Dr Magdalena Papanikolopoulou is a Greek performance artist and a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of West Attica.
Dedicated to Margaret Talbot
As a Greek performance artist working with symbols during the period 2011- 2015, I chose to give life to certain symbols specifically to the letters of the Greek alphabet. One of the outstanding letters of the Greek language is the letter 'Θ' because of its uniqueness in the sound, shape as well as the subconscious energies - historical (ancient Greek) and religious connections that carries out.
Theta is the eighth letter of the Greek Alphabet. According to the Pythagorean mathematic scale, it equals the number 9 and symbolises the stepwise function (mathematical term) and the completion. The letter 'Θ' originates from the Phoenician letter teth which meant 'wheel'. In English, it is usually associated with the letter combination 'th'.
My first ‘lower case θ’ piece was a short 2.25-minute video created inside Moyland Castle, which today is a museum housing a significant body of Joseph Beuys’s work. The piece was produced during the 2013 Artoll residency in Germany. I responded to an illusionary ‘θ’ space, which I recognised as such inside the castle-museum. I was standing in the corridor which led to the room where various Fluxus art objects -mainly boxes- were on exhibit. I was inspired by the work of Joseph Beuys, the German performance artist representative of the Fluxus movement. The corridor itself adds to the space the feeling of a closed capsule, a fluxus box. Its shape reminded me of the lower-case letter theta (θ). Connecting the shape of the space with a fluxus box and the letter θ, Ι created the homonymous piece. By walking up and down, I alluded to the origins of the letter ‘θ’, which as I mentioned before meant 'wheel'. It belongs to the body of my work that has been produced in an indoor environment.
As I have already mentioned the letter ‘Θ’ is an important letter in the Greek alphabet. The expression of aspiration in the phonological system of the Ancient Greek language was very significant, so much so that it determined the naming of all closed consonants in Greek and created two new letters – 'Φ' (ph) and 'Χ' (kh) – to express the other two aspirated consonants with one letter. The aspiration of 'θ' in the pronunciation can be found in ancient Greek words that have passed into other languages as loan words, such as theatre, ethnic, therapy, theory, theology, thermometer, athletic, atheism etc. in English. For this reason, I decided to broaden my work with the exploration of this particular letter by working with it outdoors back in Greece, the country where this symbol came from.
Here I should mention that the Greek alphabet was derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, and was the first alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants. As such, it became the ancestor of numerous other European and Middle Eastern alphabets, including Latin and Cyrillic. Apart from its use in writing the Greek language, both in its ancient and its modern forms, the Greek alphabet today also serves as a source of technical symbols and labels in many domains of mathematics, science and other fields. This symbolic structure of our (Greek) language has been passed on to us in such a way that it appears as a reference in much of our everyday speech and not only in academic or linguistic environments.
Yet only the updated forms of Ancient Greek diagnostics (semiotics) and the medieval trivium (logic, rhetoric and grammar) have proved of significance for both feminism and psychoanalysis, by treating those aspects of language that link the two most profoundly. (Wright, 1992: 210) The origin of this piece, as for much of my work, was a personal experience/relationship with Professor Margaret Jean Talbot, who was at the time approaching the end of her life.
At first, I thought the capital letter Ω, which is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, would have been suitable for the piece but later on I decided to use the letter Θ for its symbolic meaning, which according to Juan-Eduardo Cirlot (Eduardo Cirlot, 1992: 173) indicates the general movement in the upper and lower World. “In all cultural traditions, letters possess symbolic character, which sometimes is double, depending on the shape and the sound of the letter,” he writes.
Pythagoras says that the third level of decoding Greek language is the vibration which is created when we pronounce a letter or a syllable and the relationship between letters, words and musical tones. In the vibratory nature of letters, Θ symbolises the wisdom of knowing when to be silent. (DION, 1987: 57)
Inspired by the shape of the letter, I constructed a capital letter 'Θ' one metre in diameter in celestial blue. The immediate associations that come to a Greek-speaker's mind are the words God-theos, death-thanatos and holytheikos. One finds that these words express intangible, sacred and celestial meanings; for this reason, I chose the celestial blue colour which represents something of a light, ethereal substance.
