The Art of Ambivalent Memory by Syrago Tsiara

Stefanos Tsivopoulos, son of political refugees, was born in 1973 in Prague. He lives and works mainly in Amsterdam and New York.

His family experience of forced dislocation and migration due to political persecution and the struggle for survival contributed decisively to Tsivopoulos’ choice to make use of the constant streaming between places as a basic component in his work. His meticulous preoccupation with the material evidence of the past arises almost inevitably as an exhausting pursuit of self knowledge that is constantly evolving by means of a reflective wandering through different places with which he shares visible or invisible bonds. The visual outcome of such encounters forms a body of images burdened some times with contested, fragmented and disputed memories. Tsivopoulos is a choreographer of the relation between places and histories· he visits them, and at the same time he reinterprets and invents them keeping a safe distance from critical review and nostalgic intimacy. The balance between identification and detachment is the crucial site for the formation of the subject, Tsivopoulos’ strongest and long-lasting engagement.

Through his work he intends to raise questions on ambiguous periods of the past, such as the cold war era or the last Greek dictatorship (1967-1973). His work Lost Monument (2009) is based on the story of the erection of the USA president Harry S. Truman statue in Athens in 1963 and its subsequent adventures. Since 1947, the American government, following the President Truman decision, initiated a program of financial and military support to Turkey and Greece in the midst of its civil war, a program that became known as Truman Doctrine, aiming at the elimination of the ‘communist danger’ and the soviet predominance in the region. The repeated attacks towards the Truman statue epitomize the public feelings of anti-americanism in Greece during the cold war period.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos deals with his subject in a double time and conceptual level, a strategy adopted in his Amnesialand and the latest The Future Starts Here.  He combines photographic archives and original film documentaries, which depicting the transport, the erection, the violent removal and the terrorist attack against the statue in 1986, together with a new film. The photographs are presented in the form of museum exhibits. They are the indisputable, evaluated documents of the past, the visual testimonies of history. In his film though, History retreats in favor of poetic fiction woven around an unpleasant material discovery. A series of directed actions narrate the removals of the statue –well known to the spectators but unknown to its recipients- in various regions of Greece and Turkey. These removals occur due to the discontentment caused by the inability to identify the statue and its origin; what is this statue? Whom does it belong to? Is it an ancient or a new art work? An inexplicable repulsion is caused to the viewers of the statue, people of different origin and social strata, due to the inversion of the familiar context which is experienced as a generalized discomfort that makes communication more difficult. It is sensed as a profound need to take off the burden of the ambiguous memory incorporated in the unwelcome finding. An embodied, unidentified and ambivalent memory which provoked a series of unresolved matters or contradictory interpretations appears to be the basic problem for the historical subject crushed in the mechanisms of political power and conscience manipulation.

In every era, the violent withdrawal of monuments functions as a symbolic catharsis of the public space from the traces of a repugnant regime, as it is judged by its successors. Eviction confirms prevalence. Nevertheless, the erasure of memory is never totally secured and the unwanted reminder might reappear as a sign of disorder, or even as a bomb attack. The Lost Monument’s flawless technique and institutionalized approach rather enhance than ease the question around what we ought to remember and what we are taught to forget. Although the monument of the American dependence is kicked out by everyone, it continues to reappear in unexpected spots because, in spite of the assertion that we construct monuments in order to divest ourselves of the obligation to remember, the so-called ‘memory burden’[1], the reminding force of these unpleasant creations releases itself and chases us.

Syrago Tsiara is an art historian and curator. She is currently the director of the Center of Contemporary art in Thessaloniki, Greece.

[1] James E. Young, The Texture of Memory. Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University PRESS, New Haven – London 1993, p. 5