Nakis Panayotidis: ways of bringing dreams to light

(Text to exhibition A81 from 9.12.2008 until 15.3.2009)

With gradual yet increasing clarity, Nakis Panayotidis’ work highlights the poetic and linguistic aims of his actions, through a series of meticulously planned exhibitions. What transpires is an increasing desire to steer his own creative tension towards nuclei, which bear the common denominators of memory, ethics, autonomous formation, and his very artistic behaviour. What’s more, these pillars which Panayotidis does not appear to be able to renounce in each of his works, do not constitute an ideological “a priori” as much as a result revealed by the character of the processes, of their outcomes, in other words, by what the works manifest. From this viewpoint, and bearing in mind several considerations necessary to defining Panayotidis’ current path of development, it wouldn’t be futile or repetitive to re-propose the persistence of something poetically radical in his work, resembling that of several “poveristi” artists frequented by Panayotidis during his youth spent in Turin. Their common interests were characterized by simplicity in their use of materials and in their transformation, favouring a process of assembly rather than of model-making.

In order to penetrate the heart of what we intend to propose and emphasize here, to get a new angle on the work of this Greek artist, who has been active for years in Bern, it is fundamental to tackle the vital entity of the above-mentioned nuclei, the true cause of all the energy gushing through his work. The latter essentially aims to raise a question, in one’s own perception, regarding the rapport with the complex reality that the work evokes and requires. But how is Panayotidis’ current work formed and by what? We can observe how his work has undergone quite controlled variations; in each of his works, the “passages” amongst the forms come about through a succession of varied degrees, nonetheless effective in conveying an artistic language, confirming Panayotidis’ increasing desire to create an image that is as vibrant as a flame.

A part of the artist’s work is famous for its use of photography, and, just as he did in the past, Panayotidis emulsifies the canvas photographically in black and white, adding a variety of colours at will. These recent works display manual interventions with the use of graphite or pastels which, together with ink-covered areas, appear in some way to introduce a sense of disorientation, opaqueness, and detachment from any pre-existing trace. The breaking up of the photographic image through the use of graphite and pastel introduces the element of drawing to the work, with the consequent effect of softening the incisiveness of the photographic base. The work is infused with mnemonic value, which was formerly much less evident, and this makes the image appear less sharp. But what effectively contributes to determining this effect is the presence of a lighting device placed behind each canvas. It is low-intensity, only just perceptible, but enough to draw one’s gaze towards the point of light, precisely because of its faintness. It should be stressed here that this polarity almost always marks the final perspective point of an environmental situation present in the image.

The works Costretto a cercarvi, 2008, Costretto a indicarvi, 2008 and Costretto a condurvi, 2008 were created with this device, which invites us to direct our gaze toward the back of the image, as if to revive something from the depths of memory to consciousness.

The works therefore conjure up a dream, which has no real topology, even if the photographic images might lead us to suppose that. In reality, the images reify aspects which, ceasing to be distinctive of a certain place and time, aspire to become “non places” inasmuch as locations of a dimension more desirable than that achieved, more dreamt about than experienced. Each image appears to surrender a degree of distinctiveness in favour of a degree of imaginativeness, with the aim of establishing in and around itself a sense of symbolism.

Analogously, the canvases Altra luce altra architettura, 2008, Appare, 2008 or Fuori luogo, 2008, again conjuring up a fact or a place that has been blurred and “removed” from one’s conscience, produce the effect of highlighting the centrality of memory in the thought processes which intend to remain alert and active. This permanent attention and exercising of the memory, which light up the darkness of the background like an unceasing gaze in the darkness, but which always seeks out a more extreme level so as not to draw back, is precisely the sense of ethics. It is the essential value which nurtures the dynamic authenticity of the work and which, guiding the artist’s moral behaviour, makes him credible and able to consider natural and social laws, beauty and its enigma of artistic expression.

There is nothing idealistic about Panayotidis’ work. On the contrary, it draws inspiration from daily life, leaving tangible traces of a work which achieved poetic value through the materials of its own time. The best metaphor of this practice is Me between sky and sea, 2008, a work in which the wake of an already far-off motorboat leaves before our eyes testimony of its action between the water and the air.

If we look more closely, most of Panayotidis’ works are characterised by light: be it that of the works already mentioned or that in which the neon is concealed in the band of lead, as in the two works Orizzonti possibili, 2007, or in Senza titolo, 2008, evoking a factory.

