29 April – 5 June 2010
by Patricia Ellis
Sliding Ladder consumes the gallery as a maze of laser thin beams; eight force fields deep, each expansive panel supports a kaleidoscopic candy coloured mesh, ordered as a receding chromatic tunnel, ever beaconing, entrancing, to a hypnotic mandala supernova, an all-seeing talismanic evil-eye. Simultaneously architecture and pure light, geometric and organic, bending time, space, and sensation in its illusory web, Sliding Ladder encompasses, transports the viewer in its trippy new age vortex. A physical manifestation of hyper-space, or the refracted baptismal rays of some divine power mapped out in diagrammatical science, the effect is alluvial, virtual and sublime, like entering a lustrous future-temple of immaculate aura. It’s an experience of space-age hippie nirvana or rapturous science fiction epiphany, as evasive as in dreams, palpably measured out in finite contours, in lengths of ... wait for it ... wool. Welcome to the world of Nike Savvas, where magic’s made real, and chintz is triumphant, and the celestial, extraordinary, otherworldly are ... um ... common.
Bespoke by Halves
(Big Fat Greek Ozzie Sculpture and Maths)
A wee forewarning to the sensitive among us, the following text may cause offense through its intentional use of post-colonial irony. This brand of off-colour humour parodies the brutish ignorance of cultural stereotypes to recontextualise them as effective tools of empowerment. Exaggerating perceived social ‘deficiencies’ and ‘differences’ to heroic, triumphing proportions (which is the central ethos of Nike Savvas’ work), this text performatively draws from the prosaic typecasting put forth by block buster films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Crocodile Dundee to further celebrate and champion the fantastically gregarious and self-created contemporary mythologies of Greek and Australian nationalism. In England, we call this “taking the piss” and it is a custom that may only be performed amongst friends. If you’re not offended, however, it’s not such a bad thing: it shows you have a predisposition for the finer points of meretriciousness. And if you are, well, apologies in advance. In England, we also have another saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.”
One thing about the Greeks is that they have no taste; it’s not that they can’t taste, but rather prefer to swallow life whole. Their appetites are ravenous, awe-inspiring and bottomless. They decorate their houses like Las Vegas went on sale at an all-Hellenic discount factory, will wear any outfit as long as it includes floral print and brocade, consider a 14-course banquet to be a light snack, and have elevated idle gossip to an Olympic sport. Aussies, on the other hand, are outback innovators: ever ready with their can-do attitude of booze-fuelled optimism, they can shear a sheep, wrestle a crocodile, and bitch-slap you three times running without ever taking their eye off the barbie. In short, they take efficiency to a whole new, if slightly threatening, level.[i]
There’s no doubt about it, all the very best things are made up by halves, and the very, very best is Nike Savvas. Both Greek-Cypriot and Australian, she lives between London and Oz; and at 6 feet tall and a dead ringer for Angelica Huston, Nike will be the first to tell you that she’s often mistaken for a bloke, though she’s 100% all woman. Herself being neither one thing nor another, neither here nor there, Savvas’ art resides in the realm of liminality: synchronously formalist and narrative, incomprehensively beautiful and tacky, handmade and prefab, hers is a future brand of sculpture that surpasses existing limitations. Sculpture as we know it comes with certain rules: it has three-dimensional form that occupies physical space, and strives for a certain material and aesthetic purity. It resides in the realm of the bespoke: elitist, one-of-a-kind creations, luxurious and indulgent, catering to the hard-core connoisseur … and then there is Greek Cypriot Ozzie sculpture. Everyone knows that Down Under they do things backwards … and they just won’t stand for snobbery.
