Beneath the surface — Ionian Bisai and Latent Community

An essay by Christian Oxenius

Ionian Bisai. Photo credit: Kanaris Tsiganos

Moving image, since its first use, has given artists and cineastes a tool to link the real and the phantastic, the experienced and the unimaginable, the monumental and the deepest individual feeling. The monumental and the individual, it is from this dichotomy that I’d like to start to reflect on the work of Ionian Bisai and by extension of the collective Latent Community which he formed with Sotiris Tsiganos in 2017. I want to do so because although diverse in subject and style many of the works I had the pleasure to see, present us with a juxtaposition of the monumental, the state, the Power with capital P and its symbols on the one side and the individual, the intime and intimate world of our thoughts, feelings and even daily worries on the other. Much as in real life the former only appears through symbols, references and often feels like an inexorable presence, the latter is a rich humus of voices, faces, furtive glances of expressions and gestures bringing us close to the subject of each work. Clearly positioned at a crossroad between documentary and art the work of Latent Community, described by Bisai and Tsiganos as an artistic investigation that wants to respond to social, judicial and ecological cases through the production of conceptual and emotional experiences appears as a shapeshifting platform that reflects the complexity and depth of their thoughts, a mirror of their intimate need to find new ways to represent the world.

Ionian Bisai & Sotiris Tsiganos (Latent Community), Otranto, still frame, 2020, courtesy of the artists

In order to start discussing their works in more detail I see no other way to start than by recalling one element above all others: water. Water as the element that gives us all life but also water as the dark oceans surrounding our lands and bodies. Water that becomes, as a political metaphor, an irresistible force able to seek and infiltrate the cracks of a system that continuously builds new barriers to contain it.

Ionian Bisai & Sotiris Tsiganos (Latent Community), Otranto, still frame, 2020, courtesy of the artists

For those more familiar to Latent Community’s works this might appear as quite a literal reference, especially if we consider works such as Neromanna or Otranto. In the former, a social documentary depicting the destruction of the village of Kallio through the construction of the Mornos Dam we find ourselves submerged in an eerie world in which the voices of the former inhabitants guide us through their lost homes and routines. The mossy walls, trees and gardens are placed in a timeless space and at the same time still vividly present in the memories of those who lived there. The inevitability of the state’s decision and the failure to create a closure for them is rendered beautifully and painfully through the work of Bisai and Tsiganos who by making their own presence seemingly invisible are able to give central stage to those individuals who in the 1960s faded in the background of a country striving for modernity and economic progress.

Ionian Bisai& Sotiris Tsiganos (Latent Community), Neromanna, still frame 2018, courtesy of the artists

In Otranto by contrast, it is not the tranquil surface of a lake we are facing but rather the profound darkness which still surrounds the survivors and families of the 81 Albanian migrants who perished in the 1997 sinking of the Katër i Radës after it was rammed by an Italian navy vessel. The powerful and very intimate anti-monument is not only an admonition for one of the worse tragedies that overshadowed the migratory wave of the 1990s in the Adriatic sea but also a reflection on the role art can take. From its opening scene we are faced with the stark opposition between the emotional presence of one of the victims relative and the absence symbolised in the monument erected in Italy to remember the event. It is in this gap that the work by Latent Community finds its place. Through the respectful exploration of the void that tragedy brought about in so many families we are reminded of the inadequacy of the monumental. Through the voices of those affected by the event, the symbolic but sterile glass blades cutting into the recovered wreck of the Katër i Radës are exposed in all their bitter coldness. They remain, in the backdrop of the painful and sombre account developed by Bisai and Tsiganos, as an additional reminder of the violence of the state and its inability to render justice to those who lost their loved ones.

Ionian Bisai and Sotiris Tsiganos (Latent Community), Ocean is future, still frame 2021, courtesy of the artists

Most of all though what emerges from these two works is the incredibly powerful ways the duo has to create empathic atmospheres which overcome the barrier of a traditional documentary placing the viewer right in the middle of the struggles witnessed through the screen. This capacity to locate and challenge limits unfolds and becomes ever more evident in more recent works such as Tropical Hell and Ocean is Future (working title) where we are suddenly faced with the ultimate threshold, that between human and non-human, nature and technology, reality and hyper-reality. In both works Bisai and Tsiganos are able to develop, through their usual anthropologically driven perspective, an investigation into worlds determined by our human gaze but the horizon of which extends far beyond our presence on this planet. It is an attempt to move past our human experience while retaining the responsiveness of our emotions at the sight of an object, be it experienced or relayed to us through a virtual projection. In both works we are transponded into worlds which appear at first somewhat alien, but it is exactly through the absence of familiar elements that we are able to question the role of humanity and the importance of a very human eye to make sense of it.

Ionian Bisai & Sotiris Tsiganos (Latent Community), Tropical Hell, still frame 2019, courtsey of the artists

Ionian Bisai is SNF ARTWORKS Fellow (2020). ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. 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

Christian Oxenius is a German-Italian independent curator, author and researcher living between Athens and Istanbul. His academic background in sociology and urban studies led him to pursue a PhD at the University of Liverpool on biennials as institutional model, during the course of which he established collaborations with Athens, Liverpool and Istanbul Biennial; during this period, he developed a particular interest in artists’ communities and storytelling. His research into experimental writing on art has resulted in a number of exhibitions and publications of international relevance.

Essays, texts and interviews about contemporary Greek artists and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program. www.art-works.gr

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