Introduced through a conversation between artists Malvina Panagiotidi and Vassiliki- Maria Plavou and curator Nadja Argyropoulou
Nadja Argyropoulou: Your work for this show is a direct tribute to Nikos Velmos (1890-1930), the ingenious performer, transdisciplinary artist, director, publisher, art critic, painter, writer, impresario, flaneur, openly gay, activist.
Velmos is someone I have been introduced to reading texts of Leonidas Christakis, and since 2012 thanks to treasures unearthed by Diamantis Karavolas, who runs “Farfoulas” editions and bookstore. This is where I first encountered material that a handful of people have gathered during the past few years on Velmos, and have thus been drawn to a genuine anarchist spirit, an uncompromising intellectual of many talents and a true contemporary: in many ways, a kindred spirit to Thanos Murray – Veloudios (1895-1992), whose work I have already included in several projects.
To my surprise, I found a considerable corpus of Velmos’s drawings in the ACG Art collection and I included them in this project, along with additional material from my own research, because I feel strongly that it is time to shift our attention to his life-work, to the many ways that this rebel eccentric affected Greek arts and society at the beginning of last century.
I was delighted that you two immediately engaged with his work and personality to the point of creating a performative salute-to-Velmos worthy of his spirit. A true channeling of this spirit if I may say. For the sake of those reading our conversation here I would like to offer some background information and suggest a couple of sources for further reading should they wish.
Born Nikos Vogiatzakis, he invented the pseudonym Velmos as an indirect reference to his hero William (Shakespeare), and lived to be one of the most prolific and uncompromising artists of his generation, creating in the midst of things but always evading control and subjugation to all and every authority.
He left a largely neglected, undervalued work of a truly queer character and wide, rebellious social outreach. His sisters, and especially the charismatic, dynamic poet and actress Ariadne Velmou, made considerable efforts to save his legacy. Two of his most important artistic actions of public intervention were the magazine “Fraggelio” (12ος/1926 – 4ος/1929, “Το Φραγγέλιο που βγάζει ο Βέλμος”) and the avant-garde exhibition space “Art Asylum” that he founded in his own house at Nikodimou 21, Plaka (1929-1930 “Άσυλο Τέχνης”).
Besides the fact that he introduced the Greek public to some of the most important artists of the times through 17 exhibitions – Giannoulis Halepas, Fotis Kontoglou, Galanis, Aggeliki Chatzimihali, Pericles Vyzantios, Polykleitos Regos, Spyros Vassiliou, Aginor Asteriadis, Spyros Papaloukas, Dimitris Galanis, Antonis Sohos, Yannis Tsarouchis and many more – he most importantly realized events of a pioneering socially responsible outlook: collective exhibitions of self-educated artists, the Greek “Primitifs” (“ΑσπούδαχτωνΖωγράφων”), and in order to gather money for a sick artist, even an “Anti-Panhellenic” exhibition – a “Salon des Refusés” type of show, with the participation of those rejected by the First Panhellenic exhibition of 1938. “Fraggelio” included “The Book of the Poor” that Velmos compiled among his thorough and sharply critical research on specific artists, his writings for and sketches of life’s outcasts, prisoners, hard-working people that he met at taverns and during his theatrical tours, his defiant, harsh, satirical manifestos against the establishment, against injustice and all those who wronged powerless members of the working class.
The book “Nikos Velmos. The Son of Loss” by Nikos Logothetis, offers a comprehensive account of his revolutionary life and art; as do the archives of “Fraggelio” and “Fylla Tehnis” that can be found in public libraries or in reprints made by Farfoulas publications.
Velmos had an equally passionate relationship with literature and theatre – he worked, studied and performed next to legendary artists in both fields; but probably his most idiosyncratic trait was his dismeasured love for cemeteries, places he ceremoniously visited all his life. This is where your own work picks up.
Vassiliki-Maria Plavou : We both became fascinated with this photograph of him sitting on his desk at “Art Asylum”, sardonically looking at the camera. A pin-up like, provocatively defiant body stance. So many art ceremonies were conceived by this man in that place.
Malvina Panagiotidi: We were overwhelmed by the complexity and strength of Velmos’s personality. The utopian fights he never failed to give, the humour and determination he demonstrated.
And then as we read more on the book written by Logothetis that you gave us, we came upon a kind of psychograph, an emotive analysis of Velmos’s personality based on his life experiences and choices. “Velmos the erotic”, “Velmos the compassionate”, “Velmos the renegade”, “Velmos the tragic”.
In the chapter “Velmos the obsessive-compulsive”, we read more about his fascination with the First Cemetery of Athen, where he engaged with the notion of death but also with its representations.
He first noticed how the whole place resembled an open sculpture museum.
VMP: And he took long and frequent walks there along with poets and writers and friends. But for him these visitations were far from a romantic thrill, a real call to the city of the dead, as natural as any social call. In his young and wilder years of vagabondry he used to steal silver candle holders for a living and later he obtained a special permit to go there during the night – in the calm silence of the place he could make peace with the din of life. The chapter in the book that we read stresses that this morbid “ideation” was actually a traumatic fear of death that he fought with a mechanism of extreme performativity. We initially considered making a book cover-as-funereal plaque compiled through images of his Grace. And then we visited his grave and this worked like a revelation.
MP: Velmos returned again and again to the cemetery but he engaged in a series of non-dramatic rituals that had to do with tending the needs of those who were neglected or under-appreciated in life: He took flowers from graves and placed them on those of writers Georgios Vizyinos and Giannis Kampysis.
He spent time etching the name of poet Stefanos Martzokis on the funeral plaque of his ideal lover, poet Eleni Lamari. He brought his unique sense of irony to all of this and so collapsed the pretentious and the profound in favour of the sensual and the crucial.
