A Multisensory Experience at the Opening of the Onassis Foundation’s Festival, Fall 2015

In early October New York’s Onassis Foundation hosted a festival in its newly renovated Atrium and gallery to mark the reopening of its Cultural Center. The festival, entitled Narcissus Now: the Myth Reimagined, consisted of an unforgettable opening ceremony and art exhibition, followed by several talks and lectures by renowned scholars and professionals in a variety of cultural and artistic fields, all revolving around the concept of ‘narcissism.’ The festival’s opening event, which took place on the evening of Thursday, October 8th, featured a number of talented artists, musicians, choreographers and dancers who collaborated to create an interactive and multisensory experience that transcended genre and artistic medium.

Angelo Plessas, The Art Wall: I AMness, 2015, Digital still, online view http://i-amness.com/ Photo by IFA student, Tiffany M. Apostolou
Angelo Plessas, The Art Wall: I AMness, 2015, Digital still, online view http://i-amness.com/ Photo by IFA student, Tiffany M. Apostolou

The event utilized both floors of the Cultural Center, encompassing three different spaces for the exhibition of artworks linked together by a site specific performance, and music written especially for the occasion. Most striking among the exhibited pieces, the large scale work The Art Wall: I AMness by Angelo Plessas, 2015 was installed in the Atrium. Plessas is an Athens-based artist who works between traditional visual and avant-garde digital practices. The Art Wall: I AMness represents a still of Plessas’ characteristically graphic online interactive work I AMness, 2015. Consisting of a series of black and white stripes, the work features two central circles. Structured across a central divide, the symmetry of these circular forms engenders a dizzying mirroring sensation. With this simple compositional strategy, Plessas embodies the subject of narcissism through self-reflection. Through its repetitive, almost psychedelic graphics, the work also signals the internal conflict that narcissism can cause, as expressed in the relationship between the circles that meld together above and seem to tear apart below. Even more so than this large-scale mural, the original version of I AMness, which began as a website, dives even deeper on the issue of narcissism in the age of the internet by calling the viewer to take control over the work by moving the circles with his cursor changing how they merge and detach from one another.

Interestingly, an even stronger connection with the ancient Greek concept of narcissism can be drawn in The Art Wall: I AMness by contrasting it with classical architecture. The central circular forms of the work allude to column capitals in ancient Greek temples that often featured mirrored, symmetrical decorative elements topped by connected circles. The symmetrical circular forms at the top of these capitals regularly incorporated spirals, which appear to be reflected in Angelo’s striped circles. In all, Plessas’ sophisticated interventions into the theme of narcissism provided visitors with an auspicious introduction to the festival.

Nearby, at the entrance to the ground level gallery, unique photographic works by Georgia Kotretsos, created during her residency at the Art institute of Chicago, were on view. Titled Being-seen-by-another is the truth of seeing the other, 2009, the three works provide a fundamentally different approach to the topic of narcissism. Kotretsos’ works demonstrate the self-reflective act of looking. As the viewer studies at her photographs—which depict two figures observing two other figures as they gaze upon an artwork—an infinite loop of looking emerges, whereupon the artwork coopts the viewer’s own space and sight as an extension of the piece. As a result, the viewer becomes ensconced in her pictures and, in a way, aware of being viewed as much as the artwork itself and the people depicted in it. As the artist has noted, the work is activated by the viewer’s gaze and ensuing awareness of being gazed upon. This desire to reveal and accentuate our inherent narcissism remains a crucial aspect to her artistic production.

Still from the beginning of the final dance of the ensemble Triple Echo, in front of I AMness by Angelo Plessas, 2015. Photo by IFA student, Tiffany M. Apostolou
Still from the beginning of the final dance of the ensemble Triple Echo, in front of I AMness by Angelo Plessas, 2015. Photo by IFA student, Tiffany M. Apostolou

