El Greco-inspired, metal sculptures in Russia

SAINT PETERSBURG – Standing beneath the 101.52-meter gold-plated dome of the State Museum St Isaac’s Cathedral, Nikos Floros seemed visibly moved. Two works by the Greek artist, each standing 4.3 meters tall, had just been unveiled to an audience mostly comprising local officials and media. Inspired by El Greco, “The Resurrection” and “The Disrobing of Christ,” both sculptured aluminum, were executed 400 years after the Cretan-born old master’s death in Toledo, Spain.

The sheer opulence of the world’s fourth-largest cathedral – where tons of semiprecious bright green malachite and deep blue lapis lazuli were used in the columns supporting the 18th-century iconostasis – was humbling, but in the case of Floros there was another dimension.

“This marks the first time my work has gone on display inside a religious monument which is also a church, a place where people come to pray. It’s an almost metaphysical sensation,” the 44-year-old artist told Kathimerini English Edition. “You have a particular responsibility when presenting a figure which is not only very familiar, but a symbol through which people express themselves.”

A few blocks away, two Domenikos Theotokopoulos masterpieces, “The Apostles Peter and Paul” and a portrait of the poet Alonso Ercilla y Zuniga, hang on the walls of the State Hermitage Museum. Did Floros’s surrealist, metal take on El Greco come across as a little extreme in Vladimir Putin’s hometown?

“Although modern in their execution, the subject matter of the pieces is classical,” Yevgeny Korchagin, the museum’s deputy director, told Kathimerini English Edition.

The display comes on the heels of two exhibitions by the Greek artist in Russia: A first showcase at the Tsaritsyno State Museum and Reserve in Moscow featured sculpted costumes inspired by Maria Callas and Grace Kelly, while a second at the Museum of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy in Saint Petersburg presented a portrait of Catherine the Great. Meanwhile, according to Floros, the Russian federal government has been informed of the presence of the El Greco-inspired works in the country’s cultural capital.

“It’s one of the rare occasions in which Saint Isaac’s, perhaps the city’s most important venue along with the Hermitage, is hosting a contemporary art show,” Theodoros Bizakis, Greek consul general in Saint Petersburg, said to Kathimerini English Edition. “This demonstrates that the country’s relations with Greece go beyond the familiar sun-sea aspect; they want to see contemporary Greece.”

Bizakis was instrumental in bringing the art project to fruition by establishing an initial contact between the artist and Russian officials, efforts which were subsequently taken up by the organizer of all of Floros’s exhibitions on Russian soil, Athens-based, Russia-born Julia Sysalova.

Before reaching Saint Petersburg, Floros spent six months producing the sculptured “mosaic” paintings made of minute pieces of soft drink cans, a creative method which he patented in 2003.

The artist’s technique of turning a contemporary raw material, aluminum, into a thick, yet fragile fabric – in this case over 10,000 mosaic pieces – is not so much about recycling, he says, but more about the notion of the ephemeral which defines our times.

“It’s a work in progress. Catherine the Great’s mosaic portrait, for instance, was a step beyond the Callas and Kelly sculpted costumes, and now the mosaic is getting a sculptured extension,” noted Aristotelis Karantis, exclusive curator of Floros’s exhibitions in the last two years. At Saint Isaac’s, the 28-year-old curator’s efforts focused on giving the impression that the figure of Christ was stepping out of the sculptures and reaching out to the people through the lighting, for instance.

While disposable aluminum has defined Floros’s creative identity so far, he does not discard the idea of using other materials in the future. Mammoth ivory, for instance, discovered in large quantities during excavations in Russia, is one material he finds challenging. In the meantime, the Tripoli-born artist is planning on putting the final touches to a collection of metal chitons and risers inspired by the Parthenon Marbles, a project he hopes to showcase in Russia (on the occasion of a Greece-Russia year coming up in 2016) and the UK, among other places.

Meanwhile, December days are short in Saint Petersburg, the former imperial city which was renamed thrice in the space of a century and survived a 872-day Nazi siege. Saint Isaac’s own history reflects the city’s turbulent past: Designed by French architect Auguste de Montferrand, the building’s construction began in 1818 and ended 40 years later. In 1931 the cathedral was named the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism and following the fall of the Soviet regime worship resumed in the left-hand side chapel. The main part of the cathedral is only used for special services.

Originally scheduled to remain on view through January 13, the exhibition of “The Resurrection” and “The Disrobing of Christ” will most likely be granted an extension to the end of the month. As visitors wandered around inside the cathedral the day after the official inauguration of the temporary show, a group of travelers, final-year students at the Protipo Ekpedeftirio Athinon school in Athens, who had picked Saint Petersburg as their six-day school trip destination, came across an extra surprise.

“Here we are in a foreign country, looking at something which has to do with our own culture. It’s very moving,” commented 17-year-old Melina as she observed Floros’s creations. “This proves that these works and their inspiration are part of the world’s cultural heritage.”

[Kathimerini English Edition]