“What is man?”: art challenging anthropology

In the year 2008-2009 a group of students of the Department of Visual Arts of the Athens School of Fine Arts gathered at the course of “Anthropology and Contemporary Art” that I was offering at the Department of Theory and History of Art of the same school. As an artist as well as an anthropologist, I proposed art projects based on fieldwork to all my students and promoted collaborations between artists and theorists of the School. But this year’s art students were particularly inspiring, conscious of social and political problems of Greece during the “crisis” and inclined to pose important and unexpected questions. At this very time, I was also discovering Schneider’s and Wright’s publications on art and anthropology emphasizing experimentation through practice, which gave a boost to the students’ and my own interests (the “writing culture” turn in anthropology of the 80’s had already exerted a considerable influence on me and several important texts signed by Clifford, Marcus, Myers and others, concerning art, were translated and published in Greek in a volume I edited at Alexandria in 2013, addressed also to students.)

During our first encounter with the group mentioned above, I was referring to the discipline’s history, when one of them, Panos Sklavenitis, came up with a question: “You are presenting us ‘anthropologia’,” he said,“ a logos on anthropos” – these, of course, are Greek words- “but first of all, I want to know what ‘anthropos’ means.” His question gave me the opportunity to deconstruct the original definition of anthropology from many different angles. When I finished I felt rather satisfied with myself for having presented an encompassing view of the subject and we were ready to leave the classroom when Panos intervened again: “this is all very interesting, but this discipline you are introducing to us is still entitled ‘anthropologia’ and focuses on humans all along, so I need to know: what is man?”

Two years and many projects later, the dialogue continued in quite another setting, one chosen by Panos this time, when he became one of the fifteen art and theory students of the Athens School of Fine Arts to participate at the Border Crossings network annual student meeting of 2011, at the Northern Greek town of Komotini. The choice of the setting per se was meant to be poetic but also provocative: “nature” (as supposedly closer to “man”), i.e. a lake near the University campus, was proposed as the scenery for a series of brief lectures on the question (and Panos’ project title) “What is Man?.” The participants were a number of representatives of “culture”, i.e. University professors of different disciplines, myself included. Thus, by one and the same gesture, the artist subverted the typical orchestration of knowledge and the central position of the “teacher,” while unrooting “anthropology”, so to speak, and displacing its discourse in the midst of an unexpected scenography with a collage of voices reciting definitions in the thin air. This was meant to be a challenge and it was only the beginning…

For more information on Sklavenitis’ project “What is Man?” please see http://www.panossklavenitis.com/index.php/item/nosignal?fbclid=IwAR3_o5NV2Ps4AGbw4UeiCTVtJoZ0hae_69hupyWYQcwvymBrjz6d-LKSoN8

Elpida Rikou, PhD, anthropologist, visual artist, TWIXTLab, http://twixtlab.com/



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