apexart :: Conference Program :: Thanasis Moutsopoulos

No More Hybrids, Long Live the Clones: Greek Art Changing
Thanasis Moutsopoulos

For us today, the main issue under discussion appears to be the degree of penetration of influences of the Metropolis into the Periphery. Furthermore, it is not difficult to trace such influences if one observes trends in television, cinema, popular music, or even in the visual arts of many countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In other words, the Periphery of the planet — along with the rest of the planet for that matter — demonstrates a continuously increasing consumption of Western products, from ready-made food and clothing outfits to restaurant chains and Hollywood movies, music videos, and (mostly white, Western) pop stars. Contemporary art does not, naturally, constitute an exception to such rule. Why should it? Within the prevailing import process of culture (and more) from the West, the Periphery makes up — or used to, for a time, at least — a kind of home business or light industry where metropolitan influences amalgamate with local features and local singularities to form entities which we might call hybrids. In places like Latin America however, Hybridity carries with it not only its cultural sense, but frequently also a racial one, with the implication of mingling between European immigrants and descendants of African slaves or natives. Furthermore we rarely consider that, despite its claims to the contrary, it often functioned as an obstacle to egalitarianism between the cultures.

Up to the very present, modernity has remained essentially Western, a product of the French Enlightenment. To the natives of America, Modernism can be nothing more than the culture of the white man. As far as they are concerned, the notion of modernistic internationalism is merely another aspect of imperialistic culture. For these people, Western Modernity and its entire civilization seem decadent.

Was there ever any hope for local cultures of the periphery to maintain their 'purity' or rather, their complexity and particularity? As late as the 1930s in Greece, figures like architect Dimitris Pikionis or artist Nikos Hadzikiriakos-Gikas tried to identify and then preserve samples of local culture in the face of the oncoming charge of Western values.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss just managed, chronologically, to study some entirely 'virgin' or 'primitive' cultures. There are a small number of such cultures possibly still extant in isolated areas of Borneo, Irian Jaya or the Amazon. Still, the question remains: Is there anything that can stop the homogenization imposed by the steadily increasing Diktat of the one and only metropolitan culture over the entire world? To cite 'America's sovereignty' is today rather inadequate as an explanation. Japanese colossi own a number of Hollywood studios, firms like Sony or Toyota and cultural products like Pokémon sweep both the international and American markets. Yet no one speaks of 'Japan's domination over us,' except perhaps Americans when they begin to feel 'threatened.'

Is pop culture 'American'? The answer is definitely not an easy one. Nowadays, there are many cultural products which in the past would have seemed an oxymoron, like Indian comics, Arabic soap operas or Indonesian rap. The pictorial production of the periphery is often similarly hybridic. Filipino painter Manuel Ocampo, celebrated in Western art circles, mixes his peculiar Hispanic Catholic culture and the religious obsessions of his homeland with sub-products of the West, ranging from Superman to Tide detergent powder. He insists on drawing his themes from the intolerance of religious fundamentalism, a clearly urgent question today, the drollery of ecclesiastic power, and the absolute abandonment of reason proposed by racist organizations like neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. Ocampo's works resemble an absolute panorama of post-colonial structure in the peripheries, not local miniatures: racial stereotypes, the trauma of colonialism, the loss of native culture, the society of abundance (one which involves minorities only, however) the taboo of sin, scatology, as well as a vision of Doomsday mixed with memories from Nazi concentration camps and the commonplaces and clichés of religious iconography.

Cheri Samba from Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) is another example of a 'Third World' artist who came to the fore through the historic exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) organized by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989.(1) This exhibition marked an entirely new phase in the policy of contemporary art. For the first time in a metropolitan centre of the West, 'Third World' artists exhibited their works as peers alongside renowned Western art-stars. Thus artists like Nuche Kaji Bajaracharia from Nepal, Sunday Jack Akpan and Dossu Amidou from Nigeria, the Eskimo pictorial artist Paulosee Kuniliusee or Australian aborigine Jimmy Wullile exhibited beside the well-known and recognized John Baldessari, Hans Haacke or Nam Jun Paik (who though Korean, moved early on to the West). The issues posed by the that exhibition constitute some of the most important for art today: Modernism or locality, the First World against the Third, Hybridity and Multi-culture, nationality and identity, all in a age that saw the collapse of an entire series of certainties (and long before this evolved into a trend in the recent British art). This work was influenced by a range of Western sub-cultural products like graffiti and French comics (bandes dessinées) in particular. If Picasso, Braque and the modernists were inspired by African sculpture, Cheri Samba reverses the situation by using Western culture to comment on it. The artists I have mentioned produced a mixture or hybrid of influences from the metropolitan language of the West and localities of national standing. (There are a number of Greek artists like Marios Spiliopoulos, Panos Charalambous, Zafos Xagoraris, Tasos Pavlopoulos, or Angelos Papadimitriou, who have sought analogous results. Though Greece has now gone into first gear, Periphery exists there as well.