Completing the exhibition on the lower level were two video installations, one by Andreas Angelidakis, who also curated the two works, and one by Lynda Benglis, both artists of a Greek background. In Mirrorsite, 2015, Andreas’ interdisciplinary background in architecture, curating, and art comes together. The video depicts flat reflective surfaces that seem to float before our eyes and distort the viewer’s understanding of space while creating a sense of entrapment in one’s self-reflection. Across the room, Benglis’ Now, 1973, more directly addresses the theme of narcissism by focusing on repetitive motions applied to her face, which itself is mirrored on the screen, allowing the artist to appear as if she were kissing and caressing herself. These two videos were shown on either side of a platform surrounded by four square architectural columns, whose interior surfaces were covered in mirrors and reflected different parts of the gallery as you walked through it. In between these columns, to the left and right of the platform, hung black strings that were arranged to mimic the lines of ancient colonnades. Like Plessas’ The Art Wall: I AMness in the atrium, the gallery space here reflected classical architecture—and, more broadly, the culture of Ancient Greece—in a cross-temporal, schematic way.The feeling of distortion was further exaggerated by the mirrored surfaces that reflected not only the videos playing across from each other, but also the visitors and four musicians positioned in the corners of the gallery space. Performing music composed especially for the occasion by the renowned composer and sound artist Stavros Gasparatos, titled Moments of Reflection, 2015 by Tania Ketenjian, the musicians opened an interactive, multi-discplinary show. The musical piece, played live by the musicians onsite (in the Atrium and in the gallery space), was central to the whole production. Accompanying the music/sound piece were three female dancers, dressed in Grecian gowns by Narciso Rodriguez, one in each exhibition area, who performed in succession in front of the artworks to a choreographed ensemble entitled Triple Echo, 2015 by John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow in Choreography Jonah Bokaer. The first performer danced in front of Plessas’ work, another before Kotretsos’ works, and the third danced on the platform in the gallery, further emphasizing the conceptual connection to Greek temples and cultural rites, as evidenced in various works on view throughout the festival. After the third performance, the final dancer led viewers to Plessas’ piece, where all three dancers performed in front of the whirling circles as the musical score soared to a captivating finale. Consequently the dance’s title, Triple Echo, became clear, as one realized that the evening had been spent following the echo of the music and tracing the dancers’ movements as they connected all the artworks on display in the three exhibition spaces.

Still from Triple Echo, dancer performing in front of Being-seen-by-another is he truth of seeing the other by Georgia Kotretsos, 2004-5. Photo by IFA student, Jennifer Contreras.
Still from Triple Echo, dancer performing in front of Being-seen-by-another is he truth of seeing the other by Georgia Kotretsos, 2004-5. Photo by IFA student, Jennifer Contreras.

Overall, though the festival necessitated the organized participation of a considerably large group of attendees, the event worked exceedingly well. Exhibition designer Daniel Kershaw, along with the curatorial and exhibition design teams, took advantage of the building’s architecture brilliantly, positioning the works to allow for multiple simultaneous viewpoints and engender, consequently, an organic, multi-dimensional take on viewership and reflection that mirrored the event’s main theme. Having attendees stand on all different levels in the various exhibition spaces embodied the theme of narcissism as the awareness of being viewed—both by the performers and the other audience members—became more apparent with time. The modern reflection on the ancient Greek concept of narcissism—incorporated in the artworks, exhibition design and music and dance performances—successfully encouraged contemplation of its physical and conceptual intricacies long after the show was over. Overall, the event, which opened the Onassis Foundation’s festival Narcissus Now: the Myth Reimagined, called for a reconsideration of this mythological concept of self-absorption as applied to contemporary life and culture. In an era of rampant selfies, status updates and multiple platforms of social media, the theme of narcissism, considered in depth at the Onassis Foundation, seems more pressing than ever. Recalling the historical and philosophical precedent for our current self-obsessed behavior, these works help draw out the more complex, aesthetic applications to self-reflection even as they expose the superficiality of our own exploits. This, combined with the number of sensory and artistic levels on which these works engaged the viewer, suggest that the future programming of the Onassis Foundation will be promising. As a person of Greek descent, witnessing this event in New York, where a large Greek-American community resides, was especially moving. After their renovation the Foundation seems to have made a strong commitment to presenting Greek culture both past and present, while also inviting renowned scholars from various backgrounds to incite new cross-cultural dialogues. While waiting for the next round of engaging Onassis Foundation events, viewers can witness Angelo Plessas’ The Art Wall: I AMness, as it remains on view through December.

Dancer Sara Procopio, Triple Echo, in Gallery, Seen through COLUMNS by Blind Adam, Festival Opening Night, Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan
Dancer Sara Procopio, Triple Echo, in Gallery, Seen through COLUMNS by Blind Adam, Festival Opening Night, Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

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