Eleni Panouklia: Its Luminous Saying Must Be Left a Conjecture - by Kalliopi Minioudaki, PHD
The road up and down is one and the same.
If you have no hope, you will not find the unhoped-for, since it is undiscoverable and no path leads there. —Heraclitus
He who looks must not himself be foreign to the world he looks at.—Maurice Merleau-Pont
Commissioned by Aisxylia 2016 but the product of two years of research, Eleni Panouklia’s Ό,τι φωτεινό έχει να πει, θα πρέπει να μείνει εικασία (Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture) is a large-scale, site-specific installation that is meant to be experienced at night. The mixed-media intervention occupies select outdoor and indoor spaces of the complex of abandoned manufacturing units known today as Palaio Elaiourgeio (Old Oil Mill) of Eleusis, converting industrial ruins into an evocative earthy soundscape of difficult paths and inaccessible sanctuaries—an allegorical “whole” sunk in darkness.1Beginning and ending in the backyard of the derelict factory, it consists of two cyclically communicating environments that entail separate—both collective and private— explorations to complete the work and activate the dialogue of light and dark that underpins its enigma. Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture immerses the viewer in a contrapuntally structured experience of darkness by transforming the backyard of Palaio Elaiourgeio into a disorderly, pulsating landscape of powerful sonorous enclosure and combining that with a lonely ritual itinerary through the silent passageway of a long building, where an interactive lighting event awaits each viewer. Together, the two environments seek to affectively advance both timely critical and timeless existential realizations through distinct bodily and reflective enlightenments, or, better yet, “un- concealments”2 of the wholeness of being in darkness.
The work is dialectically shaped in response to the ruinous morphology of Palaio Elaiourgeio and the polysemy of Eleusis. Renowned as one of the most important religious centers of ancient times—identified with the cult of earth, Demeter, and the Eleusinian Mysteries—Eleusis has also been a major industrial center of the modern Greek state. It witnessed the rise and fall of industrial utopia, nourished and shattered the dreams of various displaced populations, and cherished and trashed the gifts of Demeter and nature, before it rediscovered itself as a contemporary cultural hub. The palimpsests of past and present, myth and history, sacredness and profanity, glory and fall, loss and recovery, and life and death that are enfolded in the lived and structural fabric of this legendary town are best captured by the nearness of the archeological area of Eleusis with the back side of Palaio Elaiourgeio, which the artist has purposefully chosen to shape the dynamic core of her work.
Unlike previous interventions however, Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture does not refamiliarize the viewer with Palaio Elaiourgeio. By rather defamiliarizing it, the work invokes the multifaceted resonance of Eleusis in an effort to refamiliarize the viewer, through active spectatorship, or multisensory engagement with space, with the contrary order of the cosmos and the wholeness of being, which includes the unity of body and mind that Western culture has lastingly undermined. As a rather hopeful artistic contemplation on the hidden “palintropos”3 harmony of the world, the work also responds to the nightmarish darkness and disorder that underpin life in Greece since the recent crisis, along with the sociopolitical, environmental, cultural, and personal symptoms of Western civilization’s decadence during the current state of global capitalism and the hypertrophy of spectacle. Moreover, it expands Panouklia’s interdisciplinary artistic preoccupations, putting them firmly under the light of Heraclitus’ understanding of the unity of opposites, and the dialectic approach to the hidden truths of cosmic logos, which characterizes the thought of the so-called dark, but not metaphysical, thinker.4
Combining a variety of practices with a multidisciplinary questioning of being and perception, Panouklia has been devoted for over a decade to a systematic artistic researching of the relationship of man with the world, which unfolds through an idiosyncratic dialogue with space and a penchant for the dialectic of opposites and covert manifestations of nature.5 A great draughtsperson, she develops her inquiries on the two-dimensional space of the paper with an abstract vocabulary of networks made from geometric and organic forms, and a signature process of repetitive mark-making, using both bold and nearly indiscernible marks. She is best known, however, for site-specific installations that explore imperceptible aspects of reality by constructing barely visible structures or new spatial conditions within seemingly empty spaces, potently challenging the limits of the sensible with the viewer as her means.