As does the Third World, still. Each and every metropolis is also a center: Bangkok, Lagos, Mexico City, and Bombay (now Mumbai)… The Macdonaldization (but also Donaldization) of the planet, as we usually call this form of globalization, is now conquering every corner of the Earth. The situation today is thare there is literally no village or isolated spot on the planet where Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut or Pokémon are not familiar; the mass-produced super-products of the West (which now now naturally includes Japan) have come to dominate evrywhere. Clement Greenberg has written that these mass products of western industrialization circulate triumphantly all over the world, beating out and distorting local cultures from one colonialized country to the next, and thus now tend to be a kind of ecumenical culture, the first truly ecumenical culture the world has ever seen.

An inhabitant of China, no less than his South American, Indian or Polynesian peer, now ignores the products of his own national culture and prefers Western magazine covers, pin-up calendars and posters. Local cinemas in Asia, Africa or Latin America are now dominated by recent Hollywood blockbusters, newsstands by D. C. Publications and Marvel Comics, and television program by series like Baywatch or Dynasty. What we experience in the periphery today is mainly hybrids which copy (or attempt to) the products of the West by projecting onto them local particularities as well as an overwhelming lack of seriousness. Subsequently, when they shoot the Sixth Sense sibling in India, they present the characters singing and dancing, while the Blair Witch Project in Hong Kong will definitely include kung fu. Such products are far from 'authentic' or folklore; they situate themselves at the edge. What may happen in the future is that they will be replaced by identical clones of Western products or, to a much more serious extent, the very same metropolitan products. We are possibly experiencing the last period of hybrids. The future is foregone, incredibly clear, perfect and expensive.

One easy conclusion to be drawn from this quick tour around the world is that all over and in every art, mutations and hybrids of indigenous dialects and the metropolitan language are taking place. But are these dialects of any interest to the metropolis? Are the cultures that brought about the 'vaccination' willing to reintroduce their illegal offspring? Are these any more or less 'exotic' than what Western consumers of every sort might desire them to be? In the period between the wars, Michel Leiris spoke of a form of ethnographic Surrealism, explaining that he used the term in a decidedly broad sense, to describe an aesthetic which aims to stimulate manifestations of an extraordinary reality that seeks its roots in the area of the erotic, the exotic and the subconscious.(2)

We are possibly the last generation on this planet to whom the phenomenon of globalization and the cultural hybrids produced thereby will seem strange. Today Amazonian Indian drinking Coca Cola or a group of children of the Dani of Irian Jaya eating at Pizza Hut may seem a preposterous and contradictory spectacle to other populations on Earth. Tomorrow however, the fact that there is even a single human on the planet, even of the most isolated distant race, who does not dine daily at MacDonald's or does not kill time playing Nintendo might be considered paradoxical. This may be the only possible reaction against the developments we are witnessing, the only way to observe and enjoy this transitional situation. It is probably the last.

The phenomenon of globalization seems to have borne the greatest influence on the metropolis of the periphery, and Athens, the capital of Greece is no exception, Independently of the fact whether it belongs to the periphery or not. Robert D. Kaplan begins his book The Coming Anarchy with our realization that from the tropical forests of Congo to the skyscrapers of Shanghai, from the old city of Belgrade to California's Silicon Valley, the world is changing. The conclusion to be drawn from the study of such different cases is that the powers of change are modernizing even the remotest corners of the planet, sweeping away traditional ways of life as they pass.(3) In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P. Huntington maintains that mutual influences among different cultures are increasing, and in Orientalism, Edward Said sought to vitiate the obsession with valuation the Orient suffers from the West, namely that every European travelling to or resident in the Orient has found him- or herself in the position of having to protect themselves from disturbing influences, adding that it was sex that most embarrassed the 19th-century Europeans. There were also threats other than sex, all of which disposed of European tact and reasoning, of space, time, or personal identity.(4)

