Petrinou, Christina, "Antiheroes", Catalogue Essay from "Cursed Serpent" BENAKI Museum solo exhibition

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.

Christina Petrinou

Untitled HG # 1, 2014, archival pigment print, 42 x 60 in

Untitled HG # 9, 2012-2014, archival pigment print, 48 x 65 x 2 in

Untitled HG # 3 / Made in Germany, 2014, archival pigment print, 48 x 65 x 2 in