NA: Acts of restitution and care in post-mortem reparative storytelling.
Justice and truth were extremely important to him and they are also two notions of critical importance in our present of dizzying change, when all that is solid once again melts into air. Velmos developed ethics and beliefs that were rooted in Marxism but could not abide by the restrictions of political agendas and so moved on to build his own anarchist universe; he made a clan of his own.
And you retraced his steps in the First Athens Cemetery and managed to locate his grave. You both have a background in architecture and design that, in my experience of working with both of you, is more of a form of poetics, an affective understanding of space that is constructed via material and immaterial processes.
VMP: We completely identified with Velmos’s sense of commemoration. His insistent repetitive rituals. How he (re)weaved and revived stories by displacing, replacing, misplacing objects. And we made our short film as the expression of an architecture of performative gestures like his. We built a monument to his sensibility using the principles that he provided.
NA: In this video we see the two of you in total black, like his beloved sisters or never-to-be brides, visiting his grave, cleaning and placing colourful offerings on the marbles, under Velmos’s relief portrait made by Giannoulis Halepas himself. Your sober ceremonial moves start very slowly to register as strange, slightly off.
MP: Velmos felt most alive within the place where all is dead. This made us think more about the porous borders between states of existence. It is something that we have both researched in our practice. His desire to cross such borders, his heart-breaking, glorious mischief of stealing flowers and pots from one grave to give to another, had a meaning darker and richer than that of a mere quixotic wish.
We mimed his funereal habits in order to better understand his desires, his torment, his black humour, even his wish to communicate with the dead, to bury himself in their pains and joys to the point where pain and join cease to mean anymore.
VMP: We became a kind of shadow mourners, accomplices to his obsession; we somehow tried to explore the structure of this obsession by turning it into the substance of the (moving) image we created.
NA: So, you carried bouquets and marble pots and also wrapped wax flowers, wax hands and wax bricks and carefully placed them on his grave in joyful mourning, slightly off but always in.
Malvina tell us about these sculptures that are so characteristic of your work and your research on animism and animation.
MP: The bricks came from my installation for a recent exhibition that Vassiliki-Maria curated. The three hands make gestures of ambivalent meaning – they mock and invite, they celebrate and ward off evil. The wax flowers were libidinal simulacra, made for the specific occasion and lighted to burn during our filmed performance. The malleability of wax, its ephemeral, metamorphic character and fleshy color tone seemed to be a perfect match to Velmos’s unyielding, heated beliefs. The whole process of taking everything (objects, equipment, materials) into the cemetery in the afternoon of Tsiknopempti – the Thursday that marks the beginning of the Carnival Season – during quarantine restrictions, was slightly surreal and quite exhilarating. Decay, revival, remembrance are the mysterious, almost dreadful processes that concern us a lot as inextricable parts of the mundane and the plain everyday: They are un-monumental. I think Velmos made his own ritualistic visit to the graves in order to accustom himself to this paradox.
VMP: No need for anything extravagant. We decided that the core of what we mean by “performativity” is within this simple, embodied acceptance. In the walk in and out of the cemetery, in the tending of the graves -in these re-enactments (his and ours) that expand our sense of life – representation itself is cancelled, memorials become redundant beyond their oral existence.
NA: There is indeed an eerie sense of passage: not the moment of facing Cerberus but rather the inexorable drift down the river of Lethe. I distinctly recall the echoes of your steps in the video.
The passage from real to virtual and back gives me the same uneasy feeling of transience. No threat and no thrill either. Just hauntings. And small clicking sounds as things enter and exit, alert and connect us.
VMP: There was a pivoting of that feeling during the quarantine. For me there is an arousing excitement as restrictions pile up and we need to devise our way out. Things will find a new step I think. During successive lockdowns we have confronted ourselves with unprecedented force – at least those who are affected deeply by life and loss. I believe mediums will be interchangeable in art from here on. And storytelling will provide a more stable conduit. Real content will survive.
MP: I agree. Events that could not be transmitted were cancelled or postponed. Works of art remained in silent display, in waiting, somewhere between life and death, within museums and exhibition places. This was a lesson on suspended time. There is nothing threatening in this, but a lot of it is quite challenging.
We could have made a live performance for Velmos in response to your invitation during other times. We had to make it a transmission under this current circumstance. This is no less “live” – it actually messes with the idea of “live” and we welcome the experience.
NA: We start to think again beyond the utilitarian about what is urgent, necessary. We had to shed our skin of things and beliefs and ways, and we are starting to grow a new one. Is there a new design for it, algorithmic or other?
VMP: There is no grand design but the one we strive to imagine in the place of its absence. As there is no certainty that we can claim. Existence is un-designed, no matter the tools provided by different technologies of knowledge. Velmos’s life work moves beyond trite notions of dramaturgy despite his wide and deep cultural cultivation. And this affected us directly. Made us work spontaneously, freely.
MP: And we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
NA: Un-designed but fulfilled existence. In 2021 heroism possibly needs to be radically redefined along these lines. The revolutionary empathy that Velmos had for the neglected, the undervalued and all those in need, his critique of ownership, the selfless wasteful ways, the celebratory expense that marked his life (in feelings, means and efforts) could be read as one possible portal and guide to the realities of the emerging world, to its collapsed hierarchies and obscure entanglements.
VMP: Following one of Velmos’s most enlightening quotes, one that presented what was his fundamental moral compass….
MP: “We prefer to be tortured by truth, rather than to be caressed by lies.”
Portraits Against his Grace
2021, HD video, sound, 9’41”
Work conceived, performed, filmed and edited by Malvina Panagiotidi and Vassiliki-Maria Plavou
Work commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for the project:
“Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin”