Title: Nocheleia: the C.I.A. Project
Venue: Turner Contemporary Art, London
NICOS CHARALAMBIDIS, Interviewed by Vassilika Sarilaki *
The career of Nicos Charalambidis, the multitalented and subversive artist, has shot into orbit in recent years. London’s Turner Contemporary Art will be showing a new, powerful, politically charged exhibition of his work throughout the summer as part of a multi-faceted project including reconstructions of emotionally-charged monuments, the Nicosia wall, video, workshops and a hosting platform with invited artists, including Walid Raad, Artur Zimijewski, Diego Perrone and the Atlas Group. Moreover, autumn brings with it the São Paolo biennale…
_You are preparing an important exhibition at Turner Contemporary Art in London . In this new political/interactive installation, you make a core reference to the Nicosia wall, to the Situationists, the anti-architecture of the Sixties, and more. How do all of these relate to the overall concept, and how do you use the Turner’s space?
Let’s start with the title, “NOCHELEIA: The C.I.A. Project”, which gives the viewer the impression that what they are about to see relates to some CIA secret mission with a Greek codename: “nocheleia” [languor]. It’s obviously an oxymoron I chose deliberately as the Social Gym, the activist programme of actions I follow, challenges social inertia and passivity of exactly this sort.
The C.I.A. Project (Cultural Imperialistic Activities), on the other hand, references the troubled situation in Cyprus and the Middle East . It is significant that the artists hosted by the project are the Atlas Group.
_In Green Line, your artistic intervention from 1989, you reference the Situationists. Now you are returning to them. What direction is this going to take?
The exhibition focuses on the Situationists, and especially on Cedric Price, the famous London architect who spent a lot of time working on funfairs and places of entertainment. The area around the Turner has long been dominated by this sort of carefree atmosphere, and it is home to Europe ’s most famous funfairs–which have now been declared protected monuments. Architecture students from Canterbury University will link their projects to the subject-matter of this exhibition. The workshops are one of the parallel activities, as is the performance with the Gurkhas, the British brigade currently escorting the Prince of Wales in Iraq .
_Will the exhibition follow your usual practice and feature a range of constructions and videos?
Video projections are a central part of the exhibition, as is the reconstruction of the monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht the Communist Party commissioned from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1926, and which the Nazis destroyed shortly afterwards. Mies emigrated to new York , and it wasn’t long before he was being described as one of America ’s leading architects. But that monument continued to be a black mark against his name. They say the CIA tried to spirit the blueprints for the monument away, and Mies was forced to carefully suppress all mention of this project.
_Yes. There are some dark areas. Jean-Louis Cohen recently wrote that Mies made the monument, but flirted with the Nazis at the same time. If we also bear in mind that he took over as director of the Bauhaus in 1930, immediately after H. Mayer (the former director) fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazis subjected him to particularly savage attacks, we can conclude that Mies was accepted by them to some extent…
The exhibition highlights exactly these contradictions. The monument to Communism is contrasted directly with the subject-matter and title of the exhibition, which alludes to the CIA. On the other hand, the installation’s interior space, which is like a cave, is useful as a refuge, as a dark video booth for the forbidden (in Europe) films of an artist from the Atlas Group, Souheil Bachar, who was held hostage in Lebanon for 10 years.
_So it’s a purely political exhibition, if you consider that it refers to a period of political ferment: from 1919 (Luxemburg’s murder, establishment of the 3rd International and Mussolini’s fascist party, revolutions in Central Europe) to 1926, the year of the Mies monument. Coincidentally, Fritz Lang made Metropolis, the inspiration for the use of the replica in your works, in the year the monument was built. Meaning that in your house in 1990 you made the first replica of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, which you later used in various installations, at the Venice biennale etc. Why the insistence on symbolically reconstructing historically charged monuments?
It’s interesting to take a look at the history of the pavilions and the constructions designed from the 19th century on for one international exhibition or another. Many were never actually built (Tatlin’s monument, for example), and the great majority were destroyed when the event ended (like the Barcelona pavilion). The Eiffel Tower is one of only very few that fate smiled on. I am particularly moved by an era’s destroyed constructions/symbols. Nicosia airport, Berlin ’s Kant Garage, the Philips Pavilion, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, Konstantinidis’ wrecked Xenia hotels… The war on Cyprus in the Seventies was fought against a backdrop of Modernist buildings. One of my most intense childhood memories is of Nicosia airport. My first experience of aeroplanes, the first escalators, which my child’s eyes imagined as slides in a playground, the round Pop armchairs that looked like amphorae, the glass room from which you could look down on the departure lounge and keep your loved ones in sight until the very last minute… all of this transformed the building into a magic Disney Land building. Years later, I began to realize that in addition to my experiences of Cyprus ’ brutally levelled Modernism, many of the most typical examples of this period had been left to their fate, abandoned and deserted. When I visited Le Corbusier’s Unite in Marseilles in 1990, I was struck by the terrible state it was in; it looked like a refugee complex. The references to this period take on an allegorical character in my work, highlighting the politics of modernism, the strategies of the Cold War.
_Meaning that another factor that seems to have intrigued and aroused your interest in working with the Rohe monument, is the architect’s declaration that he made it out of everyday bricks, reproducing a wall against which they had executed dozens of Berlin Communists… The wall concept you employ so often and the idea of violent separation dominate your work. The division of Ireland and of Palestine , the underground shelters, the Taliban prisons, are your subjects par excellence. So today, now that political art is back in fashion, what do you have to say about the numerous artists and curators who are resorting to a belated interest in Cyprus ’ Green Line?
It is, unfortunately, true that after Cyprus was officially selected to host the Manifesta, curators and artists—most of them Greek, unfortunately—discovered the Greek Line somewhat late, and displayed a delayed interest in the island’s political problems in a climate of unconcealed opportunism. Ultimately, you could probably say not even the three Manifesta curators managed to grasp the singular political situation on Cyprus . Indeed, one of them requested that his department take up residence in the occupied North in disregard of the official Cypriot government that had invited him, and asked the refugees taking part to pass through the road blocks every day, and thus have their passports stamped with the visa of the illegal government of Northern Cyprus .
_Having kept a close eye on your work and aware of the requests you have submitted from time to time to the Cypriot Ministry of Culture to stage cultural events on the Green Line—none of which have come to anything, I was truly sorry and considered it unfair that you were not invited to take part in the Leaps of Faith exhibition. Especially since your exhibition at the Venice Biennale dealt, once again, with the Green Line…
I was less annoyed by my not participating in the exhibition than by the provocative—and deliberate—silencing of my work at the parallel conference and the non-inclusion of my work in screenings of political works and interventions. The worst thing of all was the argument put forward by the curators, who said I couldn’t take part because I was a Greek artist.
Of course, Hussein Chalayan, who has lived in London since he was a child and who has officially represented Turkey , was automatically considered a Cypriot…
_What can I say? Let’s move on to something more pleasant. What will you be showing at the São Paolo Biennale?
I will dismantle three specific barrel-barricades on the Nicosia Green Line and will transport the barrels to São Paolo, setting the tone of this year’s event, whose central title is “How to Live Together”.
* Nikos Charalambidis’ exhibition at the Turner Contemporary Art in London will be on for three months, from July until September. The São Paolo Biennale, this year entitled “How to Live Together”, will be held in October until December, 2006.
*Vassilika Sarilaki is an art historian.