In the case of the Athens, for the first time in its history as the capital of the modern Greek state, it simultaneously faces, on one hand, the influence of the metropolitan culture of Western Europe, and on the other, the influx of economic immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. A series of upheavals in the very structure of the city has naturally resulted. Today Athens is onced again a cosmopolitan city, an original experience. Tourism had brought it into contact with visitors from all over the world for decades, but since its selection as the capital of the new Greek state it had generally remained a city with a homogeneous population. The situation is rapidly changing today, recalling the multi-linguistic and multi-racial reality of the Western metropolis. During the post-war period Athens was inhabited by immigrants from the interior, peasants. For a long time, the majority of the inhabitants of the Greek metropolis did not share a metropolitan culture, but rather a form of village culture, inhumanly suppressed and distorted by the press of anonymity, crowds, density of construction and automobile exhaust. The hospitable peasant was transformed into the alienated and often aggressive resident of the capital. By the late '80s, a new majority of native first-generation Athenians came to maturity, with an obvious cultural impact on the city's image. A few years from now, this homogeneity will once again disappear, owing to the arrival of new immigrants, this time from abroad.(5)

A love of ancestry, encouraged by the influence of the Bavarian prince named first monarch of the modern Greek state, undoubtedly still haunts an great portion of contemporary Greek society, even the younger generations. Important political events like tensions in the Balkan Peninsula during the early '90s, the warlike nature of relations to neighboring countries, or even the campaign, and later preparations, for the Olympic Games, have contributed to the recycling of ancient values, however vague. The first generation of Greek visual artists to negotiate post-Duchampian artistic creation appear in the '60s, multiply in the following decade, mainly around the experimental gallery Desmos, then and disappear in the decade after. Today it is safe to say that that tradition is particularly active among younger artists, while older, more formalistic frameworks and complex conceptual approaches allow a space for often commonplace issues of privateness.

Alongside this, emphasis is frequently put on urban themes, issues of gender and its excesses, anthropological approaches, and comments on mass culture or another role for the body. Despite the obvious and banal historical connection of Greek culture with the human body or drama, there are few cases of performance or body art expressions to be found in Greek visual art. Perhaps for the same reason, few Greek artists have chosen to deal with or even comment on sexual issues, feminist politics, or homosexuality, even less to adopt strategies of shock. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is Greek Orthodox, another possible taboo is religion. So far, very few Greek artists have chosen to move in this (dangerous) direction, or even to or indirectly comment on the subject. Despite the general secularization of social life and the abstention the majority from religious practice, the population still experiences a form of awe with respect to the institutions of the Orthodox Church. Of course, both religious feeling and a spiritual atmosphere are inscribed into a great many artworks. Similarly perhaps, ancient Greek references are extremely rare, whether literally or as humorous comment. However, the public interventions by the former Mayor of Athens, along with the interior decoration of the vast majority of houses in Greece, are characterized by neoclassical style.

Yet, both ancient Greek tradition as well as modern Greek folk culture were deeply involved in satirical expression. From Aristophanes to karagiozis, the folk shadow-theatre, from Yorgos Souris, the most influential satirical writer of the late 19th-century, to the post-war cartoonist Bost, and finally, with a number of contemporary visual artists, the element of humour and criticism are intensely engaged. The generations of visual artists of the '70s and '80s were essentially the first — and ultimately the last — to defend the demand for a native modernism, that is, a hybridic creation which would combine elements of metropolitan pioneers mixed with local ones, whether dealing with Greek folklore or the political events of the time.

During the same period, Greek youth was besieged and conquered almost absolutely by Anglo-Saxon mass cinema and the culture of rock and pop music. The early '90s found Greek visual creativity in stagnant waters, possibly at its lowest point of communication with society. This was probably the reason that shortly thereafter, the only two large-circulation pictorial magazines closed down. Exhibitions at the DESTE Foundation of collector Dakis Ioannou (Artificial Nature, Post Human) and the extensive presentation of his collection at the School of Fine Arts in Athens (Everything That's Interesting Is New), in particular, marked a turning point. These events generated reflexive responses on the part of defenders of Greece's national standing, who spoke of the dangers of 'cultural imperialism' and described the new, mostly American, conceptions as an 'ephemeral fashion.'

