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Political history in the Arts

Greek artist-architect, sculptor and philosopher Kostis Velonis talks to Neos Kosmos as he visits Melbourne for the opening of the exhibition Direct Democracy

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Untitled (Life without tragedy), 2009. (Photo is courtesy of Kostis Velonis)

21 May 2013

Kostis Velonis might be an architect by trade, but it's his artwork that grabs headlines. As a sculptor, his artwork is often described as political and historical.
Throughout his career, he has found inspiration in the protests of May 1968, Russian constructivism, and the cultural legacy of antiquity. What attracts him to political history is the simple fact that no historical event means something if you have to accept it as it is; if you don't re-evaluate it.
Like democracy. And like the financial crisis in Greece.
"You should find some ways to avoid the ideological hegemony in some historical facts and to provide new meanings, to enjoy the possibility of deconstruction from established perceptions of the past. History has a 'weight' in which present is in some cases a reflection of the past. This decision in 'me' - it should be at least renegotiated. Art practice leaves things open for invention, making the transition from the passive subject to the active one," Velonis tells Neos Kosmos.
Recently, Kostis Velonis visited Melbourne for the opening of the exhibition Direct Democracy at Monash University Museum of Arts (MUMA) that he is taking part in. The exhibition features the work of 20 artists, 7 of whom are renowned international artists. According to the curator Geraldine Barlow, the exhibition looks to the evolution of new democratic models in established democracies, and the ways we can revitalise, rebuild and own the collective body upon democratic process.
"This is a thematic exhibition, drawing together works by artists from Australia and around the world with the aim of offering a thought provoking reflection on contemporary issues and events. The participating artists have each developed a way of transforming familiar materials and subjects into something quite new. Their artworks allow us to see the familiar world in a new light," she tells Neos Kosmos.
For participating Greek artist Kostis Velonis, Barlow says he is a kind of philosopher-poet, able to evoke grand ideas with the simplest materials of a builder: hammers, wood and bricks.
"Kostis is sensitive to history, both of civilisation and ideas," Geraldine Barlow tells Neos Kosmos.
His artwork is often described as examining "personal struggle" and "passion", and the life itself as periods of "sociability" and "loneliness". "In its core lays the need to understand human nature both in the social and individual field," the artist explains.
"I would say that I'm not a fan of the messianic appeal for justice that is a symptom of religions and modern ideologies such is the cases of fascism and communism. And it is a fact that the failure of ideologies helps me to reconsider again and again human deliberation from the "political" as it can be translated in a political party. If the failure of an ideology is simply good news against totalitarian heritage, what about the failure of the individual? Here the things are more complicated. And of course because life is not a guide for positive psychology and includes all aspects of human emotions, tragedy is a part of it. Failure make us vulnerable, which means not identified with the optimism of the powerful community. Not to be engaged with the ideals of the religious or political fundamentalist. Not ideologists not heroes no fascism."
In the exhibition Direct Democracy, Velonis participates with two sculptures. "Life without Tragedy" emphasises the pattern of the amphitheatre in small scale. It becomes the space for the production of discussions and ideas.
"The theatre in Ancient Greece was not only a form of art, but also a social institution. So the gathering in the theatre functioned as an assembly of the citizens, and this gathering can be very fragile in terms of communication or even concerning the decisions taken. Theatrical forms of communication structures the parliament of any constitution in our days. It is the introductory point of my work, it is like a model for sculpture which has a performative and narrative role and functions as a visual form of self examination, individually and collectively," he explains.
"The second work Ecclesia (Which Might Rebuild) seems to question the mystical character of the fetish translating labour activity within the frame of direct democracy. I display hammers that belong to workers' associations of Melbourne. Each hammer, designed for a specific purpose, reflects my personal vision for working class autonomy and independence from manipulative strategies. Each hammer that reflects human labour is in a way self governed but at the same time it seems to participate in the social field. The old wooden platform represent a rather neutral space of meeting in which different idiosyncrasies or even subspecies of democracy affect a dialogue. It is like a designed pattern for a discussion on direct democracy, but it could also be a frame of manipulation," Velonis tells Neos Kosmos.
For an artist highly influenced by poetry, the theory of architecture and studies related with the material culture, art in general terms is a way to contemplate humanity's own mortality.
"Democracy today, in his opinion, is almost an empty signifier, never complete and always a 'democracy to come'. It is always on the becoming, and not a practice that we can regulate with a steady tempo," the artist explains.
"I think what is inevitably important is to understand direct democracy as an open question of discussion of the relation between governance and social emancipation. The show present an heterogeneous corpus of work that guarantees the possibility of an open identity. Direct democracy cannot be just a simple definition about Ancient Greek politics. As a concept it should be revitalised in a contemporary context."
It is the same for freedom - an experience of infinite responsibility for the other.
"Freedom is a militant term. From this point of view, freedom has political significance, but in such a manner that in relation to the substance of what we call democracy fights for the social division and difference, and not for the opposite as it is usually understood by authoritarian fantasies."
The current situation in Greece, as the globally renowned Greek artist sees it, could be better if the nation was more critical to populist rhetorics of some politicians.
"There is a problem which is difficult to deal with it and it is related with the tolerance of the democratic tradition within parliament . How to behave tolerantly to people that dislike democracy? Crowds from the populist right and left wing parties make use of the political freedom in order to abolish the constitution," Velonis says.
And when it comes to artists and art of Greece - the conditions to live and provide are certainly not the best ones. Greek artists, however, are not used to anything else but to ascetic life. What is important in a time of crisis is the inspirational environment that exists.
Direct Democracy is on till 6 July, at Monash University Museum of Arts - MUMA, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East. For more information, contact 03 9905 4217, or visit www.monash.edu.au/muma.

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