Certainly the desire is not timeless
The seven pastel-toned monochrome paintings that comprise Christodoulos Panayiotou’s Untitled (5/10/20/50/100/200/500) (2016) are only outwardly abstractions. Were no information available about their unusual facture – that they’re made from pulped demonetised Euro notes in each denomination, the tonality of each swirling the given note’s colours together – they might still remind you, near-subliminally, of money. Possibly all art now reminds you of money, given its latter-day transformation into a pseudo currency. But this art is money stripped of usability, and knowingly transmuted into something on a different order of value: a sidewinding play of values, if you will. While the economic value of the Euro, here, is symbolically and literally withdrawn, abstraction’s historical autonomy is also momentarily undone; and maybe, furthermore, abstraction here is a shorthand for modernity, or for idealism per se. Meanwhile, in 2019, in a United Kingdom on the verge of leaving the EU and in the uneasy Eurozone more largely, this of course constitutes loaded material. At the same time, though, Panayiotou is not telling you what to think: these paintings are pointedly uninscribed. There’s a moment when you see them, most likely, without a context, and you devise one for yourself, or reach towards one: let’s say, beyond the above readings, something to do with a blending and blurring of nationalities, or the undoing of a continentally unifying element, or the dissolution of the root of all evil into optic bliss. For all that there’s a path of interpretation, it’s broad enough to allow for divergent subjectivities, for an ad-hoc matrix of thought.
So much art now depends on the supplement: essential decoding info couched in the press release, or wall text, or booklet like this one. Panayiotou’s work deals with this reality smartly, leverages it, in that it makes reception into a two-stage process where the point when you don’t know quite what you’re looking at, at least in its specifics, is as important as that when you do. It turns all of us into something like future archaeologists, looking at an unearthed artefact from the early 21st century and not having the full picture, leaning unconsciously into our own cultural biases and guessing. The archaeological conceit would seem overly cute if Panayiotou didn’t anticipate it: in Mauvaises Herbes (2015 – ongoing), for example, he gestures towards the architectural practice of excavating mosaics and then re-burying them to protect them for future generations to study: in reality a tautological practice, since excavation can damage the mosaics. Here he makes a stone mosaic of this capstone, including life-size depictions of the weeds that archaeologists would remove because their roots damage what’s beneath. On one level, then, this work again enacts a withholding, pointing to something that’s not visible, figuratively and conceptually. On another, being titled after a phrase of Jean Genet’s, it serves as a queering of hierarchies and a symbolic revising of values, elevating and tenderly preserving something disdained.
Value, Panayiotou repeatedly asserts, is forever in flux – time, and how it relentlessly unmoors things, is seemingly a large subject in his work, which often operates to compress spans of time and arcs of change into a single object – and in this structural changeability there is both peril and possibility. On a physically small if spaciously allusive scale, consider ephemeral proposals like his set of vases, introduced sequentially in the show’s run, in which a new flower blooms and reaches its apogee monthly while earlier ones sit in stages of decay. More largely, national allegiances and enmities shift; things die and are buried; what behaviours are deemed acceptable or unacceptable is fluid; and what future civilisations (if there are to be any) will find important about the past and build their sense of selfhood on is unknowable, as is whether they’ll even want to study the past at all, which Panayiotou suspects they might not. (Certainly the desire is not timeless.) Part of his serious gaming with value is to show how things that aren’t functioning can feel more active than things that are, things unseen have a deep presence. A folded theatre backdrop, say, has an energy that an unrolled one doesn’t because we imagine what’s there, in the same way that a predator never seen in the course of a movie has more force than a rubber shark splashing in the bloodied bay.
When you pointedly deactivate something, or present it before or after the point where it works, you also activate it; when you present a fragment, you call for the whole. By way of example, and pointing to a historical and metaphoric loss, Untitled (2012 – ongoing) is a stained-glass window inserted into the gallery window scheme: using locally sourced artisanal pink-gold, it refers to the historical excision, due to a shortage of pink fabric in late-’70s America, of pink from the LGBT rainbow flag, absent but alluded to here. (For the flag’s designer, Gilbert Baker, pink represented sexuality.) By way of further example, the five downed electricity poles of Independence Street (2012) are emblems of disconnection and, in cognitive terms, reconnection. They’re primal, minimal things until hooked up, via the supplement’s litany of specifics, to the historical narrative: that they come from Limassol; that they were instrumental in the electrifying and thus modernising of the Cypriot city; that they became defunct when underground cables replaced the overground grid as part of a beautification drive; that these linear objects capsule and bracket the modernising of Limassol, its starting and end points. In another categorical slippage, the exhibition context transmutes these relics into a form of Arte Povera.
Upfront, they’re mute. In art, holding back is a form of giving, of offering space for the viewer to manoeuvre. And of course all art is predicated on the play of the imagination, on the generation of inward narration, conceptualising, interpreting; but Panayiotou activates this process in a wider, more purposeful way. As individuals parsing his work, we become part of an ethereal, symbolic community of sorts, one founded in creative speculation and, importantly, transcending national boundaries. (It matters that though his work might encode local specificities, whether Limassol or the Cypriot archaeological site of Kourion, they travel.) We might nuance this spectral community further, site it. Panayiotou studied ballet, and arguably – in a reading encouraged by his stage backdrop – his work positions itself in a continual backstage: a place and moment anterior, again, to the main event, its air buzzing with possibility; all of us about to perform the hypothetical, to invent our roles and the collective performance itself.