But light is congenital in Panayotidis’ work owing to the photographic basis of many of his pictures. Photography is the ghost of something eternally illuminated by a flash of light before our eyes and our consciences. Within this approach, typical of a certain era, throughout the varied range of his work, his neon writings take on a particular character, becoming “insignia of inner life”. Many other artists make different use of this material. The great effects achieved through the use of neon by Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, James Turrel or Kosuth by no means belittle the pioneering spirit of Lucio Fontana. But Panayotidis’ use of neon in works such as the contemporary Omicidio, 2007, followed by Fame, 2008, conjure up echoes of ambiguity very different from those we have just mentioned. If we were to look for comparisons, we would need to find them in the poetic actions of Merz’s Sitin, 1968 or Che fare?, 1968. But in actual fact, such a comparison would be vain, since something quite different pervades Panayotidis’ insignia. In their pure and unadorned alphabetic linearity, they touch the coordinates of an evocative distance, no longer brushed by the sensitiveness of the 1960s and 70s, but rather by the glacial dimension of our years, where the inconsistency of content, in order to be accepted, expands the proportions of the messages.

Panayotidis is only too aware that to operate on such levels is like playing with fire: one risks getting burnt, but the risk is worth it because in his case the use of writing is congenital insofar as it belongs to him traditionally, ever since the era of the most archaic public epigraphs which can be seen on the stones of his town, in Delfi or elsewhere.

As early as Kabul, 2001 and subsequently Exil, 2005, and Vedo dove devo, 2006, the “insignia”, albeit in different ways, had become the object of the work, and light was heralded as a material to be elaborated inside the writing. In fact, we cannot ignore the semantic value of each one of those works, holding different keys of interpretation, at times in terms of specific places, at others anthropological conditions, and transliterations close to the alchemy of Rimbaud’s poetry.
In all cases, for Panayotidis light must be steered, right from its introduction into the work, toward the metaphorical element of “vigil” and objective illumination, but should also be perceived as a symbolic element of what lightens the darkness and prevents oblivion, obscurity and unconsciousness.

More recently, Panayotidis has created a form which, from his first conception entitled Pagine luminose, 2006, introduces light through or alongside a large antiphonary, undoubtedly lay, since without any writing or sign that can identify it. In an analogous form, a large open-paged book without writing, placed vertically upon a table, is accompanied by neon light segments which, as well as lighting up the pages of Niente altro che luce, 2008, simulate pens for an incipient, yet absent piece of writing, even though substituted by the diffusion of light all around. As it was clear to Fontana, for whom the “means” were synonymous of the evolution of artistic expression, for Panayotidis also, light becomes an instrument which allows him to transmit spatial and temporal elements such as memory, time and imagery in a concise way. We could affirm that these are the tensions which, starting from his photographic-based pictorial, sculptural work up to his light-based works, currently define his linguistic ambit from which a dialogue is developed with the rest of European painting.

Over the years, the exhibitions held in Genoa, Salonicco and subsequently La Spezia and Rome have displayed Panayotidis’ increasingly evident need to conceive his own work in a critically dialectic way with aspects determining reality, which influence our contemporary existence: from mass media falsehood to consumerism, from multiform violence to indifference, from the repression of dreams to the absence of prospects. Panayotidis’ work naturally opposes all these “deterrents” by simply reaffirming ethical rules, maintaining dreams, inventing forms, affirming independence and individual freedom. Through the poetics of his work, he brings out the essential resources of art, revealed today in a predicament of huge global crisis as the only energy that is not subjected to entropy, contrarily revealing itself as a safeguard of irremissible humanistic reason.

Bruno CorĂ 

translated by Alice Fisher

Nakis Panayotidis

 (Text to exhibition A14 from 26.11.1996 until 22.3.1997, ex. cat 68 GHK, Wichtrach/Berne, 2003)

Nakis Panayotidis spent his childhood, his youth and his schooldays, in Greece. At the age of nineteen, in 1966, he went to live in Turin. Since 1973 he has been living and working in Berne. Whilst it is from these three worlds, and from his experiences gained in them, that he draws his inspiration, Nakis Panayotidis's art is both timeless and placeless.

The earliest works known to me date from 1985. The preceding years were a period of incubation, a period yet to be explored by us art historians. We know of the beginnings of his studies in architecture and art in Turin and Rome respectively, and we also know about his deep involvement in the process of intellectual revolution and liberation which, since 1968, has left its mark, both there and everywhere else in the world.

The word

The first illustration in my documentation of the work of Nakis Panayotidis shows a black painting on canvas, almost two metres wide and one and a half metres high, its entire format filled with the name of GOYA, nothing more, nothing less, in raised, glossy and even blacker letters (Fig. a). In the monograph1 published by Hans Christoph von Tavel in 1994, this 'word painting' is placed opposite an etching entitled Contra el bien general, number 71 in Goya's series Los Desastres de la Guerra produced between the years of 1808 and 1823. Nakis Panayotidis sees in this etching the epitome of the oeuvre of this precursor of modernism who possessed the gift of being able to summarize everything that had been before and to forecast everything that was yet to come.