It’s a little known fact that more than 10% of shoppers modify the products they buy to better suit their needs. This doesn’t apply to minor things, like shortening trousers or reupholstering your sofa, but a more determined approach to correcting the inadequacies of available options. Liquid Paper was invented by a typo-prone secretary who mixed tempura paint with a bunch of other household stuff in her kitchen blender[ii]; mountain bikes were developed by a group of guys who took a fancy to riding flat-tired bikes off-road and evolved a more durable velocipede from a mish-mash of found parts; and the sports bra was the brain child of two abundantly-chested women who had the divine inspiration to stick two jock straps together and wear them upside-down as a halter[iii]. The thing with all these products is that they are cobbled together from existing products. They are user-tailored modifications, overcoming the flaws of off-the-shelf ordinary.[iv]
Savvas’ favourite media by far are The Yellow Pages and Amex (i.e. Aussie). For her, shopping is a creative process.[v] From dollar stores and market stalls, remnant outlets and dodgy websites, to cottage industry craftsmen in obscure parts of the world: plastic bobbles and tinsel, mirrored bijoux and glass knickknacks, disco balls and flashing lights, pretty much anything shiny, glittery, or Day-Glo (i.e. Greek) are acquisitioned for her sculptures. Tat, for Savvas, has a magpie appeal in its democracy of affordable glamour. It holds the bedazzling allure of simulation’s excess, of movie starlets and drag queens, night clubs on holiday, make believe and transient fantasy. It signifies commerce, and globalism, mass manufacture, and fetish, kitsch’s epitomising cultural summation. Within tat’s abjectness lies aspiration, of a dispossessed kind: of the misfit and inferior, can’t-afford-it-make-do, immodest and tawdry, unsophisticated. (And this unspoken of always: new immigrant dreams, wanna-be and ambitious; the garishness of difference and glistening allure of ordinariness, the adornments of little girls too brown, too tall, or too ‘ugly’.[vi]) It’s not things that sparkle that ever get noticed, only the fleeting illusion of their reflection.
This immateriality is key to Savvas’ work: the physical antithesis of sculpture, it’s not objects that are contrived but their glow. No matter how large, corporeal, or concrete, her art is always intangible. The essence lies somewhere in its non-surface that mediates artist’s effort and viewers’ experience, like a blessing or wish, an offering of heartfelt generosity. Her thrifty goods are mere components, loaded ready-mades for disembodiment, disappeared by their own infinite volume. It’s not the materials themselves that comprise the work, but Savvas’ devotional hand-making. Her aggregative compositions are the result of consummate determination and labour, the disciplined and meditative repetition of actions. Hers is a process of physics, of time and energy, of arithmetic inverted to Zen. The cumulative difference between 1 and 1000 is endlessly expansive nothingness. Savvas’ last major project, Atomic: full of love, full of wonder, strung 70,000 hand-painted (in 25 colours) Styrofoam balls on fishing wire across a room; 40 rows deep, 40 rows high, each spanning 14 meters. The numbers were astronomical, but the effect was sheer emptiness: creating the illusion of a landscape that sprawls, reaching for forever, in the hazy vapour of mist. Equally elusive, Sliding Ladder is also pure maths, based on the formula x2/3 + y2/3 = L2/3.[vii] It incorporates over 5000 meters of yarn, twined around 4000 nails, contains 1200 vectors, and took over 70 hours to achieve. Savvas’ vast multiplied sums prove the implausibly absurd logic of building a line in three-dimensional form. The real enigma, however, is how the strings are irrelevant, a functional supporting device like a plinth. The experience of the piece is like being inside a rainbow, awash in the clouds of luminous aural hue that radiate in the air around them.
To create magic from muck is an alchemy-voodoo, an endeavour at homemade utopia.[viii] It starts with the mystical tricks of the mind, and the sugary web of nostalgia: a string art school exercise, ill-fitting nana’s knitting, the stuff of 60s shag-pile suburbia; Bridget Riley’s psychedelic paintings, Vernor Panton’s environments, and Robert Morris’s shape interaction. Private and public entangled in memory, Savvas treats all as intrinsically, preciously, personal. Art history, for Savvas, is yet another readymade product, for democratic ownership and use. Minimalism’s couture, its svelte high-class aesthetic, like tat, claims a pretentiousness and vulnerability. As if Sol LeWitt took a wrong left turn at Dame Edna (with all of her down-home charisma), Savvas’ sculptures craft grandness from meagre means. Configured from yarn and pine planks, her small-scale sculptures from the Sliding Ladder series, such as Dihexagonal #1 and Pyramid #1, refract like gems in their humbling simplicity. Their geometric frames like reliquary shrines, house visions so mystical to behold: as trajectories of colour, with their peripheral fuzz, create supernaturally phantasmal prisms. Each one an encased story of shared memory and desire, laced with optimism, hope, joy, peace and love; sentiments so huge, so important, universal, can only be told through abstraction. Like so many inventions, Savvas’ own brand of sculpture is made not of wholes but by parts: part underdog, part crass, vulgar, undervalued, and plebeian, her work celebrates the ordinariness of difference. Hers is an open source user-modified sculpture, correcting the inadequacies of available options: refreshingly inclusive, sympathetic, and human. It’s by double negative theory that Savvas’ lowly fractions sum up: as the unequivocal, stupifying, magnificent, astonishing beauty of the Big Fat Greek Ozzie in all of us.
