Diohandi in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou
Diohandi (b.1945, Athens) studied painting and engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti, costume design, graphic design in Rome. She also attended architecture at the Polytechnic of Central London. She has presented her work in 16 solo exhibitions in Italy, Scotland, Greece and Cyprus. She has participated in more than 135 group exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has represented Greece in the VII Biennale de Paris, XII Bienal de São Paulo, X Quadriennale Nazionale d’Arte di Roma, I International Sculpture Symposium / Olympiad of Art, Seoul and 54th Venice Biennale. She was awarded in four international exhibitions of engraving and was also awarded for her artistic excellence during 2009-2010 by the Association of art critics, Hellenic department (AICA Hellas). Diohandi’s research is based on the re-creation of the environment through its relationship with space-time. Her large-scale installations, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time, complete the environment and act in synergy with it, thus embracing a narrative and creating a certain course via successive alterations of mediums, materials, sound and light. She lives and works in Athens.
I invited Diohandi to discuss with me her visual vocabulary and the way she has been working with space throughout her career.
Kostas Prapoglou: Your practice involves large-scale installations that take into consideration the way architecture and its elements define space and vice versa. How does your visual language adapt to each spatial condition?
Diohandi: Since the time of my studies, I felt the need to break free from the limits of a single canvas frame as a given space. By using several such frames and placing them one next to the other, I created a unified composition, which functioned as a narrative unfolding in space. Since that time and up until today, what interests me is this continuity of narrative, be it painting on canvas, drawing on paper, or a course in space with painterly and sculptural elements. As early as my first works, my intention was to adopt a vocabulary that was plain and strict. In my first black monochrome works of abstract paintings, I started using –at some point– geometrical shapes as well. In the following years, I worked on the relationship between geometry and space. In 1974, I decided to study further the relationship of architecture and art. For one year, I attended architecture classes at the Polytechnic of Central London. My aim is the feeling that will be experienced by the viewers and the message they will receive when they actually find themselves within a large-scale installation, always embracing a narrative that evolves within space-time.
KP: To what extent did your earlier interventions respond to the chosen surrounding environment? Can you describe this practice based on past projects?
D: In 1983, on the occasion of the group exhibition 7 Greek Artists: A New Journey, at the Gate of Famagusta in Nicosia (Cyprus), I worked in public space for the first time. The Gate of Famagusta is the biggest of the three gates of the Venetian walls surrounding old Nicosia. It opened the way leading to the most important port of the island. On the outer side of the walls and over a large area, I constructed in situ four pillars, up to 7.50m high and large elements of expanded polystyrene sculptured and painted with different colours. Ruins and stones from the place engaged with the existing mass of the old city walls. The real space became one with the visual art space. This was a visual representation of the historical development of the place by composing architectural, sculptural, painterly features and the environment.
Since then, my work is concerned with this dialogue that led me in 1985 to the construction of an environment with sculptured elements at Dracos Art Centre in Athens. This installation was materialised on the occasion of the international group exhibition Athènes – site de la création / création d’un site with the participation of eleven artists. I chose the external terrace and local white marble. An environment was created with white “marble”, which was in fact made of expanded polystyrene. It resembled the real marble extracted from the Dionysos quarries, Attica. As viewers walked through the installation, they were able to see parts of the city of Athens in between the mass of the material as well as an entrance leading to absolute darkness. During daytime, one could see the blue background of the sky, the white of the material used as well as the Greek light. At night-time, the black sky, the city lights and the threatening volumes of up to 8.70m high created a mysterious environment while the endless darkness of the entrance enhanced the impression, an entrance that you could neither enter nor decipher where it actually led.
In 1986, in my solo exhibition at Dracos Art Centre in Athens, I developed an ascending course through continuous alterations of numerous elements. Compositions joined each other into a unified work, titled Anelixis, which continued in both floors of the building with the gradual transition from darkness to light. I incorporated ideas, thoughts and techniques that deeply concerned me in the previous twenty years combined with new elements and materials. Emphasis was also placed on the concept of succession. On the first floor, all the elements of expanded polystyrene, fabric, wood, olive branches were painted in black. The lighting was very dim. On the staircase wall, brush strokes of black colour led to a structure of wood and boards of same colour. The structure continued to ascend with frames in red up to the second floor. There, a large corner structure with floor to ceiling curved alfa bloc, pieces of wood and boards occupied the space in a progressively simplified synthesis; all in red colour and more lighting. Moving on to the next space, a series of broken pieces of Pendeli marble mounted on the walls, and at the end one column-like structure, up to 3m high –all in white and intense bright lighting– created a transmission from darkness to light and vice versa.
