Happy Birthday, Yayoi Kusama!

I’m a fan of Yayoi Kusama’s psychedelic eccentricity and gaily polka-dotted work. The Japanese artist is 87 today, and for the past 20 years has been living in a Tokyo mental hospital, from where she has continued to produce artworks in a variety of mediums, as well as launching a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection and an autobiography.
She famously said: “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see.”

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Love is Calling (2013) Image: M_Strasser via Flickr Creative Commons

 

In the sixties, Yayoi Kusama was part of the New York avant-garde scene, having her works exhibited alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and George Segal.

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008) Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

 

In her honor, Artnet News has published a lovely article entitled:

14 Yayoi Kusama Quotes on Her 87th Birthday (Article by Alyssa Buffenstein)

You can find it here. (I borrowed the photographs from them, many thanks.)

 

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinite Obsession (2013) Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Athenians love the theater

Long queues formed again in central Athens on a recent October afternoon. But for once they weren’t leading up to an ATM machine, or to a national insurance or tax office. They led to the ticket office of the Greek Art Theater, where something very appealing was on offer: they were selling 2 tickets per person for every performance of the winter season, for the astounding price of €3 each. All the performances had to be booked in advance, with a choice of convenient dates.

3,500 people lined up around the block, even crossing over to the next street, to avail themselves of this. Men and women, young and old, all waited patiently, sometimes for hours, holding the program they’d printed out and discussing available dates. Many had a book in hand to help pass the time. The theater had never anticipated such a response – there was an overflow, and they had to apologize for not accommodating everyone.

imageThe Art Theater is not the only one trying to adapt to the crisis. Many other venues are offering reduced tickets of €10 or less – usually they go for around €20 – as well as special offers for the unemployed.

The crisis has certainly affected the theater, but it has not cowed it. On the contrary, there’s a reckless feeling in the air, a notion that ‘In a crisis one must advance, not recede,’ and ‘We’re not going to make any money anyway, we might as well have some fun.’ The public is sometimes invited to enter venues that until recently functioned as night dives or warehouses, where they might have to sit in velvet chairs or perhaps on wooden benches.

I went to a play downtown, in a basement under a bar, where we sat on plastic chairs and the props consisted of an old sofa, a lamp and a bit of carpet. The audience was warmly enthusiastic about the comedy on offer, which was admittedly very funny, with great acting. Before and after, everyone went for a drink. My sister even attended a show where the performers ‘acted’ the props, turning themselves into trees and furniture!

In contrast to that, there are lush productions, such as those in the superb Badminton Theater, where a children’s play about Theseus involved fantastic sets. Theater district neighborhoods are resounding with the music and laughter of rehearsals, as all the most popular musicals, including Mamma Mia, are being put on with casts of talented young Greek actors.

In 2014 there were more than 400 shows on. I haven’t seen this winter’s program yet, but at the moment there are 91 performances on, spread around 58 theaters. Usually there’s something for every taste: comedy, farce, drama, Ancient Greek tragedies, stand-up, Shakespeare, musicals, performances for children, puppet theater. Also political satire, plays in verse, plays involving dance, and monologues.

Sculpture update: Tony Cragg in Athens


imageThe little girl standing next to me was counting faces.
‘There’s one,’ she pointed. ‘And another!’

imageThe sculpture before us was made of sheets of plywood glued together in layers. Three twisted pillars that reminded me of rock formations – or stalagmites (see photo on left). But as we circled it slowly, human profiles revealed themselves: some impassive, some stern, some faintly smiling. The little girl got excited, and so did I. If you look at the photo above, and the close-up below, you will see what I mean. This was one of the most deceptively simple, yet, upon inspection, incredibly complex pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
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When asked if some of the faces somehow ‘appear’ when he’s creating the piece, Tony Cragg is firm. Everything is meticulously planned. He takes pencil to paper and sketches out every facet of a new idea before converting it to 3D. Sometimes this proves impossible – his imagination has run away with him. Some ideas never evolve beyond the drawing stage, but if the drawings themselves are lovely, the completed sculptures are breathtaking.

