Anastasia Douka, Stella Dimitrakopoulou, Orestis Mavroudis: Redefining a Documentary Practice
Essay By Jacob Moe
On February 8, 1926, filmmaker John Grierson reviewed Robert J. Flaherty’s Moana, an early docufiction film shot on the Samoan island of Savai’i, in the New York Sun. “Being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, [the film] has documentary value,” he declared. This phrase is often cited as the first usage of the term “documentary” in relation to a filmic work, and has since then been most closely associated with the medium of film. But the ambiguities surrounding this term — its claim to reality, its license for the “creative treatment of actuality,” in Grierson’s words — resonate far beyond the realm of cinema to a range of mediums and techniques.
With these questions in mind, I spoke with three Artworks fellows who negotiate these claims through their practices: Anastasia Douka’s recreation of public sculptures in Athens using the casting process; Stella Dimitrakopoulou’s copying of choreography across different mediums and forms; and Orestis Mavroudis’s restaging of a reality that has all but collapsed under the weight of conflicting interpretations. The resulting artworks — sculptures, choreographies, ephemeral events — affirm their status as traces of actuality while simultaneously acknowledging the different ways in which these mediums enable the mediation of reality.
In an exhibition titled Animalier* With No Taste for the Sublime (2017) first presented at Kunsthaus Rhenania in Cologne, the artist Anastasia Douka creates a series of sculptures based on monuments found in public space around the city of Athens. In order to make a cast, each object is covered in a plastic membrane upon which layers of paper and glue are applied; once this material dries it is cut, removed and then re-glued together. In the process of translating each object into a new form, some details are lost, others gained. Certain features such as the minute width of an embossed eyelash cannot be captured via this method, while transformations in the cast’s shape, color and texture result from the process of drying, cutting and reassembling.
Douka describes this process as a re-telling of the sculpture to someone else, resulting from the difficulty of narrating something that is at once realistic but invisible. For as she relates to me, despite their function as landmarks, monuments often go all but unnoticed by passers-by. While the shape of Douka’s hardened casts mimics the external features of the original sculptures, as a result of the casting process the figures themselves are rendered hollow in a nod to this symbolic emptiness and quotidian invisibility.
In creating her subjects — a leaping dog, a bust of the actress Elli Lambeti, the statue of Athina Messolora, a famed Greek Red Cross nurse — the artist remains faithful to certain elements of their original form while imbuing them with other, new characteristics. Taken together, they constitute a commentary on the fragility of monumentality, on the artist’s right to intervene in public space, and on who (and what) is historically memorialized as sculpture. The result, a “retelling” in the artist’s own words, both contains and exceeds the initial objects, maintaining an indexical relationship to the public sculptures themselves while capturing a particular moment in time and a broader socio-historical context.
Seen from up close, the figures appear fragile and impermanent when compared with their counterparts hewn out of marble and solid rock. A woman’s billowing gown is open at the back, revealing the paper-thin cast; a pair of boots on display are cut off at the shins, displaying the frayed paper and glue layering beneath the purple varnish. In contrast to the succession of faithful reproductions and replicas of statues rooted in Greek and Roman antiquity, repetition for Douka is both a dynamic and speculative gesture, resignifying these statues by altering the raw material from which they are made.
Stella Dimitrakopoulou, a dance and performance artist, employs copying as a choreographic methodology and learning tool, focusing on the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of replicating dance — in all its physicality and ephemerality — through the processes of video documentation, performance and theoretical writing.
Her video work Frauen danst Frauen (2011), which utilizes the mirroring of gestures as a copying method, is based on the seminal Rosas danst Rosas (1983), a film by Thierry de Mey choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The latter choreography consists of a rigorously executed yet simple premise: four female dancers dance themselves, in a layered series of repetitive movements. For Dimitrakopoulou, the idea “was to copy the movements of this video… as happens at the beginning of a learning process in a typical dance class,” emphasizing the inherently spontaneous and unpolished quality of learning and imitating a specific gesture.
