Contextualizing the Context of Contemporary Art

Yiorgos Depollas’s latest exhibition entitled Inlook, held in December 2003 at the Fotografiko Kentro Athinon (Photography Center of Athens), seemed singularly strange at first glance, even for one acquainted with the photographer’s earlier work, which is often sprinkled with a critical approach and his particular brand of humor. The distributed press release confused things somewhat by saying that the exhibition had a two-pronged approach: on the one hand, it deals with the “particularities, advantages and values” of the Greek people and on the other, with “the views, correlations and impositions” that dominate the contemporary art scene.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen photographs, one “visual creation” and one “installation”. The themes frequently seemed controversial, a quality that was fortified by the imposing titles of the exhibits, which in almost all of the photographer’s work play a key role in the reading of the images. Some of the works focus on the concept of lost intellectuality: in Gazing, the image is dominated by a overweight boy gazing out at the sea. The small work is smothered by a correspondingly oversized wooden frame. In Quest, a woman is selecting fruit off the back of a truck in the shade of an umbrella, squeezed among vehicles laden with oranges, scales, weighed fruit in bags, while at the edge of the shot a young man carefreely nibbles at a banana. This large-scale work is complemented by fruit crates stacked in front of the work, extending, for no special reason, the representation into the third dimension.

Another group of works bears titles that scathingly criticize aspects of contemporary Greek life. In Hope, a young boy on the seashore is dressed as an army general, grasping a pistol and a plastic Greek flag. The hope of revolution or rebirth is projected onto historical symbols, which today are, for many, void of meaning. The black band, superimposed over the boy’s eyes to prevent him from being recognized, adds a dose of the detective mystery to the work, while also indirectly commenting on the loss of identity. In Politicization, a priest reads a left-wing newspaper outside the local headquarters of the PASOK socialist party offices, in surroundings that are completely in accordance with the party’s trademark hue: green plastic chairs, green tables and green curtains. The photographs are a commentary on the subjection of politics to almost hooligan conditions even by spiritual leaders such as priests. Stripping symbols of their trappings is the feature of works entitled Modesty, Pride, Innocence, Cultivation and Generosity, while the work Eroticism pokes fun at what is publicized as the Greeks’ supposed anatomical advantages. Homage is paid to the concept of curiosity with three works: in Curiosity I, a man sitting on the edge of a pier has lifted his trouser leg, and is examining his calf; in Curiosity II, another man peers into the mouth of a pelican; and in Curiosity III, two symmetrically placed cows vacantly survey the camera lens. The question whether Depollas is alluding to the unsatisfied curiosity of his subjects, his own curiosity or that of the viewer remains unanswered. One thing is for sure, however: he doesn’t present these works because they conceal some profound answer.

An ardent supporter of the belief that the photographer consciously applies precision of technique and presentation in every detail in the theme, style, selection and arrangement of images, here Depollas undermines himself: he chooses photographs that are totally unrelated to each other, photos that have often been shot many years ago for various reasons, some of them lying in a forgotten file waiting to be used for some undefined purpose. The message is both discreet and clear: we find ourselves in an era when everything can be viewed as art, where, practically, more things are exhibited than created and the artist’s inner dialogue is often reduced to a productive – but not creative – process, thus losing much of its vitality.

The selection of themes would perhaps be more suited to an anecdotal column in an amateur photography magazine, the kind that collects readers’ photos with the quaint curiosities of the world. But Depollas does not limit himself to hinting at the fall of intellectuality. He attempts to link the works to the often contrived world of contemporary art, highlighting the unnaturally saturated colors in his prints, which impel the photos towards the rationale of kitsch sensationalism, while he often chooses to print many of these images on a large – “artistic” – scale. After all, size, in recent years, is in photography the easiest and cheapest way of trying to lend artistic significance to a work and ambitiously launching it on the market, without regard to any essential criteria. The strategy of producing large-scale works, ornate framing and “impressive” printing techniques suggest that a good part of contemporary photography is leaning towards homogenization and shallow commercialism, ousting the genuine creative spirit that evades easy labeling and passing fads.

A good part of art criticism undoubtedly deals with photography as a visual art, a problematic distinction by definition that has given rise to varied reactions, since every artistic work of photography is by its very nature visual. The counter-argument is, of course, that some forms of photography are created through other visual means, such as painting or videos, and that the term “visual art” or “artistic” photography is more an attempt to render this tendency without being some kind of an evaluation of more conventional photography.

