In this essay, und. Athens founding editor Kiriakos Spirou writes about the exhibition he curates at Depo Darm Contemporary Art Space, as an example of the poetic potential of the contemporary art exhibition format.
It all started last summer with a vision of Patmos.
Sometime in June 2017 I was invited to prepare a curatorial proposal for an exhibition that was meant to take place on the island of Patmos. I had just finished writing a travelogue about the tiny Greek island, and my head was full of images of sanctity, spirituality and divine visions. For those who are not familiar with the place, Patmos is one of the holiest sites of Orthodox Christianity, and is often called “The Sinai of the Aegean” due to its many monasteries and churches. It’s the island where according to tradition, Saint John had his Revelation, and received his surreal visions of the Second Coming, which he later put down in writing to compose the Apocalypse. Fascinated by this idea of someone being blinded by images coming from a stupendous, divine source, I began working on the concept of an exhibition based on the imaginary figure of a certain Saint Void, whose writings and teachings somehow formed the basis of a contemporary-art group show. This is how the proposal for The Vision of Saint Void first came to be, but unfortunately it was never realised on Patmos; it found its first iteration in the brilliant space of Depo Darm gallery in Athens.
The very first idea for an exhibition about voidness however came to me before the Patmos story, during a visit to the solo show of Alexandros Lambrovassilis last May, in the same gallery as my exhibition now. I had just interviewed Alexandros for und. Athens, and was walking around the show, which included work from his latest series in New York together with images from Athens, Limnos (which is close to Patmos by the way) and elsewhere. Most of the images in the exhibition were presented in pairs printed on white sheets of paper, with a lot of white space around them. Alexandros understands this white space not just as a frame, but as part of the work which can be filled in by the viewer’s imagination to create relationships between the two images. I, on the other hand, was drawn by one particular work depicting two neon signs from a street in New York. The artist took the photos out of focus, so the signs were simply like blobs of colour on a black background. My first thought was that these are photos of space, not an object: by focusing on the middle-distance between the camera and the object, Lambrovassilis was trying to capture the space between him and the thing he was observing. My first thought was that these were not just abstractions of colour, but portraits of the void.
This very work is now part of The Vision of Saint Void, together with the works of 13 more artists—all relating to one way or another to this concept of the void, the distance-between-things, the space that makes movement of objects, emotions and relationships possible. My first intention was to see how visual artists can (or attempt to) visualise this void, and through gestures of void-making, to make it a bit more comprehensible. It’s visible in the luminous cloud formations of Aristotle Roufanis, which seem to be descending from the ceiling of a Venetian chapel like an epiphany of purity and heaven. It’s visible in the incisions of Loïzos Olympios, who has painstakingly removed the names from the pages of an entire atlas of the world, simultaneously lifting the colonial gaze from lands and peoples. It’s visible in the element of surprise and fear seen in the work Gulp by Elias Kafouros, which puts us in the shoes of the artist standing in front of the blank canvas, in the terrifying moment of introspection and self-awareness before drawing the first line of a new work. But as I have written in my press release for the exhibition, what we experience through The Vision of Saint Void is an emptiness that is full; so full that we can swim in it and approach ideas in a more intimate and lucid way.
For me, one of the most enduring images of european art is the hands of Saint John rising towards the heavens in awe and ecstasy, in El Greco’s The Vision of Saint John. This is an image of the aforementioned Revelation, the moment when a mortal encounters the divine and tries to make sense of it—an idea perhaps as old as humanity. In the Ancient Greek myth, Leto asks her lover Zeus to appear in front of her in his true form, as proof of his love to her. To her demise, he obliges: he becomes pure fire and thunder and light, and burns the poor woman. (He just barely manages to save the twins from her womb, his own children, and raise them to become the gods of light, hunting and unannounced revenge.) The divine, the transcendental, the magical, the quintessential, all can be potentially experienced by humans but are at the same time destructive. The true essence of things always remains beyond human comprehension, and the moment we try to put the limpid incisions of a revelation from the beyond into words, it becomes like John’s Apocalypse: a text so full of symbols and mysteries that it dissolves language itself into a writhing nothingness.
It is exactly because of its burning light that the true essence of things remains concealed from the mind. The moment we approach too close to truth, it evades us. It dissipates into nothingness again, it escapes behind a smoke screen. This is perhaps the veil of the priestess in the tarot deck, the guardian of secret knowledge: and this is why I chose to hang Panos Famelis’s black drawing from the ceiling like a veil waving between us and the beyond. The mention of the veil also brings to mind a text by Petros Koublis, who describes consciousness as waving in the flowing creases of a veil moved by the wind. “The human spirit perpetually unfolds like a wavy veil, frail but confident, with a fragile but tenacious persistence in its sinuous movement,” he writes in his text for the Mythology of the Unseen series. And continues:
“For every new part which is revealed through this curvy progression, another one becomes hidden, partially distorted and eventually forgotten, unreachable, such as the foregone realities of our origin. For, in this case, our awareness is not subject only to a rational and precious knowledge built upon the foundations of reasoning, but also a matter of how accurately and intimately we perceive the ancestral parts of the human experience, these fundamental fragments that are getting covered by the veil, the links of the past that hold together the chain of our spirit's evolution.” 