In 1987, I participated in the group exhibition Erratici Percorsi / XIX Rassegna Internazionale d’Arte Contemporanea di Acireale, with six other international artists. Each artist was given a separate space at Castello Colonna in Genazzano, near Rome, in Italy. I created an in situ installation with black wooden planks. The viewers walked among them and found themselves opposite a red wall-obstacle made from local stones and expanded polystyrene. Behind the wall there was bright light. Through the sides of the wall, the viewer could overcome the obstacle and reach a white column-like form emerged in ample light.
In 1988, thirty artists from all over the world created one permanent work each at the Olympic Park of Seoul for the Olympic Games. From the first moment I received the invitation, I felt the need to visit ancient Olympia in Greece. My work titled Seoul – XXIV Olympiad is based on visualising the notion of the ancient Olympic idea. The work appears on top of a hill in the vast Olympic Park. On the outer side, lay local granite volumes and lava stones randomly placed. Two different entrances to the interior of the work are available to visitors. On the inner side, built granite volumes create a space within the work itself encircling five cement columns 12m high. They symbolise the five rings of the Olympic games sign. The five columns are placed in the same order as the rings of the Olympic symbols. From a greater distance, the viewers see five columns which emerge from an enormous base of lava and granite volumes. However, as they approach, they soon realise that there is an actual entrance to the interior of the base. In there, they find themselves circulated by the built granite volumes, isolated from the environment of the park, and when raising their eyes, they see the five columns joining against the sky. The ascending and never-ending perspective, through transforming the essence of the environment, becomes the deeper meaning of this work.
For the group exhibition Athina by Art – 84 Contemporary Greek Artists, I searched for a place suitable for creating a work responding to the specific moment of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. I chose the Pnyka hill, a space loaded with history and memories. It is situated on the west side of the Athenian acropolis. The work developed linearly. I designed and built one part of the city wall. Through an opening, eight white marble stelae were inscribed with the names of the Greek Olympic champions between 1986 and 2004. Visitors were able to move freely between them. The city of Athens was visible in the background. There was an interaction between natural light and proportion, the shapes and the environment. Essentially, the idea of the installation was based on the ancient Greek tradition of welcoming the Olympic champions in their hometowns, particularly with the symbolic pulling down of a small part of their city walls. This embraced a metaphor for universal peace transmitted into our age.
KP: in 2010, you transformed the 25,000 sq.m. site of the Old Oil Mill in Eleusis (Athens) into a vast installation. Tell us more about this project and the challenges that you had to face dealing with such a unique location.
D: Eleusis was one of the best-known cities in antiquity for its sanctuary of goddess Demeter and the sacred mysteries performed there. Initiation aimed at making peace with death and the expectancy of life after death. The Old Oil Mill was built in Eleusis in 1872 on the west side of the coastal line, next to the archaeological site. Today’s ruined shell of 17,705 sq.m. used to be a lively and thriving industrial space. My solo exhibition Eleusis 2010 was presented in September 2010. I constructed in situ installations in seven buildings of the oil press factory, each of which had one, two or more areas. These installations referred to the deeper meaning of the Great Eleusinian Mysteries. The interventions were absolutely synchronised with the environment of the buildings. Their plan made me design and define a trajectory which was necessary for the visitor to follow through the successive alterations of elements, materials, sound and lighting. The materials were rubble, wood, bricks, stones, concrete, concrete blocks, soil, water etc. that I found scattered in the area around the factory. For the first time, I used sound, locally composed, as well as lighting. There was a different sound and different lighting in each space.
