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Art as democracy in practice

The opening night earlier this week

By Agnieszka Rakoczy

Accompany this vibrant 48-year-old – one of Poland’s leading artists – through the room on the ground floor of the Leventis Gallery and to the nearby Point Centre for Contemporary Art and you get swept up in thrall to his unique undertaking.HE first thing that strikes you about Pawel Althamer, whose art project “Draftsmen Congress: Life Zone – Life Point” was launched this week at Nicosia’s AG Leventis Gallery, is the sheer intensity of the man.

Althamer encourages visitors and artists (both colleagues and volunteers), to join him and express themselves freely by transforming the walls and floor of the room he dubs the “white cube” with a spontaneous mix of drawings, paintings and graffiti. Meanwhile, at the Point Centre for Contemporary Art, he and his fellow artists are busy creating sculptures out of found materials from the local scrap metal yard.

Pawel Althamer at work at the Point Gallery creating a sculpture
Pawel Althamer at work at the Point Gallery creating a sculpture

When Althamer talks about art, he conveys an absolute conviction that the medium can not only change things but also make them better. The impact is evident in the way others respond to him.

Cyprus-born billionaire Dakis Ioannou, hailed among the world’s most discerning art collectors, is responsible for bringing Althamer to Nicosia. Asked how he feels about the Polish artist, he says simply – “Real, he is real”.

The industrialist repeats the word “real” with emphasis then goes to explain why today he owns some 40 art pieces executed by Althamer and why last year he chose him as the sole exhibitor for his renowned Slaughterhouse space in the Greek island of Hydra.

“Pawel has his own world and his world is encompassed in our world, or at least in my world, and this is what I find very fascinating.”

The project that the artist brings now to Cyprus first began at the Seventh Berlin Biennale in 2012 and has since continued at such venues as the New Museum in New York and the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, where it featured in the context of the artist’s retrospective.

Clearly not an exhibition in the traditional sense, wherever it goes, whatever the site, The Draftsmen’s Congress always starts off with an empty room and four white walls. Within that “white cube”, everyone is invited to create, engage and converse with images rather than words. Using paint and a brush, visitors are encouraged to react to issues embracing politics, religion and current events in what the artist describes as “an exercise of democracy in practice”.

“We all draw together and communicate through this process, even though our understanding of art may be very different. I strongly believe that art was born from a natural need to firstly get in touch with ourselves and secondly with the whole world. People are naturally very creative and the message of this project is very simple – it is only up to us what we do with our life and how we will use our creativity.”

Art collector and billionaire Dakis Ioannou
Art collector and billionaire Dakis Ioannou

Ioannou’s vast collection of contemporary art includes works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan. He first met Althamer on a visit to Warsaw more than ten years ago.

They set off on a walk in the artist’s local neighbourhood. “I got hooked”, Ioannou recalls, looking back at that first encounter and their walk around Brodno, one of Warsaw’s more rundown districts, a grey expanse of  communist-era apartment blocks. In all likelihood, he must surely have been the first (and last) Cypriot billionaire to have ventured there.

Brodno, where Althamer has lived most of his life , not surprisingly was inspiration and location for one of the artist’s earliest community-based projects, Brodno 2000 at the start of the millennium.

Based on a concept described by Althamer as “directing reality”, the project involved 200 of his neighbours (all from the same block of flats). By switching the lights on and off in specific rooms for half an hour in a synchronised way, the lit windows jointly formed the number “2000” on the grey facade.

Coordinated by a group of teenage scout members and involving more than 3,000 people in all, this art action was to be the beginning of a string of other activities in the downtrodden district, as more and more residents joined the artist in “realising” some of his other ideas aimed at changing the local environment.

Since then, together with Althamer, the people of Brodno have transformed the local art scene with a series of projects. These include creating a neighbourhood Sculpture Park that displays works by well-known Polish and international artists, landscaping the park area with many new and unusual types of trees and bushes, refurbishing a local playground and repairing the run-down staircase of a tower block.

Residents continue to participate in various Althamer projects. One of the best known entitled Common Task began with a Warsaw walk-about dressed in gold science fiction-like spacesuits. This has since literally taken off with the help of benefactors including the Polish authorities. Those gold uniformed participants have been seen flying off — sometimes in a gold-painted plane — to such venues as Brussels, Belarus, Brasil, even Mali.

It was while in Mali that Brodno residents acquired a fascination with Dogon culture and structures that inspired them to invite a traditional Malian sculptor to come to Poland. Working together, they built an authentic Dogon wooden arbour or “toguna”. To this day, it serves as a meeting place-cum-shelter at a Brodno bus stop.

Althamer’s commitment to animating community life stems from his belief that by use of a simple gesture or idea the artist can play an activating or catalytic role to inspire others to think outside of the box.

In 2009, the North Praga Pedagogy and Social Animation Group gained renown in Warsaw for their collaborative sculpture of a colourful local figure. Known as “Mr Rubber” or Pan Guma, he was a character derided as a petty local criminal and drunkard by some, yet revered by others as an authority and upholder of the local code of honour. This artwork is now an important part of the Museum of Modern Art collection in the Polish capital.

Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director of New York’s New Museum, decries how in recent years the “upsurge in community-based works and collective practices” has sometimes led to different social groups and individuals being “utilised, or even taken advantage of”.

In marked contrast, Althamer, he observes, “engages in social projects with a delicacy of touch and an integrity that are extraordinarily rare, and in all of his collaborative projects, he makes an effort to place each participant within a knot of relationship that is as tight and protective as that of a family.”

Dakis Ioannou firmly hopes that the Draftsmen Congress project which also involves participation by artists Althamer has invited from as far afield as Ukraine, India, Chile and the United States, and ends on February 8, will help contribute to solving some of the problems faced by his motherland.

“Cyprus is at the complete edge of Europe. There are a lot of tensions here, political, social, economic, cultural – all kinds of problems. So through this congress, we aim to create an opportunity for people to investigate these things, to try to understand what is happening, to try to go a bit further, to become a bit more ambitious, to open up,” he explains.

Beside him, Althamer vigorously nods his head in agreement.

“Dakis has an amazing intuition in terms of what and how he collects. In his case, buying art is not about investment. He believes that through art, through supporting creativity, the world can become a better place. In this way, what he says about his world and mine world is absolutely correct,” he adds.

So what is the ultimate message the artist would like the Draftsmen’s Congress to leave on the island?

Althamer chuckles, pauses and then with a smile says: “If we really could, I would love to get Greek and Turkish Cypriots together and paint over the whole buffer zone here… the place just screams for it… it is obvious that whoever created it has run out of ideas.”

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