The London Magazine
Completing the Loop
Two women greet each other in a forest. The sunlight glints off what they wear, which appears to be elaborate ceremonial decoration: gold plates inlaid with jewels. These are necklaces, but we cannot know, seeing them, that they are not also the gold armour of royalty, or crowns that house the body rather than the head. With the woods and the shimmering, it is as if these women inhabit some kind of Elysium or mythic pastoral in-between plane where gods tread.
A large wooden house, which looks burnt and derelict from outside, has been prepared for them. Sitting down at a table, still glimmering, the women begin the process of replacing the jewelled scales of their golden armour with pendants of fabric in the same shape, on which are embroidered words. Eventually, as a body moving through time replaces its cells and accrues experience, all of these jewels become a record of what was there. ‘The diamonds, the rubies, and the gold of all the precious moments that I’ve lived, oh my little one, they should grace you now,’ says one of two narrating voices. The women, who are in later life, wrap up their jewels in cloth then light candles and ascend a staircase as if they are mentally readying themselves. For what? Battle, perhaps? Their armour still makes noise as they move, still gleams, still affords protection. But upon emerging into daylight they divest themselves of this, along with their green gowns, and leave only in nightdresses.
This is Necklace of Time, a video piece premiered in the exhibition ‘It still is as it always was’ at Pi Artworks, a collaboration between the Londonbased Greek sculptor, painter and major public installation artist Kalliopi Lemos (b. 1951) and Istanbul-based American artist, teacher, critic and art historian Nancy Atakan (b. 1946). The two women’s approaches seem radically different at first. Where Atakan has built an artistic practice around dialogue, and favours the spontaneous and intuitive over studied perfection, Lemos’s practice has thrived on meticulous patience – each of her sculptures will go through intensive stages of drawing, modelling from clay and then casting by herself or an outside party – an overarching individualistic vision, and precision at each level of a concept’s execution. Yet the similarities in the
experiences that shaped these practices have an almost eerie similarity. Both women began as painters but moved into other media in the 1990s. Lemos came to London from Greece half a century ago and Atakan moved from Virginia in the United States to Istanbul around the same time. They are both in a sense displaced – though willingly, and settled – and both have recently lost their mothers. They were both raised closely by their grandmothers, they both spent their careers engaged with the role, voices and to some extent the mistreatment of women, and they have both come to reflect on their place as ancestral links in long lines of women.
This collaboration grew out of a desire to pass on culture and lived experience to the next generation as a form of visual collaboration with the viewer, whether those in the gallery are the artists’ own familial inheritors or not. Challenging Cliché 3 (Quilt with Wedding Vows), one of three wall-hanging embroideries by Atakan, began as a quilt made in 1940 by Atakan’s own grandmother and her sister. It was given to her parents as a wedding present. Both a traditional piece of American rural art which has been worked on by generations of craftswomen and an heirloom to which Atakan has added her own patches, it has borne witness to experience and also the process of communicating inheritance. Lemos’s sculpture I Am Home, an unsettling creation in which metal wasps plague soft felt heads growing from the ground, and an ominous black dress-wearing figure rises up, began as a familiar furnishing. The rug from which the dress issues, from which it seems to push up and grow from the same fabric, is one that has been trampled by familiar feet and by time, and shows the wear and evidence of her family living in its proximity. While making Necklace of Time, both artists asked their grandchildren what they would like to include in the film and incorporated it. Birdsong is their contribution to this intergenerational collaborative effort, as is their voices relaying memories and feelings of their grandmothers.
How deep, though, might this collaboration and note to the future also reach into an unconscious past: feed into other ancestral lines? Around the gallery’s walls run the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces of middle life spirituality, The Four Quartets (1936). ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’ But it is later lines which seem to foretell the setting of Necklace of Time, up to the choices future generations
of Atakan and Lemos’s families will make further down the line.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world. There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
This garden Eliot speaks of, like the forest Atakan and Lemos inhabit in their film, exists outside of and therefore alongside time. As does the conception of this exhibition as a unified corpus. Many loops are closed, both in conscious and intentional allusion, and through the spontaneity to which collaboration can’t help but lead. Throughout this exhibition we feel the rhythm of Eliot’s opening lines about the past, present and future being contained in one another. They are a mantra, seeming to counsel the reader with each internal breath to a sort of acceptance through deep understanding. And it is worth noting at this point that the poet himself was deeply influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and spirituality, as well as familiar with psychological strategies of acceptance which would today be called mindfulness or aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: rewiring neural pathways and learning to overcome ‘clichés’ of behaviour and anxious thought; learning to inhabit the present fully. He learned these techniques, or rather this outlook, under the tutelage of the psychoanalyst Roger Vittoz while he was undergoing treatment in 1921 for depression and what was then called neurasthenia in Lausanne. This immediately exerted its influence on his work, as with The Waste Land (another work of importance to the artists) which was then being composed.
