Peripheral Vision – Slavs and Tatars at Art Space Pythagorion

The “periphery” takes frequent turns as buzzword du jour in art-theory essays and on the panel discussion circuit, but let’s be honest: those places beyond (sometimes far, far beyond) the usual art hubs are often where the most interesting things can happen.

A white modernist building perched on the blissfully blue harbor of Pythagorio—the ancient capital of the Greek island of Samos and named after Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician born here—the Art Space Pythagorion lies at the very periphery of Europe; the hills visible across the narrow channel are in Turkey. The institution takes its location seriously, mounting one exhibition per year from mid-summer to early fall, featuring work that addresses boundaries, cultural identities, or the region.

Art Space Pythagorion launched last year with an exhibition by video artist Harun Farocki. This year its founders—the Greek-German couple Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz and Kurt Schwarz, operating as The Schwarz Foundation since March—present Slavs and Tatars, an artist collective that digs deep into questions of migration, linguistics, mysticism, identity and many offshoots of the above in “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia.” Lo, Samos is smack at the southern edge of its purview.

In a wonderful show titled Long Legged Linguistics (curated by Athens-based curator Marina Fokidis and the third installment in a longer work cycle), Slavs and Tatars display a few pieces that followers may have already seen in institutions like the MoMA, the Vienna Secession, and Centre Pompidou. Here they are combined with new works that make the show “a red-light district of discourse" as well as an exploration of the politics behind Turkic languages in the twentieth century. A thick tongue wraps itself around a stripper’s pole (Tongue Twist Her, 2013). There's Madame MMMorphologie (2013) a book called the Molla Nesredin (an Azeri illustrated magazine about a “Sufi superhero,” widely read in the Muslim world a century ago) set on a plinth near the entrance, which is anthropomorphized with a beckoning female arm and a lush-lashed eye mechanically winking at gallery-goers as they enter, “like a bordello madame”. In Other Peoples’ Prepositions (2013), the Ѿ—ot—meaning “from” in Slavic languages, is depicted in part as a curvy piece of purple (gl)ass set at waist height (the piece is also known as OPP, and let’s not forget that many regions in which people used these letters have been historically and linguistically, well, f....d). One of the artists jokingly confessed that this show’s sensuality might be because the collective’s members were single in recent months. But for all the levity, the work is always based on extensive academic and field research into the region’s linguistics and politics (a Slavs and Tatars lecture or exhibition tour is as densely informative as it is entertaining).

The exhibition’s centerpiece is less sexy than it is dualistic and political. Reverse Joy, a work previously shown in various iterations around the world, is a fountain on a tiled pedestal spraying blood-red liquid back into a basin; on the pedestal is a graphic displaying the Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic variants of the phoneme kha. Black lines connecting the letters become Mickey Mouse–like arms whose white-gloved hands join in a circle ... which would seem far more utopian if it weren’t for the red splatters.

The Munich-based Schwarz family’s reignition of culture in this historically rich outpost (they also run the Samos Young Artists Festival, which features performances by musical groups in an ancient amphitheater) is less the private-collection-as-museum thing one increasingly sees in Central Europe than a democratic gesture for, investment in, and love letter to an island they’ve been connected to for decades. The Art Space’s building was long derelict, but after an extensive renovation by local architects Peni Petrakou and Stelios Loulourgas, it's a focal point on the Pythagorio harbor. The shows are curated (in early consultation with Munich-based art historian Andrea Lukas), not culled from the family’s collection.

Slavs and Tatars’ work certainly takes on additional meaning here, at Europe's edge. The official opening on August 4 saw lots of mingling among international art pros, Samos locals, boisterous kids, curious tourists, a team of mostly Greek curators-in-residence, and the affable, stylish artists. Behind Reverse Joy, a wall of windows to the sea frames bathers, boats, and Turkey’s coast. On the Art Space’s seaside terrace, visitors are invited to read Slavs and Tatars’ many publications (their “real” works) on pavilions draped with kelim rugs (River Beds). Agora à go go? Pythagoras would probably have been proud.

Long Legged Linguistics runs until October 10 at the Art Space Pythagorion, Pythagorio, Samos, Greece.