Blurring the lines between art and life

One of the chief features of 20th-century modernism can be seen in art’s tendency to isolate and explore one or more of its constituent elements. Light, color, structure, form all became subjects of art in themselves rather than mere tools for depicting an external reality. In many ways, this meant that art was being redefined, something which American art historian Rosalind Krauss expressed eloquently with respect to sculpture in her renowned essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, published in the late 1970s. Krauss spoke of how, beginning in the 1960s, sculpture had become an increasingly malleable category which was stretched to include anything from pedestal sculpture to blocks of geometrical shapes or piles of earth placed on the floor of a gallery. Both landscape and architecture were encompassed in this new type of sculpture, lending it a new dimension of space. To look at the work of Costas Tsoclis, now on view at a large artist’s retrospective curated by Katerina Koskina at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (at the Fix building), is to be confronted by dozens of variations on art’s new foray into space. Somewhat like painting in the expanded field, to paraphrase Krauss’s term, a large part of Tsoclis’s art – particularly from the late 1950s to the ’70s – is about painted objects unfolding out of the canvas into real space. In effect, it is about optical effects that twist the conventional notion of painting and sculpture (in his later works this extends to other artistic media and incorporates video, painting, sculpture and installations), offering an inventive and eye-catching blend of the two. Ambiguity is central to Tsoclis’s work, not just the ambiguity between painting and sculpture, but more importantly between reality and its representation, the tactile object and its illusion (hence the recurring use of mirrors), and finally between art and life itself. The Angel of the Futures, a video installation shown at the National Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time, is the artist’s latest version of such concerns. In a video projection showing a landscape covered by human detritus, human figures (those familiar with the Greek artistic circle will recognize some) are seen as slowly rising one by one from below the earth and above the surrounding wasteland, reflected in real life in the installation of scattered objects and earth which are placed in the same room. A possible allegory on creation and rebirth, the work is both bleak and disturbing in its rather prophetic tone, but seen from a different angle, it is also tinged with humor. The installation lacks the spareness of previous works but, like most of Tsoclis’s art, it catches one’s attention both by its sheer scale and its use of visual devices, as well as its portentous context. At the same time, however, these are the very elements which, together with the conflation of such diverse media, make the work appear rather stylistic. As in his so-called living sculptures of the 1980s, in which the artist superimposed a moving, electronic image on a painting (one of his most famous works of this kind was the one shown at the Venice Biennale in 1986), Tsoclis introduces a cinematic effect largely in an attempt to make viewers spend more time observing the work, the same way they would with a work of the performing arts or the cinema. Apart from the attempt to challenge our perceptions, this is also an effort to jolt our notions of media and artistic categories. This is why Tsoclis often works upon a single concept and uses different media, including events (one of the most recent events, which marked the opening of the Epikentro Gallery, was when the artist broke open hundreds of watermelons in the Athens Central Market) which often lead to the rest of the less ephemeral works. Monumentality is another important and recurring aspect of Tsoclis’s work. Earthquake, 2000, a huge photograph of the artist’s studio walls after the large earthquake that struck Athens two years ago (it looks like an actual wall), shows a liking for sweeping, large-scale works that often draw on grand themes such as spirituality and nature. As do St. George, a huge installation that to some extent can be seen as an allegory on vice and virtue, and the well-known Ark (both from the early 1990s), a huge piece in the shape of an egg that again is loaded with allegory, conceived as it was as the vessel containing human civilization. This move toward the monumental evolved gradually. Prior to the ’90s, Tsoclis usually worked in series: His Trees, which were usually depictions of trees in relief and a mixed-media technique, his Boats and Seascapes, in which the images spill out from the canvass onto the surrounding wall and floors and often turn from a painted image into real objects. This play on the real and its image as well as the emphasis on objecthood had already begun by the mid-1960s. Both show the influence of New Realism – of which Tsoclis must have felt the impact as an artist who was living in Paris at the time, having first spent some years in Rome – and of the American version of Neo-Dada, whose use of the erratic can in certain ways also be found in the works of Tsoclis. The artist’s works of that time reveal the artist in one of his best periods. This was when Tsoclis was showing his work at the prestigious Sonnabend gallery in Paris, before co-signing with Alexandros Iolas. In most of these works, objects – anything from furniture, cement columns, shovels, doors and windows – are depicted or placed against a geometrical background in compositions that produce a strange perspective and trompe l’oeil effect, particularly as the objects spill out of the painting onto the floor. As in the works that followed, Tsoclis mocks the certainties of vision and perception while also playing with the ambiguity between the real and the fictional as well as between art and life. Tsoclis has maintained this concern to the present, but channels it through the use of different media. It is this zest for experimentation and change that constitutes one of the most typical attributes of Tsoclis’s artistic persona. An experienced festival-goer, Boorman believes that the institution of film festivals has changed a lot over the years, applying – at times – more market-based criteria.

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