Where is your place? Or how do you find “Ellinikotita?”; Modern
greek odysseys: Queens Museum, Queens New york • Metro; Deste Foundation: Athens, Greece

Miltos Manetas, nike shoes and sony playstation
oil on canvas

Ellinikotita. Greekness. Greece calls to mind landscapes of beaches, blue sky and sun, or ancient monuments full of meanings of another time. Rarely when we speak of Greece do we think of a center of artistic production or the many Contemporary artists whose work signifies particular Greek nationalistic traits. In our “global society” it is hard to define artists as sharing enough traits to be classified as being one nationality or another. However, Greek artists seem to share history, traditions, the importance of family, and the legacy of their country, whether they were born in Greece and stayed there or if they moved to another country, or countries, for short or long periods of time, or even if they were born outside of Greece but were raised in a Greek community. They also share a desire for travel and exploration. These are the means by which people construct their identities. Ioanna Mirka, an artist based in Athens, often uses video as a means to document common events that take place around her to comment on the structure of society and how identities are formed. On a website devoted to Greek artists, http://www.c3a.gr, Mirka stated, “The myth of the Ellinikotita or Greekness is finally coming to an end, while the global character of the Greek spirit emerges in the use of new technologies with older thoughts and concepts. The understanding of this origin contributes to the formation of a new Greek identity.” www.hanappe.com/c3a/mirka.htm. What do Greek artists’ stories tell us about their Ellinikotita? Is there a gauge for how much Ellinikotita individuals have in their identities? And does that change with the way artists present themselves and how they are perceived?
Mythology is a label often used to define Ellinikotita. How do some Greek artists use mythology as a means to deal with the label of Greekness and does it make them more or less prone to being categorized into having nationalistic traits? Despo Magoni, a Greek-born artist who has lived in Brooklyn for over 30 years, uses mythology as a source in much of her work. She insists that the myths she was brought up on, help her make sense of life; they show truth and relevance over time. She doesn’t necessarily use images of Hercules or Persephone in her primarily collage work, but she references them and Contemporary events to describe her own modern day myths. Kate Barba, a young artist who was born and stayed in Athens, is also influenced by mythology, but in a more story telling and technological way. She has stated that she was influenced by children’s books: “In the same way that fairy-tales and myths warn us of the dangers and pitfalls of life, the children’s tales spoke of good and evil, preparing us for the real world, all represented in an acceptable and forgiving way.” Barba takes images from comics which portray heroes of childhood and manipulates them via computer into new interpretations so that, “The hero no longer kisses the heroine but tries to strangle her; the blond beauty has turned into an old lady; little red riding hood is lured by evil.” http://www.hanappe.com/c3a/kbarba.htm.
Tradition plays an important role in the life of all Greeks. Artists born in Greece or born into Greek communities cannot escape their ancient heritage. They have the significance of ancient monuments and the Romanticism associated with Greece in their souls. Some Greeks embrace this heritage. Others satirize the place they come from. Maria Papadimitriou uses a wide range of media and styles as she “regenerates, pastiches and parodies art history and popular imagery whilst celebrating ”communication and creativity as collective pleasures.” http://www.wigmore-fine-art.co.uk/old/georgiou-papadimitriou-wurthle/papadimitriou.htm. In one particular image, to be continued (ballooning over mount athos), the artist cuts out the face of a woman and pastes it onto a hot air balloon floating near Mount Athos, a religious community on a northeastern peninsula of Greece in the Aegean Sea where women are barred.
