Upon the Earth Under the Clouds

Written in greek by Alexandra Koroxenidis (art historian). English translation: Maria Christou

Upon the Earth Under the Clouds: this is where humanity has always dwelled on this planet. We all share the earth as our common place of origin and the sky stretching like an infinite roof above is the reminder of our shared mortality.

How does this abstract, and to some extent “non-realist”, conception of human dwellings fit in with today’s world? Within an era in which phenomena such as overpopulation, displacement and the sense of perpetual present as well as parallel temporalities, both brought on by technology, create new demands on spaces and places, on the one hand, and a different experience of space on the other? Moreover, how does this relate to the visual arts and installation art in particular? What does the relationship between art and space reveal about the nature of art itself, and, finally, how and why does a work of art activate space and the viewer’s spatial perception? 

These are the questions raised by Danae Stratou’s work, both by Upon the Earth Under the Cloudsi, conceived for the Old Oil Mill of Eleusis within the context of the Aisxylia Festival 2017, and by the body of her work (from the first, large-scale, Desert Breath in 1997ii to more recent works such as It’s Time to Open the Black Boxes in 2012, which used sculpture and video).

Danae Stratou consistently returns to the themes of space, place and to how people physically experience them. She travels to often far-away places to create her works of art and spends time there in an effort to gain a sense of the prevailing character or atmosphere, searching for the genius loci, which she then always connects to a more abstract, all-embracing sense of place, for example place as a shared origin.

Space as a divider (Cut - 7 Dividing Lines, 2007), space as a boundary, space as a link connecting human beings to their body as well as nature (Breathing Circle, 2008; Soul Forest, 2007). Space as a journey, space as a destination, space reflected by water, another fundamental element of her work, space as defined by the horizontal line of rivers (The River of Life, 2007), space occupied by the rise in population or changing shape depending on whether it is viewed from near or afar (VitalSpace - Istanbul, 2010). The body of her work demonstrates a persistent exploration of space and man’s place in it iii.

Sometimes space signifies interiority and existential issues; other times, a sensitivity towards more political or social issues. Whatever the issue reflected upon, it is always placed within a wider context, often relating to origin, destination and the primordial. It becomes part of a wider context related to the ties forged between man and the environment he lives in (space, nature), the relationship between people-citizens and, ultimately, the quest for a single truth, a common human condition that bridges differences.

But why should space preoccupy today’s artist or viewer? Space and place are connected with contemporary, imperative issues. As the American philosopher Edward Casey points out, the concept of place was subordinated to the concept of time, but, in the 20th century, the concept of place resurfaced thanks to phenomena such as the obliteration of local characteristics because of globalization, or the threat of war. These have spurred a return to the concept of place and localities, not necessarily out of a sense of nostalgia but as a neediv. 

These are some of the reasons why space and place are the concepts through which the present text tries to approach Danae Stratou’s Upon the Earth Under the Clouds. Of course, the use of those terms requires a basic definition. We shall confine ourselves to the following observation: because of science, western thought has viewed space as a more general concept that encompasses place. However, the notion that place precedes space also exists. It is a view supported by Aristotle, by the ancient Greek Pythagorean philosopher Archytas of Tarentum (428 BC- 347 BC) and, more recently, by philosophers such as Gaston Bachelard and his contemporary Martin Heideggerv. Heidegger’s “philosophical topology”vi highlights place as the concept from which thought and human existence originate.

A number of spaces – conceptual and real—meet in the installation Upon the Earth Under the Clouds to create what is ultimately a unified whole and an all-encompassing, ancestral, “primal” perception of place. Groups of clay potsvii are positioned at the same height to form a uniform surface, creating a pathway through the Old Millviii. The clay pots are similar to the 

amphorae frequently used to bury small children in greek antiquity ix. In the installation, the pots, which, as receptacles, are spaces themselves, are filled to the rim with water so that they reflect the sky and create a sense of luminous, liquid flow through space.

[...] the sea and water as a signifier of freedom, as a kind of salvation, but also as hope, works conceptually both at the beginning and at the end of the path—both are concurrent.

