TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER
The artistic project conceived by Nikos Navridis for Eleusis has undergone several phases before crystallising in a unique and significant intervention. As in an alchemical process, combustion, purification and sublimation have led Navridis to summarise his reflections in a forceful proposal, both as regards the specific site in which it is presented and as regards the present context of spiritual, social and economic crisis.
In the former oil factory that the municipality of Eleusis has been offering as a space for artists since 2004, the traces of the past converse enter into dialogue with awareness of the present, and the vestiges of history coexist with the new social uses of the place. While most of the artists invited on previous occasions displayed their works in the huge interior spaces of the factory, Nikos Navridis has preferred to accommodate them in exterior spaces, thus expanding the architectural and symbolic boundaries of both factory and city. Using the entire courtyard of the factory, he has transformed the dryness of the cement into an undulating field of wheat, and taken the long wall beside the front entrance and the former circular tank to install sentences by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. His choices regarding space, material, language and metaphor have enabled him to combine his own aesthetic, existential and political cosmography with the symbolism and dense history of Eleusis. This intellectual and emotional exercise comprises the certainty that art can and must shake our consciences and delight our senses in a critical way.
Since classical antiquity the name Eleusis has been bound to the mystical cults of Demeter, Persephone and Hecate, a triad of goddesses that symbolises fertility of woman and earth. As well as awakening a host of powerful legendary resonances, in Western culture Eleusis has remained associated with the awareness of the civilising process, the cyclic rebirth of agricultural crops and of human life itself. The ritual visit to her shrine was made each September and for over two thousand years offered a unique transition to those who were initiated in her mysteries, which revealed the secrets of metaphysical gnosis and celebrated the pacifying certainty that death did not exist, the vision that existence continued in new reincarnations.
The echoes of this path of wisdom and transformation coexist in Eleusis with the story of multiple cases of destruction. In spite of having been devastated in successive wars such as those waged by the Persians in the fifth century BC, the city and the temple were continuously being reborn out of their ashes. Their complete destruction was eventually brought about by Christianity towards the fourth century AD. As a rival religion, Christianity imposed its 'truths' on the mystery cults that had survived and even flourished during the Roman Empire, destroying the material and spiritual economy that sustained them. Following strict orders by Theodosius the Great, the sanctuary was closed and the practice ceased to be observed, receiving its final blow in 395 AD when the barbaric hordes led by Alaricus destroyed the shrine, killing the last hierophant.1
Other constructions and destructions have followed, the most significant of which are those associated with industrialisation and the tertiary or service sector in the twentieth century (a petrol refinery, the actual oil and soap factory, tourism, cultural consumption, etc.) and their consequent stages of development, decline and losses, often related to the flagrant unemployment rate in the region.
Bearing this background in mind, Nikos Navridis has chosen to work with two basic materials that enable him to reinterpret the myth and think about the present. The first is the legendary Eulesian cereal, wheat, and the second is a sentence by Irish writer Samuel Beckett that is also, to a certain extent, legendary.
In the large courtyard at the back of the factory Navridis has created a field of wheat on the cement ground. By preserving the roots of the spikes and replanting them, one by one, on a mantle of earth covering the merciless aridity of the cement, he gives form to the hope for a new rebirth. By looking back at the ancestral art of agriculture he reasserts the need for a new agreement with the forces of the underworld, that are no longer those of the infernal gods of classical mythology but the relentless darkness of the ideology of progress. What in the story of Demeter and Persephone was 'the pact with the metaphysical sources of life' 2 in the sombre reign of death, now becomes an exercise in faith and infinite patience over which hangs the threat of failure but also the hope of a necessary spiritual and material revolution. From our will to face up to failure and our confidence in our own dreams we obtain the strength to continue to try to construct reality and provide it with meaning: 'I think that the tiring and excessive labour that is invested to the "planted cement" and the inherent vanity that characterizes this decision, carries something like a punishment and purification, and is filled with breaths and sounds as the wheat field moves," says the artist.3
Navridis has succeeded in transforming the factory into a magical place through the wheat field, especially in the afternoon when everything turns to gold. And when the wind moves the spikes, the subtle undulation becomes a living painting that softly translates the beauty, the strength and the wisdom of cultivated nature. To install a wheat field in a deserted factory is an arduous exercise in transferring the past to the present, a powerful contrast between the almost artisan care of farm crops and models of industrial production. This intervention highlights the material conditions of existence and reveals the dehumanisation of the production and consumption of goods, but it also points out the potential of art in the symbolic reconstruction of the world. Marx and Engels wrote that the production of ideas and the production of consciousness were originally interwoven in material activity and the material intercourses of men, the language of real life.4
For Navridis, 'the literal, physical transportation of the field on the cement is a powerful conceptual metaphor of the meaning of human labor and it directly connects with Beckett's sentence "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better," that suggests all the efforts and the mistakes we made in the past and are still making in order to achieve what we believe is better.'5 Beckett's statement appeared in his second last novel, Worstward Ho, published in 1983. The ideas of failure, perseverance and repetition are summed up here with a touch of hope.
