THE NATURE OF ENGAGEMENT MEDIA EXPLORATIONS
Despina Meimaroglou chooses to elicit questions of truth and perception both by the use of public images and contemporary tools. Meimaroglou collects images through her digital camera, from the television screen, glossy magazines, daily press clippings and various cult objects to transform ordinary, contemporary tableaux into altered epics, laden with significant new meanings. These meanings refer to real events in the artist’s life or the lives of others. But the artist’s intervention and alterations challenge us to consider the nature of cultural icons and their relevance.
In general, Despina Meimaroglou is a caretaker who carries a political edge in her pocket. Her vast menu of references changes as the news changes. Endangerment and insistence are her guides as an artist, and the transcription of current events to make us think is her personal objective.
Meimaroglou is interested in media that allows for the regeneration of the image. Most of her images have been generated several times from the original inception. Her work refers to a distortion of the real events as witness to “news in print”. The subjects Meimaroglou selects revolve around marginality and socially-impacted groups. The themes refer to events of a global scale, as experienced, observed and imagined. Seduction, violence and violent acts, which underlie the norm, are extended to the viewer to bring one closer to crisis and the understanding of the difficult or the forbidden.
To generate her images, Meimaroglou chooses her own personal computer and collaborative ventures as an artistic practice, in order to refine photo-based imagery and to produce multiples in a variety of printed materials. Her large C-prints, intimate artist books and installation works portraying issues of social violence are based on a long-standing sensitivity and knowledge of the tools of printed matter. From direct computer-generated imagery to hand-pulled lithographs or digital prints, Meimaroglou cultivates narrative with a highly personal and psychological eye.
Meimaroglou’s motives can be explained by her need to evoke the past and overlay the present. Raised as part of the Greek community in Upper Egypt until the age of twelve, Meimaroglou was sent away from home to Alexandria, where she concluded her high school studies, since there was no Greek high school at the time in her home town. Subsequently as the only foreign art student at Maidstone Art College in England, she recalls about her student years “I was always trying to be part of a movie.” She was living in an environment to which she did not belong, and, therefore, began to reconstruct her own reality as a way of survival.
We might compare Meimaroglou’s re-construction with another reality. It strikes a note with George Bataille’s writings that offer vital insights into the whole area of human existence and the limits of the human being. Particularly in Bataille’s entries in the Encyclopaedia Acephalica, we find a definition about sound movies under the listing “Talkie” which, in part, gives this definition: “Thanks...to these talking films, from which we should expect everything... we can at last allow ourselves to be possessed body and soul by scenes of ardent sensuality, cast adrift on the raft of voices while everything collapses around us except perhaps, a troubling movement of lip or throat, a trembling of fingertips, an oracular speech issuing from the mouth of an amorous woman, with the heart-rending accent of the mountains, the sea, the dimly lit taverns and prison bars at midnight, a beautiful voice, at once harsh and sweet, which has traveled every road, every furrow, every path....”(1) Movies are a huge part of Meimaroglou’s thinking and passion, especially in a historical sense.
The issue of surrounding her work with historical context is illustrated in a recent work Past Tense, 2000, that presents a series of three photographs taken by the artist in 1995. These were made during her return visit to Egypt, after an absence of thirty years, and the work was featured in an international photography show Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius. This title, taken from the great Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges, deals with the fantastic, describing an imaginary world twice removed from reality. Meimaroglou reconstructed her own past by choosing lithography as a medium of interpretation, in order to capture the feeling of “Orientalism”, a popular romantic term used during the 19th century by historians and occidental artists of that period. To re-create the look of chromo-lithographs, the images were printed as four-color separations, with each tonal layer adding a dimension of photographic reality. However, by highly cropping and editing the images that were taken near the great Pyramids, the artist conveys the small scale of human existence next to such great monuments and completely disorients us as viewers. Where are we? In the past or present? Under the flap of a giant tent? Walking by foot in the thrust of a sand storm, or astride a miniature camel of the film’s imagination? Is this an interplay between external reality and internal states of mind? The viewer is being asked to address just that question—this is a reality check.
Often the history of her work reveals a fascination with the truth of appearances. In her earliest prints, Meimaroglou was resolving materials and techniques to become an architect of technique. Her resolve to take personal objects and still lifes into geometric, coded shapes gives us a clue that initially her need to conceal certain image parts of information was insistent in her work. The woodcuts and constructed prints of the 60’s were figurative narration. Soon they changed to politics from the news and grew into abstractions of self investigation with a series of concealed self portrait examinations. One group of work made use of wooden framing to disguise her image.
