The sea and its swimmers

Time is too elusive and complex to capture through images, but it is perhaps this difficulty that challenges some artists to the attempt. Although artist Lizzie Calliga does not intentionally set out to depict temporal relations, nor is she exclusively interested in them, her work seems to always bear some relationship with time. In some cases her art unfolds through time, at others it grows out of a temporal process – usually an extended observation – and in all cases it makes the viewer think about the passage of time in some way or another. «Swimmers,» which is Calliga’s most recent series, on display at her one-woman show at the Nees Morfes Gallery, shares in this temporal mood. The series, which includes photographs, drawings and engravings, makes one think of stillness and motion, of eternity and constant change. Interestingly, it does so through space. Indeed, what first strikes the viewer are spatial expanses – compositions that look like large vistas or galaxies, depictions of the universe or abstract compositions, but are in fact photographs of the sea taken during the summertime. Juxtaposed right next to them is an impressive accumulation of black-and-white drawings (all made on the same drawing paper) covering a large part of the gallery’s wall. Sprawling almost like a wall painting, this mosaic of drawings shows a human swarm, a landscape made exclusively by people. They are the «Swimmers,» people of all ages that Calliga watched for hours on end on a beach in Spetses, drawing them as they came in and out of the sea or moved around the beach. The drawings seem like the visual narration of random events unraveling through time. They impart a sense of time passing, probably because they were actually made during the course of prolonged observation. Accordingly, these drawings are also visually experienced through time. Just as Calliga sat at the beach recording what she saw, the viewer becomes immersed in a lengthy observation of details, sorting out the individuals from the crowd. A few steps away from the drawings, all the detailing is lost and the composition is transformed into a semi-abstract image resembling a dense grid of scribbled lines. Next to this commotion, the large pictures of the sea seem tranquil. At first glance there is no human element here, but on a more careful viewing one detects dots that show the head of a swimmer or the imprints of a body left on the rippling water. In many ways, these images are the opposite side of the drawings. Calliga likes to think of them as drawings made in a different medium and compares the matt-finish paper on which she has printed some of the photos to the feel of charcoal drawings. Instead of the white background of the drawings, the prevailing color of the photographs is black. It is fascinating to learn that this black stems from an optical phenomenon observed during the hottest hour of a summer day: at the time when the sun is so bright that it washes out all color, turning everything into a black and white tonality. In fact, the entire exhibition is in many ways a sophisticated variation on black and white. It is also a study on how distinct media offer different visual effects. A searching artist, Calliga is known for experimenting with different media. Although she has lately focused on drawing, Calliga has worked extensively with photography and engraving (she is one of the first in Greece to use the image-on technique). «Swimmers» includes works made in all techniques. The few engravings on display precede the rest of the works; they are photographs (of swimmers in the sea of Eleusis) which Calliga has transferred onto metal plates through the image-on technique. Calliga often uses photography, engraving and drawing interchangeably. In the «Mosaics» series, which is also one of her latest works, the artist collected shards of mosaic tiles found on shore, photographed each one of them and made drawings of them. (A site-specific project based on the «Mosaics» series will open at the 365 Art Project Cafe next Tuesday). The photographs were bound in an album (it is nominated for the Milos photography prize) and Calliga kept 60 copies which she distributed to 60 of her carefully selected friends and acquaintances, meeting each one of them over a total period of several months. Calliga turned her book into a kind of real-life performance. It was her way of celebrating her 60th birthday. The element of time comes into play in «Mosaics» just as in «Swimmers» or in «366 days» from 1992, in which Calliga drew a variation of the same image each day of a leap year and in the end gathered all the drawings in a box. The idea was how time (the length of year) fitted into space. In «Mosaics,» Calliga’s angle on time was different. She was seeking the continuity of the past into the present. By rummaging shards of mosaics from the past and «recycling» them into the present as well as by going into her own past rediscovering old friends and acquaintances, Calliga was taking a journey into time, tracing the past into the present. At times she seems to work rather like an archaeologist or documentarist, observing and recording events and imprints of the past or the present and giving them new significance. In her work «Site and Sight» from 1988 for example, Calliga photographed a dilapidated 1940s factory before its transformation into the Ileana Tounda Contemporary Art Gallery. The photos indicate the artist’s talent for bringing life to inanimate things and her eye for picking out the play of light and shadow. In «Rencontre avec La Venus de Milo,» a series of photos from 1991, Calliga records the expressions of museum visitors as they examine the famous ancient statue which, in these photos, seems like a real, live person. Documentation requires meticulous observation, and in Calliga’s work observation and its visual outcome are often inseparable. Her art often looks like the visual imprints of her observation. This is true of «Swimmers» but is also evident in the «Iera Odos» series, a set of photographs which Calliga took during an entire day’s walk along the road leading to Eleusis, a road which in antiquity was the Sacred Way leading to the site of the Eleusian mysteries. By taking this symbolic route and documenting its contemporary transformation, Calliga was once again bringing the past into the present. In «Swimmers,» Calliga seems less concerned with the past. But her distinctive way of incorporating time in imagery, of using observation as a visual device and of tracing the imprints of life are all there to show the consistency of an artist’s vision. «Swimmers» at the Nees Morfes Gallery, 9 Valaoritou, Kolonaki, tel 210.3616.165. The exhibition runs to October 18.

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