Saturday, June 23, 2018


“A little farther, we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves.”
 Giorgos Seferis

There is a common narrative within our culture that seeks to reduce the discourse of Hellenism into its elemental constituent parts. With Seferis, this was marble, sun and sea. Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis on the other hand, identified other significant elements: “If Greece is completely destroyed, what will remain is an olive tree, a vine and a boat. It is enough to begin again.”

When one views the photographic collection ‘Horizons,’ a sub-set of son of the former king of Greece, Nikolaos’, exhibition: “Phos, a Journey of Light,” currently at the Hellenic Museum, one is immediately reminded of that narrative, and is left in no doubt that the artist is partaking in it. In a darkened room, a series of haunting photographs of dawns and sunsets, taken so that the dividing line between sea and sky is distinct and level, instead, brings to mind not so much the identification of the elemental components that comprise our identity, as something that transcends them, Greece and the natural world altogether, the archetypal process of Creation itself: “And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Though our lowly terrestrial position may circumscribe our perspective, inhibiting our surveying the broader aspects of our identity, the artist descends from on high to illumine us that further than narrow conceptions of Hellenism as a world view, here are higher powers at play here. The artist, as light bearer, beams these cryptic messages in their infinite permutations upon the waves of his creations.

The entrance to the exhibition is marked by a video installation depicting an animated silhouette of the artist, in the process of executing a zeimbekiko dance behind a luminous Greek flag. It is easy to be immediately transfixed by it. On the one hand the piece appears to replicate every single western stereotype there is, of modern Greece. It suggests, at first glance, a person, much like most of us here in the Antipodes, who has spent most of his life outside of Greece and thus primarily engages with Greece from the perspective of the stereotypes he has imbibed in the countries of his sojourn, identifiably, in a visual vocabulary that is not Helladic but contrived. Viewed from this perspective, this installation thus serves as a powerful and poignant post-modern-critique of orientalism, its effects upon concepts of identity in a globalised but nonetheless imperialist world, and the search for an emancipated Greek identity, on Greek terms, whatever these may be.

The reason why this installation has a deeper meaning and is thus intriguing, is because it convinces the viewer that it serves as a parody of stereotype. The lines on the Greek flag assume the role of jail bars. The artist executing the zeimbekiko is trapped beneath a heavy corpus of stereotypical symbols, the meanings that derive from them, and already laid out expectations as to how one is to appreciate these, that control the manner of his identity and its expression. Thus, the silhouette dances the dance of free men, ostensibly unscripted, but according to tightly choreographed steps dictated by tradition, a myriad of movies, posters and an evolved Greek political culture that demands that those holding the reins of power prove their virility by becoming Lords of the Dance, in a closeted and stifling space that in actual fact overturns the concept of freedom that both it and the Greek flag are supposed to connote.

The bars on the flag, which are traditionally held to represent the syllables of the words: Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος, (Liberty or Death) further illustrate the paradox. According to the popular discourse, one is either to choose one OR the other. One is NOT FREE, within the parameters of this banner of freedom to explore the nuances in between the two absolutes, presumably just as one is, within the increasingly polarised zeitgeist both within Greece and its diasporan communities, not able to comfortably traverse the varying gradations and facets of the Hellenic paradigm. Instead, if one is to satisfactorily “prove” their Hellenic credentials, they must funnel their actions within a pre-determined and pre-approved time loop, and replicate these for legitimacy, over and over again. Consequently, Nikolaos’ is a profound and vastly subversive discourse.

Except for his very personal appearance, trapped behind the flag, and a print of his wife’s heavily stylised silhouette, like a regal postage stamp, over that most Seferic Greek elemental medium, marble, no other humans people the artist’s creations. Does this betray an intensely personal interaction with the constituent elements of identity that must be resolved by each person alone, without the impingement or intervention of others? Does one here combine the artist with the person in his historical context and consider whether such a stance derives from a reaction to the attempts by others who identity as Greek to deny him the same properties? There is safety of expression in the elemental.

Nikolaos’ other ‘Greek’ seascapes, generally reminiscent of other artists’ renditions of the genre, may, superficially at least, appear to be eminently generic. Yet the seascape entitled “Phantom” is immediately arresting, deliberately shattering the beguiling placidity of the other vistas framing it. From the unnervingly deep blue waters, a ghostly figure stirs. The monocular visage of a spectre, part Cyclops, part robotic nightmare suggests that light not only liberates, but also reveals within depths, menaces that lurk undisturbed. It is to us to determine whether or not such fault-lines as subsist through our culture should be addressed. Viewed at an angle, the Cyclops seems to be screaming the identity of he who has caused his pain. “No one.” Because in the entirety of Nikolaos’ exhibition, full of pregnant pauses and fleeting nuances, there is no one ever there.

An intense, unbearable and crushing sense of loneliness and isolation permeates “Phos.” It is this sense of dislocation, masterfully rendered, that suggests that Nikolaos’ work must be interpreted through the lens of a Greek abroad, a diasporan, who though his artistic syntax may not be ‘Helladic’ per se and references western-derived constructions of Greece, is able to articulate highly emotive artwork which challenges these very constructs and raises interesting questions about the nature of the Greek identity, its antipodean permutations and the manner in which these are received and extrapolated within diasporan communities, mythologised and ultimately, stereotyped, all through a remarkable homage to the elemental discourse of some of the most profound thinkers on the subject of Greek identity that ever existed.

Poet of the Sea, Zisimos Lorentzatos once wrote: “Just like the kings, on coins worn away in the hands of the people/ the face of Empedocles emerges/ observing blood upon the bay….. Dark and wild power, reveal yourself/ an enemy of classical Greece/ and save me from its white column/ that closes me in.” Nikolaos’ attempt at mastery over the elements offers him and so many others, a bridge over troubled waters, to destinations undisclosed.


First published in NKEE on 23 June 2018