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.
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.