Shortly thereafter in the late 1980’ s the artist tested x-rays to portray a rib cage in pieces clearly titled Self Portraits enjoying the super-real quality of using film. These investigations led to the use of Polaroids that gave strange super-real and non-existent color. At the same time, the artist explored color as color separation. Her multi-color block prints had given her substantial analytical capabilities for printed layering and the type of “learning back process” that comes from hand rubbing each layer as a blended or separated color. Printed media was a natural and invigorating investigation for her.
From the Polaroids and color studies, Meimaroglou began the exploration of color Xerox and the need to re-generate the image in multiple sequences. She culminated her hand printed applications by inking directly over the photo-based imagery. The images took on a new level of saturation and the capability for large-scale work. Here we have the series D?j? vu (1993 to 1994) followed by This is not a movie. It’s. (both titles are also found on artists’ books that served as catalogues of shows created in 1994 and 1996).This is not a movie. It’s. came about when the artist was watching the evening news in New York during the time of the Oklahoma bombing and she heard a sentence from the news commentator: “...This is not a movie. It’s...” and at that instant she realized how removed the American public was from terrorist acts that frequently take place in other parts of the world. The work constructed from this observation consists of blown-up photos taken from the media, blown up to such an extent that they are no longer identifiable at first sight. The seductive color scheme was left as is for the viewer’s immersion. Included in the aforementioned series is a piece entitled Missing which is the artist’s first attempt to print digitally, using a plotter machine on canvas.
As each level of new materials was discovered and determining technique for the artist, she also began working collaboratively with other professionals. As early as 1984, the artist produced her first silkscreens with George Kotsaitis that were a series taken from linocut images of chairs under the general title Santorini. The joy of these colorful light filled images resounds with imagery taking on a life of its own. These earlier works guided the chromatic sensibility of her later work.
In Montagne St. Victoire, 1991, (1.39 x 2.45m), her first major multi-print installation, Meimaroglou worked from snapshots with the famous mountain in the background. She discovered dots and dot systems while enlarging these snapshots to format them for silkscreen printing, creating what she called “mechanical impressionism” that appreciated a depth of color, saturation, light and shadow qualities. Pre-dating the This is not a movie. It’s. series, this was Meimaroglou’s first attempt at using silkscreen on canvas with the intention to create the illusion of an impressionistic painting, rather than a print on paper. At this time, the artist, not yet aware of the possibilities of digitally outputting her work, printed and produced the entire six-color large-scale printing by hand! The installation, planned to the space, re-arranged the landscape to create a highly altered visual experience.
In the early 1990’s, Meimaroglou felt a new sense for documenting her work and began to search for printers who could produce creative catalogues for her exhibitions. She was fortunate to meet Alekos Papadopoulos, an offset / litho printer, and they began a rich dialogue for cross-fertilization. Design production and new artistic concepts were available by mixing both of their skills-Meimaroglou as the artist and skilled designer, and Papadopoulos as a master printer. The collaboration brought a life and working process to Meimaroglou that filtered many new capabilities into her work. It gave birth to over six productions, including the artist books The Mirror Is Always There, Déjà Vu, Deadly Weapon, This is not a movie. It’s., Women; Love, Lust and Desire: A Short Story. (2)
Similarly, in the late 1990’s, through the Crossing Over /Changing Places international travelling exhibition and project sponsored by the United States Information Service presented in Athens, Greece, Meimaroglou grew a professional friendship with a Washington DC based curator, Jane Farmer, and artistic staff members of Pyramid Atlantic in Maryland. The portfolio edition, A Pack of Lies, printed by resident printers Oscar Gonzalez-Ceron, Bridget Lambert and Trish Tillman, and finished in a custom paper folio made by papermaker Shannon Brock, established a lasting relationship with the collaborative studios of Pyramid Atlantic. (See edition listings in the catalogue for further details about the Pyramid Atlantic productions). Within this portfolio, Meimaroglou took two digitally manipulated “Barbie” portrait-images back into multi-colored hand screen printing. A quality of color exploration was achieved that inspired Meimaroglou. The chalky depth of silkscreen layered inking seemed to translate a new accounting for these consumer images, one that well suited the exaggerated cosmetic look of the “Barbie dolls.”
