Curated by Michelangelo Corsaro, this exhibition at Komplot in Brussels argues against the concept of ‘the European Standard’, redefining diversity within the EU through the cultural and social identities of its citizens. Using the European locations of Brussels and Athens, the exhibition aims to question the standards that are imposed to organise and unify citizens across broad domains and to re-assess stigmas that we readily accept to be true.
“The title combines two words that convey a sort of joy for sensual pleasure, with a third one that falls in the semantic field of bad news”, said Corsaro, “I wanted to challenge the stigma generally associated with unemployment, especially given that in certain circumstances it has become a huge catastrophe, but which reference points do we have to quantify each other’s employability? Associating that stigma with youth and beauty is a way to give a lateral answer to the question and turn to different issues. Why not to talk of living standards? How to make a good use of time?”
Self-proclaimed as part of the problem, the group show features Greek artists who have travelled to Brussels, Theodoris Giannakis & Petros Moris, Katerina Kana, Lito Kattou, Natasha Papadopoulou, Zoe Paul, Angelo Plessas, Socratis Socratous to speak out in resistance to conformity of social and economic standards that are expected of them.
The presence of these Greek artists in Brussels, is a physical example of Europeans existing in a European country, while also feeling far from home and in a foreign place. Corsaro describes how travelling from Brussels to Greece feels like shifting between centre and periphery and it is within this movement that meaningful connections are built.
“Besides having a very vibrant and active art scene, Brussels has somehow become an abstraction, the head of Europe (or one of the heads)”, said Corsaro. “It is also a divided city, not only between the Flemish and the French-speaking communities, but also between Europeans and non-Europeans who live there. Athens is a city where you get different contradictions between the radical sensuality and poverty, for example, or between the human warmth and a completely dysfunctional organisation of society.”
Transplanted from Athens, into the context of Brussels, Katerina Kana’s work which is driven by her physical presence in Athens, feels nostalgic, even romantic. She writes about her work in the exhibition in a personal email sent in September 2015:
I realised I was standing on a Pentalpha star engraved on the metallic cover surfacing the pavement right outside my front door. Curious engravings of symbols on the metallic covers are common in public pavements in Athens and other cities in Greece. I had seen many. Showing the Pentalpha star these metallic covers are so common that its difficult to distinguish them. Yet there are lots of them.
“Athens is the best and the worst place to be”, said the Cypriot artist in a 2013 interview speaking of her personal relationship with the city, “Here you look at things, but what do you really see? In Athens all of these objects and images are like clues almost.”
For Zoë Paul, accessible material objects within the locality of Athens become resourceful prescribing activity within geographic space. Her work Rock Face, 2016 made of volcanic rock, ceramic, brass, concrete, beeswax, points to how materials define nations and perhaps can even construct our identities to that location. She writes in Prototype for animals and humans to live together, 2015:
From the centre of the molten earth pumice stones foam up to clean our teeth, exfoliate our calloused skins and stone-wash our jeans. They filter our water and absorb chemical spills. The floating rocks wash up and litter our beaches, reminders of the end of a previous empire. We string them up on the beaches of Santorini, Kythera and Crete, like fishing floats from the fishes.
Chapel-like, altar in the middle, cool air, obscenity of nature contained. Our icons are ourselves, our hands, our haptic touch collected together in threads of woven goat hair and sparta between the rusted iron bars of industrial refrigeration grills. Discarded on the mountainside of a greek island, left to be absorbed back into the rocks and mixed with the rough brush.
Both artists build a picture of the identity of Athens, the streets of the city, its geographic location by the sea and their place within it. Economy is completely relevant, it is part of the identity too, yet how can we say that any country is successful or unsuccessful by looking at its economy alone, what of living standards, affordability or happiness.
Corsaro speaks of how Greece has been stigmatized for years as being a problematic member of the EU, especially economically. “I wanted to stress that if the definition of European Standards is problematic, we should open up the question also to countries of the South, of the periphery and to countries that are not part of the EU.”
Corsaro references a controversial article written in 2009 by Giorgio Agamben, Italian philosopher, who looks at the possibility of a union of the Southern countries which would counteract the dominant role of Germany in the European Union. Agamben suggests that when the EU was created, the union ignored the cultural relationships that countries had, lifestyles, religions, focussing instead on the economic relations it intended to forge (or force).
Agamben writes: “The EU’s so-called unity is beginning to crack and one can see to what it has been reduced: the imposition on the poorest majority of the interests of the richest minority. And most of the time, these interests coincide with those of a single nation, which nothing in recent history should encourage us to see as exemplary.”
Is the EU another symbol of a diluting cultural identity that exists within every new build flat or shopping mall being built over the past decade? If diversity is a reason why cultural identities are so important and have been so important in the past, why is economic assimilation such a desired goal?
In 1992, the Maastricht treaty outlined the future of a single currency for the EU members, and in 1999 the Euro was introduced across countries involved. Interestingly it was within this treaty that the ‘European Community’ was renamed the ‘European Union’, moving from ‘community’, a word connoting citizenship, to ‘union’ a word connoting economy.
Corsaro, based in Athens and originally from Italy, believes that EU policy has been shaped around developing the economic wealth of the EU countries, rather than developing the interests of the citizens. Yet, he is very supportive of the idea of a union of all European citizens, recognising that the exhibition itself is based on the foundations of free circulation of people and ideas, and he believes that debating the terms of the union should not always been assumed as negative. He says:
“Somehow every criticism of the EU is swallowed by the “anti-” and “pro-” Europe debate, never mentioning that we need continuous reform of European institutions to serve the interest of the people and not that of European economic powers.”
Another constructed community is the World Wide Web, created 1989 and evolving ever since. It has more flexible and liberal membership system, again still defined by political powers and in this case, the location is virtual, but it is no less of a ‘place’ than Athens or Brussels. Some of the artists in the exhibition also address this community and the status of the individual within it. The face, symbolic of the identity, sits centrally within Angelo Plessas’ work http://aroundmyself.com, 2000, a website which features an ‘electronic portrait’ of his online self. Corsaro, writes in Angelo Plessas: Mirage Machines, ArtReview, April, 2015:
“What comes after is the ambiguous interfacial relationship with an entity that looks in our direction from the other side of the screen: is the screen itself a quasi-face that we address most of the time, or are avatars an expansion of subjectivities into an endless series of digital multiples?”
The online destination is a place where personal identities exist, embedded with cultural values from the physical world and the market is always open for trading, yet it is a welcoming place where there is room for everybody. Is this a kind of model that the EU is trying to subscribe to?
In the exhibition, Natasha Papadopoulou’s Looking out in Space from Miss Saturation Kitchen Window, 2016, is a series of performative scans which capture the ‘digital character’ of Miss Saturation in physical form. An alter ego of the artist herself, Miss Saturation, exists only in the digital sphere but communicates through performances. The ‘Kitchen Window’ implies a domestic home setting and the space’ implies existing on earth, yet on her virtual Google earth Miss Saturation looks out from her homepage into the dark net questioning the replacement of physical values of home and community with that of the virtual.
And so the discussion becomes more complex with the comparison of physical and virtual community values. As Europeans, with our privileges, we are mostly dual citizens of this virtual community too, one which is based on strong social structures. Will this citizenship strengthen, as our connection to physical locations we see as ‘home’ weaken? Will our national identities merge into one? Will the European Standard become void?
Handsome, Young and Unemployed, 20 April – 21 May, Komplot Brussels
Artists: Theodoris Giannakis & Petros Moris, Katerina Kana, Lito Kattou, Natasha Papadopoulou, Zoë Paul, Angelo Plessas, Socratis Socratous