Eleni Mylonas' new photographic works titled The Cursed Serpent originated in a series of press photos she came across on line showing demonstrators in Tahrir square donning an array of household objects on their heads as makeshift helmets to protect their heads in the dawn of the Arab Spring. Saucepans, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, sieves, even loafs of bread took on a new role as protective head pieces. The images so fascinated Mylonas that she was inspired to make a series of graphite drawings based on those news photos. She later reinterpreted those drawings with oil on canvas. Eventually, identifying with the protesters and emulating their plight Mylonas started placing various objects on her own head. The introduction of the artist’s image into the works resulted in a series of photographs loaded with new meaning.
These portraits gain their identity from the different object the artist has placed on her head. A plastic motorcycle bumper becomes Napoleon's bicorne. Two plastic water bottles tied with a ribbon form a padded helmet, a piece of material with a pattern of crosses becomes a priestly robe. In another image, the artist seems immobilized by the weight of a combat helmet before a Klaus vom Bruch wallpaper, a political work dotted with pictures of guns, the faces of the Baader-Meinhof gang looking through the bodies of jellyfish. Elsewhere a body of intertwined snakes turns Mylonas into a Medusa. Stereotypical imagery is manipulated with remarkable skill to suggest new identities and roles.
Mylonas assumes those roles with a stately deadpan expression that bears no trace of narcissism, investing each form with a ritual-like quality reminiscent of an Old Master portrait. There seems to be an affinity between these portraits and Cézanne's series of paintings depicting his uncle Dominique in different roles. Unlike Cindy Sherman, Mylonas leaves both history and psychology out of the picture. In each work we see her morph into a different persona that daringly confronts embedded stereotypes, armed with a sense of humor, a vivid imagination, and the simplest of means, frequently detritus she has retrieved from the trash. There is no trace of parody here, on the contrary these images pay homage to the people whose image she has appropriated from the media. Her goal is not to criticize but to create a fresh iconography and raise new questions.
Even though the artist's face is center stage in every photograph, these works are not in fact self-portraits. It is not the artist’s self that is being presented here but rather the different faces of an impassive, detached model that takes on many guises. Rather than self-portraits these are iconic representations of the roles suggested in each untitled image bringing forth the adopted personality. In these complex images the objects involved have the power to revise myths and social archetypes. Mylonas engages in multiple role-playing, as actress, director and viewer. The practice of performance precedes her theatrical portraits before allowing them to materialize. In assuming these roles Mylonas is also freely crossing gender boundaries, grafting onto her woman's body the essence of a male, further complicating the message.
There is a direct connection between this series of photographs and the many faces of Karaghiozis, a character whose identity is as varied as the stories in which he is the hero. The exhibition culminates in a video which shows Mylonas as the Town Crier singing the familiar song from the shadow theater play Alexander the Great and the Cursed Serpent. In this skit Karaghiozis neutralizes the snake by hitting it with a stone, proving himself capable not only of confronting the beast but also of outshining the legendary Alexander the Great. A modern-day David, Karaghiozis vanquishes Evil, and saves the day.
Mylonas appropriates everyday objects, reinventing them as iconic symbols. Through those portraits and the roles she assumes in them she manages to turn the tables on the viewer, luring him into the work, and challenging him to look at himself as through a mirror. This conceptual aspect of her work, and the process through which it comes into being, are both engaging and relevant.
Auditions for an Absurdist Theatre
Eleni Mylonas, born in Athens, Greece and based in New York, is an artist proficient in multiple media. It is a multiplicity that was once considered defiant and is now more or less the norm as artists routinely cross disciplines, searching for the most appropriate means of production and expanding the parameters of their practice. A photographer, painter and video artist, Mylonas includes digital media, sound and performance in her repertoire. Although her works range--from the haunting, beautifully spare, photographic interiors of abandoned Ellis Island to the more formal, mathematical analyses of art works of the Quasi Periodic Space series to the disturbing video of a bloated sheep’s carcass adrift in the sea—they all hinge on Mylonas’ attempt to discover telling images that convey what the artist so acutely, intuitively sees.
