Art project as a social cause

As exhibitions, art projects, biennials and art fairs proliferate all over the world, making accessible to the public both a greater quantity and greater diversity in art, one risks getting lost in the quick pace and constant flow of information. And, possibly, missing out on the role that art plays as an experience that unfolds in time. Supposedly, the mobility of contemporary art and artists is helping information to circulate more easily and is generating an exchange of ideas. Art helps bridge differences, it is often said. But does it enhance any meaningful two-way communication between the artist and the public? A two-year project that attempted to expand the role of artistic practice and to integrate art into the life of a small community is an opportunity to ponder upon such issues. Opposed to the idea of art as a commodity and the pursuit of publicity, the project was a work in process that came from a group of nine artists. It was an experiment looking for response and aimed at sensitizing the public to social issues. The project has culminated in an art exhibition currently on show at the Historic Archive-Hydra Museum. The idea of the entire project belongs to Niki Kanagini, an artist who has supported art that is aimed at social involvement and based on collective work. Kanagini, who spends much time in her summer home on Hydra, paid several visits to the island’s old people’s home, a small municipal-run residence, and felt the urge to do something that would sensitize the public toward this marginalized social group (eight residents in total) and provoke thought on our perception of aging and the aged. She brought together another eight artists (Giorgos Gyparakis, Costas Ioannidis, Eliza Jackson, Anni Costopoulou, Angelos Papadimitriou, Thanos Triantos, Nikos Haralambidis and Alexandros Psychoulis) and asked art historian Marina Athanassiadou and anthropologist Christina Vlahoutsikou to join them. They all met on a regular basis over the course of two years, exchanging ideas and looking for meaningful ways in which art could activate community life and sensitize the public to social issues. Interestingly, what was also put to the test was the artists’ openness to collaborative work as well as each artist’s psychological stamina against what is one of life’s harshest aspects: aging in neglect and social isolation. The participation of an anthropologist and art historian helped the artists gain an outsider’s point of view of the process. It also brought a different, interdisciplinary angle to the art project. As with her other projects, Kanagini hopes to bring people from a science background or other fields of knowledge together with artists, thus expanding the scope of art practice and exploring its relationship with other domains. Although everybody seemed positive at the start, opposing views expressed during the sessions created some tension, while some artists expressed reservations as to the project’s success. Reservations grew into intimidation when the group visited the old people’s home and came face to face with reality. Some felt that the psychological burden was too much to handle. Perhaps this is why they did not visit the residence again (their second visit is scheduled once the exhibition is over). But the residents were also shaken, in their case in being reminded of the outside reality they could no longer be part of and of human contact that they so coveted. This was the main reason that kept the artists from going back to the old people’s home as initially planned. Other plans changed accordingly. The works that each artist created were not shown in the old people’s home but in the Historic Archive-Hydra Museum instead, and a soiree that was planned as recreation for the elderly residents was canceled. (Each artist produced two works. One of the two will be donated to the old people’s home when the exhibition closes.) This was not after all a charity project (although all work was voluntary) and even if seemed so at the beginning, the feedback that artists received and the emotional and mental baggage that was revealed in the process showed that the project was about learning about oneself through others, about pushing one’s limits and confronting challenges. There were benefits to be reaped by both sides, which is not really our standard concept of charity work. The project was about learning to communicate with others and accepting one another. It was this experience that each artist finally distilled in the work he/she produced. The exhibition was the final stage, a surprise that the artists kept to themselves, as none of them had discussed what they were working on during the course of the project. Befittingly, all the artists referenced the old people’s home in some way. Niki Kanagini took photographs of clothing and other personal items that belonged to former residents of the home (she found them in the residence’s storerooms) and juxtaposed them with images showing the interior of the Millenium, a luxury cruise ship, to produce a both sad and shocking contrast. Giorgos Gyparakis made an installation out of walking sticks and Angelos Papadimitriou juxtaposed a bust of Maria Callas in her youth with that of a bust of her in her old age. Aging and the criteria through which we define old age was also the theme of Eliza Jackson’s video. The other video in the exhibition, that by Anni Costopoulou, evoked the visit to the old people’s home. For Alexandros Psychoulis, the visit was an occasion to look into his own family life and ponder his future relationship with his young daughter, years down the road when he reaches his own old age. Lemonade and its associations with homemade traditional juices that hark back to another age was the basis of the performance by Costas Ioannidis. Nikos Haralambidis, whose work often deals with political issues and social minorities, highlighted another minority group, a Muslim community that lives on Rhodes. Thanos Triantos produced what was probably the most joyful work of the exhibition. He asked youngsters to produce drawings on the theme of their grandparents and created a drawing installation out of them. Although the joyful note of the work was an exception to the melancholy mood that pervaded the rest of the art, Triantos’s installation does nonetheless seem to capture the essence of the art project. It reminds us that just as young children love their grandparents and have a meaningful, two-way relationship with them, perhaps because they are still too young to be intimidated by aging, we too must learn to offer affection to the elderly, not just out of kindness but because it is part of relating to other people and learning about ourselves. The exhibition at the Hydra Museum may sensitize the public in this direction. It can also show us that art can be channeled in other ways than theorizing about art, staging large, international events or the exigencies of the art market. Art can be much more than an overabundance of images that cannot be properly assimilated by the public. What the Hydra project hopes to show is that art can be an enriching process that grows with time and changes our view of the world. The works by the project’s nine participating artists will be shown at the Historic Archive-Hydra Museum to August 31.

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