We speak so much of memory because so little of it is left.
While living and working in Berlin since the late 1990s, Evanthia Tsantila has repeatedly reappeared in the Greek scene as a “stranger to ourselves,” to borrow the title of Julia Kristeva’s recent study of the “stranger” in society and in us. In contrast to the multiform efforts to bridge the gap between art and life since the 1950s, Tsantila has instead, with her art and public persona, geared towards a “difficult” art that both questions and polices art’s autonomy, while acting as a conceptual alchemist of new and old media. Not surprisingly, she does not consider “communication through art as a process which brings the artist close to the world,” as she recently expressed, “but as something that takes place among the viewers…a transcendental moment of an almost incomprehensible agreement among them, as they are being touched by the same work.” While this commentary was in regard to the lack of communication as thematized in her recent installation Silence (2007), it does convey the intentional hermeticism and solitude of her art. Κείμενα 1993-5 (1995) is one of the earliest samples. A poem with the same title on its cover was inserted in a translucent yet inaccessible glass cube in a conceptual gesture that guarded the essence of artistic objecthood, enacting its uncommunicative alienation, and welcoming her work, as Harry Marandi has observed in another case, in melancholia’s regime. Yet what of the two bars wounding the wall of the gallery, adding to the enigma of her perennial pursuit of the endangered object of art in the society of spectacle and alienation, while returning it to it?
This vestigial site-specificity resurfaces as a common element in most of her early installations. Yet unlike Stratou’s phenomenological teasing of the gallery space, Tsantila’s installations of the 1990s unite the occasional exhibition and the represented space in a fragile codependence that loosens the chains of art’s commodification while unsettling given notions of art’s production, exhibition and viewing—questioning, in her words, "can some notion of an essential objecthood absorb all the state of affairs in which an art work is made, exhibited, viewed, understood or not understood?” Exemplary of this period are installations such as Ramona (1995) and Harbor (1997), and her participation in the 48th Venice Biennale (1999). Prompting the viewer to look hard for the artistic “object,” in Ramona she paraphrased monochrome—a staple of 20th century avant-garde pictorial strategies—into a site- and sky-specific intervention: three blue rectangles of distinctly different dimensions were surreptitiously painted on the walls of a building of uncertain future, in a liminal dialogue with found shapes (the skylight) and the color of the sky in a specific moment of the day (through the same skylight). Equally fragile and specific—with site here understood as both the building of the Pavilion and the institution of the Biennale as a landmark of cultural tourism—was her immaterial proposal for the Biennale. Turning the most advanced means of the culture industry on its head, Tsantila colonized the exhibition space, nearly imperceptibly, with three laser beams (reflected into twelve mirrors), which highlighted its role—as constitutive of art—by repeating its shape in and out of the Pavilion, while also resisting it by alleviating it from the usual accumulation of works in such massive art fairs.
Since the turn of the century, however, Tsantila’s production has taken a rather more intense, interdisciplinary turn, whether consummated in drawings, or in multimedia installations that encompass a variety of mechanical and hand-made images, often utterly hybridized. A “purist” exception, despite its sculptural quality, is her video installation Atomica (2001), in which the “narcissistic” predicament of early video art survives in her juxtaposition of two soft screens (sheets) facing each other, with a video projection of herself looking obsessively through the space of the viewer, at her face acting out various emotional states. It is through a more complex method, however, that usually Tsantila interlaces traditional and new media, materials, and genres as well as other arts, not in a vacuous affirmation of the “postmedium” era. An idiosyncratic testing of various arts’ and mediums’ translatability into an autonomous visual art experience, coupled with an “archival impulse,” underscores most of her recent endeavors. Exemplary are the large drawings with photographic effects and historically significant archival origins (such as the Ball series), or with invented graphemes and cinematic subject matter (like the drawing series Silence, based on stills from Ingmar Bergman’s homonymous film), or installations in which architecture, literature, cinema, theater, photography, and drawing intersect—whether referenced, appropriated, “transcribed” (in the words of Jan-Erik Lundström) or cross-pollinated. Characteristic of the latter are the variations Crime and Punishment (2002-4), which translates a passage from Dostoyevsky into performance, narrative, painted and projected image; and How Nice…How Nice That We Don’t Understand Each Other (2004), in which Bergman’s masterpiece again provides the starting point for an exploration of cinematic time, space and narrative through the use of ink and professional actors, elaborate drawing and video. As the artist explains, in these new series, “using other practices like architecture, film, video, theater, literature, performance and combining them with traditional ones like drawing,” she investigates “that which remains after the continuous transformations from one medium to the other” while also acquiring “the distance of fine art from these practices.” Medium translatability underlies especially her return to “production” through a continuous and deliberately laborious reinvention of drawing that, in and of itself, constitutes the watershed of her latest work. Benjamin’s definition of the task of the translator—“no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original,”—itself paralleling his understanding of photography’s infidelity, somehow resonates in light of the eclectic appropriation of photographs in Tsantila’s drawings. For, as Cadava further interprets, “the task of translation is not to render a foreign language into one we may call our own, but rather to preserve the foreignness of this language.”
