The function of images

Yorghos Tzirtzilakis

Let me start with a question: why this sudden revival among a younger generation of artists of this insatiable obsession with the city? The first answer that comes to mind is that contemporary people, having repudiated the city for a long time, are alarmed to find out that it is only in big cities that they can breathe; outside the city they feel like being outside reality, outside History and hence outside themselves. Yet, I hear you say, this was what all avant-garde movements attempted in the 20th century through an unprecedented metropolitan orgy.

Yes, but the references are becoming more personal, less boisterous, and the metaphors more subtle. New art may be building on a switch which emerged in the 1920s and was followed by that of the 1960s, but it differs in spirit and attitude: nihilism and self-referential formalism have been replaced by a new sensibility towards values, humour and subtle concepts.

In this country, when one thinks of painters like Papaloukas or of Pikionis's "Attican Works", the impression is that our painting is strongly based on an obsession with nature and the landscapes of a heavenly Mediterranean countryside. This charming and often melancholic attitude is increasingly replaced by the anthropography of the city. This is why what I found interesting in Dimitris Tsoublekas' photographs of a few years back was his attempt to loosely combine the two viewpoints (urban and natural); 'loosely', in the way one might decide to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way. I am talking about the suburbia mirabilis he exhibited at Gallery 3 in 1996 under the title What Will I Do When I Die ("Will I Laugh?"; "Will I be Alone?"; "Will we be Together?"; "Will I Dance?").

Today we know that the urban conscience in contemporary Greek art was gradually bred through a series of doubts and hesitations to end up following historical circumstances. The idle resistance to the charm of the city drew from the old phobias of a community-bred population and a Mediterranean life style that was far removed from the severity of Northern European cities. The younger generation of artists has cultivated an attraction to Athens as an element that mediates between interpersonal relations, perhaps with some fetishism towards the frantic everyday life and the paradox. Evgenios Aranitsis once wrote of literature that, "the identification with the city may be a Freudian identification with the attacker whose face you have to reflect on the mask". I think this remark also remains accurate in art as well as in architecture.

Tsoublekas seems to have attempted something similar, in his own way, with this latest body of work. PhotoShop assumes the place of collage in order to place a building or an object in a different context. All avant-garde theories focused on the heterogeneity and the non-organic kind of representation the collage provides. Rosalind Krauss had claimed that the point was to emphasize "the gap between one fragment of reality and another" (Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism, New York, 1985, p. 27). If the realistic, organic work of art aimed to reconcile the natural world with civilization, the non-organic collage simply plays upon the fascinating heterogeneity of reality. I am not sure whether we should be troubled by the fact that the avant-garde techniques lost their former 'heroic' character and were appropriated by mass culture. After all, the city itself is no longer a harmonious unit that can be fully governed and controlled.

The new imaging technologies have promoted one more interchange: architecture increases its artistic features as art gains an increasing number of architectural elements. Central to all this is always the adventure of perception, the vertigo of the gaze. "Quality" in contemporary cities depends not only on the necessary facilities but on the force of their images as well. This was already well understood by the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1834, when he designed a monumental palace for King Otto on the Athens Acropolis without even having set foot in Greece: an early apotheosis of the non lieu which is all the rage today. I can go further back, if you want, and remind you of that wonderful alteration of Toledo El Greco executed around 1595-1600 when he arbitrarily moved the river and the campanile and relocated the buildings.

Many years later the theorist of architecture Colin Rowe became famous for his book Collage City, where he makes reference to Picasso and his favourite "bull's head" to describe the notion of a city which would be an assemblage of various fragments. What he missed, however, was the ability of art to transform to most humble and mundane thing into something special. Today, any 'reading' of the city is by definition a misreading; the only possible interpretation is misinterpretation. Therefore this "new alliance" between art and architecture has to do above all with the function of the city's images. And this is exactly what Tsoublekas experiments with.