Empty space, differently activated by matter, sound, and light, plays also an important role in Panouklia’s Heraclitean confounding of the external and internal worlds in Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture. With common materials, minimalist constructions, and dramatic additive gestures, the artist upsets and recombines the inherent spatial oppositions of the denuded shells of Palaio Elaiourgeio (such as inside-outside, open-close, form-formlessness) into an “enantiodromo” audio-visual environment of volumes and voids, impasses and passages, darkness and clearings, concealment and disclosure, and inevitably primordial monumentality. Metal and soil—materials particularly resonant within Eleusis—block the major entrances of the gaping buildings in the form of impenetrable metal sheets reinforced by earthy mounds. The violently displaced masses of soil almost engulf the viewer, while subjecting the surrounding space to an irresolute scenario of rise and collapse. Soil also accents the entropic deterioration of Palaio Elaiourgeio. The dystopian disarray of this fragmentary embankment, in all the Heraclitean beauty of the innate order of its disorder,6 is however further layered by the excavation soil’s own conflicting references, which range from the finality of burial to archeological discovery, and, above all, natural and urban regeneration.
Audible and inaudible low-frequency sounds that make the metal constructions blocking the entrances of the buildings vibrate shape the experience of this uncanny landscape, while also complementing its “hidden” harmony with their hiding of sonic information.7 The ensuing haunting soundscape—an abstract spatial combination of computer- processed sounds and the rumbling overtones produced from the vibration of the metal that transmits them—intensifies the impact of the environment, changing its ephemeral contours, energizing its darkness and disorienting the viewers.8
In animating Palaio Elaiourgeio’s sealed interiors with the throbbing broadcasting of unintelligible recordings of various origins, Panouklia hints at the relentless onslaught of audio-visual signs that overwhelm and emotionally numb the contemporary consumer, who is bombarded every day by the atrocities of world news and an influx of data. Muffling the buildings’ screams, in effect abstracting them, indeed evokes the confining and anxious atmosphere of life in Greece in the past few years. But as visualized, audible and inaudible (low frequency, including infra) sounds and as bodily listenings, the vibrations help Panouklia counteract the desensitizing and alienating overexposure to “blunt messages” by challenging the viewers’ audiovisual perceptions.9 Some might wonder what is heard or not and why. Others might try to see or touch the sound. Sound and spatial vibrations, above all, activate somatic channels for “viewing” the interconnectedness of everything in the cosmic whole—the fleshy enfolding of both human and non-human being. Prompting an embodied engagement with the surroundings that unsettles the conventions of perception, Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture thus opens a critical space for seeing the world differently, with all the political implications of its “distribution of the sensible.”10
Intersubjective experience further effects this gripping confrontation with matter and sound, since it is open to all viewers together. However, the work is not complete without the symbolic, apocalyptic reversal of darkness that is reserved for those who dare to enter alone into the only space that Panouklia has left accessible. A guiding linear element will lead each viewer one by one—as if blind—in and out of darkness, and right back to shared terrain. But a momentary lighting event will remind the viewer of everyone’s luminous potential.
With a title whose enigmatic character fittingly hints at the mysticism of the celebrations of life and death in the Eleusinian Mysteries, Its luminous saying must be left a conjecture orchestrates the awakening of multisensory explorations—of the visible, the invisible, and the unhoped for—for the “sleeping man” of contemporary society.11 If it has anything luminous to say, as implied by the title’s own Heraclitean ambiguity and the optimistic openness of Panouklia, it is up to the viewer to gather it out of the darkness of the historic moment and Western thought, including that of this work.12
Addressing the visitors, both individually and collectively, as embodied, thinking, and inevitably political parts of a tragically oppositional yet wise whole, Panouklia seems to prompt a demystifying initiation to the unity of being as her radical “cosmopolitics”—as the “enlightening” means for man’s self-knowing rise out of the individualistic and materialistic impasses of our culture—that raises the timely issue of the inextricability of personal and collective responsibility for the fate of humanity, democracy, and our planet.13
1. Allegorical according to the original cryptic nature of the allegorical speech (see Pepi Rigopoulou, The Body: Supplication and Threat, Athens: Plethron, 2003, p.90), despite the inevitable echo of the understanding of allegory by Walter Benjamin in its relation to ruins as offering an “image of petrified unrest.”
