Mixing the personal and political

Back in the 1970s, a large number of women artists with feminist concerns were driven by the conviction that «the personal is the political.» This was the rallying cry of feminist art at the time and women artists that subscribed to it sought to show that gender and a female identity define a woman’s rights and position in society. Leda Papaconstantinou was one of the first Greek women artists to express this conviction, yet in ways too varied and diverse to fit a standard, stereotypical notion of feminist art. Several of the performances and films that she first presented in Greece upon her return from her postgraduate studies in the UK were gender-related works that injected a radical and innovative air into the Greek art scene of the ’70s. Almost 40 years down the road, a mix of the personal and political still permeates her work, yet the focus is not primarily on gender. «Eyewitness,» which is the title of the artist’s one-woman show currently on view at the gallery, offers a deeply moving awareness of how politics and global political events soak through our lives and inner thoughts, affecting our human ties and shaping both our memories and collective consciousness. None of this is obvious at first glance. Her works, all of them wall-mounted, layered surfaces composed of black-and-white photographic images of the artist, pieces of fabric, tulle and drawings as well as the complementary video «Strip: The chronicle of an interrogation,» make no direct statement. Yet they are filled with subtle nuances and layers of different meaning that await to be discovered. Some allude to war: the prevalence of red hues, the embroidered outline of a burka or crescent moon or the ways that some photographs have been cropped to focus on the artist’s eyes (the only part of woman’s face that shows behind the burka) refer to the Islamic world and evoke the war in Iraq. But there is also much to make one think of domestic comfort and security. The use of textiles, old embroideries, black-and-white photographs hint at craftsmanship and tradition, at continuity and the preservation of history. Sketches of members of a family enhance this effect. (The sketches are manipulated, blown-up versions of a set of original drawings made by the artist’s mother who used to be a naif painter in life). Fragments of memorabilia collected through time and vestiges of personal memories are pieced together layer upon layer – all of them handstitched – to evoke precious experiences and the passage of time. The use of tulle fabric (a recurring material in the artist’s work) enables one layer to be seen through the other, thus creating an effect of depth and interconnectedness. Each image is filtered through the other, a metaphor of how aspects of reality – the personal and the political – permeate one another in an intricate web of cross-associations. What the viewer sees first – behind or over the tulle – remains his own choice. «Eyewitness» suggests that there is no one way of viewing and interpreting reality. Papaconstantinou plays with ambivalence but in a context that remains antiwar throughout. The video serves as an example: for half its length, it shows the back of a woman’s head and two hands constantly taking various small objects out of the woman’s hair. The other half shows another head and the reverse movement, of the same objects being hidden back inside the headdress. Aren’t we all guilty of something and if so, shouldn’t that make us rethink our criteria for judging culpability? Guided by the conviction that the truth is never obvious or clear to the eye, Papaconstantinou likes to combine layers of meaning and to create a multiplicity of effects. Indeed, her works evoke tenderness but violence at the same time. In «Eyewitness,» they express the importance of domestic and familial security and the deep value of personal memories, which somehow seem always to lie under the threat of war. Her works are reassuring yet ominous. They are sensual, warm and tender as well as forceful and loaded with a political edge. They pertain to the personal and psychoanalytic sphere but place both in a social and political context, they address both private and public space. This interest in linking the personal to the social has typified her work from the beginning of her career. Early performances such as «Private Structure and Ritual» in 1969 tapped into personal experiences to make remarks on cultural and gender identity. They were esoteric and intricate happenings acted out by the artist herself in carefully designed settings filled with complex visual symbolisms. Interaction by the public was a vital component of these performances and the physical handling of the objects used in the performance was encouraged. «The Apple of Discord» in 2000 for example – Papaconstantinou’s last performance – ends with the artist handing out small razors to the public and asking them to cut the threads that she had woven between her co-performer and the audience. Such techniques helped inculcate a more immediate, almost emotional response to art. They also reflected the artist’s concern with an art that not only has social content but also has an effect on the social collective. The theater festivals that she organized on the island of Spetses in the mid-1970s were one of the artist’s earliest and most ambitious projects, aimed at sensitizing a community to current issues through the language of art. Although Papaconstantinou pioneered performance art in this country, she recently stopped making performances, focusing instead on media which she thinks are more effective in our days. But the sense of physicality, tactility, sensuality and social content continues through her work. Emotionally moving and intellectually challenging, it speaks of an imaginative artist who constantly reflects on contemporaneity. «Eye Witness» is on at the gallery (20 Aristofanou, tel 210.321.4994) through Saturday.

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