Sensual and routine unite in artist’s 40-year journey

It has been one of the utopias of 20th century art: creating art that is socially meaningful, engages the viewer, activates the surroundings and uses a visual language to create a new awareness of our lives. Considered against the longstanding elitism in art, such a concern once made sense. But does it still? Have artists now finally conquered the utopian quests of their calling? Over the years, art has become considerably more democratic, opening its borders to the broader public, growing more flexible beyond established norms and rules. Nowadays, art can flirt with mass culture, cross various disciplines, and simply behave with a sense of lightness that hints it is free of burdensome questions. But the larger questions of life and art still imbue the work of artist Niki Kanagini, whose art is the subject of a recently published monograph. Leafing through the pages of this detailed and wonderfully designed book, published by Futura, readers can discover Kanagini’s commitment to turning art into a meaningful experience and, conversely, giving our daily existence the magic and aura of art. Kanagini’s art is a difficult subject for a book because most of her works rely heavily on the idea of the process and context in which they were made. Some are works that are activated by the viewer’s interactions. An example is the project that Kanagini made in 1975 for the Izola factory, which produced electric cookers and refrigerators. An instruction panel that was part of the work invited the factory’s workers to participate by changing the empty, open door of a refrigerator with the tools made available to them. The project was actually the third part of a broader experiment testing the function of art among people of different social backgrounds. Just like the public’s interaction and participation, collaborative work is also a key aspect of Kanagini’s work. In many cases, she will conceive of an idea and materialize it through group work. An example is «Com-Panis-Companion/Syn-trophe-Syntrophos,» a project that Kanagini organized in 2000 in collaboration with Desmos (Research and Promotion of Contemporary Greek Art). The project consisted of a carefully staged dinner attended by members of the Greek art world. It ascribed dining with a ritualistic quality and explored how food and the sense of taste are tied to the exchange of emotions and thoughts, companionship and human bonding. Sensuality and human rapport as instruments of self-awareness, growth and transformation are key concepts in Kanagini’s work. They are non-tactile attributes and difficult to project visually, especially since the works with which they are associated are most often acts that develop over time. In many ways, Kanagini’s art is as multifaceted and hard to pin down as reality itself. Yet the book published by Futura and designed by Kanagini herself communicates this spirit in an unforced and visually convincing way. The non-chronological presentation of the artist’s work suits the non-linear course of her art. Moreover, the fact that the chapters are excerpts of articles on her work written by various authors over time emphasizes Kanagini’s interest in collaborative projects, communication and the exchange of ideas. The works themselves are illustrated in the book’s pages and show the variety of techniques and materials the artist has used. In some cases, a work is illustrated through a combination of drawings, photographs and views of an installation, a mix that underlines the notion of process in her art. The monograph also serves as a handy (yet intentionally non-exhaustive) documentation of the work of an important Greek artist. Niki Kanagini emerged in the Greek art world in the early 1960s after completing graduate studies in London. Once in Greece, Kanagini shifted from an abstract, minimal style to multilayered works that drew their inspiration from Greek tradition and contemporary social reality. In some cases, the art also explored the environment. Her paintings of the period also dealt with script and language as the vehicle through which humans have expressed their need to communicate thoughts and sentiments. Her work seeks continuity and looks into history, tradition and the collective unconscious but also delves into the personal, emotional and sensual, revealing how they affect even the most ordinary routines of life. Her works are visually spare, sometimes almost self-contained, and yet are strangely corporeal, employing a wonderful capacity to stimulate one’s senses. Food – cooking or consuming it – is a recurring theme; the practices related to food are meant both as a mental and a sensual experience, both as a way to socialize and to sharpen one’s senses. For example, in an installation for the fruit market of Argos in 1996, Kanagini filled a series of sculptural constructions with fruit, from which people could pick as they do in an actual farmer’s market. Meant as a metaphor of a symposium, the work gave a ritualistic, symbolic meaning to the marketplace and looked at how food instigates public behavior and social mingling. In other works, food is tied to domestic chores and gender roles. In «The Journey, Works and Days» (1996), a series of photographs show rural Greek women harvesting and another set shows the artist herself shopping in the marketplace and preparing a recipe for souvlaki (the actual recipe is also part of the work). Again, Kanagini shows respect for tradition, recalling the past and comparing it with contemporary reality. She also sensitizes us to gender roles, a recurring issue in her work, which, at times, has simplistically been labeled as feminist. In truth, Kanagini’s work is too varied and multilayered to fit a single label. It is sensual yet contained, emotional yet mental. It shows a respect for tradition but an acute awareness of the present. It also challenges the language of art and tests the meaning that art can have in our lives. More than anything, it shows that exchanging ideas which sensitize us to ourselves and our social surroundings, history, tradition and senses is something that can take place every moment of the day. This may be something to remember as Christmas approaches. The reader of Kanagini’s book may find that the rituals and symbolism which we often ascribe to established festivities exist every day. Though the concept may be a bit utopian, it is an encouraging one.