dimitris papaioannou : a pasolinian touch
Dimitris Papaioannou’s work as a choreographer has significantly reshaped the Greek performing arts landscape.
With his directing of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games Ceremony, a ground-breaking success, he played his way straight in the heart of the spectators, hailed a “triumph” by TIME MAGAZINE and THE TIMES of LONDON.
In 2005 Dimitris Papaioannou was awarded the Golden Cross of the Order of Honour by the President of the Hellenic Republic for outstanding artistic achievement. For his following shows “2″ and MEDEA2 enjoyed an unprecedented run in the Greek capital, each with over 100 000 tickets sold. This accelerated development came not without controversy. With his latest play INSIDE Dimitris returns to his experimental roots.
THE STIMULEYE met with him during a break of rehearsals in Athens, to speak about his new play and look back to his point of departure.
Following the first part of three on the conversation with Dimitris Papaioannou, accompanied with exclusive pictures by René Habermacher.
DIMITRIS PAPAIOANNOU: I’ll be right with you — I’m just making a coffee!
RENÉ HABERMACHER: You’re freshly shaven! You look very 19th-century with your moustache.
I am from the 19th century honey, I’m very old!
It’s been a while since we had time for a talk, since I left Athens and you last visited Paris. We met only briefly during the rehearsals for your new play INSIDE, which you’re currently working on. You spent last Spring in New York. Tell me about what you did there.
I was there from March until June on a Fulbright Artist’s Scholarship. A mid-career scholarship obviously… [laughs]
Actually in a way I was studying the story of performance art [with Laurie Anderson at The Kitchen NYC] and developing my Final Cut Pro skills, as well as experiencing a little more of New York life, now that I’m a mature boy and things are different!
How was it returning to Athens after that?
For me it was a blessing because I discovered that I had left New York when I was still under construction. It’s the perfect place to be when you are like that, but in this phase of my life what I found there was a little more superficial than I would have liked. The Athens I returned to was in complete economic crisis and emotionally depressed, but still I was deeply relieved to spend summer back home.
Dimitris, I know you were born in Athens, but we’ve never talked about your childhood.
I was born and grew up in Athens, in a lower-middle class family. My parents made financial sacrifices so that I could go to a very expensive school, the Athens College. Then I had to run away from home because my parents wanted me to live the life of a straight architect. But I was a gay man, and I wanted to be a painter. I became the student of the Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis* (1) in the old fashioned way, where painters trained people in their atelier. It was there I was introduced to true art. I had been painting since I was a child, but it was when I met Tsarouchis that I realised what painting really was. Later I entered the Athens School of Fine Arts.
* (1) : Yannis Tsarouchis, 1910-1989 One of the most important twentieth-century Greek painters, Yannis Tsarouchis portrayed and helped to define modern Greek identity. The deeply sensual painter was much influenced by the French impressionists and often depicted sailors, soldiers and the nude male body in erotic situations.
How did you meet Tsarouchis?
I knocked on his door. I showed him some my paintings and asked for his comments. He was not cruel, as he could have been, about those awkward early drawings — instead he was very polite. My college had organised an exhibition of my work in the building’s library, so I invited Tsarouchis to see my work up close. The next day he called me and invited me back to his house, after which he allowed me to watch him paint, and would give corrections on my paintings. I became his student.
How did this encounter shape you? Did it leave a mark on your artistic work?
Well, your first mentor leaves a strong mark on your life. I grew up in a house that had no contact with artists, there wasn’t a single painting on the walls. My parents weren’t very fond of art, it wasn’t part of their lives. I felt like an alien, wanting to enter this world. So Tsarouchis was the first artist I really saw working, and I realised that the life of an artist is possible and, to my eyes, very charming. I felt at home in a way. And he was a great painter. He had a quality that interests me a great deal: he could make magic with the humblest of materials — he could make roses out of toilet paper, use wires to make small sculptures. The thing I think I have learned from him is that you can make poetry out of garbage.
To me you are the only true heir to Tsarouchis. There is something else I feel you both share: a certain ambiguity in your work, “the beauty and the trash”.
It is a Pasolinian touch! A touch of Pasolini existed in Tsarouchis: he could discover beauty in the humblest of environments.
Tsarouchis is a very important figure in Greece. The Greek establishment hang his work in their living rooms (if they can afford it, of course).
But there was a time when his exhibitions were censored, closed down because of the content of his paintings: erotic, homoerotic, even considered insulting to Greek national identity. Before an artist such as Tsarouchis becomes fashionable he belongs exclusively to the true lovers, but once he’s become fashionable you find conservative people who hang his works in their homes and yet are blind to their sheer homoerotic presence.
That is the funny thing: how does Greek society absorb these elements, which are also evident in your work?
It manages somehow. But one has to focus on that unknown number of people who come in contact with your work because they feel a need to. I have been “fashionable” for some years now, and I think I’ve been accepted by people who would never have accepted me had I not been cast as some sort of a social phenomenon because of the Opening Ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games.
What do you think is the difference in the way audiences perceive your work today, now that you are part of the establishment? How do your experiences compare to those of the past — let’s say when your play MEDEA*(2) was first performed, before the Olympic Games?
There was an element of surprise and of passion back then, because whatever the nature of the work itself, there was always the energy of discovering something new, the energy of promise. In the early part of my career, as my audiences grew larger and larger, there was still this dynamic of being part of a group of people who expressed some things about the nature of life and art that we all agreed on. Right now, I strongly doubt whether everybody who comes to see what I do has that same need to do so.
When you started out as a dancer and choreographer, you came up from the “underground” as you say, with projects that were staged without any financial support.
Yes, we squatted illegally in an abandoned building and transformed it into a theatre. We never sent out a press release, we had no government support. We just shared the income from the 60 seats we could house.
It is very clear to me that, after my painting, my move into comics art and stage works came out of a pure and utter need for expression. And for some reason, my work has rarely been rejected. For some reason people were interested in the things I was doing. [Melina Mercouri, then Greek Minister of Culture, attended performances at the squat, reportedly sitting in the last row, legs up on another chair, chain-smoking…].
So there was a need for what you were doing, there was a gap you filled.
Well, when I first began presenting my stage works, the performing arts scene in Greece was far more conservative, so my work in contrast seemed very progressive. This is not the case nowadays.
Why do you think that is?
You know, that’s the job of the youngsters! I tend to believe that the best way to live my life is not to consciously try to make a difference, which would mean having an open conversation with an unknown public, but to try and materialise my vision as best I can. Some of my ideas are the same as those I had at the very start. Of course as I grow older I learn more about how to realise these ideas, and I hope that now I am concentrating on more essential things.
2004 Athens Olympics Opening Ceremony by Dimitris Papaioannou - Extract