“PLEXUS The grid as a process”
Text by Tina Pandi and Stamatis Schizakis
“In her introduction to Radical Museology: Or What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art?, Claire Bishop juxtaposes two models and approaches to the contemporary, which run through her entire research: on one hand “presentism”, placing the present moment as the temporal framework for consideration and research, and on the other, the perception of a “dialectical contemporaneity” according to which “the contemporary is understood as a dialectical method and a politicized project”, which “does not designate a style or period of the works themselves so much as an approach to them”.1
In the light of this “dialectical contemporaneity” described by Bishop, Plexus endeavors to commence a dialogue between the work of three artists from different generations with common artistic considerations: Bia Davou (b. Athens, 1932), Efi Spyrou (b. Nicosia, 1976) and Petros Moris (b. Lamia, 1986). The common axis underlying the exhibition is the grid as a notion, form and function, utilized by these three artists throughout their work; in their practice, it has the capacity of incorporating and visualizing the process for constructing the artistic object as well as confirming that the object, complete or in the process of making, is the result of premeditation and systematic execution.
Choosing to jointly present the work of these artists, including works from the 1970’s to this day, has a specific aim: this time period is demarcated by the introduction of informatics in the household, and it reaches the so-called post-digital era. This undertaking examines the work of two younger artists operating within the present condition, in which the dominance of new technologies in every aspect of human activity calls for a constant critical review of the relations between natural and digital objects, between material and immaterial production as well as between manual and intellectual labor. Presented in a dialectic relation to their work, is the oeuvre of an artist who strove to take a stance in relation to the constant technological transformations whose impact in contemporary artistic production still largely remains uncharted and unexplored.
The works dispayed in Plexus, produced with an amalgamation of manual, industrial and digital practices, are presented as the end result of a process as well as the process itself. The exhibition, including large-scale installations, new productions, in situ interventions as well as “minor” gestures, drafts, texts, notes, reconstructions of ephemeral works, audiovisual and printed archival material, has been designed as a procedure “weaving” between artistic intent, curatorial mediation and viewers’ reception, emphasizing its open and procedural character. Within the exhibition course there is an autonomous space densely presenting these works-fragments, documents, drafts or notes disambiguating its conceptual core, offering a mental map with constellations, various routes and transits between the works.
The title of the exhibition, Plexus, the passive participle of the Latin word plectere, finds its etymology in the ancient Greek word ??????? and in English it is used as a synonym to the word grid. The slight semantic difference between terms grid and plexus, lies in the fact that the latter also includes the notion of the procedure of construction, of the intersection of materials as well as that of the network.2
One of the most ancient techniques known to mankind, knitting and weaving, has been connected with the household domain, with female traditional activity and with housekeeping. According to the 19th century German architect Gottfried Semper and his anthropological approach to the beginnings of architecture, walls and any kind of barriers by hard or suppler materials (for instance, cane or cloth) originate from weaving. Therefore, we could suggest that the household itself is literally defined by weaving. Correspondingly, in her study The Grid Book, art historian Hannah Higgins attempts an interdisciplinary overview of the grid’s uses and significations from antiquity to the present, placing its first appearance among the palaeolithic mud-bricks –the building material par excellence– in 9.000 B.C. Focusing on the grid’s aspect as a network, she offers a historical retrospective beginning from the industrialization of textile production and the industrial revolution, to the age of information science during which woven textiles and the grid are absolutely identified. Among the examples that she analyzes is the knitting machine of Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801, whose operation is based on the grid of woven textiles, in order to produce various images and patterns through a procedure of automated weaving, using perforated cards. It is known that Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the father of the computing machine, was inspired by Jacquard’s perforated cards, and he intended to utilize a similar input system in his finished Analytical engine,3 while Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the mother of programming, noted the relation between computing and knitting, mentioning that “the analytical engine will weave algebraic patterns like Jacquard’s looms weave flowers and leaves”.4 Though this review, one realizes that the grid as textile assumed a central position in industrial innovation during the industrial revolution; it is also prefiguring the digital revolution, as the first bits, the first units of information in binary code on perforated cards were made to correspond to the right and the wrong side of the fabric.
