In an era where multitasking is the norm and access to bite-size information abounds, our minds are scattered across different spaces in any given moment. This is our modern mental condition, at least according to “The Engine Room,” the newest multimedia exhibit at the artist-run centre Skol. Curated by Stéphanie Bertrand, the exhibition features works by three Greek artists, Katerina Athanasopoulou, Lena Athanasopoulou, and Zoe Giabouldaki, whose work reflects on this particular mental space — the engine room roaring in our heads.
In many of the pieces, use of crude juxtaposition mimics paradoxical states of mind. Lena Athanasopoulou’s untitled collage from 2011 shows pictures of sexual organs and other body parts superimposed on top of pages from a math textbook. Propped up on a plinth, the collage confronts us with both the sexual and rational aspects of ourselves. Reminiscent of teenage daydreaming in class, this youthful state of mind also acts as metaphor for the modern condition: over-stimulated, distracted, and conflicted.
Argonautica, an animation by Katerina Athanasopoulou, similarly collides vastly different images and stimuli. Gears and spinning galaxies intersect, while binary code streams across the foreground. In contrast to Lena Athanasopoulou’s collage, Argonautica reverses the relationship between the primal and the technical. Here, rational computation intrudes on a natural universe.
“[People] might one day be at a champagne opening, and the next day protesting in the streets, and they feel that there’s absolutely no disconnect between those two things.”
Many of the pieces brush up against each other and the effect is deliberately jarring. The choral music of Katerina Athanosopoulou’s animations echoes through the gallery space, crashing against the recurring beat of an octopus being tenderized in an untitled 2007 film from Giabouldaki. “The Engine Room” thus highlights how calculation and computation govern the modern world and clash with the organic. With aural and visual chaos, the exhibit recreates the stressful sensation which follows such a collision.
Bertrand explains that the sense of turmoil corresponds to the inner conflict of the modern human being who often holds incompatible attitudes and beliefs. Bertrand sees this conflict in people’s everyday lives, saying that “[people] might one day be at a champagne opening, and the next day protesting in the streets, and they feel that there’s absolutely no disconnect between those two things.”
Aside from grappling with inner conflicts, the exhibit also features a somewhat foggy socio-political commentary. The Greek financial crisis, which Bertrand describes in her curatorial statement as “manic arithmetic,” is an intended backdrop for the exhibit. In her statement, Bertrand characterizes the pieces as reflecting on the crisis’ social and emotional consequences.
“The crisis has dragged on so long that a sense of apathy has developed,” Bertrand says. “It sounds cheesy, but I wonder whether art can inspire [Greece] again.”
However, exactly how some of the pieces engage with the financial situation may be unclear for visitors who are either unfamiliar with the particulars of the crisis or unable to read the Greek text in the works. Bertrand explains that she chose not to provide curatorial comments in order to let the works speak for themselves. While the omission adds to the disorienting experience, it does so at the expense of the accessibility of the works on a more local level.
Further, while Bertrand suggests that art can usefully imagine alternatives to entrenched systems, she also questions whether it always plays a positive role in modern society. In fact, she expresses concern that art’s ability to portray paradoxes might help human beings to reconcile what are actually incongruous beliefs.
The works in “The Engine Room” seem to fall somewhere in between these two extremes: it is hard to find evidence of optimism for the future, but it is equally difficult to see any of the pieces as celebrations of the status quo. Even the humour on display, as in Giabouldaki’s video No More Tears, which compiles clips and animation from various shampoo commercials, feels wry.
Ultimately, “The Engine Room” seems more about an experience of fragmentation than any particular value judgement. The exhibit invites viewers to come in and feel their daily disorientation in heightened proportions, providing less solace than a loud wake-up call.
“The Engine Room” runs at the Centre des arts actuels Skol until February 7. Admission is free.