The art of Goya in general and his Los Desastres de la Guerra in particular represented the beginning of that avant-garde intellectual movement in Europe which strove to achieve freedom of thought and development for every human being. In 1810, this avant-garde was a good two generations ahead of its time (since Augustus, people in Europe went through 'only' sixty generations) and was widely rejected by contemporary society. It was not until 1863 that Los Desastres de la Guerra could be published. For their part, CĂ©zanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh were a whole generation ahead of their time. Several periods of reactionarism still impeded the acceptance of avant-garde thought by society, the darkest one being that of 1933-1945 and the last one being the twenty post-war years from 1948 onwards, for it was not until after the events of 1968 that society caught up with Europe's intellectual avant-garde. Goya was accepted and, from that time on, every individual has been free - but also responsible. GOYA will henceforth be cited not infrequently in the works of Nakis Panayotidis.

In much the same way as those who had any feeling of social responsibility could never elude Goya, the aphorist Panayotidis2 cannot elude Nietzsche. Again and again the "edge of wisdom is turned against the wise man"3, as in his installation of 19874 and his tar and light bulb painting of 1989-92 (Fig. b). The word, as used by Panayotidis, does not however serve as an explanatory title or as a commentary in the painting which might assist our further understanding of it. Just as his paintings are aphorisms, his words are their punctuation marks, fully integrated into the painting, or, as in the case of GOYA, they themselves, and nothing else, are the painting. After 1989, taciturn photographs begin to replace his word panels of tarred roofing felt and sheet lead, though the word may still make its appearance, scratched into the lintels of stone or lead that weigh them down.

Conversely, the word can also be evoked by a pictorial shape which operates hieroglyphically, as in Africa5 (Fig. c), for example. Instead of a relief roughly shaped like the continent of Africa, the word AFRICA, in raised letters of tar, could just have easily appeared in the painting. It would have awakened in the viewer the same dense complexity of associations with this dark, mysterious, at once menaced and menacing continent.

The material

Tarred roofing felt or paper, out of which Panayotidis, using a blow lamp, makes the asphalt simply bubble and into the softened surface of which he inscribes his words, is the basic material with which he creates his 'panels'. In his later works, their place may often be taken by sheets of lead and large-format photographs, mounted on metal or canvas, sometimes by sheets of aluminium. These are augmented - though seldom dominantly - by paving stones, slabs or pillars of marble, layered or rolled sheets of lead. Only the bundles of strangely crimped straw, which Panayotidis unweaves from woven straw mats, are allowed to spread across the 'panels'.

Added to all that is the artificial lighting by way of an electric light bulb, a spotlight or a fluorescent tube, sometimes directly visible and thus contributing vividly to composition, sometimes only indirectly visible, operating as a source of light for the work and nothing else.

It is almost exclusively in his drawings that Panayotidis explores colour. Only seldom does colour find its way into his 'panels'. When it does, it appears purely as a line or stroke, as in his early works, or, in his new photo installations, as a sporadic hint, a diaphanous veil. The use of brush, pencil or crayon is reserved for the shaping of the word, whether in black paint on canvas, or scratched into asphalt or lead sheet or written in chalk on paving stones.

We are sometimes surprised by his use of such auxiliary structures as metal frames or acrylic tables, or we query the sense and meaning of a light bulb laid on a cushion. Whilst these, too, are integral parts of the respective works, they can also operate as independent pieces in their own right, like the lamps in the installation at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center in Athens in 1989.6

Art and the artist

In his aphorisms7 published in 1996 in the catalogue accompanying his joint exhibition with Ronald Jones and Thomas Ruff, in his correspondence with Hans Christoph von Tavel8 published in 1994, and in his published interviews with Adelina von FĂĽrstenberg9 in 1986, with Fabian Meier10 in 1995 and with Sabine Hahnloser and Andreas Tschopp11 in 1996, Panayotidis formulates existential questions about art, about artists, and about himself. Objectively, and with remarkable discipline, he avoids self-interpretation, revealing nothing but the peculiarities of his creative process. Besides these statements, his combinations of words, images and symbols, and the titles of the works themselves, are our only primary sources of information.