On September 8, a cosmopolitan and mostly young crowd gathered at the Benaki Museum for the opening of Tony Cragg’s sculpture exhibition. Cragg, 66, born in Liverpool, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1988, has never shown his work in Greece before. He appeared happy to explain his thought processes as he stood in the auditorium, looking relaxed in an open-necked shirt. The audience enjoyed his engaging narrative which was accompanied by a slide show, and afterwards plied him with questions and requests to sign their catalogues.

Wandering amongst the works after the talk, my overwhelming urge was to touch them. Their curved, smooth surfaces cried out to be stroked.
imageCragg uses natural materials such as wood, polished stone and bronze as well as mirror-finish steel and even plastic.
The sculptures are very different. Some are squat and grounded.
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Some seem to be leaning into the wind, their surface eroded into the outlines of human profiles. Others soar upwards. Yet they all emit the same energy, their shapes shifting depending on where you’re standing.

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As I was leaving, I stopped to admire a few of the bigger bronze sculptures dotted about the museum’s wonderful courtyard.

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The exhibition was curated by Xenia Geroulanou of the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery,  who has represented the artist for 20 years; the Benaki Museum; and the artist himself, who loaned all the works from his own foundation.

*For anyone interested, below is the link to an article about Tony Cragg written by Vanessa Wildenstein for Athens Insider Magazine.

*For those in Athens, the exhibition runs until November 8, 2015.

Opening hours are Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 2102.345.3111, http://www.benaki.gr

Performing on ancient stones

On the night of August 20, my friend Anna enjoyed a very special performance in a magical setting. Here’s how she describes it:

On the 145 km of the Athens-Patras highway is a town called Aegeira. Beyond it, climbing the winding road uphill towards the mountains, at 350 metres above sea level, one comes to an ancient theatre, its koilon facing the Corinthian gulf, with a magnificent, direct sea-view. The theatre itself is a protected area, now cordoned off and out of reach. Carved in the mountain stone, it could accommodate an audience of about 3.000. It is estimated that it was built in the 3rd century B.C.

I remember, during my childhood, that my uncle Anthony used to take us brats to this ancient site. Mechanically and technologically savvy, but also a lover of classical music, once every summer, at least, by full moon, he would set his gear – battery operated tape recorder and speakers – in the middle of the theatre pit and allow us to savour his taste for music and choice of extracts from the classics. He maintained that the acoustics here were almost as good as those of the famous theatre of Epidavros. We sat on the local porous stone steps, bathed in moonlight, and were immersed in classical music.

Tonight we were back, amongst 500 others. The theatrical play was The Apology of Socrates, recited in Ancient Greek, with Greek and English overtitles. I now have to read Plato’s work, my school work flashing back, my ignorance shaming me. It was an admirable effort by a theatrical unit from northern Greece. No full moon this time, but a new moon shyly appearing and then disappearing first behind the pine trees, and then behind the dark, imposing mountains.

We were not allowed to sit on the stone, as I had done as a child. The theatre, therefore, was now set up looking backwards, our backs to the sea view and facing the grey stone. If anything, this setup was odd. Modern technology helped the inverted acoustics. The interpretation of Plato’s work was executed superbly, a soliloquy respecting the musicality of ancient Greek, which, we were told, had been learned and practised over the past three years.

Such are the small but special cultural events of Aigialia, the area whose capital is the town of Aegion. It is the beauty of Greece in all its glory.
I had a marvellous and interesting evening, hopefully to be repeated.

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Beautiful photographs

In my peregrinations around the blogosphere, I discovered Josephine. She lives in Munich and takes the most lovely photographs. Her pictures are atmospheric, evocative, and beautifully lit. Some have the quality of a painting, others remind me of etchings. In the one of Villiers Street I love the detail, especially the horse painting glimpsed through an art gallery window (this will probably not be visible if you’re reading this post on a smartphone).

I know this has nothing whatsoever to do with Greece, but who cares? It’s got to do with me – I think Josephine’s work is special, and I wanted to share. Just go on her site and enjoy.

Here’s a small sample:

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London. View from London bridge to Tower bridge.