Papanikolopoulou, M., Θ, 2014, stills of the video made in Aegina Island
I then decided to perform an act on the roof of a typical Cycladic-style church with a double dome. The top of the church would be an ideal setting for a piece concerning life and death. The spherical shape of the dome in connection with the circle of the' Θ', as well as the subconscious word chain I previously mentioned in relation to the church building, led me to choose this particular public space. I made a small performance by exhibiting the actual letter in a slow choreographed piece.
I was influenced by Paulina Olowska’s participation in the Ecstatic Alphabets / Heaps of Language exhibition in 2012 at the MOMA in New York that brought together historical and contemporary works of art that treated language not merely as a system of communication governed by grammatical rules and assigned meanings, but as a material that was manipulated with creative freedom, like paint, clay, or any other artistic medium. The first section of that exhibition was a historical overview of 20th century art that experimented with the graphic, sonic, and kinetic possibilities of letters and words. Olowska’s performance Alphabets 2005/2014, also shown at the Tate Modern, represented a radical updating of the possibilities inherent in the relationship between art and language. The letter, the word and the phrase, which were seen and experienced, were not necessarily read.
Olowska, P., Alphabets, 2005/2014, Museum of Modern Art, New York In juxtaposing Olowska’s piece with my work, I am not trying to find bodily postures that are read as the alphabet but to reveal each particular letter’s story as a combination of the personal and the cultural. My experimentation explores the kinetic possibilities of letters, but not from a conscious – logical position. I film myself in a naturally staged situation which I carefully choose in order to improvise. Having in mind that I am holding a symbol, a letter that as an object means nothing and yet carries a lot of meaning and energy because of its use over thousands of years (since the genesis of language), I place myself in a situation of absurdity. I feel like I am paying homage to this symbol which, if it were missing from the alphabet, the whole view of the world would be incomplete or just different. Driven by its actual form, I start my improvisation.
Theta or Performing with God, Papanikolopoulou, M., Θ, 2014,
I choose improvisation because it is the most liberating way for a personal kinesiological code to emerge. With improvisation we are travellers. Ι never know where we are going to end up and which path we will follow. Action and discovery take place at the same time. Through my personal choices and risk-taking, I design experiential landscapes. Each video I make reveals my movement-body-letter relationship, which in this case is with the letter Θ. After the material is created, I edit the video to give it structure, make corrections and sometimes give more meaning to the piece.
Symbols never have only one interpretation. They are never stagnant. They continuously grow; they progress dynamically depending on the environment in which they exist and the meanings that the performer gives them. Lacan follows Saussure in contending that a natural language is a not a nomenclature, or a catalogue of ‘words’ corresponding to ‘things’. A language is, rather, a system of signs that are meaningful only to the extent that they differ from each other. This is true at the most basic level of the phoneme: ‘box’ and ‘fox’ are meaningful only because of the sound difference between /b/ and /f/. The sign itself is said to be a combination of a signifier (for example a word) and a signified (its meaning), and its relationship with the extralinguistic object or referent is arbitrary. Lacan says that by privileging the signifier, which is said to slide along chains of association, there would be no final meaning, or end to the sliding were it not for the existence of so-called ‘privileged’ signifiers that establish at least some stability of meaning. The major privileged signifiers are the ‘name of the father’, and the phallus or symbol of both paternal authority and sexual difference.
