An eye for history
Herodotus informs contemporary artist
Phillip George's exhibition Memosinon is promising to be one of the more intriguing elements of this year's Greek Festival of Sydney, moving between Australian landscapes, Greek culture and beyond as it explores themes of identity, memory and transnationalism. A retrospective collection of work he produced over about six years in the 1990s, this particular configuration has never been shown before and has great appeal, even for the artist himself.
"It's the first time that these pieces will be seen in one large group so it'll be good," says George. "What you're going to get is a set of these prints that I did some years ago with the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation. It's a significant body of work, about twenty or so will be on exhibition, so it's like this smorgasbord."
George was born here, and grew up in Bondi where he still lives. His father came out from Alexandria after World War II, but his mother's father arrived in 1910, so that side of his family has been here over one hundred years. It gives George a rare insight as a Greek Australian: he has a sense of both the migrant's alienation and the familiarity of someone who is right at home.
The key to this particular collection is Herodotus, luminary of ancient Greece and the father of history. In it's earliest form however, history wasn't what we understand today, a quest for greater objectivity: it was a subjective and personal pursuit.
"Herodotus was one of the first historians. But his idea of history was to travel out to the border lands and ask the people 'what's over the next hill, and then what's over the next hill.' Then he'd write stories about the things he heard. In that sense, history is closely connected to memory, it's a reflection of personal experience."
For George, the work he creates is an exploration of history in both its essential forms, the subjective and objective.
The images in this collection are awash with symbolism and iconography that is almost unconscious, representing a memory that is both personal and cultural. He feels that in writing his own history, he is creating a documentary link to the past.
"In terms of the Greek Diaspora, you can actually trace back various historical events and you can map out why the Greeks ended up in Australia. You go backwards to what happened in Asia minor in 1922, even right back to the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople. As the thing's collapsing, people migrate. Over time there have been all these dispersals."
While an overview is a useful perspective, George understands that at ground level, history is much more complex. He describes it as a 'contentious' collection of personal accounts, each of which struggles to come out on top. In this respect, Herodotus is an extremely convenient entry point to make these explorations.
"These are personal events but Herodotus could see that the personal becomes a grand historical sweep as personalisations roll into each other. So there is also a big picture there. The works go in both directions, the macro and the micro. You have the personal but there is a greater perspective as well."
These are issues that have concerned George for some time now. His work has consistently focused on the subject of transnationalism, and it has been becoming increasingly political. He feels very fortunate to be living in Australia at this point in time, being aware of both the richness of shared cultures, and the possibilities of a truly egalitarian society.
"I think Australia is one of those fantastic places that occur every now and then in history, full of this incredibly diverse life. Like New York, or Constantinople, Athens or Paris in their heyday, Australia has this amazing blend of histories, and there's an opportunity to draw breath and indulge in all the cultures that have washed up here.
"And with this new canvas, we can inscribe what we wish. That's the great, exciting thing about Australia: if you want to pursue something, you can actually go out and do it."
Memosinon is at The Depot Gallery, 2 Danks St Waterloo, NSW. The exhibition will run until Thursday 5 April with the gallery open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am-6pm. For more information, visit, greekfestivalofsydney.com.au
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