Photos by Sonia Arias
Filippos Tsitsopoulos is a painter, installation, video theatre and performance media artist who has worked in the field of interactive theatre installation art, exploring the limits of performance and painting since 1990. His practice engages the spectator/participant to a new theatre or rather a system of including theatre as a catalyst of our daily life. This is precisely the case for his latest project, Kage – Where K for Kott. We had the chance to speak with Filippos and gain more of an insight into his intriguing background of work.
To begin, could you give us a brief background into your work?
Well even if I’m not working with painting, I consider myself a painter who decides to use other artistic disciplines as canvases; like video theatre installation, traditional repertory theatre and performance. I have worked in the field of interactive theatre installation, exploring the limits of performance, as well as in painting since 1990. My practice engages the spectator/participant to a new system including theatre as a catalyst of our daily life. How theatre can change our reality and ourselves.
I use concepts that belong to the theatre, traditional and modern. These concepts are applied to visual arts, observing the effects that they produce. With the use of self-made masks produced from living materials, animals or plants, I construct parallel equivalents that enclose and juxtapose temporally disproportionate elements.
The dialogue with the history of Art is always alive in my works and in my life, due to the fact that I was part of the external collaborators of the educational department of the Prado Museum in Madrid from 2005 to 2012. I held workshops related to drawing and art aesthetic, with the theme ‘Irony in Art’ almost every day during that period.
‘Irony in Art’ was also my research theme during my Doctorate studies in Fine Arts at Complutense University of Madrid from 1990 to 1996. Before that I studied in Greece, painting at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki in the Faculty of Fine Arts from 1985 to 1990.
This relation with the theatre, with history of Art, with a big personal loss combined with my childhood memories, makes me create a system of works as independent ways of thought and reflection, on concepts derived from the performance and the theatre.
What inspired you to move into the realm of video theatre and performance?
The impossibility to communicate the issues that happened to me was the main reason. Although I studied painting, theatre came up, it was inevitable, and the love of all the masks, ‘layers of onions of an actor’s visibility or invisibility,’ make me jump through painting and performance.
The most unforgettable story for the development of this performance system was this one:
Long ago, back in the year 1993, the day that my mother died, I was still a student. My father, a professional actor, was interpreting Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Athens. I must say that this performance was memorable and imposing. My father, completely destroyed by the loss of his wife, buried the same day, dedicated his entire performance to her. It was obvious that all his gestures that night on the stage were speaking about her. The climax was when Polonius had to say, reading the letter of love from Hamlet to his daughter Ophelia, the words “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt about my love, my love, never doubt about my love, my love…”
My father repeated “never doubt about my love, my love” so many times that the other actors on the stage remained astonished, and knowing that the very same day my mother had passed away, they decided to remain inert looking at one another. The public did not understand what was happening and they began applauding, touched by the text and its constant repetition and the emotion of the interpretation; so much so that they finally had to stop the performance for a few minutes because the people were continually applauding. And without understanding why this scene had upset them so much, they kept on applauding.
I CONSIDER MY ART AS A ‘SABOTAGE OF MY OWN REALITY’
Later on, it was the first night that my mother was not at home waiting for us… and while I was heating my father’s meal for dinner, he told me, “That was for her (for my mother) you know”. And he continued: “And you like Laertes, (his son in the scene) please try, in your life to be honest with yourself and with it, as the night continues to day, you cannot be false to anybody…”
It was obvious that he carried on interpreting the role at home, believing or trying to convince himself that the reality we live in, the ‘truthiness’ of life, can be inverted in the theatre and extend into art. The reality we live in, brought back to the theatre; the theatre representing life, with all of our belongings part of a big stage and scenery of life.
A few years later in 2006 when my father died, I decided to watch all of his videos and performances, read and remember all of the roles, study all of the monologues, in a kind of obsession to understand my infancy and adolescence in my house full of theatre and interpretation. I constantly read essays from Harold Pinter to Gombrowicz and from Berry to Brecht and Beckett, to Peter Weiss and Marat Sade and began to articulate an enormous work of more than 72 videos of monologue performances.
I began interpreting Polonius for my father. I transformed my face with living elements, creating a flexible mask according to the face muscles and the movement of the mouth, imitating the red beard of the Danish Polonius. I played my first text for him saying exactly the same words as the ones he said for my mother. I transformed myself to communicate with my deceased father. The conclusion of a lifetime, the impossible answers to questions of our zeitgeist, how can you play or act in life and in theatre and what about if these roles could be inverted? Was this a starting point or the beginning of a philosophy for my father as actor and person — and my philosophy too, about life, religion, death and love.
I consider my art as a ‘sabotage of my own reality,’ and the reality of others as well. I use my face and my body in a concise and clear forefront. My face is like the vehicle that serves to transmit the message. And the message is a question or many perhaps: What would happen if the theatre could be used in our life to replace the reality? What would happen if our everyday life were transformed to tragedy?
