VANGELIS VLAHOS: ELS HANNAPE UNDERGROUND
- ATHENS, GREECE
Vlahos, "Untitled (U. S. Embassy, Athens)", 2002 ink on rice
paper, 92 x 122 cm
To most people, the building of the American Embassy in Athens is an example
of the International Style as articulated by one of its pioneers, the
German-born architect Walter Gropius, who also happened to the founder
of the Bauhaus school. In the minds of the Greek public of the late 1950s,
which is when construction began, it is highly probable that this piece
of public architecture also captured the spirit of rapid urbanization
and fervid construction that was spreading across Greece at the time.
But it was not long before the building, as a sign both of Modernism and
development, became tainted by bitterness at the turn of events. From
a symbol of progress, the American Embassy turned into the hostile emblem
of Superpower Imperialism. At least it did for this fraction of left-winged
intellectuals, whose idealistic aims have in many ways been watered down
to a vapid rhetoric. All the same, this is past that, combined with contemporary
reality, colors the way in which we perceive the American Embassy building.
Considering the building's symbolic weight, how close to an unprejudiced,
fresh viewing of its immanent qualities can Greeks come to? This is the
question that Vangelis Vlahos raises through his latest work, on display
at the Els Hanappe Underground gallery jointly with the work Scottish
artist Alan Michael.
To attempt this, Vlahos prepares a neutral and objective a ground as possible.
Using photographs printed at the press, he sketches architectural drawings
of the building on rice paper then displays them in close proximity to
stress the idea of seriality and repetition, as if they were part of an
architectural study. This is only an impression of course, since the images
lack the detailed documentation typical of architectural drawings. In
fact, if it were not for the photographic image printed on the exhibition's
invitation card, one would not immediately identify the portrayed building.
Vlahos is being intentionally reticent and spare in his depictions, for
he is not interested in the political associations and factual information
of an image, but in its aesthetic qualities. He, therefore, stresses its
pictorial style and chooses a strong black and white aesthetic that is
evocative of '70s graphics.
The approach is a Formalist one, although Vlahos is only a step away of
betraying the identity of the building. Bitter lyrics by the Smashing
Pumpkins rock group, printed and mounted on the wall like posters, although
far away from the pristine architectural like drawings of the American
Embassy, makes the viewer suspect the content of the images. The juxtaposition
suggests that maintaining this precarious balance between disclosing and
concealing content is part of the work.
Essentially, Vlahos's work tests the mechanism of perception. It explores
a Contemporary issue in art, which is how we bestow meaning on images,
and asks whether it is possible to appreciate art on purely visual terms.
Does stripping an image of its historical context enhance understanding,
or does it undermine it? The same question could apply to our understanding
of the Modern style, and this is probably why Vlahos chooses a building
that is emblematic of Modernism. In designing the American Embassy, Gropius
followed the principles of clarity, universality and autonomy of form
that were so central to Modernism but were oversimplified in Post Modern
times. Can these qualities be seen on purely visual terms, outside a historical
context? Vlahos challenges us for a response, and as pure a vision as