Thessaloníki

“The Gesture”

Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art

The Gesture: A Visual Library in Progress” is a Greek-Italian production whose ultimate aim is the establishment of a library to make video works accessible to a broader public. Organized by curators Marina Fokidis, Sergio Risaliti, and Daphne Vitali, it traveled to the Quarter–Centro Produzione Arte, Florence (where Risaliti is artistic director). The pivotal interest in this project lies in the gesture and the gesturing body as it has been explored in video and photography from the ’60s to the present, with a focus on performance, action, and bodily experience that underline social, political, identity, and gender issues and activism. “The Gesture” is a work in progress, hence no claim to comprehensiveness can be assumed. Nonetheless, there were unexpected omissions at Thessaloníki, ranging from such pioneers as Nam June Paik and his Fluxus colleagues to Rebecca Horn.

Such reservations aside, this was a loose yet intelligible grouping of works by artists of different generations, displayed to bring out connections and differences across time. For instance, Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks, 1974, was loosely aligned with Satisfaction, 1994, by Elke Krystufek, followed by Up to and including her limits, 1976, by Carolee Schneemann, and then, further on, back in time to Valie Export’s Body Type, 1970, showing changes in approach to the female body and gender issues. With Mendieta and Schneemann, it became clear how women artists challenged cultural conditioning and attempted to legitimize their bodies on their own terms; how issues of privacy and intimacy were trespassed as artists like Krystufek transformed the way female identity and sexuality are addressed; and then, as a reminder, how literal, basic, and almost primitive the gestures of certain artists were in the early days, as with Export.

The exhibition design, by architect Eleni Kostika, was ingenious, indeed original, as it seemed to distinctly “cradle” and support the entire exhibition. The majority of the videos were shown on monitors, all of one size, with only a few screen projections. By arranging humble movers’ pallets made of wood at varying heights along the full length of the exhibition area, Kostika created a uniform sequence of alternating recesses and platforms on which the monitors were positioned, each with headphones. The attractive wooden structure had a warm handmade look and there was none of the incessant cacophony or fumbling
around in the dark black box typical of many video exhibitions.

This democratic installation did, however, detract from the emphasis on spectacle and narrative that has taken on such importance since the mid-’90s,as evident in Marina Abramović’s beautifully made The Lovers, the Great Wall Walk, 1998, or in the sex scene on horseback, candidly filmed in startling, fast-moving close-up, in Rustam Khalfin and Julia Tikhonova’s Towards an Understanding of Limitations, 2005. Yet despite the striking aesthetic differences—so much recent video seems all too eager to please, in compliance with the codes of spectacle culture—Khalfin and Tikhonova’s work recalls the groundbreaking work of seminal video artists of the ’60s and ’70s like Bruce Nauman and Chris Burden in its concern to test the body’s limits.

Catherine Cafopoulos