This week is the last week to visit the exhibition ‘Making Use: Dutch Art Institute at the Van Abbemuseum’ (runs until 11.08.2013). This exhibition presents 10 new projects by the participants to the master seminar taught by the Van Abbemuseum at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI // ArtEZ)this year. Part of this exhibition is the work ‘Kalavryta 2012′ by Fotini Gouseti. In a short interview with her she explains more about the complex but also intriguing background to this visually impressive work.
Steven ten Thije (StT) – Fotini, for some years you have done extensive research on a village in Greece Kalavryta. In this interview we hope to learn more about this dense topic and how you realised the work. I would like to begin very simply, by asking if you could explain why this village is so important?
Fotini Gouseti (FG) – Kalavryta has a double symbolic character in Greece throughout the modern history of the country. Starting by being the nation-wide symbol of the struggle for freedom from the Ottoman domination, as it is the place that the revolution started in 1921. But more relevant to my research is that Kalavryta became a symbol because of the total destruction of the town and the mass execution of its male population on December 13, 1943 by the Wehrmacht Army. This is considered the greatest holocaust that happened in Greece during the Second World War. For both of these reasons, this small place of about 2000 inhabitants, is charged with meanings in Greece.
StT- And, when did you become interested in this village? What is your relationship to it?
FG – I lived in Kalavryta for four years, between 2006 and 2010, working as an art teacher in the local schools. I consider that period as very fruitful for my development as an artist. My time there had a big impact on me and helped to form my general understanding and position towards art. The local society contributed in that development through everyday life, lots of questions and human relations, which was quite different to what I had experienced until then. Those conditions made me realise that I’m interested in directing my research and art practice in relation to society and real life, using art as a way to live better.
In April 2012 I was in The Netherlands following the daily news about the harsh conditions in Greece due to the financial crisis, which resulted in social upheavals and drove people to desperation. It seemed like the financial crisis was accompanied by a social and ideological crisis. One day I came across an article that was about soothing that had been written on a wall in the area of Kalavryta mentioning that “ A new Holocaust; to rid the place of dirt. Golden Dawn” Golden Dawn is an extreme right party that countenances violence, hate speech and a similar ideology to that of Nazism. The sudden growth and support of GD was alarming. The next news regarding Kalavryta that took me by surprise, came the day after the Greek elections of May. 635 votes for the party of Golden Down were attributed by the press to residents of Kalavryta. Numerous articles mentioned an “erasure of historical memory of the residents of the martyr town of Kalavryta”. This news amazed me as I had formed a totally opposite impression of the politics of the village during my stay there.
That was when I decided to travel back to Kalavryta in order to understand what was going on. I started researching not only books, newspapers and archives, but also contacted a series of interviews with inhabitants of a variety of ages, in order to see how the present is getting formulated as a result of the past.
StT- The work itself in the end is a carpet made from two thousand silk neck ties, using a traditional weaving technique specific to the area. I know that this relates to something that happened in the village, could you tell the story behind the carpet?
FG – After December 13th 1943 there were no men left above the age of 14 as they had been executed. There were no houses or food resources in Kalavryta due to the fire, theft and the general destruction. It was freezing as Kalavryta is located in the mountains, 750m above sea level. The women and children that who remained in the breaches were supported by the inhabitants of the surrounded villages and Red Cross in order to survive. The following years UNNRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitations Administration) contributed a lot by offering packages with provisions to the affected population.
This work refers to a story from the post war period in Kalavryta, that a family called Vagia told me. One day they received a very big package from UNNRA, they had to use a donkey to bring it home. When they finally opened it they found out that it was full of silk ties. Two to three thousands of them. There was nothing else in the package. The mother, Eleni Vagia, turned the silk ties to kourelou (a traditional Greek carpet), and as her son says today laughing “we were starving and freezing but walking on silk”.
StT – How did you realise the work? Did you get help to do the weaving?
FG – The initial idea was that the carpet be weaved in Kalavryta the same way as the original one. But there was not a working traditional loom available in the region. The carpet was made by Culture and Laographic Society ‘’Taxideutes Politismoy’’ who are based in Athens. Taxideutes Politismou (TP) means culture voyagers. It is a community founded 2 years ago by young people who are seeking solutions in order to help their neighbourhood out of the frustration and the problems of the crisis. Now they are about 250 people of all ages. Their medium to do so is culture and tradition. They offer several activities among which are workshops on photography, traditional dance, weaving, percussion music, etc. TP believe that the only way to find ways out of crisis is through solidarity. They look for humanity, which they believe is an element that has ceased existing in contemporary life. They state companionship as their God. Believing that “it is joyful to offer without having expectations, respectively you receive much more than you could possibly expect’’. They are not only motivated but also self-funded. When TP and I met we had reciprocal feelings: they found the concept of ‘Kalavryta 2012’ appealing and I was amazed by them as they have a very practical and down to earth way of acting out their ideals.
For, the fact that TP made the carpet adds extra value to the context of the work as, one of the most important – prominent concepts of Kalavryta symbolism is that of solidarity. Solidarity between the women and children that were left over in the ruins is considered the basic reason that kept them alive.
StT- And what made you choose this form and this story for the work?
FG – The (hi)story of Kalavryta is made out of tragic (hi)stories. Every family has a drama to narrate. When the Vagia family told me this story among others I thought that the artwork was already there. So in this sense the story chose the work. This story consists of the histories (hidden and known), includes the consequences of the holocaust, as well as an ironic critique of the contemporary state of financial crisis. While I was listening to histories and narratives from the holocaust of Kalavryta, I kept thinking that the trauma of the second world war is not healed. It is just covered. The present is getting formulated also out of the outcomes of this trauma. In that sense the reenactment in this work functions as a catharsis.
StT- Do you see parallels and differences between what you are doing and what the group of volunteers are doing who helped made the carpet?
FG – Both TP and I are interested in finding solutions. I don’t believe that the medium is as important in this case as the goal. I happen to be an artist so that is my medium. There are electricians, plumbers, social workers, retirees, unemployed, students and so on.. They state that for them culture and art is a way out. They are laughing at me saying that my way is their way out, while I don’t actually have a way out, as my life and my work runs on parallel tracks. What I find very challenging is that for them art is perceived as necessary tool, even if that is not clearly related to contemporary art.
StT- What does it mean to you that this work is now in a museum exhibition? Is there a specific relation to the context of the museum and this work?
FG – Van Abbe’s interest for understanding the plurality of histories and how they communicate with each other creates a common ground with the context of my research and this work. Out of my research in Kalavryta, I understood that there is no such a thing as “the history”, but there are instead a multitude of histories. These histories can be as many as the people experiencing a certain situation and through every individual person they can be reformed due to different conditions, contexts and perspectives. Personally, I see in the materialisation of this work both the concepts of solidarity and the network of the histories and narratives of the Kalavrytans, through which the present is getting formulated. I also believe that the combination of Anna’s Dasovic work together with mine, in this exhibition, creates the ground for further interpretations.
StT- What will be your next steps? Will this work be shown again elsewhere? And will the installation change?
FG – I would like this work to travel a lot and to communicate it’s context to different environments. I would also like to think that the installation of the work could be free according to the space and the given circumstances.