Vlassis Caniaris, Interieur, 1974, mixed media, 6' 6“ × 17' × 4' 7”.

Vlassis Caniaris, Interieur, 1974, mixed media, 6' 6“ × 17' × 4' 7”.

Vlassis Caniaris

Kadel Willborn

Vlassis Caniaris, Interieur, 1974, mixed media, 6' 6“ × 17' × 4' 7”.

Vlassis Caniaris was insider and outsider, observer and participant, artist and citizen, all at once: a humanist who grasped the world in all its nuances and complexities. This sensibility is most evident in his “Gastarbeiter-Fremdarbeiter” (Emigrants) series, 1971–76, first presented in 1975 while the Greek-born artist was in Germany on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship. Empathizing with the experience of itinerants came easily to Caniaris: He left Greece in 1956 and moved from Rome to Paris to Berlin before returning to Athens nineteen years later. During his years abroad, he produced installations such as the 1974 Interieur, reinstalled in Düsseldorf for this show: The work is an assemblage representing a migrant’s home that positions the viewer on the edge of a fragmentary scene. At once minimal and cluttered, the set is tied together by a color scheme of green, brown, orange, red, and yellow. On one side, a room is constructed from three large plywood boards covered in Greek and German newspapers; it contains such objects as a pair of tattered suitcases, a single bicycle wheel, and a childish drawing of a sailboat at sea. On the other side, domestic items are arranged over platforms, from a lamp to baskets filled with containers and stacks of scrap carpeting. Nearby, one of the many figures Caniaris made from chicken wire throughout his career—of a little girl wearing a red dress and pulling a cart, Ohne Worte (Without Words), 1973—gazes at the scene as both object and observer, much like the viewer who looks on beside her.

The juxtaposition of the two works echoes Caniaris’s 1980 exhibition “Hélas Hellas” (Alas Greece), which marked a breakthrough for the artist. As art historian Michael Fehr wrote in his essay for a 1999 retrospective of the artist’s work at the National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens, Caniaris was disappointed in the “Gastarbeiter-Fremdarbeiter” series, since his intention was to produce a rigorous observation of migrant life—not just creating an artistic representation of his subject, but “making use,” as the artist himself said, “of scientific data to the greatest degree possible.” In the end, the works did not seem to reflect the kind of all-encompassing perspective he sought to develop in his practice. The problem was solved in “Hélas Hellas,” in that Caniaris made contemplation and observation the explicit subject of the exhibition. The show included sculptural figures, described by the artist as “witnesses,” made from chicken wire and clothed in secondhand garments. One of these, Zeuge (Witness), 1980, was perched at the top corner in the second exhibition room of the Düsseldorf show, angled toward a work on the floor, Untitled (Bicycle), 1974: A bicycle with its front wheel removed appears to descend into a large blue panel. These were placed next to two other pieces: Back and Forth, 1961, a frame wrapped in various fabrics, in the middle of which a pair of trousers hang suspended over a wire-mesh panel; and Space Within Space, 1960, an early example of the artist’s attempt to break free from the confines of the canvas by building a surface made from plaster on a grid of wire mesh and metallic rods.

As a whole, this compact exhibition produced, as “Hélas Hellas” did thirty-five years ago, “a highly reflexive interweaving of reciprocal observer positions and roles,” as Fehr wrote, situating the artist as an observer who is always part of the observed situation, and who alters it with a radical subjectivity that includes an acceptance of one’s own limitations. Limitation is a key word when thinking about Caniaris’s desire to assume what he called “the burden and the difficulties of [his] own questions” in order to establish positions that are constantly put to the test. In the end, it was the awareness of his limitations and the courage to transcend them that infused Caniaris’s work with a purposeful intensity. He imparted this to his viewers by locating them on the same representational plane as his subjects: as objects, observers, and participants simultaneously—occupying a radically open position the artist inhabited in his own life and work.

Stephanie Bailey