Εssay by Evita Tsokanta about the work of Eleni Papanastasiou
Picture yourself in front of a masterful work of art. Standing there startled, paralyzed, silenced. The flow of emotions take control, words seem to fail you and the only thing left to do is pause in unsettling peace in a desperate attempt to take it all in, not to miss a single second of being there with it, of existing in the presence of ambiguity. Now imagine that work of art surrounding you, allowing you to immerse yourself in its three-dimensional plane while its sheer dimensions remind you of and liberate you from your negligible scale. Picture a work of art that has the power to induce an emotional grasp over a merely intellectual one, reconciling feeling and thinking, reminding you of the unknown as it can only be felt and not fathomed, of the complexity of human nature and consequently habitation. Such is the scope of the art of architecture. This was the experience of architect, photographer and painter Eleni Papanastasiou faced with Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1963). The affective power, the brilliance, the talent overcame her senses. A pure feeling that no words can be uttered to capture the complexity of visceral reactions, the dual sense of pain and pleasure, the sublimity evoked by the grandness of possibility. It was at that moment that her PhD research formed: finding the words to describe the architecture of emotions. Papanastasiou describes her creative process as interdisciplinary, centered on raw material: nature, language, and tactile structures. This process finds an outcome in the forms of architecture mainly, but also teaching, research, set design, photography, exhibitions, installations and cultural analysis.
Throughout Papanastasiou’s architectural work, the influence of Louis Kahn is evident. The use of béton brut in the name of an honest exposure of raw materials, the play between volumes, the pronounced superimposition of the fundamental triangle, circle and square, the elevation of the pilotis, the expansion of the belvedere perspective, the interchangeable character of interior and exterior spaces, all reveal her preoccupation to design structures that are of the land, not on it. In her 2017 proposal for the New Cyprus Museum international competition, she developed the notion of subtracting material from an elevated, concrete triangular building in order to frame the voids that would allow natural local vegetation, including endangered fauna, to protrude into the building and be explored alongside the antiquities of the collection. Following the prototype of the first Museum of Alexandria, she designed a building intended to highlight equally the natural and the man-made. Both the ground and top floors, sandwiching the historical exhibition, were designed to be green. Papanastasiou included a proposal for the collection display, making sure that navigation, although directed an obstructed at times, allowed for experiencing exhibits in a non-linear, non-didactic sequence, encouraging the viewer to explore artifacts of different eras in relation to one another, prioritizing an emotional intake to a logical one.
Similarly, in her proposal for the Florina Fine Arts School in 2019, she allowed the structure of the building to define its façade, making the use of the space by students and faculty her focal point. Like Kahn, the function of the building was the starting point and the intention was the fluid movement between spaces of different disciplines, allowing the studios of all art forms to be in contact with each other. Once again, Papanastasiou makes sure the surrounding environment and climate are omnipresent in spaces that blend interior and exterior. In both these designs, Papanastasiou concentrates on the experience of the buildings she proposes, on how they will determine the everyday life of the inhabitants and the ways in which they will affect and inspire them to do what they were meant to do there. In essence, she is designing suggestions for navigational experiences, anticipating, if not designating, the psychological trajectory of possible users.
In 2018 at Alphabet City in New York, Papanastasiou published Daydreaming. Diary for a walking distance measure, a photobook of 203 photos of her surroundings. When describing her attraction to the format of artists books, the artist mentions the intimacy and tactility of the medium as opposed to the pedantic dynamic of a wall-mounted object. Much like her architecture, the publication acts as an incitement to walk through and observe intently. In the tradition of psychogeography, Papanastasiou drifts while walking through a spatial reality and documents the outcome of the dérive into a visionary fantasy. The images, all out of focus black and white photos or video-stills read as if they have been layered on top of each other, picturing multiple simultaneous perceptions of the here and now, much like the wanderer who is submerged into a trance. For this optical effect, the artist references Macrovision signals that can cause synchronization failures, like a mistracked videotape that has lost its color. The illustrated surroundings act less as a documentation of a location and more as an imprint of a situation in its natural environment, in its best element. Like in her architecture, the series of photos are a sequence of natural elements within the urban environment, seemingly out of place but actually the protagonists of the story being told.
