I awoke with this marble head in my hands
which exhausts my elbows and I do not know
where to set it down.
I look at the eyes: neither opened nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I have no more strength.
My hands disappear and come back
Poetry like this, written in Greek, constitutes the longest uninterrupted tradition in the Western world. The interaction between myth, everyday life and landscape, represents in its Delphic mysticism a very important part of this Tradition. Its ambience, and its passionate sensibility, is very different from the Anglo-Saxon one, and so certain accommodations need to be made.
Because of this, Greeks growing up in Australia feel marooned. For their parents, after arrival down under, the continent kept pitching like a loaded barge. Their children may master the language, the territory, the food, but still can feel unsolved, dropping frequently into aphasia, chaos, disorientation. The suburban landscapes keep shimmering with restless unspeakable mirages.
Much second-generation migrant art inscribes itself in the home space as a journey; makes room for itself between ʻhereʼ and ʻthereʼ, this world and another, the familiar and the strange. Many Greek-Australian artists conjure a world that appears by diverging. Australia folds back and branches off in this oblique re-direction. The voice can only be heard when it becomes double.
The title of Eugenia Raskopoulosʼ latest work says it all: redeparting. This is a return story which re-enacts a leavetaking. This is a parting from life that is repeated, like a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage in this case is to the Zalongo Monastery on mainland Greece. In 1803 the Souliots fled the troops of Alt Pasha and took refuge there. To escape a worse fate sixty women climbed on to the bluff above the convent, where they performed their national dance, and then threw themselves together with their children over the precipice. This desperate courage has been celebrated by the modern primitive painter Theophilos and in verse by Byron in Don Juan.
It is a haunting image. Dancing in a circle and each woman, turn and turn about, dropping to her death. Dance in Greece is a form of religion with the power to transmit some enigmatic knowledge through the music, which like the blues is wild and savage, sharp and hypnotic, summoning up from below the earth, stitch by stitch. Like a fabric is being woven. Like those flatweave kilims with the dancing girl pattern, hands on hips. The dancing in a circle with its queer jigging movement, each woman holding the scarf of the one before, and in the loping shuffle, arms out, the leader of the dance, with a tragic sweeping hanky, falls. Each girl gradually absorbed into the rhythm-ella, ella, ella-drawn into the dance like a more powerful gravitational law, it was the music, its force and character outside each individual ego and its chain of command, it must have been the music that proposed the coexistence of the future, the present and the past.
Eugenia Raskopoulos has been drawn to this horrific divide where she feels the long reverberations of the past. She relives that event in the past so as to come to terms with, have gnosis about, the present.
She tells of historyʼs heavy attrition, for, wrote Oscar Wilde: “It is not our lives that we live, but the lives of the dead.” Moreover, in the context of her previous work (Dangling Virgins, Frozen Semen/Silent Blood and The Invisible Lexicon), Raskopoulos, is salvaging these stories for Women.
Only by remembering the story do we make it ours. In Greece it is the grandmothers, the Yayathes, who maintain the psychic-social life of the village or the island. They are practical, but to this day believe in miracles, wonders, portents and apparitions. They divine by mirrors, water, lead. There is the evil eye to watch out for and the neraides who attack the young, the stringles and gelloudes, demons who cause diseases in the unbaptised. Theophanies are common. Raskopoulosʼ use of circular trays with oil and water to form an Orthodox cross is a form of sympathetic magic too.
The forms of religion in Greece are the exotika. Much more mystical than many other Christian religions. Continual blessings, superstitions, fear of ill luck-especially among the women with their vulnerabilities- economic, political, sexual. These mystical neuroses can pass from individuals, however, to entire communities.
Kalispera mana tu neru me ti sindrofitsa su, says my Yaya opening the mouth of the well, while addressing the hazardous spirit of water. Beware the moon-sponsored changes of the Kalajangeres, those all-female sleepwalkers who break out of the workaday strictures of the patriarchal economy and conduct secret activities on certain nights/ like journeys to other islands.
Clothes for oneʼs funeral-“endafia”- are the most important part of a trousseau. My grandmother, after my grandfather died, used to take me to her wardrobe, in Botany, and show me the clothes she wanted to be buried in, clothes purified in the Holy Land.
On the island where my folks come from the dead are lain with their head to the west, looking east. But they sleep with their head in the east looking west. When the coffin passes by people throw a plate of water on the threshold of the house to purify it. The windows bang shut and women sprinkle rosewater on the corpse. Swinging from left to right, with unbraided hair, myrolojia, tap the floorboards with both hands just as in the “anakalima” of Ancient Greek tragedies. (Something revoked by Diamanda Galas in her extraordinary mourning rituals for those lost to AIDS).
The stories of our social imaginations, the images produced in our cultural memory, are so often about men. Women are just the support cast inscribed within some heroʼs narrative. Or worse they are only obstacles, like the Sphinx or Medusa, as Teresa de Lauretis points out, in manʼs journey towards manhood, wisdom, power. They must be slain or defeated so that the hero can go forward to fulfil his destiny and his story. Women are on the boundary, they dangle at the edge of the social order, halfway between nature and culture, life and death.
In the audio-visual installation at Performance Space, re-departing, Raskopoulos finds a way of re-evoking the names of the dead, and their voices. A living presence walking as though naked among the ghosts. The dangling camera makes the earth itself swirl and induces a kind of tranced vision; the microphone catches frequencies beyond the limits of hearing in the ageless windʼs edgy harmonies: obscure and dissonant messages counterpoint the rational words of text that appear on the screen. What story are they telling us? What ideas, emotions, facts? The story is always the same with dead people: ʻPut yourself in my place.ʼ The camera doesnʼt address with a hand-held, rational point of view; it utters itself with its own desolation. The mike doesnʼt hear in a directional sense, it startles itself like those changes in the wind that suddenly enable us to hear a conversation taking place.
The video represents a non-representation which presences keep hiding. The rapt, dun-coloured earth is a veil between substance and shadow: ground, screen, frame, threshold.
The story of the Delphic oracle is instructive, because the Apollonian regime-the uptight, male priests of Apollo-ended it. The inchoate voice that rises out of the ground at Delphi, does so because it was there that the world was radically altered, its old pattern of relationships shifted beneath the new arrangements. Apollo took possession of Delphi by driving out Themis, daughter of the Earth, Gé, and burying the Python, her guardian serpent. Thus, at the mouth of this tomb-the mouth of the oracle-the difference between earth and sky, beneath and above, darkness and light, female and male, draws its bloody trace.
At Delphi the earth opened to receive the corpse of the fallen deity. Delphi is the threshold of the tomb/ the limit between Hades and the sunny fields where people work. A voice arises in the fold that gives the world a dark inner lining, at the disjunction that produces two distortions- masculine and feminine-at the fork where time deforms into night and day, winter and spring, life and death. The voice can only be heard when it becomes double. (I also begin to wonder whether the end to Thelma and Louise in freeze-frame above the gorge is the only non-place left for women trying to escape the patriarchal order; dangling between one world and another? And then, why do honeymooners flock to Niagara Falls? What curiosity or unconscious drive draws couples to that roaring divide?)
To re-cite Pindarʼs odes at Delphi reactualises the monster, the oracle Themis. Eugenia Raskopoulos performs a similar rite, a reactualisation and a curative ritual with her video. The camera swims over the gap, looking at the tear in the earth, which roars as it approaches the gorge. The tape renders the gorge, the gorge that separates the artist from herself. The video records this parting, this re-departing, this representation by which the artist becomes other than herself. The video illustrates the invisible possibility of otherness under the hard intense white light of Greece.