Among the spatial dimensions of this installation are the space within and surrounding the work, the space through which the viewer moves and the space defined by the artwork itself. There is the location of the installation, which is the Old Mill, which in turn belongs to Eleusis and the rich history of the place as an industrial and manufacturing centre. A sacred city in ancient times, Eleusis was the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries and is associated with the mythological place/dwelling of Demeter and Persephone. In the myth, place is also perceived as a transition, a journey from the Upper World to the Underworld, a journey that is connected to the circle of life, of both man and nature, in other words, place/dwelling as it relates to origin. Place as a point of origin is underlined by the clay pots, which are receptacles of life (clay pots were used in antiquity for the storage or transportation, most often, of wine and olive oil) as well as death, of the human body and soul.

At the same time, the reflection of the sky on the water in the clay potsx brings the heavenly, metaphysical space (without any religious connotations) close to earth and earth close to the clouds. It underlines the relationship between above and below, the earthly (through the horizontal layout) and the heavenly (through the mental vertical line created between the sky and its reflection)xi, the familiar and the uncanny, freedom and boundaries, mortality and immortality, earth and nature as something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar: one is a precondition for the otherxii. Besides, place has boundaries, in the sense that it creates a relationship between interior and exterior, it divulges and it hides, it reveals the finite and the infinitexiii.

In Upon the Earth Under the Clouds, the element of repetition references infinity and chaos (and, in a sense, the “sublime”) but, to the extent that repetition breeds familiarity, order too. There is a geometrical element (for example the uniform shape of the pots or the strict horizontal line of ground and water) but also the organic layout of the pots. A meeting takes place, a union of apparently opposite or different dynamics, a characteristic that reoccurs in Danae Stratou’s work- one could even argue that the tranquility and harmony of her art, the sense of inner strength, arises from this reconciliation, the acceptance and deeper understanding of the conflicts of life and existence. Beginning and end meet: the sea stretching across from the Old Mill could be the beginning of the installation, the beginning of the flow that passes to the ground only to return to the sea once again. Of course, if one follows the recommended path, one will enter the installation from the far end of the plot of land that houses the old industrial complex and exit, having made his way through the installation, before the sea and the open horizon. However, the sea and water as a signifier of freedom, as a kind of salvation, but also as hope, works conceptually both at the beginning and at the end of the path—both are concurrent.

The sea is also the “place” that makes a voyage possible, both man’s travels and the migrant’s journeyxiv, the journeys of people who sought a better future in Eleusis and shaped the rich anthropogeographic history of the area over time. Indeed, as the idea for this installation was developed over the past two years, the outbreak of the war in Syria added a new, more specific socio-political aspect to a work that was already moving towards concepts of origin, destination, place and migration. Through this development, the artist linked in her mind the journeys undertaken by people who were either forced from their homes, their “places”, or left voluntarily with the adventure of man as defined by his own mortality and the circle of life, as narrated by the myth of Demeter and Persephone.

The clay pots denote human presence (the travelers/migrants), bodies moving together in one direction. They also denote the concept of community. The visitor follows the path the clay pots create. As the path (and man himself) does not have a final destination, the question raised – a question that resonates throughout the installation – is where man belongs, how he constructs his identity, the relationships he builds with his environment (places and space) so as to experience the familiarity which he needs in order to live. In the modern condition of constant movement and a way of life that shifts the sense of stability and home, what security and “integration” may mean seems even more timely.

[...] every human experience materializes through place and place exists through being experienced. 

At this point, the thoughts of Martin Heidegger, although expressed within an entirely different political and historical context, are timelessly pertinent. In “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”xv, Martin Heidegger discusses the inherent homelessness of man. According to the German philosopher, man as mortal is always on a journey towards his own being, is constantly in search of his essence and, by extension, his homelandxvi. As mortals, all human beings (who, as the Eleusis installation declares, live upon the earth and under the clouds) remain homeless: “nowhere do we feel at home except when moving towards our own being, our true homeland”xvii. As to where that “being” is, the answer can be found in “dwelling”, the way in which humans learn to dwell, which in turn means forming ties of familiarity and orientation— ties with the place – and living in a way that can reveal the essence of things, that is, their truth. For through truth, the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

The connection between this and the work of art is significant. The work reveals that which is unfamiliar, threatening, unknown. Like all knowledge, this revelation encompasses something liberating, given that becoming reconciled with the unfamiliar is the first step in the process of familiarization, the achievement of a union, which an important element in the artist’s work.

