“We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life”, writes Nikos Kazantzakis in the introduction of his book ‘Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises’. “As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment.” According to the Cretan thinker, the purpose of this journey from womb to tomb is to turn matter into spirit. The means to accomplish this transition is inspired by Nietzsche’s concept of “superman”, that is by discarding every illusion so as to have a real chance of transcending the abyss, or ‘Flying over the Abyss’ as is the title, as well as the subject, of the exhibition developed by NEON Organisation for Culture and Development in collaboration with the Thessaloniki Centre of Contemporary Art.
The exhibition is curated by Dimitris Paleocrassas and Maria Marangou and consists of thirty five works by twenty eight prominent contemporary artists including Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer and Costas Tsoclis. The exhibits, which cover a wide spectrum of media and are courtesy of D. Daskalopoulos Collection, are organised into five thematic rooms: Genesis/Trauma, Life Struggle: An Affirmation, Creativity into Eternity, Touching the Other and Return to the Abyss.
The first room, namely Genesis/Trauma, is dominated by Mike Kelley’s installation ‘Glorious Wound’ (1986), a white curtain-esque piece of cotton fabric cut in the middle. The slit is red-tinted and crowned by a spray-painted colourful clown wig. “I create phenomena in swarms, and paint with a full palette a gigantic and gaudy curtain before the abyss” writes Kazantzakis. “Do not say, ‘Draw the curtain that I may see the painting’. The curtain is the painting.” The curtain here, what has been obscuring our vision for so long that has almost become a prank, is the great stereotype, biological determinism. The ultimate expression of the latter is the role of women as inherently and most importantly mothers. To strip the curtain off is to turn the fertile flesh into fertile spirit or, in Kazantzakis’ words, “fertile human truths”.
In the next room, Kiki Smith’s ‘Untitled’ life-sized human figure (1992) is caught leaning slightly forward, while its inner organs and fluids are turned into light-coloured ribbons that unite gently with the earth. Smith’s figure belongs to all genders and ages, and has a million faces; the faces of its ancestors. And by “enlighten[ing] [their] dark blood”, “purify[ing] their will” and “widen[ing] their narrow, unmerciful brows” it becomes – we become – free from them, free from race.
After gender and race, the third challenge to conquer is the illusion of hope, whose everlasting antidote is the present. The present moment is also the protagonist in John Bock’s video ‘Astronaut’ (2003) in which there is amok, there is rock, everything glows and anything goes. The artist doesn’t act, but improvises his way through the world by stroking, inhaling, savouring, exploring and harking it. Bock is spontaneous and playful in a way only teenagers can be, hanging out in their rooms, wearing carnivalesque wigs and pretending they accompany the songs they listen to.
Finally, Ana Mendieta animates the outcome of the burning of man’s preconceptions. In a silent film called ‘Untitled (Gunpowder Work #2)’ (1982), the artist digs a shallow grave in a ritualistic manner, fills the hole with gunpowder and ignites it. It’s the ritual of life and death, of burning and being reborn from the ashes. Fire destroys but also purifies. And, as Kazantzakis reminds us, the upshot of fire will always be the Light.