I refer to all physical and mental consequences of the tragedy, including the sacrifice and the Oedipus blindness: To ‘see’ will let you blind? And the most important: How might we continue a stage play if one of its personages goes crazy, or simply it is not necessary, the zeitgeist that we live on, has replaced him or overcome it?
If there is an absence of tragic figures in our life why then do we not do the Oedipus tragedy, without Oedipus? Are theatre and its archetypes sufficient to answer to the current human existence and its questions? Or is it only a theatrical archaeology?”
Your father was an actor and you also speak a lot about famous literary figures. Have artists across different disciplines always played a part in your work?
If there is an absence of tragic figures in our life why then do not we do the Oedipus tragedy, without Oedipus? That is the question that someone must ask, wondering where all the famous literary figures go. I really care about the issues that come up when someone is looking at tragedy for instance. I don’t care too much let’s say about Euripides life, but I’m passionate about Oedipus. This became the purpose of my work.
As Jan Hoet, director of the Documenta IX in Kassel mentioned about my works “Filippos is working with art as subject. Art itself is capable to create Art.” To speak and express myself with borrowed words, brings me near to the behaviour of an actor who learns and studies an already observed and analysed reality and embodies someone else’s face, but beneath my face lies memories from reality.
I use my face, destroying it with pixels or masks, to recreate a natural disaster. The human suffering behind that mask and feeling of an impassive nature to human suffering is inverted through dramatization and theatre.
In Greek vases, almost all the figures are looking sideways, except figures that should face death; who are the only ones looking in front. So all my video portraits are figures who mentally are dealing with Hades. In Ancient Greece, before performing a tragedy role, the mythology says that Greek actors must ask permission to play from Hades, the kingdom of death.
I USE MY FACE, DESTROYING IT WITH PIXELS OR MASKS, TO RECREATE A NATURAL DISASTER
This is where the Greek tradition is placing the actor before the play. To find a specific image to respond to in one of my monologues is like juggling in the circus between nothingness and wholeness. The circus contains specific images. Everything in the circus is happening ‘for real’. The dancer dances with ‘real risk’ in a real rope, and the bear tamer shows only the spectacle of wild-domesticated animals. When ‘something happens’ really means that the image is at a ‘precise point’ or a ‘thing’. The actor’s face and the ‘garment’ is an image. If the actor interprets himself, though he remains an actor, it is a ‘precise point’. But, if he identifies himself with the person he interprets, then the images produced are ‘mimetic symbols’. Looking at the passageway between actual time and theatrical time, imagined space with the real, is my aim.
Where did inspiration for your latest project, Kage – Where K for Kott, come from? What will the performances consist of?
It is very common for an artist to use his home ground as a canvas. Having a repertory actor as my father, makes you inevitably a silent witness of his rehearsals at home. This fact can change you forever. Endgame, Hamlet and Othello, Berry, Bart, Beckett, from Jerzy Grotowski to Giorgio Strehler and from Ibsen to Calderon, to Peter Weiss, Suzuki Tadashi, Peter Sellars, Heiner Müller, Tony Harrison, and Thomas Murphy, to Kafka’s “a cage went in search of a Bird…”
If this is the conclusion of a lifetime with your father, then you must close to a religion called “Ionesco” and the person to swear, as Peter Brook’s said, is “in the name of the Bible of Jan Kott”. Theatre is the medium through which to understand the world. Jan helped me understand what it means to find the non-evident in the evident, and the evident in the non-evident.
The project is related to a big forgotten person: Jan Kott. A series of filmed performances in public spaces and monologues/reflections based on his two books, Shakespeare our Contemporary and Theatre of Essence, (which are actually closer to literature than to essays), will be used as theatrical texts for my monologues, to reconstruct the imaginary life of Jan in London. Like Joyce’s Ulysses which revisits “payments” of a day time mythology, the character who is playing Kott, will revisit all his main theatrical subjects from Ionesco to Gombrowitcz, his relation with art and life, to his beloved and magical actress Ida Kaminska, well known from her Oscar title but also for her awesome interpretation of Mother Courage in Brecht’s play.
I had the good fortune of seeing a performance similar to this from the Greek actress Katina Paxinou when I was six or seven years old. Jan Kott knew Paxinou well and several times saw that play to include her in his specific book about Drama. My father, a repertory actor, was acting the role of the priest in Brecht’s play next to Paxinou. I barely remember Mr. Kott now, but his smile, his black shirt and he enjoying like a child the cakes Paxinou offered to both of us backstage. Almost every night after school I was in the theatre backstage doing my homework, watching Brecht’s play, enjoying my father’s acting, as every kid would do, every afternoon, until my mother, who usually finished work later would come and take me home.
Well, this project starts mentally from my home ground and is transported to the theatrical ground of London, creating performances in public spaces, scenarios and monologues, and reflections about theatre and life, as if I was metaphorically wearing the skin of Kott. In my works is living in London, walking the streets, watching galleries and Museums, sleeping on a boat by the river, approaching nearby strangers and talking with them and using masks as Kott’s favorite element of his Verfremdunseffekt (Distancing effect).