The critics

Let us begin this account of secondary literature with the 1987 catalogue of the Studio Gianni Caruso, in which Acindino Quesada discusses the possible ways in which Panayotidis's art comes to terms with the history of the industrial revolution. This he achieves, writes Quesada, through the medium of time. Time, through the present, destroys everything. The result, he writes, is a "work of memory" and Panayotidis's works make us conscious of the "struggle both for the liberation of form and for the liberation of life", for they not only show us what we are but also make us aware of our social significance.12

In their essays in the catalogue "Il raggio duro del Sole", Enrico Crispolti and Lucio Barbera placed the eight relatively young exhibiting artists among the successors to, or in the countermovements of, Arte povera, Minimal art and Concept art. Among these artists was Panayotidis, whose works in the Messina exhibition were characterized by Crispolti as follows: "[he] works with even more elementary, spatially reduced structures, signs that operate with the effective sharpness and severity of conceptual symbolism, that is the say, with the values and meanings that reside in them, with delicate metal frameworks that are as subtle as they are clear, with materials whose abstraction belies their materiality, and with fragments of words. His world of images is one which is reduced to bare essentials, which speaks with the clarity of minimal yet highly evocative objects: memories of what he has experienced and felt in his life, of his culture, of the Mediterranean people."13 Barbera looks beyond "memory" to "the source of memory": "[.] not just the branch of the tree or its fruit, no, its very root [.] art has always originated from an idea [.], but Concept art takes the credit for representing the idea itself, transcending the object which embodies it [.]."14 Referring to Panayotidis in particular, he writes: "Of the highest refinement, at times almost decorative, is the work of Nakis Panayotidis, who succeeds in transposing the development of a sign, a development which has long been considered linear, into the simplest conceivable structures, such as wire mesh or just pure materiality. The object does not refer to any idea beyond its own self (although that, too, is possible), manifesting itself purely as the result of a thought process, and challenges us rather to fathom what is going on behind its back, the whole immaterial burden of emotions, feelings and states of tension that created it. And the result is really one of extreme beauty, of pristine purity, as pure as the idea and as absolute as harmony, and only slightly encumbered with matter."

In his introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center in Athens in 1989, Hans Christoph von Tavel recognizes the essential motivation behind Nakis Panayotidis's art as "the artist's self-knowledge or, to be more precise, his need to relate his own experiences of self-knowledge to those of the viewer." He also refers to Nakis Panayotidis's "irresistible affinity to the colour of black [and to] the black pictures of Goya" and to the fact that the artist "turned his back on Constructivism and Minimalism 20 years ago [.] in search of the origins and very beginnings of the image in the context of Arte Povera. Like his fellow countryman Kounellis, Panayotidis has, in the intellectual ambiance of Arte Povera, found his way back to the Greek myths and to the Socratic 'Know thyself!'. Since then, he has refused to give in to conventional aesthetics and has, with asphalt and straw, lent artistic expression to a natural contrariety. The depth of the black, the reflecting gloss and the hardness and smoothness of the setting asphalt hark, in the ultimate analysis, back to the same holistic structure as nature and to its state of dryness and hardness expressed by the straw: everything is polymorphous and relative. Thus Panayotidis's work forms part and parcel of the great research into the essence of matter and into the human being's sensuous experience of it."15

Acindino Quesada, writing in the same catalogue, likewise explores the historical context in which Panayotidis's art developed, carefully examining not only the process by which it evolved on a 'matter/experience/history/memory' level but also those questions concerning truth and the viewer's place, our place, in Panayotidis's art.16

In her review of the exhibition at the Blancpain/Stepcynski Gallery in Geneva in 1990, published in Artis, Gabrielle Boller wrote the following about Panayotidis. "[he] conveys the impression of being a man of few words, of not wanting to give too much away; he intimates, he evokes images, but does not colour them in; he harks back to the myths of classical antiquity, not in order to wallow in their eternally valid truths but rather to test their viability in a changed reality. Indeed, he forever seems to be on the track of things from the reverse side."17

After a number of reflections on the dialectic of modernism and post-modernism, Klaus Ottmann testifies to the fact that all of the nine Greek artists taking part in the exhibition Hellenikon at the City Gallery in New York in 1990 manifest "[.] a strong mythical element in their work, an element which has its origin not only in their inherited cultural repertoire but also, in varying degrees, in other systems, such as the mass media or the history of art. All of them are involved in the further development of modernism in Heidegger's sense of 'quaternity' (Geviert)." And, further on: "Both of them, Jannis Kounellis and Nakis Panayotidis, speak of the need for a new vocabulary which points beyond the dialectic of modernism in the sense of Heidegger's 'quaternity'; the former does so by placing the emphasis on a 'practical' kind of art which combines unstructured and raw materials with industrial elements, often as site-specific installations; the latter does so by using such memory-charged materials as tar and straw, which he often groups together with electric light bulbs, thus expressing the two extremes of dark and light, myth and enlightenment. In one of his early yet highly significant phenomenological studies, Matière et Mémoire, the French philosopher Henri Bergson explores the dualism of outer reality (matter) and inner reality (memory). According to Bergson, the one is neither the cause nor the effect of the other. Matter is a mixture of images which are neither representations nor things, but something in-between. He concluded that the difference between body and spirit cannot be understood in terms of space but in terms of 'time'. Images of perceived reality are an infinite succession of fleeting moments. Panayotidis's works operate with this confluence of matter and memory and reveal the truth as an image of time."18

