Art, Music, Books & Film

Geography of the Flesh

The group exhibition Unconfined is now showing at the renovated Poulopoulos hat factory that houses the City of Athens Cultural Center “Melina”.   The show brings together works from 30 Greek and international artists under an umbrella theme so general and vague that little sense is gathered to answer Vangelis’s disarmingly naïve but nonetheless pertinent question, “what is it all about?” No matter. At a buffet like this, one is lucky to savor the odd dish or two that surprises and delights the palate. And there were a few that made my visit worthwhile.

The metaphor of a transportation network as a circulatory system (exactly the same words are used in Greek) is perhaps an overtaxed image. But in the work of Kasahari Miyuki Vein—colored pencil on paper—the conceit is beautifully and provocatively rendered. Looking at the work from the distance, it looks like a cutout of flesh marked by veins and arteries. You discern eddies of tallow and misty pools of soft powder blue in this expanse of white, all threaded with weaving red and blue lines that meet in dense colored nodes and then again diverge.

As you near the drawing, you can see the outlines of the geography of this flesh emerge. It’s a dreamy landscape of deltas, bays, rivers, and lakes. You notice the markings of a map that name various locations and nodes within the soft tissue of the hide. Upon closer inspection you see it is in fact a superimposition of several maps across time and space: names of Roman towns, patches of a London street map, a Japanese map, a hand-drawn map showing directions (to a dinner party perhaps?). Except that the notations are written in reverse, as if the flesh had been flayed and turned inside out. It is simply beautiful and a wonderful representation of the very human need to map and share experience. But it is also about how the places that have shaped our identity are mapped — physically inscribed within us — as memory.

I thought how my sexual awakening is indelibly mapped to San Francisco, where as a 17-year-old taking a year off before college (not by choice, but that’s another story) I was lucky to (literally) fall into the arms of a man who made being gay seem as natural and life-affirming as the morning call of a songbird. And not without a dose of humor, unfortunately one that I could only appreciate in retrospect. He was my landlord and I had gone up to his apartment to ask for a can of paint. Landlord probably evokes the wrong impression. He was not more than 25, a tall thin man with long blonde hair. He wrote down the request on a notepad and returned to the minestrone he was preparing, which he invited me to share. After we had finished eating, he asked me to help him change the sheets on his bed. Although the request sounded strange, I thought, “well, he did feed me after all,”  and I went to his bedroom to help him make up his bed. Once the bottom sheet was tucked in he took me in his arms like a basketball and tossed me gently onto his bed. I remember saying, “Michael, I don’t know if I’m gay”. To which he replied, “Oh, we can worry about that later, can’t we?”.  But I didn’t worry afterwards, and the city became a playground I eagerly explored and subconsciously mapped.  Michael’s top-floor Haight studio, Donald’s apartment overlooking the bay, the city’s parks and ocean beaches, the Castro district (joyfully evoked in Gus Van  Sant’s Milk).

Back to the exhibition. Yet another artist’s book, this one by Jenny Bakalouma. The Book. A book in steel, whose pages look like tanned hides or sheets of rusted metal. Two pages are exposed and visible to the visitor. On one of them we see an intriguing symbol that rises from the page like an embossed branding:  a mix of Arabic serifs and the strong verticals and horizontals of a Chinese ideogram, embellished with a handful of tiny circles. It could be an alchemist’s shorthand or alien musical notation. In any event, undecipherable, as inexplicable as the patterns described in the plate reproduced in the (this time, real) book that sits beside the steel book and presumably serves as an explication de texte for the work: a topography of scrapings and erasures and a mysterious constellation of black dots set in a terrain of the emerald green and burnt sienna of corroded copper. Another map, perhaps, but inaccessible. An artist’s joke on our need for a key to orient ourselves? In any event, an intriguing piece.

-/-

Image: Miyuki Kasahari, Vein

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