Acting is putting on other faces and embodying someone else’s soul. This journey was inspired by Kafka and “a cage went in search of a bird”, which became “Kage- where K for Kott”; video- filmed- performances and monologues all over London. This work will be displayed in a Gallery as a photography and large-scale multi channel video installation and will have several exhibitions when finished.
How important is the role of spectator/participant to your work? How much of a part will the spectators play in this piece? What is the final goal of this piece?
As a Joycian Ulyssean journey, where Homer’s Ullyses embodies the Joycian one and vice versa, as the Marquis de Sade and Marat in the Peter Weiss play shift into the other, there is no theatre without spectator. The only difference is that in theatre language we see things opposite, as well as in my works, from the end to the beginning from left to right. All this is like the classic theatre paradigm of the mirror, when Hamlet tells his actors to pull up a mirror so that they may view themselves, and if a theatre is a mirror then “the right is left in and the left is right. In the mirror, our heart is on the right side, we cross with our left hand”. And if we ask ourselves what is real in the theatre, then probably we will answer: the chairs. Yet these chairs when taken from the auditorium and set on the stage, they are no longer chairs but representations of chairs or “spots” in theatre language, like Ionesco`s empty chairs are waiting for the viewers to come. I also aim to convert the audience into actors.
The second part that I am now developing in London, is called The Grimaces Competition Bus and is drawn from an essay by Jan Kott about an incident that took place during the Second World War in Poland. During one long night of constant bombing, two Warsaw actors are trying, during this awful night, to fight and win a strange competition:
“The ugliest and most horrible grimace of the world made by the muscles of a human face”.
Finally, we don’t know who was the winner of this absurd expressionistic behaviour, but it was used as an example by Ionesco later on to his students of how performance could push boundaries and limits and how opposite the so called theatrical truth is from reality. The Grimaces Competition Bus is the digital and technological reconstruction and adaptation in a modern life and public art form of that incident.
In a Hackney central 38 London bus are installed 120 screens in its exterior façade and lateral, as well as in the upper outside roof. People are invited to get in and make a grimace and then give the reason for the horror or the joy of their feelings, and or any personal or political disappointments.
In every stop of the bus new people will come up and new grimaces will be added in the timeline of the day. Every grimace will be filmed and streamed on the flat television screens on the exterior of the bus. This event will be collecting grimaces all over London. Older ‘grimaces’ (from the days before) will be added on hard discs and streamed in some of the outer screens of the bus, while on other screens, the new ones will be performed totally live.
EVERY END EMBODIES EVERY BEGINNING
The inside part of the bus will be removed to include a space with one camera, waiting to record the reaction of a passenger to a memory or to something related to a grimace. A video edition and streaming team of volunteers and people explaining the action and the artist will be there to help and give them guidance points. Every day the artist will perform a two hour sequence of grimaces streaming them directly on one outer screen of the bus.
The Grimaces Competition is an adaptation a modern life form of that Warsaw incident but in an outside inverted shape. The metaphor of the attack of the commercial markets, art markets, social markets, art war, ‘the constant bombing of the human rights and work’, as well as the cuts of all type of benefits due to the new order of things, which embrace with indifference the unprotected citizens, makes critical the reaction and activation of the series of primary feelings and interior nerve mechanics, spasms and expressions and the use of them as the possible theatrical Utopia. In the exterior of the bus, as well as in Ancient Greece feasts the Eleusinian Telesterion (initiation hall) and Ex Amaxis events will turn too into a live structure society performance.
It can be considered as a collective absurd comedy drama viewed live but in video. In the outside part of the bus there are nearly two hundred or more connected and adapted flat television screens. In our theatrical modern theory, the fact of the two actors competing for the most horrible grimace under the sound of bombing Warsaw is translated to London reality.
This work will perform from the inside and will criticize with grimace and absurdity, the world of nowadays. This theatre bus will not stay hidden but will reveal the expression of the inner protected or unprotected presence of territorial freedom and the mechanics that arise in the human being in order to defend himself psychologically and physically from an external pressure, defeat the fear, as well the sadness. Grimaces as the weapon to face the impossibility, to formulate coherent actions and thoughts is doing exactly the opposite if we invert it.
Will these works be exhibited anywhere?
The idea of the Opposite, mentioned before is the matrix of this project. The works will start in galleries and institutions, filming myself there with my masks in places such as The Serpentine Galleries, The Whitechapel and Frieze art fair and will end in a social project where the Bus will be the final destination. When this overall work is finished, it will be exhibited one more time in several galleries. At this moment a map is being created to get all the locations, from museums and galleries to theatres and pubs that are taking part in this journey. To work with the Opposite, to bring the end and the purpose of something in the very beginning of your investigation or a project, is philosophical. Every end embodies every beginning. This reminds me of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing 1729-1781 and how prophetic his words were about how art shapes are translated, and with this I would like to finish with, “Poetry finally is spoken painting, and painting is poetry who remains in silence” from Laocoon.