To the structuring impulses of archiving and translating I will add the historical and cultural specificity of Berlin—the capital of the reunified German nation, where Tsantila lives and works as a “stranger among them”—in an attempt to describe Standing (2007) as a treatise on memory, despite the artist’s credo that the “work of art cannot be announced” and the fact that most of its parts have not been yet executed. For, as an installation, Standing is less a sequel to her variations of Silence, in which the artist first filmed her neighbor, Frau Wolff, in all her fragility and aloofness, than it relates to works such as The Ball or The Room/The Landscape, which dealt with issues of history, memory and their undeniable relation to trauma—indelibly, to me, linked with the schizophrenic crisis of memory and mnemonic desire that had been feeding German art and culture since the Holocaust, and only renewed under the still-recent reunification.
With Standing, however, the artist aims at exposing generically, as she has astutely said, “the inability of memory to travel on its own means.” It will be comprised of a video (the alteration of three projections, on one loop, showing Frau Wolff standing in a cemetery, a courthouse and an anatomy classroom), a vitrine of small color photographs taken by the artist (some of the same institutional spaces where Frau Wolff is filmed in the video Standing), and a wall installation of ink drawings based on photographs of mostly private archival origins (as if from a family album), yet with conspicuous omissions, multiplications, or additions from other sources that effect a liminal space of uncanny encounters. It is not accidental that one of these figurative drawings or better, palimpsests, of heterogeneous archival traces, is haunted by the specter of Aby Warbung, the art historian whose monumental gathering (the Mnemosyne Atlas) of photographs of “elective affinities” as identifiable forms of collective memory (ranging from reproductions of Renaissance masterpieces to press photos) “questioned,” as Benjamin Buchloh observes, “whether under the universal reign of the photographic reproduction, mnemonic experience could even continue to be construed”—before the Holocaust offered its somber answer. For in as much as Warbung’s anti-positivist redefinition of the Atlas opened the way for the archival impulse in postwar German art, the most prominent being the antinomic archive of Gerhard Richter who was teaching when Tsantila studied at Düsseldorf, she counteracts it to intimate not only a disbelief in historical truth but in its mnemonic tracing. The definition in the Octoberists’ recent volume on 20th century art of the contemporary “archival impulse” makes evident Tsantila’s strategies as well as trepidations:
This impulse which has many precedents in postwar, art is manifest in a will to make historical information, often lost, marginal, or suppressed, physical and spatial, indeed interactive, usually through found images, objects and texts arranged in installations. Like any archive, the materials of this art are found but also constructed, public but also private, factual but also fictive.
In her own version, Tsantila eschews the non-visual knowledge that informs her archival material, and supplants her archive with “constructed” material—a “made” film, and drawings with “doctored” memories borrowed from other archives—frustrating the transmission of personal and collective memory as it is being unhinged from its documentary means (photography, video), and from the dramatically focused lieux de memoires (both the “unstoried” public spaces of Berlin and the private space of Frau Wolff’s aged body).
In terms of exhibition strategy, the juxtaposition of framed drawings on the wall, and photos of a size reminiscent of another era in the museum case, entail different and semantically differentiating viewing of interchangeable documentary and artistic material, thus hampering the passive consumption of the projected image—the immersive surrender of the viewer to the “spectacle.” Standing will, however, remain the centerpiece of the installation: an obscure trilogy of the mute intersection of private and public history in the eye of a presumably candid camera and, above all, a slow, lethargic portrait of an unknown Berliner in the effected “elsewhere” that the artist seeks. Frau Wolff will be displaced from her everyday reality, or rather misplaced in a series of “wrong” places—spaces of representation (rather than representational places, as Lefebvre distinguishes the lived space), spaces with multiple layers of memories, or maybe without (due to the repeated exile of memory that successive regimes have entailed for most places that have survived destruction, redefinition, or renaming in Berlin, as Sophie Calle’s Detachment recently reminded), places which Frau Wolff might have never entered and of which we know little to nothing but their antiquity (they all date from the 19th century). Asked to conform to a command of minimal acting—to stand—she will embody herself in filmic time surrounded alternately by a cemetery turned into a landscape through uselessness, a symmetrical staircase of a flamboyantly and paradoxically (for a courthouse) decorated interior, and a futuristically modern anatomy study room. It is impossible to foresee the effect of the space on her fragilely aged yet bulky body, or to presume—as the artist does, judging from her filming in Silence—her gradual affectless spacing-out, although we can agree with her that the film will be a recording of “a character who is real, while not its recording.”
