CULTURE

Landscapes serve as world’s stage

In La Condition Humaine, one of the greatest visual puns of the 20th century, the surrealist painter René Magritte has painted a canvas in front of an open window giving out to the very landscape that the painting depicts. The painting captures one of the most persistent issues in Western thought: the relationship between nature and artifice as well as the real and its copy. Magritte’s puzzling and rather surreal image reverses the usual distinctions between them, and by doing so makes us rethink our habitual perception of reality. Admittedly, a work that is so multi-layered raises a chain of questions. Looking at these overlapping landscapes – the one natural, and the other artificial – one might, for example, ask oneself whether there can be a value-free perception of nature; an understanding of it, in other words, that is not a cultural product and has nothing to do with man-made creations such as art. If the artificial can substitute for the real, then how does that reflect on man’s relationship to and understanding of nature? These kinds of questions now seem all the more pertinent, particularly as much of contemporary art addresses the ambiguity of reality and the ambivalent ways in which we perceive the world around us. They are the kinds of questions that the work of photographer Panos Kokkinias raises, structured as they are upon the notion of ambiguity. On view at the Kappatos Gallery through the end of the week, Kokkinias’s photographs are a subtle play on the thin line separating the natural and the artificial, the staged and the spontaneous. Most of the photos on view show beautiful images of nature – a field, an ocean, or the unusual setting of a quarry – expansive to the point that one can imagine them as if stretching beyond their frames and photographed either from an aerial perspective or a slight angle used to emphasize their sweeping sense. But as vast and compelling as nature might appear here, these are not images of nature. Amid them Kokkinias has placed human figures, their scale made insignificant against their natural surroundings but still commanding the viewer’s immediate attention. A standing man is seen reading a newspaper far away in a meadow, a girl in a slightly disheveled state is caught standing underneath a tree with strangely shaped branches, a woman faces a man against the different plots of the same field; it all appears simple and quite ordinary, but somehow not much of what is going on matches the landscape context. There is an undercurrent of paradox in these pictures and the sense of an open-ended, indeterminate plot makes it even stronger. Kokkinias likes playing on ambiguities and is keen on suggestion, on stories that are implied and never quite revealed. In a sense, he also seems to like keeping his viewer at a distance while prodding his curiosity and subtly confusing him as well. A similar atmosphere of suggestion was also present in his former work which consisted of claustrophobic images of his own home (at the time he was studying at the New York School of Visual Arts and then went to Yale). From these images of interiors, Kokkinias has moved out into the openness of nature. Technically his pictures are superb; the precision of color and the clarity of detail (you can discern the smallest stone in a rocky landscape and can isolate the blades of grass) accentuate the realness of the landscape but, at the same time, the visual perfection they attain almost yields subject matter into pure aesthetics. Again, Kokkinias seems to play with the subtle nuances of the real and the artificial. His figures, planted as they are amid the natural surroundings, further enhance this ambiguity between the real and the artificial. Kokkinias may be suggesting that people are always somehow staged in a natural environment, that just as our relationship with nature is contrived and mediated, so is our understanding of it. Again, Kokkinias may be exploring the tension between art and nature, a tension which he does not resolve but, in his typical style, leaves filled with suggestions. Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis attends a meeting of EU economy and finance ministers (ECOFIN) in Brussels.