Such a voice, the insistence of calm, presides over the artworks in this exhibition, and what we all borrow from life in order to give back. In a way, the jewels on the women’s armour do not truly belong to anyone. They are under a sort of custodianship, and then they are passed into the custodianship of those who follow them, who too are only borrowing them and must inevitably pass them on. Susan Sontag wrote, in her 1972 essay ‘The Double Standard of Ageing’ – herself at this point only approaching middle age – that ‘this society offers even fewer rewards for aging to women than it does to men [...] After late adolescence women become caretakers of their bodies and faces, pursuing an essentially defensive strategy, a holding operation.’ The works in this exhibition testify that there is no longer any need or romance for a defensive strategy. Instead, the burden of one’s prime that the artists have been carrying, which is visibly registered as a physical heaviness, is divested. Care has been taken. As the artists wrap up the jewels they remove from their armour, they have been good custodians. ‘Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend forever,’ runs the motto sewn into Atakan’s embroidery Challenging Cliché 1 (Diamonds). (‘I know as women, the burden we carry is very heavy,’ Atakan has said in recent conversation. ‘We’re supposed to be beautiful, we’re supposed to be mothers, supposed to be this and supposed to be that. And we’re weighted down with all of this.’)
But even as things are handed on and leave the artists, there are some things which thoroughly belong, and which they get to keep. The nightdress which Atakan wears at the end is another heirloom, having belonged to her mother before her. The spirit-weight, perhaps, of that nightdress, or rather the familial protection that wearing the dress that belonged to her mother affords, is here taken with her. And then there are the memories, that aren’t so much passed on as exist in every carrier who comes into contact with the stories they produce.
The jewellery in Necklace of Time was the fruit of an eight month process. Models were made from tough card by Lemos and tried on by both artists, the gesture of adornment – of taking the item of jewellery off and putting it on – being incorporated into the process as well as the finished video. Wanting the plates to be linked but not fixed had the result of making the ‘necklaces’ appear like Byzantine armour. Stainless steel was cut by
laser to be absolutely precise, then gold plated. And while Lemos was crafting the jewels which would inlay them, Atakan carried out what has here been called ‘Memory Embroidery’ on moiré fabric. Each word represents an experience or a role these women have fulfilled, and which is made general and widely applicable by the simplicity of the archetypes employed. ‘Mother’, ‘Betrayal’, ‘immigrate’, ‘narrate’, ‘travel’, ‘forgive’, ‘learn’. In appearance they are redolent of sybils, their lettering vertical. Each word represents a burden which has been shed, but felt and known. And each necklace has its own set of jewels, and a set of memories, which must be interchanged.
At the time of working Lemos had been reading Gül Irepoğlu’s Imperial Ottoman Jewellery and was influenced by the designs described. These hints to disparate periods have the effect of obscuring the work’s provenance of influence, evoking not one age but encompassing the past ages of Turkey, Classical and Medieval, in a timeless, heightened expanse that is nonetheless articulated through time. As such, the rite of passage undertaken by these artists is an ageless expression of a place that is about ageing. And the land into which it takes them is vague, hypothetical and fictionalised, without too many specifics of identity that would render the experience too autobiographical. Rather, it is the generalness by which a rite of passage, or merely a passage, can accommodate all who troop through it.
How the necklaces clank as they sparkle, how they make for difficult walking and a posture wholly armed, is a restriction often attested to in Lemos’s previous work. Her 2015 video piece At The Centre of the World shows a woman locked inside a sphere made of sinuous strips of iron, which she struggles to keep balanced with her movement. At the end of the video, after futile attempts, she seems resigned to the fact that she cannot escape. Lemos’s public sculptures have worked through other claustrophobic situations or trappings. Bodily constrictions are showcased by her trio of steel-made sculptures, Bra, Corset and Stiletto Heel (‘Tools of Endearment’, 2018). In Crossings: Round Voyage, 2007, the confines of displacement are shown by two defeated boats, suspended upside down, one above the other, outside an Istanbul university as a confrontation to the part played by Turkish traffickers. Lemos found these boats washed up on the shores of her native Chios, and has been collecting them from boatyards and using
them in her work since 2003’s Primal Boats. Undocumented migrants would have sat in these on their way to Europe via Greece from Turkey, trapped on the open water as they sought freedom from the circumstances that drove them to flee their homes. Until, of course, those boats were abandoned – most likely in tragic circumstances. In being left, they become the only thing that remains of those who occupied them. There is, through these marine-bound readymades, a more personal resonance, too. Lemos’s own Greek national grandparents were forced to flee their home in Izmir, Turkey in 1922 because of the Greco–Turkish war.
Perhaps the most poignant shimmer of allusion in her current show, however, is to Lemos’s 2012 work Pledges for Safe Passage. Almost an inversion of the migrant boats of Round Voyage, these appear hung with their own memory armour: golden aluminium tokens with Greek prayers and also the data of illegal migrants – names, dates of entry. In light of this, it is hard not to see Lemos and Atakan, when encased but also enclosed in their necklaces, as living structures, moving from one existence to the next, carrying some precious cargo of spirit. Living sculptures of their own life and lived experience. (‘I see the boats themselves as human bodies,’ Lemos said in a 2016 interview, ‘because of their shape, they are like shells’.)
