Keep on walking: Artist’s adventures on glasses suggest a random precariousness

One of the trends in the contemporary art of the late 1990s has been the attention paid to cultural difference and diversity. Faraway cultures and their traditions, disregarded for years, promptly became valid subject matter for art, and artists from the artistic periphery entered major artistic events. Seen as the side effect of a globalizing world, such a response has been both criticized as a superficial and biased look at the intricacies of culture but also interpreted as a sign of a world becoming more accepting and egalitarian. As an artist working in the ’90s, Panos Charalambous has shown his own interest in tradition, particularly Greek tradition with respect to rural life. The descendant of a family of tobacco cultivators, Charalambous has, for example, repeatedly used tobacco and smoke in his works, possibly as a way of referring to manual labor and primary industry in Greece. But such references are never openly direct, nor do they dominate his work. Tradition is there, but more as a general feeling than as a narrative, a sideshow to other, conceptual artistic preoccupations rather than a subject in itself. The suggestive subtlety with which Charalambous encompasses cultural connotations to address more abstract ideas becomes evident in «1997-2001,» his latest work on view until January 26 at the Artio Gallery. His work is an audiovisual installation made of three different video projections, one showing the repeated action of moving cupping glasses during the course of back therapy. On the opposite wall, there are two adjacent projections, one of which shows a pair of feet dancing on glasses and the other an image of the artist himself, presumably walking along and with a glass balanced on his head. Throughout, the lulling sound of an Epirote lament as sung by Demetrios Stratos can be heard in the background. Both the song and the image of the feet dancing on the glasses evoke Eastern tradition, and the use of structured repetition – each projection shows a single, repeated but calculated, orderly action – slowly building to a trance-like, meditative state, is particularly effective in further enhancing what, through a Western and perhaps simplistic comprehension, we sense as Eastern spirituality. From one angle, Charalambous seems to want to reclaim the forgotten spiritual values of Eastern tradition, yet also reaches beyond their cultural specificity to indicate their universal appeal. But he refers as well to more general concepts, such as time and the different ways of apprehending it. It is perhaps to that purpose that he has intentionally divested his work of folkloric, ethnic elements by stripping away a narrative and reducing the work to its bare essentials, using spare, black-and-white and almost abstract images to create an evanescent, almost translucent visual effect. This play on the immaterial is where the preoccupations of Charalambous as a conceptual artist tie in. As in other works of his, the point is to stress the notional rather than the material quality of the art and to effect the passage from the physical (in this case the representation of a physical act such as dancing) to the mental. To achieve this, Charalambous has intentionally used the medium of video and deliberately created a positive-negative type of translucent imagery. Charalambous appears to be exploring the potential of contemporary art and possibly the role of the artist, hence the incorporation of his self-image. He seems to suggest that art’s role is to enable a mental state and that it can be structured and logical as in the positioning of the glasses, but also as random and precarious as dancing on glasses is. His work is therefore a meditation not only on cultural values and the notion of time, but also on the form and function of art.