Navridis has split the sentence in two, installing the first part on a long wall by the entrance and the second part atop the circular building of the old oil factory. He has used letters measuring 95 cm in height, cut out of a metal surface and without any background. Each letter is red, in reference to a sense of urgency, and is outlined with a series of small red Led lights that reflect its shine on the wheat field.
Before deciding to present the project Try again. Fail again. Fail Better as a synthesis of his process of reflection, Navridis worked on other series of experimental pieces that helped him to shape the final installation and that certainly bear the seeds of future projects. He positioned a group of performers bearing white boards in the empty space of the factory courtyard as an allusion to the need for silence, to the urgency of the blank page, to the desire of starting afresh unburdened by tragic memories, and like in a Zen meditation ceremony he even stood close to the concrete wall of the circular tank, giving his back to the rest of the world and looking inwards, at his own void, at his own wall, at the possibility of his own failure. Reality, however, did not allow him to fail. By chance, if chance exists, some of the workers who replanted the wheat forgot to cut off the water supply and a surprising miracle took place in Eleusis: new spikes sprouted in the bleak and harsh context of the 'cement field', and their green stalks formed a sharp contrast with the colour of the ripe wheat.
In the intervention Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better, where dialectics is at once a connection and a separation between nature and language, Navridis continues to develop his artistic career, following a path that echoes the renewal of aesthetic languages and reveals his aspiration to conceive existential spaces as spiritual and political regions. Navridis's oeuvre links the humanist tradition of Western culture to Zen intuitions of emptiness and postmodern theories of synchronicity. It shows how one of the main missions of contemporary artists is to combine different materials and influences to create works which temporarily articulate meanings that broaden our vision and awareness. This explains why Navridis is able to transform empty industrial spaces into symbolic sets in which Beckett's words, acting as a contemporary oracle, coexist with the absurd yet vital exercise of replanting the wheat as a symbol of the need to be responsible for our material and spiritual nourishment.
For over more than two decades Navridis has been creating a corpus of work characterised by a huge poetic potential through which he often reflects on the binary nature of existence and on the continuous ignition and extinction of the world, to quote Heraclitus.6 Navridis has presented respiration as a primeval breeze, a subtle, abstract material needed in order to initiate his movement towards others. His work has been defined as 'sculpture of breath' for it shapes spaces, captures existential tensions and makes visible the invisible through respiration. In the works conceived for Eleusis it is the wheat that breathes, while spectators hold their breath as they read and reflect on Beckett's words.
The updating of ethical truths through the language of art and the wisdom contained in myths reveals the need to seek new forms of thinking and acting that will help reshape the meaning of life and of the world. To quote Ernst Cassirer, the results of aesthetic fantasy are truly spiritual actions.7 There probably are other paths, but for the artist who articulates his works conscientiously and for the citizen who receives the wisdom they contain, all that can be done is to work hard and patiently to restore health and life to a universe dominated by slavery, helplessness, sickness and death. Healing, understood as a return to refounded civilisation, like a renewed faith in cyclic rebirth, is an unavoidable task, one that is certainly possible and is occasionally miraculous.
2 R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck et al., The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, Chapter VI, Documentation (C. A. P. R.), p. 113, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2008.
3 Nikos Navridis in an e-mail conversation with Rosa Martínez, August 2013.
4 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845. First published in 1932. Accessible at http://www.marxists.org/archive/1845/german-ideology
5 Nikos Navridis in an e-mail conversation with Rosa Martínez, August 2013.
6 'This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was, is, and will be: an ever-living Fire, with measures of its kindling, and measures going out.' Heraclitus, Fragment No. DK30, The Fragments of Heraclitus. Accessible at http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/files/e.html
7 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II, Mythical Thought. Translated into English by Ralph Manheim, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1955.