In Building 1, I constructed an altar right at the centre of the first space made of wooden palettes and old sacks. In the second space, there were six concrete columns. Among these, I constructed six more, the result being twelve identical columns 8.70m high, all standing in the middle of the space. Building 2 comprised of one single space with its roof partially fallen. I created a structure made of pieces of wood from the roof, boards, planks and poles. They all looked like as if they supported each other but at the same time were falling apart. Building 3 had two spaces. A wall was built in the first space that led to the next one, where the floor was covered by shallow water. The water reflected all the elements of the space as well as the windows with the red light coming from the external corridor. The visitor could walk above the water along a ramp made of boards. The two enormous spaces of Building 4 were amply lit from up above; from the external part of the destroyed roof, which had many gaps. The light created various irregular bright shapes on the walls and on the floor. Building 5 was a narrow building, 50m long, with ten columns spread along the middle. The right side was altered giving the impression of a series of graves. On the left, ten torches aligned with the columns led visitors further inside towards a room with light. The next space was dark and deliberately inaccessible. Βuilding 6 (the most ruined building with large quantities of rubble, stone and debris) had six compartments on the same level. It was dark, making it difficult for visitors to find their way through. Suddenly, at a long distance, the visitor would face vibrant white light coming from high above (Building 7). Total silence reigned. This experience would mark the end of the whole course.
The myth of this town is so vivid that you can’t escape from it. For months, I wandered around the archaeological site, studying its history and the Mysteries and used to walk all the way down to the ruined Oil Mill. I was removing rubble, cleaning, putting aside various materials that I found scattered, digging, building, demolishing, illuminating, listening to and experimenting with the sounds of the environment. Facing and competing with this space was a great challenge; it is a work of art on its own. You need to accept and acknowledge its immense power. So I dared to take up the challenge and, no matter how crucial my interventions were, in the end the viewer was not able to tell what pre-existed and what was part of my work.
KP: You represented Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. How did the spatial parameters of the Greek pavilion determine your intervention and what was the process that made you decide on each requirement?
D: Beyond Reform was my installation representing Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. Starting with the city of Venice, as well as the history and the architecture of the Greek pavilion featuring a façade in Neo-Byzantine style, I constructed both the outside and the inside of the building so that my installation and the pavilion became one. The materials were transported from Greece and the whole construction was made in situ. Deploying, adding other elements or even eliminating some of the already existing ones, I “un-did” the given strict rational space. With my interventions, I transformed it to a new space with a different structure and emotional load, establishing an intense dialogue between the artwork-space and the viewer. The façade was transformed. The dimensions varied and a trajectory was created, designed and defined by me, through successive interchanges of elements. An integrated work was created solely from architectural constituents, water, sound and light. The entire building of the Greek pavilion was covered by wooden planks, placed vertically. This special construction, 10m high, was supported by scaffolding and metal frames. The existing building could be seen through some gaps in between the planks. There was an opening, right in the middle of the new façade, creating a new entrance to the building. A new external corridor, 7m long, was added; its floor and stairs were made of wood, the walls and the ceiling of plasterboards were all white. The corridor continued in the inner space, it was elevated by 15cm, while the entire floor was covered by water 10cm deep. The water had a continuous and slight movement and it reflected the light. Right at the centre of the space there was a vertical floor-to-ceiling opening 60cm wide, which functioned as a source of light dominating the interior. The sound also came from the same place. Visitors followed a pathway within the artwork leaving the daylight behind. They were entering a secluded space facing a different light, which nonetheless was impossible to approach. For me, it was essential to work on the outer and the inner space, generating a dynamic bridge that unites and balances the two.
KP: How important to your visual lexicon is site specificity and context responsiveness?
D: My work is a continuous quest. On completing the presentation of a project, guided by the experience I gained from it, I create the next one, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time. I am interested in the direct reference to the cultural history of a place. The work acts along with the space in all historical, social and physical situations. Approaching it at a deeper level acquires a great importance for my work. I always begin by assessing the given space-time. I isolate the characteristics of the domain, its individual features and I measure meticulously its dimensions. I then reproduce the space in scale in a three-dimensional model. I approach the idea deeper and gradually prepare the draft of the work up to the final phase of its construction. Light is always a dominant feature in my composition and my work. I use it in many different ways each time, depending on the needs of the work. For me, the past and present coexist through a reclassification that combines anew the real and the imaginary. There is always a synergy between work and space in all historical, social and physical conditions. Working over and over again, these issues ascribe a growing significance for my visual language. Visitors cannot comprehend such large-scale installations from a description or from photographs only. It is essential that they find themselves within them so that they can experience the relationship of space-time and the artwork per se, the environment, the scale, the materials, the sound, the light so that they are able to understand, feel them and give their own interpretations.