[i] Both of which are a damned sight better than us Poms, with our priggish superiority, poor dental hygiene, utter bureaucratic ineptitude, and buggery-orientated sexual repression.
[ii] Bette Nesbitt Graham was also, coincidentally, the mother of Mike Nesbitt, the be-tuqued singer with the 60s pop band The Monkees. http://inventors.about.com/od/lstartinventions/a/liquid_paper.htm
[iii] In 1977 by Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl; adverse in every way to keeping good women down, Miller became the senator of Vermont in 2002. http://www.inc.com/ss/14-inventors-we-love?slide=3
[iv] For more on user-modified inventions check out: Eric Von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, 2005.
Free downloadable copies at: http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/books.htm
[v] Nike will surely be appalled by this statement, as her work is so painstakingly labour intensive. I can imagine her now saying, “If I could just buy the bloody work I would!” (yes, Aussie) But it’s the initial shopping process where Savvas’ ideas are formed: the strolling up and down aisles, roving eye, touchy feely, making mental, tactile, intuitive connections, her brain lighting up like fireworks. When she finds the right thing it is truly a sight to behold: she’s like a warrior goddess of nuclear explosion desire, armed to the teeth with a Greek mother’s bartering skills. Truth be told, I pity the shopkeepers, they really don’t stand a chance.
[vi] Savvas herself never overtly speaks of this, though the sentiment of otherness runs through her work with an intense power. Once, just once, on a late night visit to Savvas’s studio in 1996, there were a few beers partaken, and an unguarded remark slipped out about being called ‘dirty’ at school because of her skin tone. It was at the time Nike was working on nice bubbles, a mesmerizingly precarious installation of a wall completely covered in hand blown glass orbs that looked nothing like glass at all, but rather hundreds of swollen soap bubbles impossibly frozen in pearlescent, purifying wonder.
[vii] Like most maths, x2/3 + y2/3 = L2/3 has a very practical everyday use: it is the equation that will tell you how high a ladder will reach pending the distance you place its base from the wall. Note: A Brit will always work out this problem in longhand, being sure to show all calculations and sums, before commencing any building project; an Aussie, on the other hand, will just move the ladder as appropriate. (Yet only one of them is a genius...)
[viii] Globe-trotter Savvas has designed her practice entirely around her liminal existence, with her large studio in Canberra acting like the ‘mother ship’ to her various satellite bases. Believe it or not, Sliding Ladder and the accompanying sculptures were entirely made at home(s) on the move between London, Nicosia, Sydney, and Canberra.
Patricia Ellis is UK-based art writer. She regularly contributes catalogue texts for museums, publishing houses and commercial galleries internationally. She has worked with the Saatchi Gallery since 1998. Ellis has held editorial posts with Flash Art International. Ellis has written two books: 100: The Work That Changed British Art and Interview With Painting (co-authored by Gianni Romano). Ellis has curated 11 international exhibitions in the UK, Finland, Israel, and Ireland, including the British exhibitions for the Tirana Biennale 2001, ArtKliasma Moscow 2003, and the Prague Biennale 2005. Since 2005 she has been an Associate Lecturer in Contextual Studies at the University of the Arts London. She was Specialist Advisor to the Scottish Arts Council from 2007–2010.