes and Thinking. The video was shot in colour but transferred into black and white through digital editing. The tone of the exhibition is muted. The stark and vivid colours that normally are associated with Greece, either as a tourist destination, a site of nostalgic retreat, or as the cradle of Western civilisation , have all been bleached and rendered in a low light. The brilliant excessive light of Greek summers is shrouded in grey.
The video, whose title clearly plays on the infamous expression-'lie back and think of England '-shows the Greek naval flag fluttering in a strong wind. The angle of the mast and the strength of the wind suggest a sense of motion. The flag could be on the helm of a ship, but it is actually the one that is positioned above the Akropolis in Athens, as if citizens and tourists needed any further reminder that the ruins of the Classical past are now a national treasure. Juxtaposed to this image of the flag is the barely visible, but gentle and circular, motion of a hand masturbating. A few years ago a Greek comedian released a satirical record which lambasted the obsession with nationalism on both the left and the right side of Greek politics. It was titled Malaka Pia Malaka and had the double meaning of either 'gently more gently' or 'wanker bigger wanker'.
The ten photographs which are the main works of the exhibition include five images of the kouroi and five images of the face of the artist's grandmother. All the kouroi images concentrate on the abdominal region , between the navel and the knees, with the genitals in the centre. The grandmother's face also is not fully displayed, but rather each image is a close -up of her lips. The reproduction of these images has a very considered gentleness and warmth. Raskopoulos has used the technique of iris printing to great effect. In particular, the kouroi have a tactile quality which I have never seen previously in a reproduction. This combination of high resolution ink jet printing and the flat matt paper give a textural feeling which compliments the mottled discolouration of the marble on the original sculptures. The way the ink absorbs into the paper, and the rendering of greys from light to dark between background and foreground, highlights both the corrosive and the edifying traces that, through time, have been deposited in the marble. These images of the kouroi, which are mere fragments of the original sculptures, still seem to echo their moving sense of balance and dignity. Even with their clenched hands, which were always at the sides, broken off and the genitals which, neatly nesting between the striding thighs, were violently damaged, the symmetry and poise which were the subject of these sculptures remains totally there. The kouros is commonly associated with being the standard bearer of Classical beauty, sometimes even representing the god Apollo.
However, many kouroi stood as attendants to other gods, or as memorials over graves of renowned warriors and noble citizens.
It is the memorialising role of the kouros which is most redolent for the exhibition, with (out) voice. On the walls opposite the images of the kouroi stand the five images of the artist's grandmother. These black and white close-ups of the mouth are like maps to a silent history. Around the lips countless lines and wrinkles have defined the unique contours of her face. With age, the surface of the skin has folded and creased. These marks are like secret narratives which display the outline of a journey but not its meaning. Before them youth stands in wonder. These lines are like roads which cut across an uninhabited landscape. We can imagine that life surrounds and teems from these boundaries, but we cannot read the signs. Her lips remain closed : their softness indistinguishable from the well-weathered skin. As if a little stunned by this topography the camera loses its focus as the face recedes. Unlike the kouroi, the mouths were shot with a macro lens, the sharpness and depth is not only testament to an aging process, but also to an identity which never found a public voice. Her civic identity never recognised her domestic life. This city has no memory of this body. The grandmother, a central figure in the house, the woman who has lived the most intense edges of this the most extreme of all centuries, is left without a voice in civic life. A photograph cannot give a voice to those who have been silenced, but it can provide a memorial.