CULTURE

Performance artist recaps life and work

The following scene took place in the fall of 1969: Two young women left a slaughterhouse in the deep Kent countryside carrying two plastic bags containing a bull’s head and entrails and a cow’s brains. The two then waited at the bus stop in the pouring rain in order to return to a nearby town. The next evening, the macabre purchases became props in a visual arts performance which took place in a wooden shack. It is chilling to hear Leda Papaconstantinou talk about her debut appearance on stage as a performance artist. Not because what she came up with at the time sounds somewhat bizarre, but because of the power, the courage, the passion which defined a whole generation of project artists at the time. Only fragments remain of the 1970s experimentation and explosiveness, small pieces used selectively by some of today’s artists – take Damien Hirst and his calf cut in half, for instance – to impress audiences, museum curators and above all, private collectors. Priorities, however, have changed. Pioneer Papaconstantinou is one of few pioneering Greek artists who used performance as a means of expression. Through her substantial and multifaceted presence she remains a unique, autonomous pole of the local visual arts scene. Closer to the international vibe and removed from local conflict on the subject of art and the Greek element, at the age of 62 Papaconstantinou is making some kind of an accounting of life through a new book and two exhibitions. «Leda Papaconstantinou: Performance, Film, Video 1969-2004,» was published by Kyvos Editions with a foreword by the author-director Sally Potter, while two shows, one at the Benaki Museum’s new wing at 138 Pireos in Athens and another at the Bey Hammam in Thessaloniki, focus on perhaps the most exciting part of her work, which remains largely unknown to the general public. The exhibition at the Benaki Museum’s new wing runs to November 19, while the Bey Hammam show opened yesterday and runs to December 3 in collaboration with the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art and the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The Benaki Museum exhibition showcases items used on stage, a series of photographs from various performances as well as scenes from Papaconstantinou’s movies. The Bey Hammam tribute includes screenings of films and videos. Does it bother her to tackle something so lively and unruly like performance art through a somewhat cold, museum-type approach? «Artists don’t see their work from an archaeological point of view,» she said. «They always treat it like a living organism in constant motion. There are reasons why I kept specific items from that period. Removed from their original purpose they might seem hard to grasp. Yet they all had a very important and symbolic role to play in the performances, like the stiletto heel hanging above a bright red apple in ‘Still Life,’ in 1982. These items unleashed all kinds of emotions. Essentially they represent worlds and meanings of a story, the performance artist’s narration without words. Polina Kosmadaki, the Benaki show’s curator, suggested we put them in museum cases but I chose to display them on their own, simply placed on two tables.» According to the artist, some of the objects will trigger memories of her performances to those who saw them in the first place, while those who never experienced them will make up their own stories. «The difference with this kind of artistic medium in relation to painting, sculpture and installations, for instance, is that it has a very different relationship to time. The multifaceted stories unfolding in front of the audience’s very eyes don’t necessarily end at that particular point. They carry on in the back of people’s minds for years to come. It’s a little bit like psychoanalysis.» Indeed a number of performances dating to the 1970s and described in the book produce feelings of fear and repulsion in the way they portray violence and sexuality. Some are even more shocking that what we see on television today and Papaconstantinou is not surprised. «The stuff scared me back then and it still scares me today. I think it was a way for me to cleanse myself of all the violence I experienced before the dictatorship. There was some freedom but not enough for the young person l was then. I wanted to run away from what appeared to be my destiny, that of a young Greek woman whom everybody wanted to see married. That’s how I discovered Swinging London at a very young age.» Freedom was not the only motive leading the artist toward a means of expression where the body had a leading role to play. «Contemporary image culture is very different from that of the 1970s. Back then performers either got into extreme situations or used limited means to do something transgressional on stage. At the same time, they developed a vital space between them and the audience, something which is the essence of performance art. Today when television reigns supreme, people watch but they don’t suffer. They don’t suffer along with you. Only good theater makes you suffer these days, making you feel uneasy inside.» Papaconstantinou was looking forward to meeting visitors at both shows, interacting with the public to answer questions, remember the past and talk about art. «I don’t expect them to get into the mood that the performances had back then. Even those who didn’t experience them can imagine a story based on the various objects. Besides, even when I painted or worked on installations, performance art was still very much present. The public can now see my course and the time has come for me to see all this through the luxury of distance that time allows for. Life is so pressured and difficult that you forget who you are. As far as I’m concerned, I am my 62 years.» Biography Born in Ambelonas, Larissa, in 1945, Leda Papaconstantinou studied graphic arts at the Doxiadis School, painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts and fine art at the Maidstone School of Arts, at the University of Kent in England. Subsequently, the artist represented Greece with her sculptures at the Biennale International de Sao Paolo in 1989. Nowadays she divides her time between Athens and the island of Spetses. Highlights from her solo exhibitions include: «The Greek Performance,» at the Bloomsbury Theater in London in 1970; «Igro dasos» (Wet Forest), sculptures at the Ileana Tounda Center for Contemporary Art in 1992; «Genet’s Toaster,» an installation at the House of Cyprus in 1998; «Members,» sculptures, at the Epikentro in 1999, «Past Revisited,» mixed art techniques at Lola Nikolaou in Thessaloniki in 2003 and «Aftoptis,» mixed techniques and video art at the a.antonopoulou gallery in Athens in 2004. Papaconstantinou has also participated in a number of group shows.