Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA

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Yorgos Sapountzis: The Protagonists
Arnolfini, Bristol
20 July - 15 September 2013
Review by Leela Clarke

Billed as an ‘imaginary park of public sculptures’, Berlin-based Greek artist Yorgos Sapountzis’ installation of new and old works dominates the Arnolfini’s second-floor galleries, while making reference to and extending the site of exhibition to areas of outdoor public space, where he also carries out performance interventions.

Partly drawing on public sculptures of historical figures surrounding the central Bristol gallery, ‘The Protagonists’ (2013) is made specifically for the exhibition. Several white cloth-laden, circular dining tables provide the bases for a swarm of curious sculptures which engulf the main gallery space. Figures are subtly implied in Sapountzis’ deft arrangement of material; geometric aluminium tube frames are attached to cylindrical feet made from hunks of plaster atop jars of olives and other vegetables. Aluminium panels adorned with brightly coloured fabric flank these constructions, providing some solidity and character, while plaster legs cast directly from the statues outside are also incorporated. Subtle details echo the past, yet are firmly rooted in the visual and social language of the present: the smooth white ruffles of the tablecloths mimicking the contours of a carved marble robe; red and gold pseudo-classical chairs surrounding some of the tables; the olives symbolising life and directly relating to the artist’s Greek heritage.

With a few empty tables on the peripheries inviting a spectacle, Sapountzis creates a crowded environment which prompts both architectural and theatrical relations with the body; viewers navigating through the space become protagonists in this transitory metropolis. In one corner, a stack of four tables, like a tiered wedding cake, is at once monumental and precarious; a flimsiness in opposition to the grandeur of public sculpture. Next to this, an improvised screening area reveals more protagonists in a film which mythologises a series of night time interventions made by the artist and a group of young collaborators. Partly spontaneous, partly choreographed, the group are seen interacting and interfering with the sculptures outside. Hazy and fragmented footage reveals their attempts to reactivate these static monuments; bodies parade around them, gestures are imitated, and in one particularly cult-like act, the group shroud themselves and one of the statues in white sheets. The shadowy setting contributes to an air of illicitness but also serves to strip back context and expose the strange existence of these sculptures, which is further enhanced by a jaunty soundtrack produced in collaboration with the Norwegian musician Øyvind Torvund.

The relationship between the live acts Sapountzis carries out and the presentation of props and documentation, alongside reimagined sculptural works in the gallery provides an interesting tension. This slippery relationship between event and object and oscillating notion of where his ‘work’ exists is highlighted by the inclusion of previous projects in the exhibition. ‘Shells of Time / Is the Now Time’’ (2009), a collaborative, ceremonial performance intervention carried out in Germany, is re-presented through a series of colourful collages integrating photographic documentation, while a brightly coloured parachute-like piece of fabric, strewn from the ceiling also stands in as a relic of the performance. Other past works on display, including ‘Reklame’ (three hanging sheets of aluminium collaged with photocopies of dressed mannequins and threaded through with brightly coloured fabric) and ‘Empty Shelves Black News’ (a hollow aluminium construction housing a shopping trolley, 2012), continue Sapountzis’ distinct visual vocabulary, yet fall somewhat flat surrounded by his performative works.

Sapountzis’ imagining of public sculptures as ‘works-in-progress’ is particularly resonant in ‘The Protagonists’, which has a nascent energy that allows the viewer to become an intrinsic part of its context. People celebrate, admire, abhor and ignore public sculptures as the social, historical and civic fabric of a city shifts over time and alters their significance. They operate in a fluctuating space which is ultimately shaped by the people who encounter them, and it is Sapountzis’ work which is made for and experienced in a specific context that reflects this position most potently, while heightening awareness of the everyday public spaces we share.

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