As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
So begins the famous poem of C P Kavafy about the journey of Odysseus back to his rocky island home. Just as generations of sailors can empathize with the vagaries of the sea, so artists and writers down through the ages have re-imagined the myth. In contemporary allegorical and symbolic terms we characterize the many trials and obstacles, monsters and temptations that block and distract from life's path. Odysseus is the Everyman that elevates us all from merely human Nobodies tiptoeing through the everyday, to captains of spectacular adventure. Like the Poet, it is the painter's job to recognize the heroic in everyone who navigates through the turmoil of events, the existential threats and anxieties that come at us everyday. But in so doing, as the destination comes into view, we grow richer and wiser; the paint dries, the layers thicken.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
What makes you happy? This question has occupied moral philosophers for millennia. For so long in fact that the meaning of happiness has evolved along with the answers. From Aristotle's Eudaimonia and contentment through virtuous living, to Nietzsche and Sartre, who were nothing except what they achieved. Can you be happy without being good? Or is it just a straightforward hedonistic calculation: maximise pleasure; minimise pain. Should we increase the Self, or dissolve it away?
Either way, today it seems happiness has changed. We need to be seen to be happy. We want what other people want. The stampede for the ice-cream van begins with the thought of it running out. Is there enough? We need to be liked and seen to be liked, so we watch and like and take selfies. We are self-helped, self-improved and always self-aware, worried that nobody is watching us being happy. Winning, going out, working out, eating out, getting your nails done, having fun. Having enough. Being always self-observed requires constant self-presentation, which makes it difficult to be you. Happiness becomes a box-ticking construction of likes and dislikes, yesses and noes, ones and zeroes. Machine-readable then, algorithmically predictable sets of data-points that all our service providers from pleasure parks to politicians and other ice-cream sellers are happy to exploit.
Painters, unlike philosophers, can just tell a story or ask questions without worrying too much about the answers. And just losing your self in a picture about what it means to be human is reason enough to be happy.
In troubled and uncertain times it is natural to seek hope and comfort in familiar things. To carry on with the routines of daily life, not ask too many questions, not look too closely or shine too bright a light on things better left alone, unsaid. But the artist's job is to look sideways at these things, perhaps with a psychological eye and reveal the self- deceptions and illusions of the everyday truths and experiences we might take for granted, choose not to notice.
In this way the painter's eye can reveal a parallel world where all is not as it seems; where everything is symbolic of our irrational and narcissistic behaviour. Breakfast and lunch, dinner parties with friends all come with side-orders of anxiety and suspicion. At home, we're alone with our distractions like noisy neighbours that never go out. At work, technologies watch over us, we're in love with our robots and devices. On vacation at a nice hotel, every room has a lovely view of our compartmentalized and fractured minds. These rooms are locked of course, and they contain all our hopes, obsessions and demons – like guests that never check out.
For me painting itself is an irrational compulsion – few really know why they do it, and each work is partly an exploration of this need, and partly a reflection of the artist's gaze. But the canvas is a black mirror, that twists tragedy into comedy, confinement into freedom, tears of despair into the laughter of liberation. The real world is absurd, and I paint it like it is.
In his 'Histories' Herodotus tells of a play written by a famous Athenian tragedian that was banned and the author fined because it told the story of the destruction of another Greek city by the Persians, which the Athenians found too upsetting. The tragedy was condemned to 'Lethe'. Much has been written about the 'collective memory' and consequently the willful amnesia of communities keen to reconstruct the past. And this applies as much to each of us as we lurch along the twists and turns of our own personal roller-coasters.
In these paintings I have taken inspiration from the games children (and grown-ups) play to represent some stories and allegories about the loss of the past, of the traditions, myths and rituals that sustain our sense of who we are, where we've come from and where we are going.
I've always been slightly suspicious and nervous of playground games and fairground rides . As though the mass distraction on offer somehow displaces the certainties of solid ground, family and home with a fake, mendacious excitement. I disliked the mild anxiety of total abandonment to sensation, risk and forgetting. Those Carousel horses seemed to rush around in terror of an oncoming disaster, close behind catching up literally like 'nightmares'. Merri-go- rounds were anything but merry – endless cycles of hope and fear, luck and disappointment, nostalgia and forgetting.