The part played by place and space – or a work of art that activates these dimensions – in this search for home is found in the vital relationship of man with place and space: place is the way in which man learns to dwell, in other words to exist, to form ties of familiarity. Dwelling, not in the narrow sense of residing in a building, is by definition connected to space, earth, the “being” of humans. One defines the other. Moreover, dwelling exists upon the earth, beneath the sky, in relation to divinities and mortals: this is Heidegger’s “fourfold”, the unity that is interwoven with the essence of man. Dwelling is poetic, in that it reveals the truth, discloses that which is hidden, that which according to Plato elevates something from non-Being to Beingxviii.

But, a true work of art also “opens up the Being of beings”xix. This happens in part because space and place are not a means of expression but the concept of the work itself, a part of its nature. The work of art “opens up the Being of beings”xx, “allows earth to be earth”xxi. 

Therefore both space and place and the work of art which is by its very nature connected to space and place, activate, among other things, the unfamiliar and the familiar, pave the way to the truth, and are therefore absolutely interwoven with the being of mankind.

Even though Danae Stratou is not an artist whose work is characterized by the metaphysical dimensions expressed by concepts such as Heidegger’s fourfold, many aspects of her work, and this installation in particular, seem to come even more alive when viewed through this philosophical prism, that is from the perspective that every human experience materializes through place and that place exists through being experienced. The correlation between the familiar and the unfamiliar (the uncanny) and the questions around “being”, the relationship between man and place and space and, mostly, the belief that every human experience occurs in a space (conceptual or physical) are underline her reasoning. 

The sense of place and space also passes through the human body. According to the phenomenological approach of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, place and body cannot be disentangled from one another: the body is never outside a place and place cannot be perceived without the body, whilst the body itself is a placexxii. Man perceives place through his body, orients himself with reference to his body, for example he may be behind or in front of something, to the left or to the right, as these directions are determined by his body. This corporeal experience of space permeates the work of Danae Stratou; the viewer is invited to follow or imagine a path through the space (even in photography installations) and therefore to activate his body.

Another element that suggests corporeality, albeit in a more indirect way, is the sound “felt” by the viewer before entering the principal installation. This audio composition, which is heard in the “preamble” to the installation before its entrance but not along the path winding through it, is a mix of the sounds of the pottery wheels used to manufacture the installation’s clay pots, in the ceramics workshops in Crete, together with the sound of water and the breathing of the people sculpting the pots. Imperceptible and three-dimensional, the sound acts as the pulse of the human body, attesting to the corporeal, the human labor, the work of art, which encapsulates the material and the immaterial, art which is also perceived through synaesthesia. 

Throughout the history of installation art, this corporeal and therefore empirical, experiential relationship, the interaction between object and subject arising from the movement through space and the activation of the space by the work of art, was also a “political” argument. It supported a political role for art, particularly in the ‘60s; minimalist sculpture is a characteristic example of art finding its voice in the phenomenology of Merleau-Pontyxxiii, particularly with regard to the demand for an art that engages the viewer more critically and “interactively”, in a way that the viewing object and the subject viewed become indistinguishable.

«man as mortal is always on a journey 

towards his own being» 

Μartin Heidegger

If in the ‘70s installation art, the “sculpture of the expanded field” as Rosalind Krauss called this new, innovative claim to space by artxxiv, was considered revolutionary, what is the modern day “subvsersive” incarnation of this medium?

The original political edge seems to have lost its dynamic at present, despite installation art having flourished since the ‘90sxxv. At the end of that decade, Nicolas Bourriaud in L’ estethique relationelle (Relational Aesthetics) spoke of an art which is only activated through the participation of the viewers, social action and collectivity whilst seeking “micro-utopias” rather than large scale collective subversion. 

Art in space, art that enters the social field, interactive art, digital art, all of these trends reflect an expanded perception of space that is also invested with a political overtone. Whether, in the current circumstances, art can fulfill that political goal and to what extent the incessant use of “political” as a term has weakened the meaning of the term, is a complex matter. 