It isn’t often that an architect calls language a medium and references literature. Papanastasiou explores her interest in the sequence of narration, much like the routes in her buildings, through the format of a book while mentioning the effect induced by the stories of James Joyce, Paul Celan, Sappho and Thomas Symeonidis. She is interested in what has remained unsaid, in the sense of absence. Just like the spatial voids framed by her concrete volumes, the unsaid is implied only by the omissions of actual articulations. In constant quest to demonstrate polar opposites, she plays with binaries in her publication Landscrappings: New York-Sahara (2017). The tactility inferred by the title, prepares the viewer that this tangible experience will be layered and textured. It is an attempt to quietly showcase the close relations of opposites: natural vs. man-made, vast vs miniscule, positive vs negative space, rough vs smooth, empty vs overcrowded, introverted vs extroverted. A series of 12 diptychs, juxtapose shots of the two wildly different landscapes with the intention of depicting that opposites are supplementary. The imaginary line that connects the two is the unuttered by the narrator and left to be discovered by the viewer. The end result creates a complete landscape of silence.
In 2017, Papanastasiou created the set design for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center Delivery Ceremony to the Greek public. In close collaboration with the director Thomas Moschopoulos, the scenography, and not dramaturgy as she is quick to point out as words are of vital importance to her, consisted of 15 large-scale projections on transparent material that overlapped either fully or partially. Papanastasiou compared the effect of the installation on stage to the layers of a watercolor painting, which is yet another one of her media. Each screening was of a different activity taking place on various parts of the Center. The dream-like atmosphere capturing the multiple potentials of simultaneity throughout the establishment was achieved due to the translucent material of the screens. When all the screens were projected on, the final visual effect became opaque, blurring the lines of what was being shown. The design ultimately showcased the fermentation of all the functions of the center occurring at once: in the Opera House, the Library and the Park. The outcome was the creation of a compete environment in which all actions take place separately but at the same time blend into a complete whole, a cosmos of human activity in the backdrop of the Renzo Piano structure. The sum of the parts became an abstract whole. Once again, the artist demonstrates her infatuation with the vague limits between lucidity and ambiguity and allows doubt to comfortably prevail.
Eleni Papanastasiou lectures at the University of Patras. When discussing about her teaching, she brings up the short-lived educational utopia of the Black Mountain College with the experimental didactic techniques that put forth art making and collective labor as core classes. Predisposed to Barnett Newman’s trial-and-error technique as a more organic and human way of reaching results, she guides her students into exercises in which they succumb to wherever their hand directs them. Patti Smith, famously spoke about the holistic development of the three h’s: head, heart and hand. Papanastasiou engages experience to produce knowledge through praxis, instead of theory. This non-hierachical approach to education, puts emotion and spontaneity in the forefront of creation. She urges the class to trust the effortless, instinctive process and permit the practice to lead to the concept, instead of vice versa. Driven by aesthetics, Eleni Papanastasiou is on a mission to emotionalize architectural design in order to secure its affective absorption. To her there is no linguistic ambiguity in the term kunstwollen. The formative will to art, the artistic volition is “the sum or unity of creative powers manifested in any given artistic phenomenon”.
 Panofsky, Erwin, “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (2008): 43–71.
Visual artist Eleni Papanastasiou is a 2018 SNF ARTWORKS Fellow. 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
Evita Tsokanta is an art historian based in Athens who works as a writer, educator and an independent exhibition-maker. She lectures on curatorial practices and contemporary Greek art for the Columbia University Athens Curatorial Summer Program and Arcadia University College of Global Studies. She has contributed to several exhibition catalogues and journals and completed a Goethe Institute writing residency in Leipzig, Halle 14.