The phenomenon of globalization described above has had a particular impact on the evolution of artistic developments in Athens. There has been a form of artistic nomadism created internationally in recent years, intensifying uniformity. Today, art people move between the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Museum or Documenta in Kassel. One gets the feeling the same people see the same people and identical, metropolitan, artistic tendencies are recycled all over the planet. During the same period, younger generations of both art critics and artists arrived, no longer from Paris (which had been dominant in previous decades) but from London and other British cities. As they came, they brought with them new trends of so-called 'New British Art,' which slowly but steadily came to dominate the recent scene. A radical change was to take place in the means of expression. Painting and installations, which prevailed in previous years, now gave way to photography, video, the digital images and pop painting. The (relatively) new media of photography and video, until recently excluded from Athenian galleries, now tend to dominate completely, although the artists being hosted have educational backgrounds in painting rather than photography. Most of the new technologies like Internet Art are still something of a rarity in Greece, but are perhaps destined to explode in coming years. Representational painting, although banned from most institutional venues, is another quite powerful tradition, particularly nourished by the structure of the two fine-arts schools in the country. The community of Greek artists still seems to suffer from a division between those who have adopted an over-all metropolitan language and those fighting for a recognizable national identity for artistic work. To a great extent, this obviously has to do with an antithesis between generations, since younger visual artists increasingly turn toward the former direction, particularly towards New British Art. The data point to an general adoption of metropolitan language that will mark the end of hybrids. From all appearances Greek art will follow the same route, with no particularities. When this process is complete, perhaps nothing will remain outside its sphere of influence. In this respect, the global village of which Marshall McLuhan spoke will have become a visible reality.

Artistic issues aside, modern Greek society appears hesitant as to whether it must tie itself unreservedly to the chariot of Western civilization. Today, in Greek art, and thus in Greek culture, it would be difficult to detect a native identity clearly distinct from Western culture. The same could apply to a series of countries of (almost) analogous size and geopolitical position. A reasonable and real question to Greek artists might then be: What exactly is it that makes contemporary Greek art (particularly) interesting to metropolitan audiences? How can we promote Greek art abroad? In Greece today, as a result of ancestor worship, the prevailing notion seems to be that it is for the planet to discover what is happening here. But this is not happening, at least, not to the degree expected. There is no doubt international conditions favor the presence of artists from countries of the periphery, as has been apparent in the recent editions of Documenta and the Venice Biennale. Still, the innate problem of Greek art is that it is neither as 'exotic' as Chinese or Nigerian art, nor as metropolitan as that of western European countries or Japan and the United States.

Alvin Toffler describes the human society of the future as distinct from both 1984 and Brave New World. Both these great books and hundreds of science-fiction novels present the future as based on extremely concentrated, bureaucratic and standardized societies where individual differences will have been eliminated. But we are moving in the completely opposite direction.(6) Toffler seems to be prophesying a multi-cultural and polymorphic society similar to the one created by director Ridley Scott in Blade Runner.(7)

But is Toffler right? Where is the culture of the periphery heading? Towards a copy of dominant Western culture or, even after coming into contact with the latter, towards a formation of singularities? Will the future be the multinational hybrid presented by Scott, or the impersonal, homogenized and developed modernistic ensemble shown in almost every other future-foretelling movie (like many filmed in the '70s, to be more precise)? We would wish for the former. Hybrids enrich our world; clones make it similar and boring. Still, the phenomenon of globalization urges things in the latter direction. There are thinkers who support neither. Jean Baudrillard maintains that some sections of the periphery will survive almost intact and untouched by metropolitan culture, and that such irreconcilable power is active in all cultures, even in the relations of the Third World to the West, and those of Europe to America — particularly in the core of those cultures, in the singularities that in the end bring it about. Europe will never fill in the trench of modernity which separates it from America. Cosmopolitan evolutionism is an illusion and shimmers everywhere as such.

1. The approach in Partage d’Exotismes, the 5th Biennale d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, catalogue exhibition, ed. Jean-Hubert Martin, Thierry Prat, and Thierry Raspail (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2000) was analogous.
2. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Harvard, 1988).
3. Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering The Dreams Of The Post Cold War (Vintage, 2001).
4. See Edward Said, Orientalism: The Western Conception Of The Orient (Penguin, 2003) and David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Ether, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (Serpent's Tail, 1995).
5. See Thanasis Moutsopoulos, 'Housing beyond Control,' in Athens 2002: Absolute Realism, exhibition catalogue for the Greek Pavilion, 8th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2002, commissioners Takis Koubis, Thanasis Moutsopoulos, Richard Scoffier.
6. See Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (Bantam, 1989).
7. Philip K. Dick, author of the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the film was based, does not describe future society in this way. Its multi-cultural form comes from director Ridley Scott.