Danae Stratou’s work falls within that need to create the sort of art which affects society. Let it be noted: the artist ensures that the production of every one of her works of art involves the community and the workers in it, creating employment for people and making them the co-creators of a work of art. Moreover, she turns to current social and political themes, which she absorbs through a historical context, thus highlighting the thread linking past and present.

This consciousness of history, of origin, the focus on matters that have always preoccupied humanity is an opening to knowledge, acceptance and understanding. That opening, the release of action and willpower through the awareness of the human condition, is possibly the beginning of all political action, but also the essence of art. The vastness of space, the importance of place, the way human beings perceive their environment not as something external to them but as part of their existence are issues that the artist conscientiously explores and handles in such a way that viewing a work of art becomes an experience addressed to all the senses and sparks critical thought. 

 

FOOTNOTES:

i The title comes from a phrase spoken by the main protagonist in Filippos Koutsaftis’ documentary Agelastos Petra (Mourning Rock), (2000), a documentary that inspired this installation. 

ii The work was created by the three members of D.A.S.T. (one of whom is Danae Stratou) in the Sahara Desert close to the Red Sea and is one of the largest pieces of land art. 

iii Even the creative platform VitalSpace, founded by the artist and her collaborators in 2010, is conceived as a space, open to dialogue and an exchange of ideas concerning art and social issues. Vitalspace.org 

iv Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, University of California Press, Berkely, Los Angeles, London, 1998, preface, p. xiii. 

v Edward S. Casey, “How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” In Senses of Place, ed. S. Feld and K. Basso, 13-52. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996, p. 16.

vi Jeff Malpas, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, explorations in the Topology of Being,p. 6

vii The clay pots are designed by Danae Stratou.

viii This installation is the first time a new section of the Old Oil Mill is used in its entirety. Unlike previous exhibitions using the same space, the artist does not spread her work in the interior of the main buildings, with the exception of a ruin that is used for the first time. 

ix Excavations conducted by archaeologist P. Papaggeli in Eleusina showed that children in greek antiquity were buried in clay pots.

x After sunset, the sky is still conceptually reflected. This is aided by hidden lightening inside of the pots. 

xi In his later writings, Piet Modrian connects the horizontal element to earth and the vertical to spirituality. www.pietmondrian.info/mondrian.../mondrian-at-a-glan... ( accessed last, May 2017)

xii It is probably no coincidence that in most of her work, Danae Stratou places natural elements within boundaries, in clear, geometrical frames. Water, for example, takes the shape of a perfect, straight channel, a clearly-outlined wide fissure. One could argue that this gesture of “taming” nature reflects the desire to render the unfamiliar familiar, to bring it closer to man’s capacity to perceive reality.

xiii Jeff Malpas, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, explorations in the Topology of Being, MIT press, 2012, p. 2.

xiv Of course, the issue of refugees and migrants is raised without any distinction being made between these two categories. However, in contrast to other works by the artist in which dialogue as a contemporary, often socio-political aspect of reality is more evident, here it is referred to indirectly and within the context of a more general exploration of identity (in the existential sense of the term, not the identities of political correctness).

xv The title of a lecture delivered by Martin Heidegger in Germany in 1951, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between man and space. The lecture appeared one year later in the records of that meeting and was published in 1954.

xvi From the preface by the philosopher Gerorge Xiropaides, Κτίζειν, Κατοικείν, Σκέπτεσθαι (Building, Dwelling,Thinking), Plethron, Athens, 2008.

xvii As above, pp. 16, 17.

xviii Martin Heidegger, Η προέλευση του έργου τέχνης (The Origin of the Work of Art), Dodoni Publications, Athens, 1986, (from the preface by Yiannis Tzavaras), p. 14.

xix As above, p. 65

xx As above, p. 65

xxi As above, p. 17

xxii Edward S. Casey, Τhe Fate of Place, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1998, p. 236.

xxiii Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A critical history, Routledge, New York, 2005, p. 50.

xxiv Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded field”, October, 8, Spring 1979, pp. 30-44.

xxv Good examples are the exhibitions, as of 2000, in the Τurbine Hall of ΤateModern. Tate.org.uk.