Socratis Socratous’s artistic practice defies easy categorization. It encompasses a variety of media, including photography, installations, performance, and sculpture. It also involves a wide range of approaches and tactics. Although in much of his projects, he figures as a maker of objects with a special, almost instinctive relationship to materials, there is also a substantial body of work based on field research and quasi-anthropological or archival methods. There are also pieces where the artist emerges as a contemporary flâneur, wondering in the urban chaos or in liminal zones sometimes with a plan at hand and sometimes spontaneously without specific direction.
Yet within the artist’s wide ranging practice, there are some constants. There is his attraction, fascination even with destruction, demonstrated in projects, such as School (2008) or in his 2011 solo exhibition Inviolable Refuge. There is also his tendency to disrupt normalcy, like in his performance from 2000, when he intervened in the everyday life of a latex factory, stopping its standard production for a week, and collaborating with the workers during factory hours in order to create colourful paintings out of caoutchouc. Above all else, however, there is his intention for a poetic and political engagement with his environment, be it an urbanity (or a society) in crisis, like that of Athens, his city of residence, visually explored and critically dissected in a series of works since the early 2000s that culminated in his 2010 installation at the Benaki Museum, or a geography in conflict, like that of Cyprus, his country of origin.
The artist’s preoccupation with the island’s political quandary led to a multi- faceted installation titled Rumours (2009), with which he represented the Republic of Cyprus at the Venice Biennale in 2009. The work addressed various issues, including that of immigration and rootlessness, identity and fear of the ‘other’ through a fabled story of carefully orchestrated symbolisms, inspired by the artist’s itinerary in the North of Cyprus following the partial lifting of the borders in 2003 that permitted the crossing to what had been for almost thirty years the inaccessible ‘other side’ for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Socratous’s travels across a landscape that was both familiar and strange, acquired the resonance of a personal revelation, which inspired him to question the prevalent political rhetoric surrounding the Cyprus conflict by fabricating a narrative -with palm trees, cobra snakes and boats as protagonists- that effectively addressed the usual tactics of myth-making and propaganda employed by both sides.
The artist continued to re-visit the island’s reality in works such as Blue Beret Camp (2011), a series of photographs taken in Nicosia’s buffer zone that recorded the everyday life of UN soldiers in an attempt to re-consider the presence and role of the peace-keeping force in Cyprus. In 2012, he traveled to Palestine, visiting equally contested and liminal zones. For a period of two months, he stayed at the village of Dhahiriya. The resulting project, A Cave in Dhahiriya (2012), was presented within the context of the Riwaq Biennial and took the form of a temporary museum, housed in a complex of subterranean caves and dedicated to the history of the village’s community. The museum exhibits included memorabilia and family photographs, objects and artefacts donated by the villagers and included in a display which addressed the complex ways that collective histories translate into subjective traumas and vice versa.
In his new series of sculptures titled Stolen Garden (2014), first presented at the Kunsthalle Athena in May 2014, Socratous is once again seeking to engage with a weighted actuality. He combines his inclination for object-making and craftsmanship with his interest in advancing his practice towards new critical ends in order to elaborate and reflect on the notion of the garden -an idea that re-surfaces in his work since his early installation Garden and Thieves (1998)- against the charged socio- political climate prevailing in Athens, following the outburst of the financial crisis in 2007.
Although in less obvious and straightforward ways, the garden is a liminal zone, subject as well to competing historical, socio-cultural, and political formations. A piece of nature shaped and structured by human activity, the garden is a space that exists between the private and the public. In the geography of the home, it is the boundary that separates the inside from the outside world, while in the urban landscape it takes the form of a planned, usually enclosed space, intended for social recreation and interaction, controlled however by specific regulations and prohibitions bound by law. Much in the same way that house gardens reveal a great deal about the intricacies of their owner’s nature, so do city gardens reflect a locality’s past and present, its former aspirations and current shortcomings.
Formerly known as the Royal Garden, the National Garden in Athens was commissioned by Queen Amalia in 1838 and designed by the German agronomist Frederick Schmidt with both indigenous and exotic plants. Its initial conceptualization finds its antecedent in the long-standing European practice, more vigorously pursued since the 17th century, of designing gardens adjacent to palaces meant to reflect the reigning status of the monarchy. When in the 1920s the garden was renamed, its representative function inevitably changed. No longer an emblem of the monarchy’s rule, its newly acquired title made it stand, like the ancient ruins in its vicinity, as symbol of a nation’s cultural identity.
In 2012, interested in exploring the cultural and political connotations of a garden with aspirations to represent the ‘national’, Socratous began to take long walks in the Garden’s alleys, cutting and collecting without permission twigs and leafs from plants considered indigenous, like the olive, the citrus and the pomegranate trees, used in antiquity to adorn the heads of Olympic champions. He later cast his stolen ‘loot’ in precious metals and displayed them on a piece of pristine white marble, the material of classical Greek sculpture par excellence, in a work titled Stolen (2012). Executed at the height of Greece’s financial crisis, when numerous scandals revealed a corrupted political system that systematically embezzled public funds, Socratous’s piece poetically emulated an analogous gesture pointing at the way a country with claims to a glorious past that laid the pillars of democracy in marble temples and agorae, was now brought to the brim of destruction by various acts of stealing.
In Stolen Garden (2014), Socratous is interested in exploring further this idea of the garden as an extension of civic life, and as a human, and therefore, cultural and political construct, vulnerable to numerous uses and misuses. His installation in the exhibition space reveals a landscape strewn with evidence of dereliction and decay. It is as if we are invited to walk inside a garden, after a fateful catastrophe, where twig- looking bronze sculptures bear the menacing appearance of threatening guns and flowers laid strategically on the floor look like grenades ready to explode. It is a disquieting environment, where the garden seizes to be a secluded refuge for reverie with life following its natural cycle and becomes a battleground, a field of destruction. What could be the meaning of such an apocalyptic scenery?
Like in his previous works, Socratous works against conventional notions of artistic composition and display, exploits a variety of material, presented as wrecked, decayed or destroyed, reworking the language of sculpture in relation to a specific socio-political context, evoked through a series of symbolic connotations. The garden he builds is intended as an alarming prophetic vision of a city’s possible future in the aftermath of a terrible crisis that is economic, but also social, cultural, even existential. What is more, the garden as a National Garden, where one can stroll, marvel and feel pride for the deeds of the nation represented in designed nature, imported exotic species, commissioned monuments, and ruins of a glorious antiquity, is heavily interrogated. It is an idea that in Socratous’s installation resonates as an emptied unsustainable myth just like the myth of Athens as the birthplace of democracy can no longer comfort or disillusion its inhabitants. Instead, it becomes a relic like his bronze sculptures appear as remnants of a garden (or of a city) in ruins.
- Elena Parpa