Meimaroglou’s interest in women’s issues and human behavior led to her first collaborative book experience with Puerto Rican-New York author, Alba Ambert, The Mirror Is Always There, printed in silkscreen by the master printer Nikos Doukas in an edition of 99 examplaries. It accompanied her 1992 exhibition at Cyprus House, Athens, Greece. Her project Women (1997), a commentary on violence against women in today’s society, features digitally produced portraits representing two sides of the coin - one uses the “feminine” color pink placed alongside images of glamour (jewels, fashion items and obsessions) - the other side portrays self-imposed violence, as a choice of life. Furthering her deep interest in social (and women’s) issues, her current on-going project, “Against the Wall: End of the Fairy Tale” (1999-2001) consists of a large number of different digitally mastered portraits of women, and a table with a computer for the viewer’s interaction with information about female convicts. The incentive for this project is again an American daily newspaper that featured an article about women on death row. The number of convicted women and the similarities of their life stories is stressed by the juxtaposition of their multiple faces upon one another thus producing a new series of composite portraits. The identity of one’s fate and life becomes identical.
When Meimaroglou met the internationally renowned theatre director Theodore Terzopoulos, she engaged in a three-year project based on Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae. The results of this collaboration led to her participation in the Boston Cyberarts Festival in May 1999 (through LionHeart Gallery), with three large-scale digital images from the series printed on film. By photographing the actors on stage, with her digital camera, Meimaroglou keeps Dutch paintings in the forefront of her mind. Paradoxically she integrates the chiaroscuro interpretation of light with the technique used in Byzantine icons that merge from dark to light while employing transparencies. Thus her work takes on a psychological nature, whereby dark color represents psychological reality and bright color represents movie screen reality.
These theatrical works that relate to “capturing” an image are an important aspect of Meimaroglou’s imagination. “I have always been trying to convert my mind into a camera obscura, which is set to capture my own personal reality. My first art-related recollections date from my early childhood in Alexandria. One hot summer afternoon, while visiting an aunt, I was put in a very dark bedroom for a nap. Suddenly I noticed sunlit-cast scenes from the street, filtered through a little hole in the wooden shutter! The scenes were very vivid, in full color, projected in reverse on the ceiling...It was like trying to capture an elusive spirit. Like when the sun filters through a closed shutter and illuminates the dust particles. You cannot capture them, but they play on your mind.” (3)
In fact these works led to the major characteristic of the artist; an imaginative detritus of public life that is layered with private life to portray a highly color-saturated epic-like situation. In keeping with her conceptual interests, the making of images seemingly must be pressed forward by layers of print or translucent film, both in production and often in final installation. Hope, fear, betrayal and possession - each picture has its own secrets. Many of the images have surprising turns and provide an uneasy co-existence of terms.
For example, the previously mentioned A Pack of Lies, a production of six images printed in silkscreen and hand lithography at Pyramid Atlantic, came directly from ads found in the Daily Inquirer newspaper. Meimaroglou uses the youth enhancing facial exercises as a parody about aging. The prints cast “Barbie” as a young maiden and old hag, and in either case, not just right. Blocks of text, lifted from print about the exercises, are blown up and left incomplete, producing a message that poses as many questions as answers. These are images of our imperfect selves.
A later production of 1999, 5DEE(D)S + 1OWE, refers to a beauty contest. While watching TV, the artist took images. The review of the images on her computer took on a psychoanalytic process. Her personal queries again ultimately affect the way in which she conceives the final piece. What appears to be middle-aged females trying to gain sympathy from the public unravels into the actuality of a contest for sexy transvestites. Meimaroglou found five words starting with “D” - decision, desire, depression, despair, destiny and the one “O” stands for obligation. The letter “D” found five words starting with “D” - decision, desire, depression, despair, destiny and the one “O” stands for obligation. The letter “D” became “deeds”, and the “O” represents what one owes in life. Words used as images again fascinate Meimaroglou. They associate as much meaning about the pathetic, disturbing, ironic and heroic, while leaving as great an impact as visual icons.