In her contribution to the same catalogue, Catherine Cafopoulos sees the nine artists in the context of their diasporic relationship to their myth-laden native country of Greece: "When creating his works, Nakis Panayotidis seems to be totally engrossed in myth, art history and nature - a very wide spectrum indeed. Light and dark, Homer (or is it Kavafis?) and Goya, straw and word and tar appear together, just as they were, in Untitled (1989) and Ithaka (1989). Panayotidis uses history as a mediator, believing that it will enable him to achieve a true knowledge of humanity and of his own self in the Socratic sense. Darkness, represented by the black of the tar in which the wood and the planks were immersed, is a reference to Oedipus's self-inflicted blindness as prophesied by the oracle. It implies many other things, too, such as the inevitability of fate, the greater clarity and vitality of one's inner spiritual vision, and wisdom. Moreover, it alludes to the artist's symbolic immersion in his Greek cultural heritage, and in the heritage and history of western Europe, in his endeavour to achieve a better understanding of his own self, of life and of the age in which he lives."19

In 1991, following the astronomical globalization of art and the art market during the 1980s, Hans Christoph von Tavel made a dramatic plea in an essay on Panayotidis for the return of the "tough, uncompromising and determined lone wolves", among which, he writes, is "one of the kindest, most sociable and most peaceable people I know: Nakis Panayotidis." Von Tavel then proceeds with what was hitherto the most thorough discussion of the artist's individual works, above all We too are Greeks and In Thebes, Polis, 1,618, Arcadia and Panayotidis's installations with photographs of the iron ore mine on the island of Serifos.20

Démosthènes Davvetas, writing in the catalogue of the exhibition at the Rigassi Gallery in Berne in 1993, discusses the relationship between word and matter in Panayotidis's works. The latter, says Davvetas, does not seem to absorb the former just passively; on the contrary, they interact, and in such a way that we can 'read' the works: "Residing in the work of Nakis Panayotidis is the expressive power of matter in its most natural state. His language does not, therefore, celebrate the expressive power of the written word but, rather, that of growth: that element, in other words, which makes things appear. Light."21

In the monograph edited by Hans Christoph von Tavel and published by Benteli-Verlag, Berne, in 1994, Viana Conti sees in Nakis Panayotidis a "creator of landscapes of memory, starting out from the state of being a stranger. In his work, the mythical dimension of Athens goes hand in hand with the poetical dimension of the island of Serifos, where he has been spending the summer months for the past sixteen years. [.] the mechanism of memory is set in motion [.] by the lever of distance. The distance from a place becomes the condition on which the artist reflects upon it, reconstructs it in his memory. Here and there, near and far, present and absent, visible and not visible, material and mnemonic - these are the terms we associate with Panayotidis's creativity." The written word in Nakis Panayotidis's work has its sequel, writes Viana Conti, in "light's direct means of writing" - photography: "His landscapes are never descriptive, they are memories of light, light which may be physical, or psychical, or literary, or conceptual. He creates his myths not by narrating a story but by narrating the will to narrate, as one might perform the mere gesture of an action, but not the action itself. Thus it is that thinking and being are the creative force behind his work."22

Writing in the same monograph, Hans Christoph von Tavel conducts an empathetic 'interview' with Nakis Panayotidis in the form of an exchange of letters23 and Egi Volterrani performs a structural analysis of the personality of this 'Son of Pan'24 - both contributions being highly recommended reading for anyone wishing to deepen his or her knowledge of this artist and his art. The same goes for Fabian Meier's interview with the artist in the catalogue accompanying the Christmas exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Berne, in 1995.25

In her review of the exhibition at the Lehmann Gallery in Lausanne in 1996, Hélène Tauvel-Dorsaz describes the works of Nakis Panayotidis as follows: "Landscapes from which we re-emerge with the feeling of having been in no man's land. What he depicts in them tallies with countless realizations of the present, even though the artist's interest in them is, contrary to outward appearances, closely bound up with his emotional ties with the depicted place."26 In Dimitri L. Coromilas's review of the same exhibition, Panayotidis's works are described as "successive accumulations of personal and collective memories, sharply contoured by a merciless lens which is forced to waive the Greek landscape's intensity of light and colour in favour of black and white (and the industrial landscape is no exception, as in this case), without the blue, neither of the sky nor of the sea, without pity . and in places where, at a certain point in time, the hope of a better future took on, irrevocably, the grim complexion of Utopia."27