The resulting video, filmed in a single take at a lignite mine on the island of Evia, re-translates these spontaneous gestures into a moving image work of the same duration, this time with two participants: Dimitrakopoulou and her mother. They sit side by side, their gazes fixed on the computer screen, brushing their hair, sweeping their arms, rising up and dipping back down in unsynchronized union. A film of the original choreography becomes another choreography, only to be rendered again as film.
“The ontology of dance exists not in its filmic documentation, but in something ephemeral,” Dimitrakopoulou explains, commenting on the ways in which dance problematizes the notion of documentation itself. Yet like Doukas’s leaping dog, Frauen danst Frauen revels in its inability to produce an exact copy. In each case, this “failure” of accurate representation — whether sculptural or gestural — is celebrated rather than concealed. For Dimitrakopoulou, an unrehearsed movement, a “poor copy” of a gesture in Rosas danst Rosas, becomes a testament to the improvisatory and corporeal nature of dance itself.
“It is one of the ‘unresolved mysteries’ of the village of Malonno… that one fine day about twenty six years ago, someone realized that the monolith known as the ‘Cornel de la Regina’ disappeared,” reads an article in the Giornale di Brescia dated July 12 2014. Malonno, perched above the Val Camonica valley in the central Italian Alps, is home to the largest collection of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world; according to local lore, one day the Cornel de la Regina — a famed monolith which had long adorned the village’s souvenir postcards — vanished. Despite its heft and weight, no one could come up with a satisfying explanation for how this happened.
Conflicting accounts emerged from different camps in the local population: had electromagnetic waves dissolved the rock? Was it pulverized by a localized earthquake? Or had witches spirited it away? One man claimed to have personally dismantled it with a hammer, chunk by chunk; the local policeman claimed that the village’s more conservative residents had demolished it after it became a favorite spot for rowdy teenage gatherings. These explanations reflected the village’s overlapping histories of idolatry, paganism and Catholicism, but also exposed the fault lines between them, magnified by the town’s small size.
In 2014 Orestis Mavroudis, a visual artist and filmmaker, staged a public event in the village which proposed a provisional anniversary for the monolith’s disappearance as a way of gathering local residents to discuss this event and remember forgotten details. The event, titled Anniversario Temporaneo, involved readings, a local accordion player, fireworks and a local magician — among other activities. According to Mavroudis, the event caused a stir in the community: memories resurfaced, but so did old tensions. Some residents, angry that he himself did not take an explicit position on the monolith’s disappearance himself, demanded he leave the next day.
In the absence of verifiable facts, Mavroudis’s event constitutes an experiment in conjuring up collective memory. An ephemeral ethnography of place, this fictional anniversary becomes a snapshot of Malonno’s repressed histories and contemporary tensions, unpredictable in its consequences; it is a performance that reflects on its relationship to truth, ultimately acknowledging reality as a kaleidoscopic and contested mess.
Through their inherent frictions, these practices of casting, copying and restaging point towards a form of documentary practice premised on mediation and complexity. In the movement from sculpture to sculpture, from gesture to moving image, from memory to event, actuality is molded, improvised and renegotiated. Far from the traditional concerns of documentary film, these artists nonetheless assert and expand the field’s contested claim to the real.
Anastasia Douka and Orestis Mavroudis are visual artists & ARTWORKS Fellows 2019 and 2018 respectively and Stella Dimitrakopoulou is Dance ARTWORKS Fellow 2019 .ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
Jacob Moe, ARTWORKS mentor for the 2nd SNF Artist Fellowship Program, studied politics, film and social documentation. He is the co-founder and managing director of the Syros International Film Festival, which was founded in 2013 and embeds a wide range of site-specific film screenings, performances and workshops in traditional and repurposed locations across the Cycladic island of Syros. As a radio producer, he has hosted regularly recurring live radio programs in Athens (Greece), Los Angeles (USA), and São Paulo (Brazil).
 Grierson, John. Flaherty’s Poetic “Moana” , New York Sun, 26 Feb. 1926.
 Dimitrakopoulou, Stella. (2016). (Il)legitimate Performance: Copying, Authorship, and the Canon. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance)
 “Quel Monolite Scomparso.” Giornale Di Brescia, 12 July 2014.