[...] Papanikolopoulou, M., Θ, 2014, stills of the video made in Aegina Island
Lacan continues: "Language and its structure exist prior to the moment at which each subject at a certain point in his mental development makes his entry into it. Thus the subject, too, if he can appear to be the slave of language is all the more so of a discourse in the universal moment in which his place is already inscribed at birth, if only by virtue of his proper name.” (Lacan, 739)
The root of a 'name' in Avesta and Sanskrit is 'nama', in Greek it is 'onoma' and in Latin it is 'nomen', all of which have the same root which means 'one’s reputation' (Etymonline Dictionary). According to Webster online dictionary (2008), “A name is a label to things, people, places, brand names and even ideas or concepts, originally in order to distinguish one another... It is also called a proper noun.” In considering the definition, “what makes each word distinct is its difference from the other word.” (Saussure 1983: 653). So the functions of a name are determined by making a distinction between people. In fact, nominalisation is one of language’s functions, as Saussure (1983: 653) pointed out: “The system of linguistic units depends on the idea of Difference; one unit has Value within the system because it is not some other unit within the system.” (Sadeghi, 2009: 293)
Lacan’s theories have helped me build my artistic language. During the actual time I am acting and in order to articulate it correctly, I am performing an act and I am totally focused on the present moment, improvising and following my drive, rather than thinking carefully about my act. I feel like the messenger ancient god Prometheus, who brings knowledge into the world. His name means 'prudent', or 'provident'. It is formed from the Greek preposition 'προ' - pro in English - and the verb 'μαθαίνω' /mathe'no/, to learn.
I perform what the universe or my inner self tells me to. Dressed in a white dress, which helps reveal the mythological significance, I act with very slow movements in order to give time to myself and to the viewer to get involved on a deeper level. Performing an act rather than acting gives the viewer the alienation needed in order not to fall into the myth, such as for example into a river as in ancient Greek theatre and the Aristotelian catharsis, but to become more of a Brechtian spectator, able to stay alert in order to think, comment or even participate in the process. The secret lies in the process. Instead of assuming the correlation signifier/signified, we must pay attention to the reference of significations to one another.
Standing on stage without a plot would be like Brecht’s theory on dissociation. His aesthetics provide tools for transforming works of art with various ideological underpinnings into dialectical activities. If reading is the trope that Brecht adopts as the model for the spectators' actions, having no play but only improvisation gives the spectator the freedom of thought that a critically engaged reading gives. It does that because it is full of footnotes and turning back upon the text, something which Brecht calls ‘complex seeing’. (Carney, 2005: 89)
In the body of the work where I use single letters, one could say there is no explicit story though there is a development. This can create unease in the viewer. After the feedback from the Work-in-progress seminar, I was asked to reshoot and therefore to re-enact the piece. This time, all the decisions would have to be made beforehand. I would have to reshoot several small videos in order to test the framing, the lighting and the time significance of the actual video. This is a big challenge because issues of public space and ownership come into the whole process. It is forbidden to climb onto the top of a roof of a church, especially if you are acting ‘something’ of a mystical nature. In a place like Aegina, where very conservative and religious people live, no policeman would understand what you were doing on top of a church roof, even if you were an artist. For that reason, the videographer did not agree to reshoot the piece because he did not want to take the risk of being part of a forbidden action. So once more, I would have to film myself and perform at the same time. In my work, the antithesis between the body as a symbol of the feminine and the letter, which represents the patriarchal structure, brought new questions on how and whether these two systems blend.
In this particular piece, I chose the female figure to be the presenter, the educator, the narrator of the letter. By choosing to wear a white dress rather than tight trousers or a rather provocative look, like I did with the U,V,Y and ω pieces, I intend to draw the gaze away from the 'fetishistic scopophilia' and the erotic ways of looking at a female subject. As Laura Mulvey explains: “The message of fetishism concerns not woman, but the narcissistic wound she represents for man. Women are constantly confronted with their own image in one form or the other, but what they see bears little relation on relevance to their own unconscious fantasies, their own hidden fears and desires….The time has come for us to take over the show and exhibit our own fears and desires.” (Mulvey, 1989: 13).
The Theta piece performance is dedicated to the memory of the Professor Margaret Talbot OBE, PhD, FRSA, UNESCO CHAIRHOLDER, who has been my spiritual mother and close friend and supported my doctoral studies in the Fine Art field.