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Villiers Street, London

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Dare to dream

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Reflections


Josephine’s site is called LEMANSHOTS – FINE PICTURES AND DIGITAL ART

You can find it here: https://lemanshots.wordpress.com

A book about music

imageThings are still festering in Greece, and no end in sight. The political scene is roiling as Tsipras tries to control his errant government, while the economy is suffering death throes and most people have had to abandon all thoughts of a holiday. The  fires are out for now, but the meltemi still blows and the danger is not yet past. The destruction has been immense.

As a relief from the constant stream of bad news, I thought I’d share some of the drawings I’m doing for a music book for children.  Written by two friends, pianists and music teachers Sia Antonaka and Roubini Mentzelopoulou, it’s a story about players of classical and modern music fighting with each other but finally ending up playing in harmony. It’s aimed at kids aged 6 – 10, and will be published by the end of the year. The book will include a cd and other teaching material, and hopes to encourage children to sing and enjoy rhythm.

It’s been very soothing as well as a lot of fun doing the drawings. For those interested, I used markers and aquarelle pencils.

 

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A garden full of treasure

imageWhile waiting to find out our fate, I decided that life must go on, as pleasantly as possible. And what better way to soothe the soul than with art. So we descended upon my friend Alexandra, a sculptor whose studio spills out into her garden.

Alexandra is a versatile artist who works in many mediums: wood and rusted metal, resin, cardboard and paper. But she mostly starts her pieces with found materials – driftwood discovered on beaches, fallen branches or logs collected in woods, rusted bike frames and other bits of iron. These she assembles into her chosen shape, often horses’ heads or entire, life-size horses. Then she casts them in bronze.image

This means her garden, enchantingly wild and overgrown, is a treasure trove of found pieces, as well as finished sculptures. Bits of metal left out to rust, piles of what she calls ‘rubbish’ but which no doubt will come in useful at some point. Works-in-progress, blocks of wood in weird shapes waiting for the next burst of inspiration. In the midst of all this is her studio. Welding equipment is stacked in a corner, and works on paper litter the tables – her latest passion is making books. Materials and tools spill out into the garden, where in the winter she can be seen hard at work, wearing multiple layers of clothes!

I love the way Alexandra scribbles and paints on every available surface.image She flattens old cardboard boxes to draw on, uses tea and coffee to create subtle stains, tears things up and reconstructs them in layers.  One of my favourites is this drawing on a broken flowerpot- she calls this work ‘Fragmented Self.’

 

Another recurring theme are the torsos made out of hammered sheets of imagemetal. They are very evocative – they remind me of the Ancient Greek Kouros statues, but at the same time they suggest suits of armour.

 

A lovely afternoon was spent discussing how things were put together, what inspired each piece – and it was great being able to touch everything, which you cannot do in a museum or exhibition. The children had a field-day pottering about and feeding Alexandra’s tortoises. We were given ice cream on the terrace, surrounded by her collections of stones and small sculptures. Then the kids were put to work making fish out of actual rubbish gathered on a beach. The result was declared super-cool.

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If you want to find out more about Alexandra Athanassiades, this is  her site: http://www.alexandraathanassiades.com

A night at the opera

imageTo distract ourselves from evenings glued in front of the TV – practically every channel yesterday was showing either long lines of the elderly lining up (some since 4 a.m.) to collect their meager pensions, or politicians and journalists endlessly arguing – we opted for a night at the opera.

Salome, at the Karolos Koun Art Theatre, is a weird but skillfully choreographed and beautifully lit production, based on the oratorio San Giovanni Battista by Alessandro Stradella. The music was played by the baroque ensemble Latinitas Nostra.

The theater is not very big, but there was not a single empty seat. Others had had the same idea as us: life must go on, after all. We arrived to find groups of people clustered on the pavement, enjoying being out and about on a lovely summer evening. The talk around us was, of course, exclusively about the situation in Greece, but, once the opera started, we were transported into a different world.

The setting was a hammam in the orgiastic court of King Herod, and the large cast included a hideous and confused Herod in a fat suit, a stunning topless black dancer, a middle-aged angel in black wooden wings, and even an unsettling female dwarf. All the singers were excellent, but the luminous presence of soprano Myrsini Margariti gave the perfomance an added lift. The energy and grace she puts in her acting, as well as the soaring purity of her voice and the sheer joy she brings to her singing, made her the center point of almost every scene. Her versatility as an artist helped her inhabit a role which, as she confesses, is not exactly suited to her character.

