Evangelia Basdekis

Thursday, September 20, 2007

by Bob Dickinson

“I have a kind of tiny space in which I can breathe and survive.” At a meeting point between art and carnival, Eva Basdekis walks, wearing multicolored boots, which conceal the site of her latest work, entitled I Trust You. “Sometimes you feel quite strange because you walk through crowds of people and they don’t know,” she explains, “It has to do with the fact that it’s on your foot and it will fade out and it doesn’t have any value for the market.” Using a form of violent embroidery, recent performances in Sheffield, Munich and Bristol saw Basdekis using needles and colored thread to sew portraits – the Mona Lisa and Mickey Mouse – on to the soles of her feet. The intense, detailed, iconic-ironic result demands close-up examination (and at her Sheffield performance, closed circuit television provided just that). Each piece of fleshly embroidery is done scrupulously, slowly, methodically, literally stitching the traditional and the transgressive together. Unlike a tattoo, an embroidered picture on the skin isn’t permanent. But neither does it disappear instantly. After the performance, Basdekis lives with the embroidery on her foot – or in the case of Art Is Beautiful, the palm of her hand – for several weeks, then pulls out the stitches as they become loose. In this way, the embroidery has a life extending far beyond the period of its public exposure. After her performance at Sheffield’s Site Gallery in December 2006, Basdekis, alongside her former mentor, Franko B, took part in a public discussion, during which one audience member commented that watching the stitching of the foot was less painful for the viewer than observing Basdekis having occasionally to flex her entire leg in response to “pins and needles”. “I am trying to communicate the feeling of obligation to obey the rules,” Basdekis comments later, “Repetition is a ritualistic and productive routine-gesture that helps me to indicate the power and violence of authority. I am trying to keep myself deadpan as the alienation becomes more clear. At the seven hour performance at the Site Gallery I was thinking at the same time how insane what I’m doing is.. I try to express the anaesthetization of the body, of the human being, of the society. I felt quite tired during my performance…it was not so much the pain or the “pins and needles” but this tiring and upsetting obligation to the rule. “Evangelia’s embroidered images deliberately polarize the over-exposed extremes of fine art and popular culture. “Sometimes I feel contaminated by my education,” she reveals, “Mona Lisa is important because of institutions and museums and the way they make you think. When you stitch Mona Lisa you translate a masterpiece in a very low way – a craft, but I have to observe very strict rules to repeat it that way.” Basdekis’ Greek upbringing didn’t include formal embroidery, although she remembers its popularity in traditional Greek homes. The application of embroidery on the sole of the foot, however, does consciously refer to darker aspects of Greek twentieth century history: the falaka tortures (beatings on the soles of the feet) inflicted on political prisoners during the years of military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974. But Basdekis uses violence on her own body to open new possibilities. “When I stitched my hand for the first time I released a kind of energy that would last a long time,” she says, “Usually people think of self harm as a hidden wish for suicide. But for me suicide has no power. For me to harm yourself expresses control of the body. In my country it’s sinful to harm the body. It’s a kind of rebellion against that religious thinking.” Citing 2005’s      Art Is Beautiful as a turning point, Basdekis also refers to the importance of two earlier performances. In the case of Tama Art, Basdekis – on her hands and knees – proceeded through the centre of Athens and entered the municipal museum, where she remained kneeling in the position of prayer. The proceedings drew crowds of puzzled onlookers, and took the unwarned museum staff completely by surprise. It was, Basdekis believes, “Bold to do it in an urban landscape. I used all the city in a different way. I made the viewers use the city in a different way. I decided to go into the museum without any permission. The people in the museum, they could see me praying – that’s what Tama means – with 100 people watching, and the museum staff didn’t know what to do, how to behave. It was my idea to make it a parody. All that kneeling at the museum made me feel like a piece of work in the museum! People were so quiet – like in church – and afterwards so excited. It was amazing. “In We Are The Revolution – a direct reference to Joseph Beuys’ work from 1972 – Basdekis videoed herself wearing Mickey Mouse ears, repeating Beuys’ phrase having inhaled helium gas from a balloon, undermining the confidence behind the statement. “Beuys changed the rules,” says Basdekis, “But I was asking what I was doing. Could I change society? And so, by using helium, I gave myself a cartoon voice “Besides providing an unnerving quality, Besdakis use – indeed, sense- of humor reinforces the transgressive intentions behind her work. She has previously related her performances to the function of the clown, fool or jester in history, whom she sees as “eerie, insane.. marginal in the palace…that he remains without a punishment is evidence that he (his truth) has not any power (over the king, authority)”. Basdekis’ transgressive actions therefore embody pessimism and rebellion, mysteriously made to unfold in a fixed continuum she sees as “the only time and space I can breathe as a proper Evangelia.” She continues, “I feel quite free and original because I believe in what I’m doing. It’s my manifesto. I don’t have any sense of what the viewer thinks. But it’s amazing how liberating it feels when you’re doing that – you do the most right thing in the world. “During the year she spent being mentored by Franko B, Basdekis seems to have become reassured about the direction of her art. Franko offered her “A kind of philosophy about art and life. I’d been wondering why I was an artist and he put the question in a different way. He said okay you are an artist but why do you have to keep on doing it? He told me don’t put pressure on yourself. For Franko B the first is to be a human being and an artist next.” Asked about the symbolic value of her body in performance, Basdekis replies: “All my gesture is symbolic – Mona Lisa on the flesh rather than on the canvas. I am considering the body as the subject for torture or action. You take your time to release truths from your body – out, out. I don’t know if it’s a kind of therapy. My statement is you take your time to bring out your reasons.” And for the onlooker? Basdekis smiles: “I don’t look for emotional involvement – it’s just the mind.”

Bob Dickinson is an arts reporter/producer for the BBC Radio 4 Front Row programme

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