in Features | 21 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

In Focus: Danai Anesiadou

The authentically real and the profanely cheap; ‘sperm, gold, money, black holes ... ’

in Features | 21 MAR 12

Why do I conjure jewels and gold chains when I think about Danai Anesiadou’s practice, a kind of feral luxury – gaudy, priceless or studiously fake – that’s both classical and camp? Picture a chain of associations in a black velvet box with glittery gems and bling necklaces, infinitely looping (or tightening, like a noose). The German-born, Belgian-raised artist’s slyly shamanistic oeuvre – made manifest in performances, films and installations – embraces the meaning that resides in both the authentically real and the profanely cheap. At the same time, she persuasively invokes classical Greek theatre – its highs and lows, its singular archetypes and collective choruses, its tragicomedy – and not just because of the artist’s Greek heritage. One thinks of poet-classicist Anne Carson’s clairvoyant trans­lations of Euripides, with their sharp contemporary cadences. But one thinks of so very many things, each association glittering in its box. As Anesiadou wrote to me: ‘Recently they discovered a black hole at the dark end of the Milky Way. The Greek black hole is also saddening me. Sperm, gold, money, black holes …’ 

In A Night of Psicomagia, Anesiadou’s brilliant 2008 performance at the 5th Berlin Biennial, cheap gems glamoured her face, while gold- and silver-bodysuited assistants attended to her. Into a mic, she melodramatically introduced herself, milking her ambiguous accent and the jewel-like vowels of her name. The introduction bore repeating, as she did, several times. Then Anesiadou spoke about the weather, love, art, her parents, spending time alone in her apartment, watching YouTube videos, and missed appointments. Next, positioning her body against a screen, she made beautifully eerie, Rorschach-like shapes with her virtuosic hands. Her fingers conjured jellyfish as they swirled about, Art Nouveau-like in their decorousness. Multiple referents were evoked or implied – Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Psicomagia (1995), healing arts, Maya Deren, and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Personas came and went: witch, artist, magician, ingénue. At times, Anesiadou broke character(s) with a half-smile. This did not break the spell, but only seemed to increase its power.

Danai Anesiadou, 'Damnesia Vu', installation view, Kunsthalle Basel, 2011. All images courtesy Elisa Platteau & Cie Galerie, Brussels, and the artist

The same year, Anesiadou released a strangely hilarious homage to that most French of French films, Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In X, Y & M (2008), the film Anesiadou made with Sophie Nys, she moves through Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace, Marienbad’s setting par excellence, as well as the deeply weird domestic reliquary of Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux in Saint Idesbald, all against the droning, horror-film organs and trance-like voice-over of Resnais’s original film. Clad in luxurious white fur, against which her dark hair falls like a shroud, Anesiadou holds up postcards of the villa and its paintings against their originals, crawls around the floor obscured by her feral coat, and sits in a dentist’s chair cradling geodes.

Despite Anesiadou’s affection for the Nouvelle Vague (she often channels and subverts the coquette), there is something Buñuel-esque in her ironic employment of the tropes of Surrealist cinema (clocks, vagina-like lips, feathers, symmetry), but without the original’s self-seriousness and misogyny. In her films and performances, nothing much is ‘resolved’, to use movie parlance. Instead, she works like a stylist, mixing patterns and cultural references to create something ineffably cool, camp and surprisingly affecting. Take There Is No Such Thing as a Pretty Good Omelette (2011), her performance last October at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London. There, Anesiadou’s cinematic concerns became explicit: ‘I think movies are a conspiracy,’ she noted live. ‘They set you up from the moment you are a child. They set you up to believe in ideals and romance and, of course, love.’ After her trademark virtuosic hand shapes, she turned the projector’s bright light onto the audience, simultaneously becoming director, cinematographer and ingénue. Eventually, the projector rejoined two others, and the trio, affixed with plumages of dark feathers, projected geometric patterns on acetate and images of Tom Cruise against Greek column-outfitted walls and enormous sculptural lips. The Smiths’ ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ (1986) played joyfully, followed by David Bowie.

Untitled, 2011, digital print on MDF

With her usual intensity-cum-obscurity, Anesiadou works with production values rather than product. Likewise, her work is more aura than argument (to paraphrase Andros Zins-Browne’s excellent essay on her performative practice in issue 21 of A Prior last year). In this, her pieces bounce between form and anti-form, classicism and camp. Recently, though, her temporal formlessness shifted, and her (immediate) body sometimes released from its role as medium. In 2011, her solo show at Kunsthalle Basel called on Greek kitsch, B-movies and the French and German Nouvelle Vague. Entitled ‘Damnesia Vu. Zum Besten der Griechen’, which punned her name with déjà vu, amnesia and damnation, the exhibition included fake Grecian columns, nine film-posters-as-muses – offering such deities as porn stars and Jeanne Moreau – and a mirror-tiled bathroom modelled on one featured in a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. On a monitor, a computer-animated film began with the words: ‘What is this place and where am I? I don’t remember my name.’ Next door, an image of the artist as a child being baptized in a Greek Orthodox church – as strange and glitzy a ceremony as one of Anesiadou’s own – hung on the wall like a reminder of an identity bathed in ritual.

Danai Anesiadou is an artist who lives and works in Brussels, Belgium. Her work and performances have been featured at Witte de With, Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Germany; and The Banff Centre, Canada (all 2010); David Roberts Art Foundation, London, UK; and Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (both 2011). She is also a member of the Brussels-based artist-run space, Etablissement d’en face Projects. Anesiadou’s work was included in the group show ‘Ritual without Myth’, at London’s Royal College of Art in March 2012, and is currently featured in ‘Magic Love Trade Objects’ at artgenève12, Switzerland.