A series of these beauty contest images were first produced as large-scale C- prints and exhibited as 17 sequential canvases, each one shaped like a TV screen. The digitally-printed photographic paper C-prints are intended to present themselves as documents from real events. The surface is chosen to “stage” a “backdrop” to a movie production. A second production of 5DEE(D)S + 1OWE, in the form of a laser printed accordion folded book was produced in a small edition. Time-based elements and serial imagery have been important to Meimaroglou to cultivate a powerful narration. Her years of experience as a graphic designer, at an earlier stage of her life, pay off in major works like these. Meimaroglou agrees that these years determined her choice as an artist, but the velvety richness and shocking color come from the mastery of her vision and her emotional response to the subject, in order to yield such a successful group of images.
Characteristic of this approach is her installation East of Eden, September 2000, in Athens, in an alternative space during the Vavel Magazine Annual International Festival. East of Eden was inspired by an article in a daily newspaper ABOUT girls from the ex-Eastern Block countries who end up being sold as “slaves” in Western European cities. “Their faces, blown up and unreal, could belong to victims of deadly acts, dead, arrested, missing persons...or they could simulate portraits of new martyrs.” (4)
The girls are hybrid constructions, created in the computer. Meimaroglou has taken facial expressions from different women and, in a symbolic way blended their features so they become a new type of super model, abnormal and unreal, but also most significantly and hauntingly, victims of their own similar fate - falling into the underbelly of society. Their alluring trance-like stares are seductive only momentarily until we realize their ambiguous nature, revealed in part again by the textual information: “Angela always liked attention, but the day she was forced to stand naked on a block for men to poke, pinch and haggle over her worth ended that. Now she sells herself every night...”(5) The portraits, as shown inside the space, were printed on glossy surface to simulate consumer products, while the same portrait images, produced as banners to hang outside at the Vavel installation, were printed on PVC material to actualize the nature of movie posters.
Meimaroglou explains: “ I often need years to finally produce an artwork. The reason being my lack of mastering at the time of the initial conception, the right materials...so it becomes a kind of adventure, which I have to unravel and that is what keeps me going.”(6)
Her most recent work Gunmen is a perfect example of this long-term investigation. The artist began exploring the image in 1996. During 2002, in collaboration with Alphabet Press in Athens, Meimaroglou discovered the right material to complete the production of six large digitally printed banners, enabling a spectacular hanging from the ceiling. The chosen material is translucent and opaque at the same time, so it gives a quality of being ephemeral, in contrast to the serious subject matter of the violent gunmen.
“I am working constantly on my computer trying to achieve the best printing results of my six “gunmen”. The original black and white images were scanned from an article in a magazine on guns. A lot of hard and precise work is needed from my part, in order to enhance the resolution of the images, since the final output is going to be quite enormous!”(7)
Gunmen, from the series Thy Neighbour 2002, one of Meimaroglou’s most significant technical outputs is also one of her most outwardly confrontational pieces. It suggests why mass media is so strangely appealing to her (and others). It has to do with the concept of subculture.
Boris Groys, professor of philosophy at the Staatliche Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Karlsruuhe, Germany, refers to the cultural experiences of the artist in his article, “Pavel Pepperstein: The Artist As Subcultue” The Russian artist Pepperstein and his group of artists/linguists known as the Medical Hermeneutics, afford this observation: “...the development of the arts is never merely a reflection of general social and economic success. Frequently, in fact, the situation of a country defeated, or at least, in dire straits, actually fosters and inspires artistic achievements”. And Groys adds: “The endless chain of referral proves to be the strategy... mass culture springs from relatively small subcultures with their own patterns of behavior, their own criteria and taste, and their own rituals”. (8) The referral and ritual in Meimaroglou’s case is certain danger and certain mystery as experienced in the language of the news, just as can be seen in Pepperstein’s Russian group who also use language as a pictorial code. Meimaroglou’s personal history of living in a country twice colonized during her lifetime makes her an artist whose subculture is the reckoning of the underworld. (9) The daily feeding of hundreds of newsreels and TV programs is picked over and spontaneously frozen by Meimaroglou becoming untouched textual information found in mass media. Her devotion to text is not without precedent.
