By Michael Van den Abeele
On the 11th October, on the eve of the opening of the Frieze art fair, Danai Anesiadou performed at the David Roberts foundation. The performance was an offspring and an extension of her solo exhibition, DAMNESIA VU – Zum besten der Griechen, currently showing at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland. Not only did some of the material shown in the exhibition function as props for the performance, it also expanded the drama that is on display in the Kunsthalle.
DAMNESIA VU, Anesiadou’s first institutional solo exhibition is, up until now, the most vast encounter one can have with the artists work. Anesiadou’s practice – a cross-over of different media that mainly draws upon performance – encompasses an area of the autobiography and the search for the self. A quest, though, that appears sometimes more reminiscent of digestion or even of exorcism. A search for identity and unrequited love traces a path along the artist’s Greek roots, Greek tragedy and its cheap sold-out memory. It is also a path were mystical oracles and B-movie diva’s join, and were Hollywood’s illusionary and glamorous superficiality bumps into the depthless and intangible surface of Orthodox Icons. Often, dramatic fate and whimsical prophecies, offered by fortunetellers or astrologists, are integrated in Anesiadou’s work, in the same way as chance is used as a structural method in certain artistic practices.
In the exhibition at the Kunsthalle, the aforementioned quest for – or digestion of – the self, unfolds itself through a wide variety of references, quotes and loans, and even though a description of the installation could hardly explain the experience, it helps just to get a taste of the scenic rhapsody. Starting in the first room, the visitor is confronted with a pseudo Greek temple out of plastic pillars. These are surrounded by seven collaged B-movie posters showing seventies starlets (seven muses?), imprisoned by fake jewelry and plastic decorum, leading to a central positioned Mephis-style ‘gallerist desk’ at the end of the hall. The desk, copied from an Eric Rohmer movie acts as a sacrificial table. Through a small, fake rocky door we enter a second, much smaller room, dark and proportionally very empty, except for two small projections : one of an Orthodox Greek baptism (Anesiadou’s own), the other showing hands forming an abstract ritualistic signage.
In the final and smallest room we end up in a decadent black and mirror-tiled room, which is referred to as the Fassbinder-toilet/room. It’s kaleidoscopic atmosphere is enhanced with more fake plastic decorum and a monitor, showing a delirious episode of the animation-series Xavier, Renegade Angel about ‘the Game of Life’. Passing from triumphant (but fake) regalia, over symbolic order, to decadent deliria, Anesiadou brings together a vast variety of imagery and materials; layer upon layer, intuitively bringing about a temple of the arts, backrooms included. Her own position in all this sways from sacrificial diva to ceremonial oracle: she steps in and out of her work, combining the both equally frustrating positions of the ignorant subject on display at one hand, and of the observer who influences his subject on the other. As if auto-hypnotized by the glimmer of fake jewelry, the sacrificial position of the artist/diva is self-inflicted.
Ultimately, Danai Anesiadou’s work is about the status, the role-play and the identity of the artist herself. In the figure of the Diva, this question is ultimately enlarged and in this, the subject of Anesaidou’s work reminds somewhat of Josephine from Franz Kafka’s story Josephine the singer, or the mouse-people (1924). It is the last story Kafka wrote before his death, and while writing it, he had, due to tuberculosis, already lost his voice. The story is told from the viewpoint of an anonymous mousse that observes the way he and his people deal with Josephine and her performance. His observations (reflecting those of a large part if its people) are thoroughly skeptical but not without admitted admiration. Its main ponderings are about her stage-appearance, the quality of her singing, and to what degree this ‘singing’ differs from the ordinary piping of the average mousse.
In Kafka’s other ‘artist-parables’ such as a Hunger Artist or First Sorrow, the status of the artist is more of an unpleasant but necessary side effect; one that offers a degree of normality within society, through which the pathological ‘act’ of the artist is accepted. In Josephine on the other hand, the crux of the matter is exactly the status of the artist. One of the general issues of the story is whether it is Josephine who creates her audience and attracts her admirers, or whether it is the audience who creates Josephine. Through the various ways she puts herself on display, Anesiadou as an artist, takes on a similar position as Josephine, through her work on the other hand, she offers somehow the same observations to the viewer as the skeptical but not less admiring, anonymous mousse.
It is tempting to compare Kafka’s own situation of speechlessness during the writing of Josephine, with Anesiadou’s concern with diva’s as well as with the ‘wordless artist’ who hopes for her work ‘to speak for itself’, only to be confronted with curators, critics and gallerists filling up this ‘gap of silence’ instantly through analysis and interpretation.
Perhaps it is much the same with Josephine's singing; we admire in her what we do not at all admire in ourselves; in this respect, I may say, she is of one mind with us. I was once present when someone, as of course often happens, drew her attention to the folk piping everywhere going on, making only a modest reference to it, yet for Josephine that was more than enough. A smile so sarcastic and arrogant as she then assumed I have never seen; she, who in appearance is delicacy itself, conspicuously so even among our people who are prolific in such feminine types, seemed at that moment actually vulgar; she was at once aware of it herself, by the way, with her extreme sensibility, and controlled herself. At any rate she denies any connection between her art and ordinary piping. For those who are of the contrary opinion she has only contempt and probably unacknowledged hatred. This is not simple vanity, for the opposition, with which I too am half in sympathy, certainly admires her no less than the crowd does, but Josephine does not want mere admiration, she wants to be admired exactly in the way she prescribes, mere admiration leaves her cold. And when you take a seat before her, you understand her; opposition is possible only at a distance, when you sit before her, you know: this piping of hers is no piping. Franz Kafka, Josephine the singer, or the mousse people, 1924
All images: courtesy of Danai Anesiadou and Elisa Platteau & cie gallery