During the industrial revolution, weaving was linked to important social change, such as the population shift from rural areas to industrial centers, the degradation of housework, the abolition of a pre-industrial-agricultural model of living and of course the devaluation of craft. The technical feasibility of industrial mass production became the principal scope of a new concept of design, which was dominated by the grid. Today, the evolution of information technology and the broadening of computer-aided manufacturing applications open new horizons to improvisation, inventiveness and aesthetics, by combining the precision of computing devices with the user’s craftsmanship and creative ability. The prospect of three-dimensional printing entering the household and the subsequent change of the productive model, where the production of simple or complex objects will be feasible at home, outlines a new revolution with the grid of the wireframe taking center stage.
Despite the fact that movements like Constructivism and the Bauhaus had already abolished the distinction between fine and applied art and that feminist practices in the sixties and seventies initiated a discourse on weaving and textiles, an even more recent approach to the grid is emerging, as seen from to the numerous studies in the history of art, technology and culture, as well as the exhibitions focusing on textiles and the practice of weaving.5 This “expanded” grid could be used as the vehicle to explore an alternative genealogy beyond the modernist grid of Rosalind Krauss6 that will run through the fields of fine and applied arts, industrial design, architecture, informatics, manual labor, automated mechanical production and reproduction.
It is worth mentioning that, within the context of the pursuits in Greek art, the grid did not function as a neutral geometric entity: by its constant hybridization it became the scope through which the urban landscape and the experiential relationship with it were translated into a geometric language, like in the abstract painting of Michalis Katzourakis, the photographs of Aris Konstantinidis, the paintings with concrete mesh by Yiannis Michas, the installations with ladders by Achilleas Aperghis, the architectural perspective of works by Opy Zouni, the successive mosaic plaques in the work of Rena Papaspyrou, the frames allowing for a potential endless development of the works by Diohandi, or even that point where the hectic craftsmanship was paired with fractals and digital design, like in the work of Nikos Alexiou7.
The work of the three artists in the exhibition is articulated around the axis of the notion and practice of plexus, as a system that transforms energy into matter and image, as the fundamental organization of a surface allowing its reproduction by any means, as the amalgamation of flexible or nonflexible materials, as a system and network of relations as well as a condition of existence. The essence of their work lies in the grid’s constant hybrid transformations -from a mosaic’s tile to the bit, from points on lined paper to woven textiles, from the city grid to the pixel.
Beginning with the artistic research conducted by Bia Davou in the 1970’s, –during a period of intense artistic experimentation– one could argue that it was characterized by the shift from the autonomous and complete artistic object to a consideration of the work of art as a means of communication. Its structure is defined by a system of predefined principles that the artist draws from theories on language, systems and cybernetics.
In 1970, in the statement of her fourth individual exhibition at the P.R. gallery in Athens, Bia Davou declares her gradual liberation from the painting conventions in her earlier work: “It took me quite some time to get rid of the convenience of the tonic transformations and of a sense of painting which I had gotten used to for a while and to conclude, after an abstractive processing, in “grid” compositions. I believe that through their successive shifts in level and juxtaposition in space, they phrase in a simple and direct way my sculptural intentions, as well as my corresponding psychological state (I always saw life behind a black grid).” Apart from Plegmata (“Grids”) as this series of works was called, Davou was to later create series of works based on algorithms, electronic circuits, binary code and mathematical sequences, utilizing a multitude of techniques and means, ranging from painting on canvas and drawing on paper, up to printing a circuit on copper bakelite and embroidering on canvas.
From the mid 70’s onwards, her work evolves around organizing a system of logical and non-hierarchical development of the artwork, the “serial structures” that she defined as “Mental and conceptual constructions emanating from the 0, 1 binary numeric system and developing in auto-regulated sequences (series) of whole numbers (elements)”.8 Within this context, Davou adopts the Fibonacci numerical sequence9 as a means for the aesthetic communication between man, nature and machine. In the earliest works from the Serial structures series, Davou recreates manually, using her brush, pencil, thread or even bricks, the elements of a language which could be understood by machines: perforated tape, binary code, numeric sequences. One of the most important works of that period is the large-scale wall installation Genetic code which she presented in an individual exhibition in the Desmos Art Gallery in 1978. On that work, she wrote “The construction of my large project «Genetic code» is based on binary language […] This new sculptural language is one that art needs in order to enrich its social function, at a time when human communication is based more and more on machines and their logic.”10 Through the manual and laborious process required for the execution of her works, Bia Davou is led towards a poetic undermining of the austerity of the system of Serial structures, rediscovering repressed myths and narratives, like the one of Penelope. The system which can theoretically be executed by anyone, is turned into a personal means of expression, through the introduction of poetic language, which in the case of Bia Davou is the Odyssey.