For what it’s worth, then, here’s me doing that work. I see in his art, across its stylistic diversity, a repeated switching-off of the characteristic power or energetic life of something, whether it be the rolling-up of red carpets used at the Oscars, Golden Globes, etc. (Operation Serenade, 2012), undoing the problematic power of both by giving them nowhere to strut. (The title encodes another extinguishing, referring to the codename for Ronald Reagan’s funeral.) Or figuring a turned-off electricity grid. Or, as in Spoil Heap (2015), hiding the gallery’s parquet floor with a stage-like spread of terracotta tiles produced in Limassol and using earth sourced from an excavation site, hitching together times and places. (The project is also, appropriately, extended outside the venue: the curtain of one of Camden Arts Centre’s neighbours has been consentingly replaced with fabric once used in the Archbishop’s palace in Nicosia, Cyprus.) Or, in Untitled (2012 – ongoing) commissioning icon-painters to make golden monochrome paintings in which the icon, the charismatic centre, is left out: here, for once, only gold can stay. Or dissolving money into an ethereal wash of colours. Or refusing the presence of historical artefacts upon which myths are made, national narratives founded, nationalisms taking root, bad weeds themselves. To reiterate, then: Panayiotou frequently turns something off and in doing so turns something else on, but he is careful not to spell out what it is, because then he’d be dogmatising and asserting power himself, and such moves on the part of others underwrite so much of our current geopolitical strife. But, in turn, that’s just my take. Over to you, him, her, them, us.
Gustav Mahler, Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen performed by Kathleen Ferrier
Jean-Max Rivière, La Madrague performed by Brigitte Bardot
Chilly Gonzales, Why Don’t We Disappear
Big Bird sings It’s Not Easy Being Green at Jim Henson’s Memorial
Nicos Xydakis, I Evrikomi
Franz Schubert, Schäfers Klagelied performed by Werner Güra
Eve Babitz, Strange Idea of Love
Psychic TV, Just Drifting
Michel Jouveaux and Jeff Barnel, Mourir sur scène performed by Dalida
Philippe Sarde, La Chanson d’Hélène performed by Romy Schneider & Michel Piccoli
Henry Purcell, Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas performed by Jessey Norman
Tomorrow from the musical Annie performed by Aileen Quinn
Bernard Ighner, Everything Must Change performed by Nina Simone
Arvo Pärt, Estonian Lullaby (Kuss-kuss, kallike) recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris the 20th October 2018
'Please translate the following sentence back to Japanese as the title of the show: “In the light of the day the fireflies are like any other insect”. It is a haiku mistreated by memory. Please don’t look for the authentic source; simply translate it from the English as it is. I read it somewhere when I was a student and it still fascinates me deeply. It is somehow the elusive subtext of what brings the works in our exhibition together.' From a letter written by the artist to Akiko, Kitakyushu, 12 March 2013
Christodoulos Panayiotou (b. 1978, Limassol, Cyprus) lives and works in Paris, France and Limassol, Cyprus where he initiated and runs an exhibition space – The Island Club. In 2019 he collaborated on the conception of the Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and in 2015 he represented Cyprus in their national Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy. Concurrent with Act II: The Island at Camden Arts Centre, Panayiotou will have an exhibition at Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Selected solo exhibitions include: Casa Luis Barragan, Mexico City, Mexico, 2017; CCA Kitakyushu Gallery, Kitakyushu, Japan, 2017 & 2013; Point Centre for Contemporary Art, Nicosia, Cyprus, 2015; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013; Casino Luxembourg, Luxembourg, 2013; CAC Brétigny, Brétigny-sur-Orge, France, 2012; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, USA, 2012; Museum of Contemporary Art, Leipzig, Germany, 2011; Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland, 2010; Cubitt, London, 2010. His work has also been included in a number of group exhibitions in institutions worldwide including: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2018; 14th Biennale de Lyon, Lyon, France, 2017; 13th Sharjah Biennial, 2017; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France, 2017; Museo Jumex, Mexico City, Mexico, 2017; Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2017, 2016, 2012; Museion, Bolzano, 2014; 8th Berlin Biennale, 2014; Migros Museum, Zürich, 2014; 7th Liverpool Biennial, 2012; dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, 2012; CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, 2012; Joan Miro Foundation, Barcelona, 2011; Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2011, 2010; Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, 2010; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2010; Ashkal Alwan Center for Contemporary Arts, Beirut, 2010; Artist Space, New York, 2009; MoCA Miami, 2009.
Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Berlin.
Supported by Galerie kamel mennour, Paris / London and RodeoGallery, London / Piraeus and the Christodoulos Panayiotou Exhibition Circle: Nicoletta Fiorucci, Emily King and MatthewSlotover, Piergiorgio Pepe and Iordanis Kerenidis and all those who wish to remain anonymous.
With thanks to Studio Christodoulos Panayiotou (Adonis Archontides, Kyriacos Kyriakides, Androula Kafa, Jean Capeille and Eleftherios Charalambous), Galerie kamel mennour, Paris / London and RodeoGallery, London / Piraeus.