An artist addresses migration

Over the past years, Athens has become an increasingly multicultural city with its small neighborhoods of different ethnicities dispersed in various areas. It is an impressive transformation, considering that what was once a country swept by a strong wave of emigration has now evolved into, like many other European countries, a destination for immigrants from all over the world. As in other countries, the incoming migration has sparked off challenging social issues. Are societies that experience migration more open and culturally richer? Does migration enhance or reduce cross-cultural understanding and how does the migrant population’s cultural self-identity change in the process? These issues of migration are the subject of «Athens – Peking,» an installation by artist Haris Kondosphyris currently on view at Cheap Art. Divided into two complementary parts, the so-called «Migrant Ark» and «Heart of Dark,» both by Kondosphyris, the work is meant as an environment that expands beyond visuals: Poetry by Panos Bosnakis is printed on the wall, while incense concocted by botanist Orestis Davias and an acoustic background by composer Vassilis Kokkas are orchestrated into the overall effect. Following a curatorial proposition made by art critic and historian Irini Savvani, the work was chosen to represent Greece at the Sao Paolo Biennale, which will take place in the fall under the general title «Image Smugglers in a Free Territory,» a subject that encompasses issues of migration. At a first glance, the installation’s two parts seem opposing. «Heart of Dark» portion replicates a Chinese pagoda positioned at an angle to its cement-made reflection. Lit from behind with pink and bluish hues in an otherwise dark room, it seems like a giant shadow, part of a set from a thriller film or a Western tourist’s typical postcard from China transformed into three dimensions. Artificial and slightly kitsch, just like our idealized, superficial impressions of the East might be, the work seems grand at first sight but gloomy a few minutes later. It is the trap of stereotypes. Unlike the pagoda, «Migrant Ark» is bathed in light and shines. It is a wall-to-wall iron plate paneaux on which Kondosphyris has carved out a human crowd in an Athenian urban setting. Made by drawn or cut-out outlines, the figures represent the ethnically diverse population of a city whose parallel lives never seem to meet. «Ark» suggests a scarred reality, while the pagoda alludes to dreams (the shattered dreams that the immigrants leave behind or that Westerners have of the exotic East) or false projections. Both are like set designs, two facades that lack depth and solidity but are more about shadows and reflections. A visual metaphor of the effects of migration, it points to rootlessness, shifting identities and a world of estrangement. Humorous and melancholy at the same time, Kondosphyris’s work addresses a current issue. At Cheap Art, Themistocleous & A. Metaxa, tel 210.381.7517, through the end of April.

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