Over the last few years, the artistic activity of Efi Spyrou has been unfolding towards a poetic and mythical use of the grid. The project Metamorphoses, 2014 begins with a metaphysical quest on the impossibility of the void and therefore its form is defined by it, like the white on a page defines the black of the typography. The installation title, alluding to M. C. Escher, Franz Kafka and Ovid, actually refers to the literal transformation of materials into an object with new substance. It has been more than half a century since Dan Flavin used fluorescent bulbs as a new artistic medium and their image is already bringing nostalgic associations for a time gone by, like the rusted iron of Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures or the burlap sacks of Jannis Kounellis. Being the principal material of the Metamorphoses installation, the spent cylindrical lamps operate as empty shells, visibly fragile, and which were once emitting light but are now dark points in an ensemble of bright yellow straps, through which Efi Spyrou weaves a gradual pattern from darkness to light and back to darkness. The serial development of the installation parts alludes to the formation of windows or curtains; both are thresholds, points of separation between the exterior and the interior, light and darkness.
In the recent series of works entitled Tramp in, 2011-2015, Efi Spyrou introduces the traditional practice of weaving, by exploring another threshold, which in this case marks a passage through time. Weaving around hexagonal frames, patterns threads of strained latex, a material which quickly deteriorates when exposed to air and light, she creates a constantly changing textile. As each thread holds a part of the whole, even when it is broken, the broidery does not instantly fall apart but it remains stretched until more threads become worn out. In that manner, the “infrathin” moment of breaking, the instant passage from the state of the whole to that of the destroyed is prolonged into a duration perceivable by human senses. In another attempt to delay the passing of time, Efi Spyrou documents the different stages of the textile’s deterioration into plaster casts, through the void that one material leaves into the other.
In her new work Nautilus, 2015 the artist uses new materials and practices, by digitally designing and three-dimensionally printing the shell of a nautilus in transversal section, as is usually depicted in scientific textbooks. The nautilus’s spiraling shell takes its shape from the logarithmic development of the cephalopod’s chambers, which correspond to its former age stages. This means that it is a shell composed of smaller shells, which in turn include the void. Through a process of geometrical reconstruction and formulation transcending individual details, Spyrou creates a primary shape-object around which interpretations are woven between light and darkness, inside and outside, being and nothingness.
The methodological approach of the artistic production by Petros Moris evolves around a constant procedure of translating the unique combination of traditional techniques, of manual, digital and immaterial labor, to which he subjects his work. Within this context, his raw material is what he collects from various internet sources such as texts (Procedural Collection, 2011-2015) images (Savage Mind (Matrix), 2010), three-dimensional models etc., which he appropriates through the different stages of their realization. The sculptural installation Columns (Time, Brain, Transformation, Skeleton), 2015 presented in the exhibition is articulated through an array of seven ready-made steel cages, similar to the ones used by the artist in his work entitled Columns, 2014. The metal constructions of concrete reinforcement, each of which corresponds to a different typology, set a three-dimensional grid developing in time through repetition, order, division, delimitation, as well as through its possibly endless expansion. Beyond their apparent function as a reference to a minimalist and post-minimalist vocabulary which the artist intents to undermine, the constructions by Moris create a shell, the corpse of a postindustrial building or of an urban grid halfway under construction or demolition. At the same time, in the new installation, the cages operate as a substratum, a template and a platform to receive the sculptural objects that the artist creates digitally. For their creation, the artist uses iconographic elements from mosaics with mythological representations of the Mediterranean region, meticulously redesigned on the computer, as well as found copyright-free digital models which he then engraves with a CNC in extruded polysterene foam. Using the engraved surfaces as matrices, the artist molds the objects in plaster and other materials, thus redefining manual production in today’s era.
