From its first glimpses of human activity in the 9th millennium B.C., to centuries under Ottoman rule, to its chaotic political upheaval in the 21st century, the small Mediterranean island has been an epic chessboard of fleeting conquerors and indelible change. As such, Cyprus’s transformative nature is very much a factor as it prepares for the 56th Venice Biennale.
“My ambition is to consider Cyprus’s relationship to the southern hemisphere,” says Omar Kholeif, a fast-rising star of the art world and curator of this year’s Cyprus Pavilion. “I have always seen Cyprus as the gateway to what we have come to know as the Global South. It is a site of multiple territories and imaginaries.” The innovative British-Egyptian curator—who has plied his trade everywhere from New York to Dubai—is an apt choice to spearhead the pavilion, given his proclivity for working with notions of territory and knowledge of shifting globalized contexts.
Portrait of Omar Kholeif by Eric T. White
The basic conceit of his pavilion is to consider whether it is possible to choreograph a history that is constantly being re-imagined. Kholeif’s open call to artists, which included a research visit to Cyprus, ran along these lines and subsequently received over 70 participation proposals. For him, the “clearest correlation” was with Christodoulos Panayiotou, the 37-year-old Limassol-born Cypriot artist. Kholeif explains, “I felt that there was an urgency to engage with Cyprus from various geographic and spatial perspectives, and that this collaboration could result in an outstanding pavilion as well as ignite an ongoing conversation around the Cypriot artistic, social and cultural contexts.”
Panayiotou curiously began his training in the performing arts and dance at schools in London and Lyon, while also studying anthropology. As a result, his works tend to be imbued with a dynamic, performative aspect, while also grounded in powerful social observation. Operation Serenade, 2012, a collection of rolled-up red carpets (taken from a number of actual award ceremonies) deals with the society of spectacle. The video If Tomorrow Never Comes (2007) juxtaposes the archives of two Neapolitan daily newspapers with a shimmering fireworks display. And Untitled (2014) reflected on the artist’s disposition towards tailor-made clothing—the installation displayed pairs of handmade leather shoes alongside accompanying tailor’s notes. These are crafty works that combine puckish wit with a wider-spanning critique of grandeur.
Panayiotou’s solo show, “Two Days After Forever,” at the Cyprus Pavilion (set in the Palazzo Malipiero) will include several older works, though the majority of the exhibition is composed of new commissions. (The exact details of these pieces are being kept under wraps.) Kholeif did, however, reveal to Artsy that the new work will “manifest in a number of forms: as architecture—floors and walls, as choreographies—of movement and stillness, and as text that is both revealed and concealed.” This will include two performances, The Parting Discourse and Levant U-Turn, which will take place during the opening days of the Biennale, as well as satellite projects set around the Mediterranean, and a book that features twenty texts from leading scholars, in the form of a didascalia—a play booklet.
Panayiotou’s presentation certainly appears cause for excitement and anticipation. No stranger to major international survey exhibitions, he has contributed to previous biennales in Berlin, Liverpool, Taipei, and even Kassel’s Documenta 13 in 2012. By now, his vision is finely tuned. “From the outset we discussed every single approach as a kind of intricate choreography,” he explained. “I hope that viewers will see the pavilion as an opportunity to reconsider how we relate to time, the present and to the notion of history.”