But in our own private Lunapark we can't avoid all the ups and downs, swings and round-abouts that we've built to distract and entertain ourselves. As we sit on the Ghost Train that trundles on through the Haunted House of our histories, national and personal, all we can do is keep our hands tucked in by our sides and close our eyes when anything too scary pops up. And there's always the next ride to look forward to.
And everything that we inscribe in the living present of our relation to others already carries, always, the signature of memoirs-from-beyond-the-grave.
Jacques Derrida, Mnemosyne (1984)
Is there a cohesive body of memories that constitutes a community's collective memory? Is there a point of departure, a point where all personal remembrances meet, that marks a justified logical beginning of our collective memory? Can introspection pick out a mental, primary event, the presence of which justifies our attitudes towards national history? And, above all, is there such a thing as objective historical knowledge of our past, or are we left with a digestion of several forms of biased, omissive, selective interpretations dependent on the perspective of the individual historian?
For Zenon Jepras, history as a whole acquires its meaning, structure and perhaps direction via the individual events and actions that make it up. Therefore, two basic themes run through the work exhibited: the collective memory and the authoritative history that coexist with Jepras' personal recollections, as well as with his own subjective interpretation of the former. As a skilled figurative artist, he finds his challenge in eliciting a rich world visible in the surface from the necessarily limited means of the design. Over the past few years, he has drawn on mythological fables and folk stories; but many of his paintings seem to do with his own story. They often hint at elements of his own upbringing as a Greek-Cypriot of Diaspora – properly dressed mothers and grandmothers picnicking in a park someplace in greater London, and the recurring figures of neat little boys, who may or may not be Zenon himself. These are narratives of family life in which the real deconstructs the imagined; persistent episodes of memory disturb what was later patterned into historical narrative, as key figures of our recent history whirl across the canvas. The characters' faces are sometimes blurred by the passage of time or perhaps repressed by memory; sometimes they look tough and muscular, and wear expressions of subversive cruelty and unease. Women and children are usually at the forefront of his work, the former often looking sexually oppressed; the later prematurely aged as if they are the only ones with the awareness of what is about to happen.
Jepras is a storyteller who has come to dig into our past, to record our recollections and reconstruct them in order to offer us a form of archaeology of memory. Each work holds clues to deeper personal and social narratives, like skeletons hidden in the closet. His characters often take the form of animals for satirical effect; thus creating an 'alternative world' that serves to undermine socially dominant forces.
What is particularly interesting is that his work is reminiscent of the post- expressionist movement of New Objectivism that emerged in the Weimar Republic of Germany and ended with the rise of Hitler to power. As George Grosz, Jepras turns his satirical eye towards what has proven to be a kind of hypocritical patriotism; on the ignorance and even indifference of laymen towards what was happening; on the greediness and corruption of the decades that led to the fall. Are we today, on evidence for the rise of neonazism and authoritarian goverments in a number of European countries, insist on burying our head in the sand or, like Jepras newlyweds, in a glass tank? (A columnist of the Guardian claimed a few days ago that Greece is the Eurocrats' very own Weimar on the Aegean1). But Jepras is not condemnatory; on the contrary, he looks upon his subjects with empathy; with a kind of nostalgia brought to him by his own upbringing as an emigrant; with acceptance and forgiveness. Manolis Anagnostakis has written that "Love is the fear that bonds us".
In the exhibition "Not quite a memory", Zenon Jepras examines the idea that memory has a photographic nature; that is, he investigates the fragmental and reconstructed narration of what has become our collective memory. He comprises elements reminiscent of photographic depiction (i.e sometimes the outline of the figures looks as a transformed ordinary snapshot), while at the same time he somehow engages in a subliminal provocation of the idea of a photorealistic painting. "Some things you simply can't photograph... There are things unphotographable, actually", David Hockney once declared2. As a result, Zenon's paintings brilliantly comment on the limits of what we naively conceive as "photographic memory": Ceci n'est pas une photo; this is not a genuine remembrance of a past event; this is here and now; this is 'the approach or remembrance of the future'3.
Where does this lead the viewer, who is called upon to walk the paths of this deliberate and conscious recovering of the past? Perhaps, the viewers will discover fragments of their memories and, hopefully, moments of their own personal truth.
Effi Kyprianidou. Nicosia 2012