2. To evoke Martin Heidegger’s understanding of truth, including nature and logos, as developed in seminal lectures such as An Introduction to Metaphysics (1935) and Aletheia (1946), especially due to his debt to Heraclitus, whose thought plays a central role in the conceptual shaping of this work.
3. Translated literally as “back-turning,” “changing in the opposite direction,” or, more generally, “contrary,” the Greek adjectives palintropos, along with enantiodromos (running in opposite ways) are identified with Heraclitus and his view of the unity of opposites, which he posited underlie the order of cosmos. See Gregory Vlastos, “On Heraclitus,” in Studies in Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 137.
4. See Kostas Axelos, Heraclitus and Philosophy, Athens: Exantas, 1974, for the non-metaphysical foundations of Heraclitus’ thinking.
5. Trained first as a chemist, Panouklia’s interdisciplinary interests straddle the latest finds of various sciences with psychology, phenomenology, and Western and non-Western philosophy. The centrality of the phenomenological body in her recent installations harkens back to minimalism. Along with diverse manifestations of earth art, minimalism and postminimalism variously inform the origins of her practice, which nonetheless is also in dialogue with contemporary installation art manifestations.
6. “Τhe most beautiful cosmos is like a garbage-heap strewn at random,” is another saying attributed to Heraclitus.
7. 20 Hz or cycles per second is the normal limit of human hearing. Nature loves to hide, according to the famous three-word distillation of Heraclitus’ thought in another fragment.
8. Conceived by Panouklia, the seven-channel environmental soundscape is co-created by sound artist Coti K., who has also explored vibrations in his sculptural sound installation Suono, 2010.
9. Eleni Panouklia, in email to the author, July 29, 2016.
10. In light of Jacques Rancière’s understanding of the politics of aesthetics.
11. According to Heraclitus, who distinguished people as either sleeping or awake, most people live as if they were asleep. Just like a waking man forgets what he did while he was sleeping, people who live in the “sleeping” state miss the truth that is available to all through logos. “As parts of cosmos whose souls vibrate in its rhythm,” men should instead try to tighten their bonds with it, according to Axelos, p. 313.
12. Paraphrased so as to emphasize the hidden underside of its darkness, the title of the work comes from Edward Elgar talking about his most puzzling work, Enigma Variations, which Panouklia heard about on the radio during the shaping of the work (Elgar said, “The Enigma I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed.”)
13. “Cosmopolitics” is understood as the politics of cosmos (rather than cosmopolitanism) in light of philosopher of science Bruno Latour’s understanding of the politics of Olafur Eliasson’s engagement of nature in his immersive installations. While the term is here loosely used to capture the politics produced by Panouklia’s work, Eliasson’s own post-utopian “unconcealment” of the hidden aspects of nature—his commitment to making the invisible manifest and changing the viewer’s view of the world through active engagement—variously relates with Panouklia’s, despite the two artists’ distinctly different poetics. It offers only a foil to begin contextualizing Panouklia’s tactics in light of contemporary installation, including sound art, which lies beyond the scope of this short introduction. For later is also reserved a discussion of the dialogue of this work with the Eleusinian Mysteries. It is worth, however, mentioning that the complementary “explorations” that Panouklia orchestrates in its two environments echo—while also troubling—the distinct and hierarchical roles that embodied experience and vision played in the Eleusinian Mysteries, as manifested in the different stages of initiation reserved for the mystes and the epoptes (the participant who is being initiated “with closed eyes” and the initiated who “sees” the truth, respectively). See Michael Cosmopoulos, Bronze Age Eleusis and the Origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, St. Louis: University of Missouri, 2015, p. 15.