Approaching Nakis Panayotidis's art

In a letter to Panayotidis, dated Easter 1993, Hans Christoph von Tavel writes: "I would prefer to clothe what I say and write about your art in questions rather than in assertions. In my dealings with art, and with my own self, I have come to the conclusion that any absolute assertion which allows of no other possibilities lacks the power of conviction. All things can be understood and interpreted in an infinite variety of ways, and often in diametrically opposed ways, too. I am becoming more and more hesitant about writing anything about art which the reader might take as gospel."28 This is an attitude which we have been encountering with ever increasing frequency in recent times, especially among experienced and meritorious museum people. Has the diversity of contemporary art, with its "absolutely anything goes" tendencies, made us so unsure of ourselves? Is it Socratic wisdom, or the proverbial wisdom of old age? I for my part think that we ought not to shy away from the responsibility of communicating our criticism of art, even of the art of our present day, and of constantly stating what art is and what importance it has. There is one thing, however, which is an absolute prerequisite for our understanding of art, namely our awareness that there are many ways of approaching art, some of them are straightforward, others are roundabout, and sometimes they simply lead us to a dead end. All of them, even the latter, seem to me to be important, even though they all pose different degrees of difficulty - indeed, we should perhaps always approach art with André Gide's famous words in mind: "Please don't understand me too quickly!".

I therefore tend, quite deliberately, to write about art with a certain lack of clarity: the subject matter of art is, in my opinion, neither accurate at its centre nor sharp at its edges. Consequently, we art historians can hardly be definitive in what we say and write either. All we can do is attempt to approach the subject matter as closely and as circumscribingly as possible whilst always leaving room for other interpretations. The language of this approach is a different one, too, as the art historian and the art critic - unlike those who pursue other sciences and disciplines - must at all times endeavour to provide more than a purely objective analysis in order to awaken and sustain the reader's or the viewer's interest in the actual subject matter, namely the work of art. The latter, however, is anything but one-dimensional. Indeed, it has a many aspects, and I shall now attempt to approach Panayotidis's works from several such possible aspects.

Panayotidis transforms terms, notions and ideas, his memories of visual experiences of Greece and of art, into images. He creates new continents. In this sense, Goya is just as much a continent as Africa or Arcadia, that idyllic region of Greece where Pan, the modest god of pastures, flocks and woods, lived in peace until the end of his days. Panayotidis, too, created his own Arcadia, in remembrance of his name-giver and of his, Pan's, fruitful descendants. Panayotidis's Arcadia is an undulatingly hilly sheet of lead into which the inscription "ARCADIA PAN" is scratched in Greek letters (Fig. d). This irregular square sinks into a sea of black asphalt and, together with the latter, measures a modest 48 x 42 cm.29 His City of Athens, Thebes, Ithaka refers not only to the historical places but to the geographical places, too, and these he relativizes with his There are no fixed points in space just as much as he relativizes the former with Aristos - The Best, Polis or Attic Peace : do they, did they, actually exist? And were they like that? Whenever his works remain Untitled, released without name, we know what his straw, asphalt and stones are meant to say: give free rein to your imagination and continue to think, like Leonardo da Vinci in front of the stains on the wall. Hence there are several titles that remind us of the motto of the Oracle of Delphi, like Self-knowledge, Soul, Body, Epimelia eaphtou (worry about thyself) or We are all Greeks. Are we? Are we really? The titles and pictures are at once the answer and the question, forever complementing one another, calling one another into question, cancelling one another out, hence the numerous pairings of words - such as Thought - Artist , Architecture - Memory , Matter - Script , Naos - Oikos (Temple - House) , Place - Script , Script - Memory , Place - Memory , Matter - Memory , Nature - Memory , Logos - Memory , Geometry - Script, White - Black, Place - Theatre, Myth - Architecture, Architecture - Geometry, Light - Theatre, Architecture - Place, Nature - Place, Myth - Theatre which in most cases have their pictorial equivalents in the works themselves, and may even take, quite literally, the form of a diptych - or not, as the case may be, as in Nature - Nature (Fig. e), for example. Or perhaps it does, too?