In acting upon her role as an artist as subculture, she reveals the fact that she had to give up her plans as a “promising young artist” to take a 9-5 job as a graphic designer. Her service in advertising lasted for 10 years. Looking back at that time of her life, she realized certain benefits she gained, particularly her perception of so-called “reality”. “Central to the issue (of reality) is the problem of how we all are controlled by the structures of visual information systems, that pre-package images, editing and manipulating, before we are allowed to access them in the mass media”.(10)
In every case, the discovered photograph shocks Meimaroglou because it reminds her “through some forgotten tug of memory - of something which seems familiar.” (11) With her strong need to describe the “victim” and in terms of the larger issues of content and technology, we could compare Meimaroglou to Gerhardt Richter. The strong reaction to personal iconography also reminds one of Laurie Simmons. Meimaroglou’s capabilities to employ a hybrid of media falls in these categories, but goes beyond.
In fact, Meimaroglou strains against the constraints in her work. There are no chance associations. Metamorphosis is planned. Personal iconography over public history is desired to take the subject into account. Basically, the bulk of the images are of desire – but a desire that is not without its difficulties. This is the singularly powerful and arousing nature of Meimaroglou’s engagement with public images.
1.George Bataille, Encylopaedia Acephalica, Atlas Press, London, 1995 Page 82, definition: TALKIE, discussing Weary River starring Betty Compton.
2.Despina Meimaroglou’s printed editions about women’s issues and human behavior include:
The Mirror Is Always There, 1992, based on a selection of poems by Puerto Rican author, Alba Ambert, edition of 99, hand bound, silkscreen and photo-offset.
Deadly Weapon, 1993, based on the description of the burial of Christ (St. John/Bible), edition of 75, hand bound silkscreen and photo-offset.
Déjà Vu, 1994, with texts from news reports on violence, English edition 150, Greek edition 200, lithograph and photo-offset.
This Is Not A Movie. It’s, 1996, based on an American newscast, edition 1,000
Women, presented as a catalogue to the show Women, in March, 1997, Corfu, Antonia Havani Contemporary Art, Edition 1,000.
Thanksgiving, Washington DC, digitally manipulated photographic images, printed on a Ricoh printer and hand bound, November 1997, Co-edited by Pyramid Atlantic and the artist. Edition: 20.
Love, Lust and Desire: A Short Story, 1999, a digitally printed book, unique hand bound edition, presented as the artist’s participation in the traveling international show Women of the World (2000).
East of Eden, presented as a catalogue to the show Vavel Magazine Annual Festival, Athens, Greece, 2001, Futura Publication, edition 500.
Till Heaven and Earth Pass, digital photographs with text from the Bible (St. Matthew), printed at Alphabet Press, Athens, on an Indigo-E pro Digital Offset, hand bound, edition 15.
3. The artist, as taken from her biographical notes.
4. Thanassis Moutsopoulos, Art Historian, Athens, East of Eden publication, July, 2000.
5. From the textual wall, East of Eden installation, Vavel Magazine Annual Festival, Athens, 2000,
6. The artist, as taken from her biographical notes.
7. The artist as taken from her conversation with Leonard Lehrer, May, 2002.
8. Boris Groys, Pavel Pepperstein: The Artist As Subculture, Parkett 55, 1999.
9. 1966, Meimaroglou came to live and work in Athens, Greece. Her parents followed in 1967 after the “Six Days War” between Egypt and Israel. Greece was in the midst of a dictatorship that lasted seven obscure years. “…The Balkan Wars and the Great War were followed by the Asia Minor disaster in 1922, when Greeks - my grandparents being such- after losing every thing, managed to escape from Smyrna and start all over again in new lands (including the Greek mainland) as immigrants. That is how my family ended up in Egypt, where I was born and raised. Soon after that, the Second World War started and with it came the German occupation (of Greece) for four obscure years followed by another four years of Civil War bloodshed! Then, twenty years later, in 1967 Greece suffered a terrible experience under a military dictatorship fomented by foreign expediency”.
10. The artist, as taken from her biographical notes.
11. The artist, as taken from her biographical notes.
Other Notes: Editions created by Despina Meimaroglou, not detailed in footnotes above, but included in the essay include the following:
Santorini, 49 silkscreens, based on the original linocuts, produced in 1984 for the Hilton Hotel, Athens, Greece
Montagne St. Victoire, 1991
5DEE(D)S + 1OWE, 1999
A Pack of Lies, 1997, three lithographs and four screen prints housed in a custom-made paper folio, 20” x 15”, printed by Pyramid Atlantic in an edition of 12.
Past Tense, 2000, three lithographs, 19.5” x 25”, printed by Pyramid Atlantic in an edition of six each.