It might be rewarding to question differently the means and the effects of this encounter. As a successive projection of three almost-still images, Tsantila seems to be toying with the complicit (un)truthfulness of three documentary media at once: video, film, and photography—if Standing is not just a treatise on “photography in the expanded field.” Tourist or home (video) movies aside, the suspension of photographic “stasis” and “narrativity,” the immobility of the camera, and the centrality of “standing” as prolonged “posing” are replete with references to photography, in a near-Barthesian search of the indexical truth of the documented body, here filmed. Above all, these three pieces of untrained acting resemble experiments in the “cinema of the everyday body” whose truth has been propagated by Deleuze:
The body is no longer the obstacle that separates thought from itself…It is through the body that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit. “Give me a body then” is first to mount the camera on an everyday body. The body is never in the present, it contains the before and the after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body.
Praising the revelations of the body in neorealist and underground cinema, Comoli’s “revelation cinema” and Brechtian “gest,” Deleuze observes that it is its tiredness that “suggests to thought something to incommunicate, the unthought, life,” obliquely shedding light on Wolff’s directive to just stand for her revealing body attitude rather than the readable signifiers of class, gender, age, etc.
Yet the invocation of the above three media’s claims to truth, only serves Tsantila to further intimate the gap between memory’s means and its release. With the extraction of the knowledge that Tsantila has systematically mined, about the spaces she used, or about what is after all an East German lady of her next door—a Prussian who survived the war, Nazism, and the Siberian camps of forced labor, who served and outlived GDR—collective and personal memory of places and people recedes, locked in sites of both vulnerability and power (body, cemetery, and arenas of panoptical institutional power). In addition to the arguable amnesia of the body—something which remains to be seen—Tsantila exposes technology’s incapacity to transmit memory, siding with the pessimists in the endless debate already marked by Krackauer’s belief that photography destroys memory, yet in a distinctly different historical moment: a period of excessive colonization by the mass visual culture in the new Berlin, within a society where extended controversies about the (in)capacity of “memorial art” after the Holocaust and long-held counter-memorial conceptual artistic practices have shaken belief in the mnemonic potential of the image.
Seen as withdrawn into the sanctuary of Tsantila’s art’s autonomy, then, Standing might rely on personal remembering—memory’s “involuntary” sparking to recall Proust, as her collage/drawings do in practice—the urging responsibility left to the viewer to survive the onslaught of spectacle and electronic memory. Or, alternatively, it may rely on the viewer’s loving gaze, for “the eye can confer the active gift of love upon bodies which have long been accustomed to neglect and disdain,” according to Kaja Silverman’s re-theorizing of the gaze, since, to her, “to look is to embed the image with a constantly shifting matrix of unconscious memories.” Yet despite the artist or not, Berlin threatens the autonomy of Standing as it enters it through the entropically reconfigured Jewish cemetery—inactive since 1945 but violated by Nazis and neo-Nazis, and now functioning as a memorial—or through the still-used 19th century court and the uncanny scientific theater of death. After all, it is Berlin, the multilayered palimpsest of architectural and other memories, the “city of voids,” in the words of Andreas Huyssen.[^1]
[^1]: “No other major city bears the marks of twentieth century history as intensely and self-consciously as Berlin. This city-text has been written, erased and rewritten throughout this violent century and its legibility relies as much on visible markers of built space as on images and memories repressed and ruptured by traumatic events.”
In its shadow, one wonders if Standing’s silence provocatively mimics the undoing of collective memory that followed and enabled the reunification, leaving citizens, like Frau Wolff, “liberated”, yet their memories homeless once again. Or whether, instead, it is just a trigger to induce mnemonic desire and probe the private archaeology of collective memory before its complete vanishing by what Nora calls the acceleration of history, if not just by its distortion as history. There is no need for further referential markers. The age of both the architecture and of this woman from Berlin are sufficient triggers to urge us to ask the right or wrong questions while there is still time.
New York, July 2007
Published in the catalogue of the exhibition Places in Zone D
Zoumboulakis Galleries, Athens, 2007