Panayotidis visualizes his ideas with the materials of Arte povera. Arte povera is not a style but, rather, one of the many, ever more differentiated methods of modernism. In her recently published anthology of Arte povera, Nike Bätzner writes: "The word 'poor' means a reduction of the means used, a reflection on one's own self, the possibilities afforded by one's own body, its interaction with the immediate environment, a regard for materials and nature. 'Poor' is also understood as the very opposite of an environment oriented on the economic miracle, mass media and technology."30

That was the case in 1968. What is special about Panayotidis's method? The few and simple materials he uses have already been referred to. The attempt - insofar as this is possible in everyday life - to retreat within himself, to refuse to accept the flood of visual information through the mass media, of which he is certainly aware, and to exclude himself from the working mechanisms of society and the art trade manifests itself in Panayotidis's work permanently. However, this attempt at keeping his distance must remain just that, an attempt. It must never succeed. Only a life on both sides can give his works the social dimension which he himself demands of them. This social dimension consists in the awakening of the viewer's memory through the awakening of his own and finds expression in the unconditional challenge to forget the now and think of the solitarily dangling, naked - Coromilas uses the word 'anaemic' - light bulb of a more austere youth31 and lay it, like a trophy, on a golden cushion (Fig. f). Forget the now and remember later, for memories are, as Hans Christoph von Tavel writes, possibly the most stable and durable things in life.32 Perhaps we may interpret Panayotidis's works as altars built in worship of memory.

Panayotidis keeps his distance primarily by means of subversion, a special form of 'guerilla tactic' recommended to artists by the Arte povera theorist Germano Celant. All art, however, is subversive, unless, of course, it isn't art in the first place, for it exposes, unmasks, even when it is in the service of reaction, or even of repression. Indeed, even the art that served the mighty in their vainglorious desire for self-aggrandization did exactly that, entirely contrary to the intentions of its patrons. Take, for example, the art of those secular and ecclesiastical strongholds whose sheer enormousness was meant to subjugate and humiliate the individual, or that of the hypocritical 'masters of the female pubic hair', or of the (hopefully!) forever greatest Surrealist, whose virtues ran the whole gamut, from that of the peasant to that of the warrior. They were all - as we, too, shall be - exposed, unmasked. Panayotidis achieves this, with us, through the positive and yet methodologically altogether underhand perfidy of his word-and-picture combinations which, because they are constantly awakening our memory, 'worm' their way into our mind's eye and become, in their turn, new visual memories.

Panayotidis does this in Berne by the side of the River Aare, directly beneath the Curia Confoederationis Helveticae. There, in his Diogenes's barrel, he distils from his memory his aphorisms in words and pictures; there, in broad daylight, he walks about lamp in hand, a Greek in the diaspora, and not an isolated case either - think of Kounellis in Rome, Chryssa and Samara in New York or those Greek artists, like Nikos, Tsoklis, Caniaris, Paulos and Takis, who were born after 1930, emigrated to Paris around 1960 and grouped themselves around the art gallery of Alexandre Jolas. It is in this diaspora, however, that our artist friend Panayotodis is indeed a loner, and an ascetic to boot. His ideas and the way he materializes them testify to an ascetism of the highest order. His word-and-picture aphorisms are the product of long and careful thought; they undergo frequent changes and are often discarded altogether. Consequently, his oeuvre is small. In recent years, hardly more than twenty to thirty works are produced in any one year. Behind what at times seems an easy-going, carefree, light-hearted exterior is a stolid and compassionate thinker: subversion par excellence. Is Berne the right place in the diaspora for this ascetic? Is it good for him and he for it? I think so. The cultural and geographical distance from Serifos, his island, and from those other places in Greece where he gets his fill of fresh memories, is precisely what enables him to come to terms with them artistically.

The works

What Panayotidis creates is in principle what has also been running like a golden thread through 'surreal' art ever since found objects were used for early collages and by Duchamp as ready-mades, namely still lifes. That this is so is demonstrated by the fact - and this we have already observed - that a great many of his works are untitled. Still lifes operate solely through the form, colour and materiality of their components, they are art in its purest form and hence just right for a radical artistic ascetic like Panayotidis. And it is with these still lifes that Panayotidis makes the 'signs' that may also become 'words'.

Since the end of the 1980s, photographs have been pushing these signs out towards the edges of his pictures. They are photographs - memories - of the ruins and relics of industrialized Greece, of another Greece, the Greece of a contemporary Greek.

In this way, Panayotidis also creates landscapes of the kind that can already look back on a long tradition, namely the anti-classical tradition of modernism, the tradition that seeks its subject matter in places far removed from the time-honoured 'veduta', mostly in what is seemingly trivial, commonplace, the tradition that began with CĂ©zanne's 'The Railway Cutting' of 1870.