The opera starts with some disquieting scenes, but the beauty of the music and the pace of the action carry the audience to the forceful finale. The cast was rewarded with sustained and enthusiastic applause.

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You can find out more about Myrsini Margariti on her site:  http://www.myrsinimargariti.com

A walk amongst roses and sculpture

Happily, not everything is toxic in Greece at the moment.

There are still lots of fun things to do, and quite a few of them are free: walks in the sunshine, music and art.

Even if you don’t have a car, the sea is a bus ride away; you can swim or just walk on the beach. There are lovely hikes in the mountains: only the other day, we walked to the ancient quarry on Pendeli, a magical place which has been turned into an ‘Open air museum’. The views were stunning, and there was no one there but us. And should you feel like more company, Greeks are always out in the streets, especially at night. For the price of a coffee, you can dawdle at a sidewalk café for hours, people-watching. There are also free concerts, talks on any subject under the sun, as well as art exhibitions.

A few days ago, I wandered into the lush gardens of the French School at Athens, a research institute of archaeology and classical studies founded in 1846. The sun shone and clouds scudded above the beautifully groomed, mature gardens which I’d never seen before, since they’re not usually open to the public. Ancient cypresses, tall palm trees, rose bushes covered in blooms.

The cheerful stare of a large silvery monster greeted me. This jaunty totem by Ugo Rondinone – an artist I love – was the perfect opener.

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The gardens are the setting for the open air project Terrapolis, and a variety of sculptures dotted the lawns or hid in the undergrowth. Many were of animals, the theme of the exhibition being the combination of Terra (earth) and Polis (city): could animals be seen as citizens?

A self-absorbed gorilla (by British artist Angus Fairhurst) bent over a mirror looked particularly human: Narcissus admiring himself in his pond? I liked the contrast between his rough bronze coat and the glassy stillness of the ‘water’ which reflected his face as well as the leaves of the trees above.

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On a terrace I came upon an old favorite: an Allora & Calzadilla life-sized hippo. Made of mud, sand and polystyrene, its sheer volume and mournful expression is captivating. I’d met one before, years ago, in Venice. This one had a girl on his back, reading the daily paper. Just as some children were about to climb on as well, one of the young volunteers who wandered around, happy to answer any questions, explained that she was a part of the installation. Whenever she read about some social injustice in the day’s news, she’d blow sharply on a whistle, shattering the afternoon’s quiet, provoking a reaction.

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I entered a wing of the lovely neoclassical building. Delicate, translucent blown-glass jellyfish shared the space with a mobile of stuffed birds – not really my taste. But amongst a number of video installations I adored the one of a fox let loose in a museum at night. Captured by the security cameras, the animal trots about, very much at home amongst the framed portraits on the walls.

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Other artists have explored myth and metamorphosis, creating monsters out of ceramic or recycled materials. Totem poles lurk amongst the agapanthus, and a Pharaoh-like figure sits upon a throne. Their eerie, almost supernatural appearance contrasted with Yayoi Kusama’s enormous pumpkin, sitting fat and earthy on the lawn. There is something inherently satisfying about its dot-speckled plumpness.

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As I walked out, I turned to get a last glimpse of the silver totem appearing to smile at me. I decided it was my favorite work in the exhibition. I took the opportunity to walk in a relatively prosperous part of town. Despite the graffiti and the dusty windows of closed shops, the cafés were full of people relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. Little pleasures. What could be better than forgetting your troubles for a moment and drowning your sorrows in a chilled fredo (iced cappuccino) or a soft-scoop ice cream?

We have a saying in Greek: Η φτώχεια θέλει καλοπέραση. (I ftohia theli kaloperasi). Essentially, it means you have to make the best of things.

Or, freely translated: ‘When you’re poor, you have to party!’

For those in Athens or visiting, do not miss TERRAPOLIS. It was curated by the non-profit organization NEON. Check out their site; they always have lots of cool things going on. (neon.org.gr) (#terrapolis)