In any case, Depollas does not limit himself to what he considers the often vast ease of “artistic” photography, with impressive presentations that do not reflect substantial qualities. He extends his criticism to the increasingly vague context of contemporary art, which at a time of more easily available access to information, of the complete freedom of expression and use of materials and techniques, one finds ever more indecision and confusion, resulting in rarely finding works that truly move the beholder.

This criticism is expressed in two works, one of which is a “visual art creation” and the other an “installation”. The first presents a watermelon on a wooden flowerpot-stand, with which the viewer is called upon to have intercourse. Depollas has carved the hole in the watermelon, adjustable, in fact, to the individual’s height, which the viewer is then invited to plug with a cork made out of the watermelon rind. Upon completion of the procedure, tissues and a catheter bag for collecting fluids have been provided. The title Do It Like the Artist is an allusion to turning art into a soccer game (Do It Like Beckham), but also to the vandalism of a particularly controversial installation with a watermelon during the large Outlook Exhibition of contemporary art in Athens.

The “installation” is entitled Leveling and consists of a wooden sandbox placed on the floor of the exhibition space in a prominent position, filled with trodden dirt from which a heap of rubbish sprouts. Calling upon the viewer to interact with the work, Depollas attaches a used glove to the box with which the viewer can rearrange the rubbish, creating his/her own composition. The analogy speaks volumes: leveling, of course, has both to do with the form of the work and well as with making intimations regarding the contemporary art scene in general. The interactive aspect of the installation points towards the limiting and often naïve way in which this powerful communicative tool is often employed in contemporary art, while the rubbish is sheer sarcasm, not about the lowliness of the materials – ‘lowly’ or cheap materials have produced amazingly powerful works of contemporary art – but of the cheapness of the concept.

The “installation” ultimately demonstrates how easily one may label something conceptual art, without making any artistic interventions. Almost a century after Marchel Duchamp’s radical presentation of a toilet bowl as art in his attempt to prove that the thought behind the work is a significant part of the creative process, art often seems to favor the ease of the arbitrary along with an absence of technique.

Depollas’s work attempts to contextualize, in prankish style, the context of contemporary art, including photography, pointing out the confusion concerning its goals and mean. As a result, works often receive critical acclaim from the “experts” of the field, who are often of dubious background. In fact, Depollas has another little surprise in store for the critics: the accompanying text in the exhibition catalog, symbolically bears the name of an eight-month-old infant, insinuating, that is, that some of what is written about contemporary art could just as well be written by a child. The review is purposely vague and obscure. Syntactically correct, but impenetrable meaning-wise, it satirizes all those art reviews that do not interpret but confound, that do not engage the public, but rather discourage it by fencing in the world of contemporary art instead of expanding its boundaries.

The final punctuation point is the work that consists of a dead-end sign on a dramatic black background, with the dual meaning of the personal creative impasse and of the impoverished “circulation” of original and individual artistic ideas. Proposing symbols that border on the legible and self-explanatory, Depollas comments on the shallow confrontation of artistic concerns, something that is deterministically bound to lead to real dead-ends.

This exhibition wouldn’t be complete with a touch of self-deprecation. In a diptych of two Polaroid snapshots, Depollas poses as a guru: in the first, he makes the peace sign while in the second, he gives us the finger. He plays the role of the artist who today possesses the position of the spiritual leader, relaying messages, however, that belong to the realm of the arbitrary, the impolitic or even the advertently and irrationally provocative.

The title of the exhibition obviously and wittily complements the title of the large-scale OUTLOOK exhibition. If the latter sought to outline the “aspect” of contemporary art, Depollas punningly seeks to provide insight that does not hesitate to satirize vacuity, verbosity and grandiosity. In the same strain, the spelling of his name is slightly altered and given in Latin characters, alluding to the ambitious aspirations of those artists seeking international careers.

Depollas’s oeuvre over the last fifteen years often included critical approaches to contemporary Greek reality as well as to more theoretical issues, such as the concept of the reality of photography. It seems that here he is stressing that in an age when there is an overriding lack of meaning and aesthetics, art is called upon to defend them. It is clear that he does not try to annihilate contemporary art and photography. He turns against certain conceptions and mentalities and is concerned with shouting out what many only say in whispers or noisily silence. This cry of protest, in all its sarcastic exaggeration, ultimately conceals true concern and genuine speculation on the course of art and the evolution of ideas.

Hercules Papaioannou

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