Panayotidis's photography is not, however, an end in itself but serves to evoke memories. And it is as blurred as these memories, too, for it has been gently overpainted and tinged by the time that has meanwhile passed by, and it is also 'fixed', quite literally, by a load from above.

This 'load from above' relates to the photograph in much the same way as an architrave, the main beam or lintel forming the lower part of the entablature of a Greek temple, relates to the columns on which it rests. Indeed, the reference of the one to the other could not be more direct :

Damage to a wall in the photograph has its counterpart in a similarly shaped, lead-filled area of damage in the stone lintel; here a massive row of pillars, there a huge stone roller; here a passage leading into the dark depths, there a passage brightly lit from behind. Indeed, the entire lighting for the picture may come from just a small neon tube in the lintel, that element of composition which serves not only to alienate but also to illuminate, and in every sense of the word. The pattern made by the deep wheel tracks at the bottom of a stone quarry is repeated in the sheet of lead above, adjacent to which are the cubes of marble quarried from the rock face just visible in the photograph.

The magical becomes vividly clear, memory becomes imagery, and contemporary history becomes a timeless work of art.

Wolfgang Henze

Translated by John Brogden, Dortmund


1 Nakis Panayotidis - Hans Christoph von Tavel: Ein Briefwechsel. In: Nakis Panayotidis, Mnemographie, Benteli Verlag, Bern 1994, p. 66f

2 Nakis Panayotidis: (Aphorismen). In: Cat. Rethymnon Centre for Contemporary Art, Rethymno/Kreta 1996, p. 41-46

3 Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter 9

4 Illustration in: Acindino Quesada: Passato-Presente, Presente-Bruciato, Trattamento della Memoria. In: Cat. Studio Gianni Caruso, Torino 1987

5 Viana Conti: Nakis Panayotidis - Maler des Lebens, Schriftsteller des Lichts (Painter of Life, Writer of Light). In: Nakis Panayotidis, Mnemographie. Benteli Verlag, Bern, 1994, p. 65

6 Acindino Quesada: La réalité comme référence ou la référence de l'histoire comme réalité contextuelle. In: Cat. Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, Athens 1989, p. 16

7 See Footnote 2, p. 41-46

8 See Footnote 1, p. 11-45

9 Adelina von Fürstenberg: Un dialogue avec N. Panayotidis. In: Cat. Galerie des Bastions, Genève 1986

10 Fabian Meier: Interviews von Fabian Meier mit vier KĂĽnstlern in Bern. In: Cat. Weihnachtsausstellung Kunsthalle Bern 1995

11 Dimitri L. Coromilas: R. Jones, N. Panayotidis, Th. Ruff. In: Arti, Vol. 32 (1996)

12 See Footnote 4

13 Enrico Crispolti: Il raggio duro del sole. In: Cat. Palazzo dei Leoni, Messina 1988, p. 12

14 Lucio Barbera: La bussola del chaos. In: Cat. Palazzo dei Leoni, Messina, 188, p. 16

15 Hans Christoph von Tavel: o. T. In: Cat. Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, Athens 1989, p. 5

16 See Footnote 6

17 Gabrielle Boller: o. T. In: Artis Nr. 42 (1990), p. 49

18 Klaus Ottmann: The Dialectic of Modernism. In: Cat. City Gallery, New York 1990, p. 12f

19 C. Cafopoulos: Legend, History and Modern Heroes. In: Cat. City Gallery, New York 1990, p. 33f

20 Hans Christoph von Tafel: N. Panayotidis. In: Apeiron Nr. 2 (1991), p. 76-79.

21 Démosthène Davvetas: Die Ausdruckschaft des Lichts. In: Cat. Galerie Rigassi, Bern 1993

22 See Footnote 5

23 See Footnote 1

24 Egi Volterrani: Mittag einers Fauns (The Noon of a Faun). In: Nakis Panayotidis. Mnemographie, Benteli Verlag, Bern 1994

25 See Footnote 10

26 Hélène Tauvel-Dorsaz: Nakis Panayotidis superpose mémoires individuelles et collective. In: Journal de Genève, 19.1.1995

27 Dimitri L. Coromilas: Nakis Panayotidis - Galerie Lehmann, Lausanne. In: Arti, Vol. 30 (1996), p. 206-209

28 See Footnote 8, S. 15

29 Illustration in: Hans Christoph von Tavel: N. Panayotidis. In: Apeiron Nr. 2 (1991), p. 79

30 Cf. Nike Bätzner: Vorwort. In: Arte povera, Manifeste, Statements, Kritiken. Edited by Nike Bätzner, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden Basel 1995, p. 19ff

31 See Footnote  27, S. 208

32 See Footnote 1, S. 15

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