Koublis knows that truth-ness is unachievable by man, and reality is in fact a veil in itself, ever-shifting, ever-fleeting. But we also see in his writing that he is aware of that knowledge which is not conscious. Awareness does not equal truth, or to put it otherwise, the essence of truth is never conscious. The closest we can get to the “true form of Zeus” is bringing ourselves into a state of calm balance in front of the veil; standing there attentively, we might be able to catch a glimpse of the awesome revelations that dance and sing behind it. What we will make of them is another story altogether.
Much like glimpses from behind this veil are the images from the series The Desire for Consciousness by Maria Mavropoulou. She presents objects on a black background, isolating them from their context, abstracting them. Her intention is to create an “alphabet” of symbols that are devoid of meaning, waiting to be filled with meaning by the user. Right next to a large print from her series, a small work by Gerasimos Avlamis gleams with a faint golden light. Avlamis used the traditional materials and techniques of Byzantine iconography to create a work of abstract art: he first covered the icon wood with 24-carat gold leaf, then buffed it by hand to the point that it became like a mirror, then covered it with black tempera; once that was dry he carved vertical lines into the paint with a thorn to reveal the gold beneath. The result is like a golden cloud hiding behind a screen, or like a window into another world were we can see our selves as dark apparitions surrounded by a golden haze. In this work, we become Saint Void—but as is the case with every mirror, the reflection is always an image empty of life, well beyond our reach.
Another window into the void is the mesmerising blue linotype by Ilias Vasilos, which draws the viewer into an illusion of negative space saturated in the colour of the blue hour. Nearby in the exhibition, three more works by Elias Kafouros depict fears, desires and dreams in the form of headpieces inspired by the ceremonial attire of the Hopi Indians. For Kafouros, these meticulously drawn objects are meant to depict the wearer’s thoughts, as if making the internal processes of the mind and soul visible. In a similar inversion, Christina Mitrentse’s emptied books have been turned inside-out, with their lining exposed to the viewer as if it were their cover. Intimacy, fragility, dreams, fears: what we share as humans always remains within the innermost chamber of a Babylonian ziggurat that collapses eternally towards its core. The hanging gardens of consciousness descend from heaven like an endless ladder of wonderment and tacit truth, but a tiny shift of perspective makes us realise that the heaven is in fact us, and this descent is basically into ourselves, towards a centre that simply keeps opening up the more you dive into it.
Unlike the proverbial abyss, the void does not stare back at you. It simply departs constantly towards itself, collapsing into itself like a wave that rises and falls in the middle of the ocean on a moonlit night. In a similar way, language rises and falls in the work of Othonas Charalambous, with written words and symbols evanescing quietly, their meaning forever remaining beyond our experience. On the same page but on a grander scale, Dimitris Fragkakis’s Furnace brings us in front of a scene where several arrays of pottery are waiting to be fired. The content of these vessels will always remain a mystery, and the softness they contain in their wet clay will soon evaporate, leaving behind the rigid fixity of ceramic as a trace of an experience, but hardly the essence of it. In Stefanos Veis’s work, four scenes of urban and domestic life seem to be playing a similar game between reality and masquerade, leaving us wondering whether his heroes are real people disguised as cartoons, or the other way round.
In his work Memories from Silvestridis Beach, Vasilis Botoulas has collected driftwood, rocks and soil from a favourite beach and displays them in boxes on a table, like the research table of an archaeologist or the archive of some mysterious collector. Many of the objects are also drawn on small pieces of paper like evidence, or studies of their forms. In a way, the drawings are more real than the actual objects. The whole installation is a back and forth between reality, ideality and imagination, and after a while we don’t know if each piece of driftwood symbolises memory or is a memory in itself. In the meantime, the waves of a distant world break one after the other on the shores of consciousness. What they bring is neither meaning, nor words; they simply lay their gift on the sand, waiting silently to be picked up by a casual passer-by one chilly winter morning while walking his dog. He picks it up and looks up to the sky. Clouds are billowing over the horizon, bringing rain again.
Cover: Maria Mavropoulou, from the “The Desire of Consciousness” series, 2014.
Alexandros Lambrovassilis, Untitled, 2017. From the “New York” series.
Petros Koublis, Tara, 2017. From the Advaita series.
Elias Kafouros, Gulp, 2017. Mixed media. 70 x 91 cm.