Through their rich intertextuality, Moris’s white plaster objects seem to condense a plethora of notions and material expressions of the grid, in pre-modern as well as in post-modern contexts: from organic forms to mosaic decoration, and from the geological and archaeological trace to the urban relief. But the mythical structure itself utilized by the artist in the representation of transformation scenes, like those of Leda or Daphne, which are represented in his sculptural objects, shows analogies with the function of the grid and with its capacity to hover between detail and wholeness, between order and disorder, individuality and collectivity.11 An integral element during the project’s production process is the series of four texts entitled Time, Skeleton, Transformation, Distributed Brain, –which also give the title of the installation– in a constant retrogression with its formal and conceptual experimentation.
The ending phrase “Things built to flow and things built to resist” written by Petros Moris in his Time text could function as a reminder of the grid’s transformative possibilities, not in an evolutionary line but in a rich network of dialectic relations, which is the framework for the exhibition itself. The exhibition Plexus, as an undertaking open to additional research and expansion, places its wide and contemporaneous character as the necessary conditions of its formation.”
Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens
Curator, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens
1. Claire Bishop, Radical Museology: Or What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art?, London: Koenig Books, 2013, p. 6, 9.
2. The word grid, like the word kannavos, its Greek equivalent, refer to objects and they are defined as the separation of a surface for design in regular rectangles. The grid is defined as the “construction of a reticular scheme of threads, wires or other materials crossing in order to leave gaps” (Triantafyllidis Dictionary).
3. Analytical engine is the name of the second computing machine that Charles Babbage designed for the first time in 1837. It was never completed.
4. Hannah Higgins, The Grid Book, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2009, p. 240.
5. As of late, a series of important exhibitions and research programs have concentrated on the notion and the uses of textiles in contemporary artistic practices and thoughts, beyond its traditional consideration as a female traditional craft: Decorum. Carpets and tapestries by artists (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), Social Fabric (INIVA, London), Textiles: Open Letter (Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach), To Open Eyes. Art and Textiles from the Bauhaus to Today (Kunsthalle Bielfeld), Textile (An Iconology of the Textile in Art and Architecture) (Zurich University), Networks (Textile Arts and Textility in a Transcultural Perspective, 4th to 17th Centuries) (Humboldt University, Berlin), etc.
6. The grid, in the sense of kannavos functioning in order to denote –according to Krauss–, the “modernity of modern art” constituted modernism’s principal emblematic form, by visualizing the triumph and faith in the predominance of rational thinking. It is characteristic that, in conceptual and minimalist artistic practices, the grid is understood as a form and function at the same time. It is used in painting as a means to develop a systematic function, but it also constitutes the placing of color on a surface, thus having a role similar to the geometrically structured juxtaposition of industrial materials, which used to characterize the sculpture of that time. It is not by accident that the grid’s poetic and intellectual use in art appears at a time when it is omnipresent, inside and outside the art field and its use was broadened in the information classification systems during the first period of computing science, as well as during the industrial procedure for object production.
7. Nikos Alexiou explains “Now I see that all this talk about chaos, grids and fractals, etc. the drawings in Scientific American that interested science in those days were all mixed together with the blankets woven by my mother: the drawing in Scientific American and the blanket I still use today carry the same grid.”, “The image on the carpet. A conversation between Nikos Alexiou and Christophoros Marinos”, The end, Nikos Alexiou, curated by Yiorgos Tzirtzilakis, texts by Yiorgos Tzirtzilakis, Christophoros Marinos, Dimitris A. Liakos, Athens, Ministry of Culture, 2007, p. 107.
8. Bia Davou, “The serial structures of Bia Davou”, journal Themata Chorou + Technon 11 (1980) (in Greek).
9. The Fibonacci sequence is the sequence of numbers where the last one comes from the aggregate of the two previous ones and its geometric analogue is the golden section. It also corresponds to the rhythm of development of life and nature, but since the Renaissance it has also been connected to aesthetic harmony.
10. Bia Davou, “The serial structures of Bia Davou”, ibid.
11. Higgins correlates the grid’s function with that of myth, based on myth’s structural analysis by Claude-Levi Strauss. Hannah Higgins, ibid, p. 9.