Mylonas’ recent work is another departure, although the documentary impulse and serialization that have characterized her previous endeavors are much in evidence. She is compelled, it seems, to take a subject and investigate it exhaustively, to coax more information out of it, to give it conceptual weight and visual richness. It should not be surprising to learn that Mylonas has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York in addition to her studies in studio art. She says there is always an undercurrent of the journalistic in her projects. No matter how varied they are, there are always stories to be revealed and parsed.
Her work is frequently inspired by catastrophic events of a sociopolitical nature, most recently by the turmoil in the Middle East and Greece’s ongoing economic crises. Newspapers are a prime source of themes and images for Mylonas although autobiographical experiences also play a part. Kickstarting her newest venture was the improvised headgear that the protesters donned to protect themselves during the deadly clashes in Tahrir Square. The curious headpieces fascinated her, their visual absurdity in striking contrast to the all too brutally real dangers that buffeted the wearers. In an attempt to discern the multiple stories behind the news images, she started sketching those that particularly intrigued her. Some she translated into paintings, testing which medium would be most suitable as the project evolved. Eventually she started making her own headgear using discarded objects collected from the shamefully littered beaches of Aegina where she has a house. Ultimately, those photographs became her primary focus, resulting in a series of brilliantly colored, preternaturally lucid studio images that are the styled, ambiguous doppelgängers of the original journalistic image, a kind of synthesis of the two main streams of photography: the real and the faked, the documentary and the staged.
While they might be called self-portraits, I hesitate to use the word because they are not likenesses of Mylonas; rather, they are un-likenesses, even if completely recognizable, since they are not visual biography or psychological studies but visual signifiers and inquiries. She is shown full face or in three-quarter view, usually cropped at the shoulders, her face neutral, with no expression to individualize it. She is anyone and everyone, a support for the various guises that she puts on but does not assume, as opposed to Cindy Sherman, for instance, whose personal identity is subsumed by her created personae. Blown up to approximately six feet—one is almost nine feet—her head is further abstracted, far larger than human scale as if to emphasize that the function of her face and presence is simply to act as a ground, a tabula rasa across which a parade of other identities—a cross-section of the global citizenry—can be glimpsed.
In each confrontational picture, Mylonas is wearing a distinctive head piece that is clever, amusing, dramatic and sometimes inexplicable, created from assorted, sometimes odd objects that include sieves and buckets, much like the barber’s basin the deluded Don Quixote famously wore, believing it to be a gleaming knight’s helmet. One image flaunts a baroque crown of iridescent green snakes that recalls Medusa’s sinuous hair and annihilating gaze. Another shows Mylonas suited up in white hazmat gear referring to Fukushima and its nuclear disaster. In another she is veiled by a green mesh food cover, no less preposterous than some of the hats worn at the extravagant wedding of the former Kate Middleton and Prince William during a global recession. There is also an Edenic image of Mylonas marked by Frida Kahlo’s unmistakable single brow, coiffed by three plastic water bottles laid flat across her head, tied in place by a red scarf, another environmental critique, offering perhaps a tongue-in-cheek recycling tip. A commentary on religion shows her in an elegant mitre, reminiscent of those worn by Greek Orthodox bishops. The imposing headdress however, is also clearly a disassembled, cream-colored paper box, underscoring one of the great pleasures of these portraits, the alternation between the real, the illusory and the intertwining of the two.
It is not Mylonas’ identity that is being constructed in this project. Rather, it is a proliferation of identities, the cast of a contemporary populist theatre that she has conceived and in which she plays all the roles—as herself. She is all of these people, a quixotic Postmodern Everyperson, a town crier dispensing information. She summons up Karagiozis, the unprepossessing, popular folk hero of Greek shadow theatre and the incarnation of the common folk. Karagiozis is poor but spirited, charming but outspoken, disputatious, a mocker and comedian but extraordinarily resourceful and patriotic who carries all the burdens of the Greek people within his hunchback. In the end, Karagiozis, whom Mylonas pays homage to in a video portrait in which she is effusively singing the familiar Greek song, the Town Crier, solves everyone’s problem. He is the key to her project, Mylonas’ statement of belief in the demos, its ability to outwit its oppressors and ultimately triumph.