The mystery behind words and visual codes

To people who share the same language and cultural conventions, written words are intelligible verbal signs and a regular tool of communication. But to outsiders, they may seem like unrecognizable scribbling that can only be read as images, as visual imprints that show nothing more than shape or form. Script or other written signs are codes, and, depending on whether the knowledge to decode them is available, they can either offer a wealth of information or remain sealed and enigmatic. The intricate world of visual codes is one of the themes that Constantin Xenakis has consistently addressed in his work. The large retrospective exhibition that covers the artist’s output from 1980 to the present and is currently on view at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki is filled with paintings that depict visual codes, most of them unreadable. Xenakis is one of the most established Greek artists who has made a career abroad – France in his case. Born in Cairo, where he began studying drawing, he moved to Paris in the mid-1950s when he was still in his early 20s and studied architecture, interior design and painting. Xenakis’s first works were paintings somewhat in the style of abstract expressionism. But the artist soon moved on to photokinetic art, environments and happenings, especially as these media gained currency in the 1960s. Much of his work from the time experimented with movement, space and interaction. An example is «Ek-stasis,» a spectacle using electro-kinetic sculptures and also involving a performance by the mime team of Jaroszewics and Marcel Marceau. In the early 1970s, Xenakis went on a D.A.A.D. scholarship to Berlin (he taught at Schiller College for three years). Gradually, he turned to the use of visual codes, at first road signs or signs taken from an urban, public environment. His installation of «Sign-Comes, Smoke,» placed outside the School of Fine Arts in Berlin in 1971, was one of the artist’s first attempts at using codes and focusing on how they structure a social and urban environment. Xenakis soon developed a broad repertoire of visual codes that included hieroglyphics, ancient scripts and alphabetical elements which he abstracted into archetypal forms. His works at the State Museum of Contemporary Art are suffused with those shapes. Mostly paintings but also objects that seem like rolled papyrus or books (his livres objets), his artworks are like cryptic vessels of knowledge that have survived from distant civilizations. Egyptian civilization is constantly evoked, most notably in the large ark-like installation «The Book of Life, Chapter 2: Alexander the Great and Me,» a work inspired by the Book of the Dead of Pharaonic Egypt and the Ptolemaic dynasty. (The installation belongs to the collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art.) Heavily influenced by distant civilizations and the imprints of knowledge left through time, the work of Xenakis is also rooted in deconstruction, in breaking down and reassembling signs and codes in new contexts. It is also concerned with how language and other visual codes create social inclusion or estrangement. Emmanouil Mavrommatis, curator of the exhibition, attempts to analyze this intricate body of work in the exhibition’s supplementary catalog. «Constantin Xenakis» at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Lazariston Monastery, 21 Kolokotroni St, 2310.589.140) through November 30.