Of course, to collaborate at all is to immediately forgo the potential of a perfectly realised individual idea or resonance. Which is precisely why Atakan favours the method: in her embroidery of the various works in ‘It still is as it always was’ she has left seams and frayed ends of threads visible rather than trimmed as evidence of their having been made by human hand. As a political challenge issued to perfection, specifically the perfection entailed in normative ideas of womanhood, these works have a humble way of championing acceptance in its place. Something which has served Atakan well throughout her career, along with this motif of passing on or communicating crafts, knowledge and stories from woman to woman, which is truly hers.
In 2015’s work Passing On II, Atakan used a double channel video to show women and girls of all ages performing exercises that the artist’s own gymnastics teacher Azade Tarcan, a pioneer born during the Ottoman Era, taught her. The pair met when Tarcan was Atakan’s age now, the artist in her twenties. When she retired 40 years ago, Tarcan passed on an instruction video to the artist (which Atakan made into Passing On I).
The split screen can be seen as representing dialogue itself, here used to demonstrate the handing down of knowledge from Azade to her students who include Atakan and all the others in the video. In Necklace of Time, the split screen also helps give this impression of repeats or echoes, things that call back, disjoint or truncate the narrative.
Atakan’s work is often based on family photo albums, archives and documents. Sometimes these documents are filmed, as with The Lost Suitcase (2009): structured like a black and white silent movie, it describes with intertitles what it would not be exaggeration to call the star-crossed love of Atakan’s mother-in-law and father-in-law. Their union disapproved of, they looked at each other from afar and communicated via Ottoman script, until they were able to travel to Germany, which they had to leave upon the outset of the Second World War. This is conveyed through stills of photographs of them, of their letters, of their passports, of their documents stamped by Third Reich officials. Paraphernalia of place and family life accrue.
Another work on cloth included in ‘It still is as it always was’, Challenging Cliché 2 (Family Memories), juxtaposes bought examples of crochet made by Turkish village women with images sewn from photographs of Atakan’s relatives, or aspects from their birth certificates.
These personal meanings, though, seem designed to be transferable and to some extent biographically unintrusive for the viewer. Sewn images of women holding their children in their arms, or of baby feet, could belong to anyone: to any member of each viewer’s family, at any time. The crafty use of time, and its moulding by the artist, contributes to this sense of obscuring the personal, and of obscuring the chronology of the presentation, so as to pass on these deeply personal experiences to the viewer in a way that they become theirs. Despite the artist’s presentation of herself and her role as a family matriarch ready to pass on her jewels – despite the presence of matriarchs who have passed on their jewels to her – the baby feet seen here do not belong to one of her own grandchildren pictured, sewn from monoprints of the family albums she has made. They belong to the artist herself. The fact that Atakan has chosen to temporarily smudge the line between the generations furthers her goal of universality within the private, and also bolsters the stance of the collaboration between artists that time is an unbroken continuum: one that can be seen to fold, cross its own path, and repeat aspects of itself in a closed loop, like on the split screen of Necklace
of Time. And looping back to the lines of Eliot, the past is contained within the present. Likewise the future.
The true surprise of ‘It still is as it always was’ engages not with a sort of esoteric, softened passing on, but with a reality of decay which remains beautiful and presented with tenderness while refusing to conceal that final, corporeal truth. Unassuming at the back wall of Pi Artworks, and bordered by a thin mirror behind it, is the first in a series of seven books made by Lemos. Pictured are two persimmons, whose golden fruit ripens in winter, and which evoke for the artist her grandmother. Lemos covered two of these fruit in gold leaf, with room only for the stalk and its brown leaves, and photographed it over a period of eight months. At first, the fruit are presented perhaps only as a heightening of what is already there: the gold leaf is simply a mythologising of their natural colour. And then as the fruit decays, they hold their vague shape in pulpy form. We see the coppergreen mould, and we see the rotten fruit liquefying and leaking until it is used up. In so doing it demonstrates how things are capable of leaving a remembered shell that still dazzles in the material realm, even as the thing it was has disappeared.
In a tract now called ‘On Old Age’, written in retirement from the political scene in Rome, the philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero put this argument in the mouth of Cato, one of the eminent figures he has speak for him: ‘There must, however, of necessity, be some end, and, as in the case of berries on the trees and the fruits of the earth, there must be that which in its season of full ripeness is, so to speak, ready to wither and fall.’ Some fruit ripens in the winter of its cycle. Throughout ‘It still is as it always was’, Kalliopi Lemos and Nancy Atakan have used art to complete the natural rather than contradict it, and have shifted the dialogue away from ripeness to something else. There are certain things they don’t take with them to the next stage. They leave them here. But even then, the things that they choose to leave behind stand in their place.
The essay featured here has been extracted from the It still is as it always was exhibition catalogue (Pi Artworks, 20 February – 28 March).