An artist committed to the exposure of violence and injustice

One of the most common examples used to substantiate the argument that the world becomes more civilized as time progresses is how practices of public, inhuman torture, though woven into the social structures of the past, are now thoroughly condemnable acts. We show less leniency toward human violence, and the readiness with which we regard a range of human-rights defined violations as violent, is presumed to show this heightened sensitivity. This is, apparently, a sign of a better society. The problem with this argument is that it does not recognize that even if this is true, extreme forms of violence, though sometimes less obvious and more sophisticated, are still very prevalent. More importantly, the reason they often pass unnoticed or uncriticized is partly because our notion of violence has become so abstract and encompassing as to muddle our capacity for discriminating between lesser and more severe forms of violence and also appraising different forms of violence in a historical and social context. That we witness violence not directly but through the media may account for this confusion. The representation of violence (through the media, art or advertising) is to a large degree accountable for the way we perceive, react to and assess violence. This is one of the fundamental points that artist Despina Meimaroglou makes us think about through her art. «Thy Neighbour,» which is the title of her one-woman show at the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art, shows Meimaroglou’s longstanding preoccupation with issues of contemporary violence. The works are all from the Zacharias Portalakis art collection (Portalakis, one of the country’s most prominent collectors, is Meimaroglou’s principal collector) and the display is part of the series of exhibitions organized by the Portalakis collection. (Annual exhibitions are divided between the Portalakis collection exhibition space in Athens and an institution on Crete, Portalakis’s homeland). Through her work, Meimaroglou contemplates contemporary forms of violence; these include street riots, wars and social inequalities as well as more covert expressions of violence which Meimaroglou detects in the estranging effects of consumerism and the constraints that the ideals of beauty propagated by advertising imposes on us, especially women. The artist begins her work by first collecting and manipulating images either from the press, or from television (digital photographs she takes from the news) and staging the final result in absorbing visual installations (she also makes imaginative artist’s books). The idea is to expose the true dimensions of existing violence behind the layers of its representation. «Violence, in a broader sense of the word, has been one of my main preoccupations for a very long time. I guess it is due to my political awareness and my constant attempts to understand the world that surrounds me better, although I must admit that I do not see myself a political artist. All I can say is that I tend to make public my inner fears. The media, which in our times controls everybody’s mind and behaviour, has a great influence on me. I sometimes find the events unbearable and I catch myself trying to alter the so-called reality that surrounds me and therefore I turn my fears or expectations into art,» Meimaroglou says. To show how representation conditions our thinking with respect to violence, Meimaroglou cites the September 11 attack. «On that day, I was, like everyone else, glued to the television set watching the horror unravel right in front of my eyes. The scenes kept repeating themselves over and over again on my screen, to the point that after a number of consecutive hours, they lost their true impact and ended up looking very familiar,» she says. «Was that a preview of yet another Hollywood distraction movie being advertised? How was the world supposed to conceive those events?» For Meimaroglou, this confusion betrays a lack of political sensitivity, which in itself can be traced to contemporary values. «The isolation of people in the so-called advanced nations due to their tremendous anxiety over deriving the maximum benefits advertised and promised by consumer societies, their self-absorption as a matter of «lifestyle» and the decay of the public’s involvement in opinion-making and political decisions is the cause of all the destruction that surrounds us. The lack of a wider historical and political knowledge, and therefore the absence of a personal opinion, is the main obstacle to understanding the Other,» says Meimaroglou. By the Other, Meimaroglou means anything that is victimized by the dominant structures of power, including minority groups, victims of war or social and gender bias. Meimaroglou’s cosmopolitan background and extensive exposure to different cultures (she was raised in Alexandria, artistically trained in England, lives in Greece but travels constantly) is partly what explains her openness to understanding the Other, not, however, in cultural but in sociopolitical terms. Violence is, after all, about social, economic and political strife and much less about cultural difference. Deconstructing the media The problem with the representation of violence through the media is that it overlooks such intricacies. Recognizing this, Meimaroglou structures much of her work in decoding the mechanisms employed by the media (her yearlong experience in working in the field of advertisement as a graphic artist has made her aware of them) in distorting and restructuring reality. In this process, she often appropriates media-related visual mechanisms such as placing an image out of context, enlarging a detail or using vivid colors to create an exaggerated visual effect. «In a way, I try to reduplicate the media in order to deepen the public’s response to the presentation of the events and possibly make them react. In our time, we are bombarded with all kinds of information. As a result, the public has become immune to human suffering and extreme violence. (…) We no longer react to scenes of someone being beaten to death right in front of our eyes while we sit comfortably in our living room watching the news. «I must confess, very often my works have an ambiguous edge. It’s like a game, or participating in a movie. I am also fascinated by written words. I often see words as images,» she says. Throughout, coming closer to the truth remains the underlying objective. But the mood is far from didactic. «I honestly believe there is presently nothing more important to do art-wise than to try to make the public (the masses) see and understand the Other. This is the obligation of every thinking human being. «On the other hand, I do not believe that art should be ‘educational’ or ‘political’ in the narrow sense of the word. I believe that every artist is trying to express something personal no matter what. It is a way of communicating with the surrounding world. There are no innocent works of art,» she says. «Art is one more layer added to our perception of reality. It can distort or elucidate reality. It can also help awaken public awareness and make us more probing of reality, which is partly what the exhibition attempts to do. Despina Meimaroglou’s one-woman show will run at the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art to the end of November. Artistic production and catalog design is by Despina Meimaroglou. The curator is Alexandra Koroxenidis.