Issue 13, January 2010
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Perpetual Transitions
by Kalliopi Lemos

The sculptural work of Kalliopi Lemos includes large-scale steel sculptures and installations. Since 2006 she has been engaged in an art project that involves three ambitious sculptural installations in three different countries, each consisting of an imposing installation of boats. The locations she selected are Eleusis, Istanbul, and Berlin (the last still in the planning stages, to be realized soon at the Akademie der Kunste for the 20th year celebration of the fall of the Wall), a triangulation that marks the typical route of migrants, from East to West, as they led their country in search of work. In these installations, she explores the notion of existing between cultures, identities, and borders.

Authentic wooden Turkish boats that illegal migrants use are the core of the project. They carry especially heavy historical, emotional, and conceptual freight, and for the artist, they are sacred objects. By treating the public space they occupy as a stage to demonstrate the tragedy of the human condition and the historical dimensions of the issue of migration, she initiates a dialogue between the works, the particular site in each city, and the public.

It is the symbolism of the boats and their metaphoric reverberations, however, that most kindle her imagination. Boats have always been potent images, from the schematically rendered white funeral barges in the famous Pre-dynastic wall painting discovered in a Hierakonpolis tomb in Egypt - claimed to be the oldest painting in existence on a man-made surface - and boats in Greek vase paintings to memorable contemporary instances of elegiac vessels. Anselm Kiefer's blasted ships made from concrete slabs come to mind, as do Wolfgang Laib's beeswax ships, Cai Guo Qiang's wooden craft pierced with arrows or illed with broken shards of white porcelain, and the skittish, abstracted galleys in Cy Twombly's elegant, epic-inspired paintings.

Ambassador Lucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) and Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation were the hosts at the opening of the exhibition
Ambassador Lucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) and Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation were the hosts at the opening of the exhibition

For the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, Lemos is presenting Perpetual Transitions, yet another evocative installation of boats, suspended as if they were sailing across the gallery's spacious atrium with its fortuitous waterfall. She calls the immaculate, ghostly white, archetypal vessels "bean boats." Shaped liked pods, they resemble not only boats - which could be viewed as houses turned upside down - but also wombs, repositories of seeds, or reliquaries emblematic of the cycles of birth and death, transitions and salvation. Think of Noah's Ark, that ultimate loating shelter for both Christianity and Judaism. Slender, spare, lightweight, measuring about 2.5 meters (8.20 feet) in length, the boats are made of plaster, although her boats are often built from reeds. Lemos is partial to such natural materials, including also clay, salt, sand, wood, and crystal, as well as man-made metals, which despite their seeming inviolability are still vulnerable, subject to change.

The edges of the bean boats are pleated, suggesting labia, and the interiors are illed with smooth, white plaster globes. Each globe its snugly in the hollow of a pair of cupped hands, seemingly molded to them, an effect that emphasizes the process, as if the forms were the result of being held and touched, again and again. Lemos is also deeply invested in the tangible, in three-dimensional materiality, and it is this innate preference that diverted her from painting, her irst choice, to sculpture. The seven elements in each of these boats - seeds perhaps or eggs - represent the interdependence of the corporeal and the animating spirit. Together they symbolize the whole.

Perpetual Transitions is allegorical, like her other works, and like them refers to journeys as rites of passage, metamorphosis, and renewal. From the ferrying of souls across the river Styx in Greek mythology to the Hindu custom of sprinkling the ashes of the dead over the holy water of the Ganges, the body becomes something other, something more elusive. The load carried by these haunted vessels is universal, burdened with history and dreams, hope and despair. Her true subject is a meditation on the ineluctable passage of time, the beginning and the end, eternal rebirth.

Text by Lilly Wei, a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for Art in America and is a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Paciic.

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