Home at last.
I’m back in known confines. Nothing’s changed much except my view on things – on politics, on cultures, on the art world, and certainly on my own life: I have collected moments in foreign cities and gained insights into diverse cultures; I picked up other people’s world-views; I also gave some of mine back. The collection of these bits and pieces transformed into a whole, into the so-called bigger picture. One of these “revelatory realizations” is that each and one of us has dreams and hopes as well as doubts and fears on the path through life. What divides us though are the limitations imposed by outside forces: there are stones in our ways, lines not to cross, and walls forbidden to climb. Nevertheless, these restrictions give us the opportunity to explore detours and uncharted courses, too.
“The freedom to walk is not of much use without somewhere to go.” (“Wanderlust”, Rebecca Solnit)
I’m border-less but not boundary-free.
“The world is my oyster”, I used to say light-heartedly after finishing university. Soon, reality kicked in and I realized that the oyster’s lusciousness has lured me inside its shell, which turned into a cage with sharp edges. What I’m trying to say is that even if you’re fortunate enough to move freely across borders, there’s likely to be an invisible boundary that keeps you in its proximity. A personal example: I’ve crossed the border between Tijuana (Mexico) and San Diego (USA) by foot, I’ve peered towards North Korea from the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, and I’ve entered Nicaragua while being observed by gunned soldiers, and still I struggle with finding a fulfilling occupation that guarantees financial support. And don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware of the privileged position from where I can whine about my struggles but I believe that many people in different situations face similar challenges. We might have crossed borders but not overcome the boundaries that hold us back to accomplish our goals and dreams.
That brings me to Panayiotis Michael, who I met in Berlin when he was the Cypriot resident at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 2013. He was also part of the group show “FAIL AGAIN!“, where he installed a fragile wood construction that was held together without any nails or glue and thus could have easily collapsed. It didn’t but the possibility of failing was a given and is therefore a fitting example for why I chose his works as metaphors for my current situation…
Panayiotis lives and works in Nicosia, Cyprus, an EU country that is divided into a Greek-Cypriot and a Turkish-Cypriot zone, and a city that is defined by this border. The division has existed since 1974 after the coup by Greek military junta followed by the Turkish invasion. “Cyprus joined the EU as a de facto divided island but the whole of Cyprus is EU territory. Turkish Cypriots are EU citizens as they are citizens of an EU country – the Republic of Cyprus – even if they live in a part of Cyprus not under government control1.” He has inevitably grown up within a divided state, which has been influencing his artistic practice ever since.
“My major research and artistic interest focuses around the notion of transitional periods, as a process of identity construction. The starting point of my work is the political situation in my home country. Witnessing the division of Cyprus in 1974, and later, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, where I used to study, shaped my thinking and practice. All these years, the two communities have been trying to find a common language in order to be able to live together again. They flirt with each other, make common plans and dreams, make promises, suggest proposals and counter-proposals, and set directives and limits. This attitude has created a plexus of uncertainty but also of euphoria among many Cypriots. But when the time comes for the two communities to move on to the next step – to finally come to an agreement, and start to live together – they step back and start the negotiations all over again. This repetitive act has created a kind of constant transitional period that we have been going through for more than 40 years.”
Panayiotis’ works are often metaphors for these personal and political thresholds. Like, “OPEN/CLOSED”, a public light installation of an “Open” and “Closed” sign that is usually used inside shops. It also makes reference to Famagusta, a ghost town that was fenced off right after the war and has been forbidden for anyone to enter except Turkish military and UN personnel ever since. I read this work as a skeptic view on inclusion and exclusion in general and the tense political situation in particular: Is Cyprus part of the EU, part of Greek, part of Documenta? “We are members of the EU but generally speaking in Cyprus there is a sense/feeling of being left out. Cyprus is not European and not exotic enough. We are something in between, in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. But it is our responsibility not to be excluded. It is up to us to make the others pay attention to Cyprus.”
Another metaphor for this divided state (of mind) can be found in a past installation at insitu, Berlin. For the exhibition he placed an orange balloon inside the door in order to obstruct its entrance. Only through the window and with a ladder were visitors able to enter the space. With this simple means did Panayiotis exemplify the fragility and abstractedness of borders and demonstrate that there is always a way to circumvent them.
A Buffer Zone.
Wikipedia defines a buffer zone as “a zonal area that lies between two or more other areas, but depending on the type of buffer zone, the reason for it may be to segregate regions or to conjoin them.” Paradoxically a border can either segregate or conjoin an area, which is another dichotomy that characterizes Panayiotis’ oeuvre. There is no security, no stability, no safety net in this zone and his works try to find balance on the threshold of belonging and separation. Simultaneously, he lets the viewers float in and out of their comfort zones, letting them find their own balance between the personal and the political. “The Greek and the Turkish Cypriots have friendly connections and sometimes do business together but they are also separated by the demilitarized zone2.”
These tensions are what define the island and the relations between its citizens, which Panayiotis likes to bring to the front. For the international group exhibition “Leaps of Faith” in Nicosia he created the work “Remember Me” (2005). A street sign says “Remember me” in both Greek and Turkish, which he placed in the highly sensitive demilitarized zone. “A street sign might demand a certain kind of limitation but also offers space for communication. For me it’s about negotiation between two parties. I put it inside the buffer zone in order to demand an invitation to the other to remember me as if we open a discussion.” With this and many of his other works Panayiotis triggers a process: A thought process, a process that causes interaction and tension, possibly change.
“Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers. And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone.” (“Wanderlust”, Rebecca Solnit)
A work in which the private becomes the political is “I’m Innocent” (2004), for which Panayiotis asked his parents to go through his apartment and individually “recreate” him with his personal belongings in the exhibition space. It took some negotiating but they finally agreed to take part in this performative piece, with which he investigated personal boundaries between organic relationships. Again Panayiotis isn’t in control of his work, as the process is more important. He lays bare that social and political relations need negotiating, respect, and trust in order to keep the buffer zone peaceful.
In art, white space is used to let a painting or drawing breathe; it is the portion of the canvas left unmarked, free of information, a pause. In many other fields, any free (white) space on a wall, a page, a toilet door, or a banner offers room for a message. Panayiotis’s “Untitled”, a photograph of a blank banner that is commonly used for presenting slogans during a demonstration, is an invitation for the other to say something. He wants to stress the importance of negotiation between two (opposing) parties and ideally initiate the establishment of a common ground. “My works are opinions, they are one point of view and intend to be starting points for negotiations and reconsiderations.”
And this is what Panayiotis offers with his banner and many other works: time and place for opportunities, for chances, and for change. I regard this space not in the sense of a buffer zone but rather as an arena, where you can provoke your opponent, your friend, or yourself and consequently gather strength to eliminate borders and push boundaries. Finally, every journey, be it personal or political, should be border-less AND boundary-free.