From a country situated at a traditional crossing point of countries and civilizations, Greeks have long been long associated as wanders. They tend to lead a peripatetic existence. As Peter Pappas, Director of the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, wrote in the exhibition catalogue for Modern Odysseys: Greek American Artists of the twentieth century,” . . . Greeks are people of the Mediterranean, that is, of flight, of exchange, of wandering, and dispersion. It is not a linguistic accident that even in English the words “peripeteia,” “periphery,” “metropolis,” “diaspora,” “nostalgia,” and, of course, “odyssey,” are all rooted in the cultural experience of the Greeks. Greeks themselves have never ceased to be rootless “cosmopolites” (another Greek word). Which is all to say that people emigrate for reasons other than poverty, and some more easily than others . . . How does where an artist lands influence the work they make? How does it inform their identity construction? Athens-based Eva Vretzaki and Poka Yio explore in their ‘98 series “Southern disco-mfort”, “. . . the ways in which tourists view Greece and Greece presents itself as a tourist attraction. A mini dance floor blurs alternately international pop and local bouzouki music. On the wall, a film is projected that features sun, sea, sex—the cliché attributes of Greece. An advertisement lights up, displaying a sign that reads “tzatziki,” set in a heavenly blue light.” http://www.hanappe.com/c3a/eva&pokayio.htm. This mixing of cultures helps to mark one’s identity, but also mocks the very construct of how their culture is seen.
Surrounded by seas and partially fragmented in small islands, periphery becomes an important defining quality of Greece. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is on the periphery of the periphery. It may be physically closer to larger cities in Europe, but it is still not Athens. Alli Poli, a project run by Conceptual artists Thanasis Chondros and Alexandra Katsiani in Thessaloniki, created a place in the early ‘90s for ideas to be broadcast around the globe. http://www.magnet.gr/views/allipoli/ There is a certain reassurance in being invisible in the periphery, but most artists will agree that exposure is an important factor for them. With the growing output of artists working in the global language of photography and new media, Thessaloniki will likely soon become more recognized, eliminating at least one level of periphery associated with its name.
Many of the Greek artists I’ve met and done research on have either moved from Greece or have traveled quite a lot. Perhaps travel and moving provides a means to get out of the periphery and move into mainstream centers. For some artists travel is a means to learn about what is happening around the world. Experiencing other cultures allows artists to better understand their own heritage and Nationalistic tendencies. The Internet provides a thorough means for artists to associate with a more global artistic production and a way for people in the center, like New York City, to learn about artists on the periphery. Jenny Marketou, born in Greece but living in the United States for 25 years, states “. . . my Greekness has brought elements into my work that I cannot always describe, but on the other hand, my American-ness has created the context, the information, the experience where this work has been created.” (Modern Odysseys, 64) Marketou’s technologically based work reflects the trend of many artists whose work is becoming more global in nature, as there are no Nationalistic predispositions in it, making it nearly impossible to label where the artist is from. Miltos Manetas, another Greek born artist who has made Italy and now the United States his home, makes paintings of computers and computer parts using traditional painting techniques. Manetas recently coined the word “Neen” for Contemporary art. The technology-based work that “Neen” describes shows nicely the way that globalism is affecting so many artists today. Another example is the exhibition “Metro,” curated by Dan Cameron for the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art in Athens. In his curatorial statement, Cameron noted that the “lines between local and international artistic developments have become increasingly blurred.” Does making work that looks like any other artist in any other country could have made it detract from these Greek artists’ Ellinikotita? Does the mythical aura of the purity of Ellinikotita become stained by a globalized or image? Greekness seems to evoke nostalgia, melancholy, memory, whereas Americanness (or globalness?) evokes voyeurism, an incestuous relation with media, frenzied Consumerism, and cutting up of symbols to make a fragmented landscape.
How we form our identities is influenced by where we are born, where we travel, and what we are exposed to. While it is impossible to actually define Ellinikotita, it is fun to try and interesting to see the similarities in some Greek artists’ works and their disparate natures. The very task of trying to categorize artworks into nodes of Greek nationalistic identity brings up issues of place, of identity and of historical understanding. As we expose ourselves to the -nesses of other cultures are we able to adopt some of their characteristics along the way? If all Greek artists are born with Ellinikotita, but some keep it and some hide it or let it go away, can those of us who are outside the sunny place pick some up along the way? If so, how much Ellinikotita is in your palette?

Heather Felty
New York, New York