#RoleModelReading: An interview with Dimitris Papaioannou

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

Biographies of Dimitris Papaioannou, seen above on the right (photo by Julian Mommert), tend to lead with the fact that he directed the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. He highlighted it during our interview in the context of it helping lay something inside him to rest.

Quite a few people have experienced this, I think. Labouring towards something momentous and demanding, with a greater degree of potential acclaim at stake than ever before, and finding that its completion banishes idyllic notions they had about what is gained through supposedly grand achievements.

This banishing can be cathartic and important, freeing you up to focus with renewed understanding and appreciation on the quieter things that are more your own, the things which are their own reward. Often, though, we undertake grand tasks like this because we are convinced by society that they signify our worth. And shedding this need to prove your worth to others, let alone in such exhausting fashion, might be accomplished sooner were this indoctrination not so commonplace.

The fear, of course, is that this will lead to a lack of ambition or purpose. Talking to Dimitris Papaioannou, however, a man raised in Greece, an artist, who has been given opportunities and who has created them for himself, I was struck again by the value of the quieter, closer undertakings, and how wise people see their value early and well.

Dimitris is coming to Australia in January 2017 to attend the Sydney Festival, performing his show Still Life, a work that finds hope in humankind’s Sisyphean toil. I reached out to the Sydney Festival to speak with him about hope, art, an artist’s masculinity, growth and, it turns out, gardening. He greeted me cheerily through my computer screen with a rolled cigarette in the fingers of his left hand, a cup of coffee by his elbow, looking his fifty odd years—contentedly so.

When you think of the years that were truly formative to your sense of yourself, that formed you as the man you are today, where do they fall in your life?

Well, it is my physical and emotional relationship with my father, and this is between the age of, I guess, four to seven, four to eight? Where I measure myself against the other human, where I create myself. And then my relationship to my first real teacher—that was from seventeen to nineteen, where in a way I switched my father with my spiritual father, a painter and kind of philosopher. His name was Yannis Tsarouchis, if you are interested. He is the one who helped me orientate my talents, because I was a painter. And then I would say that I was—I discovered myself more when I moved from painting to the physical aspect of my creation, which is the theatre, the physical theatre that I’m doing. The physical aspect and my visual understanding of the world were somehow united, and I started expressing myself.

Photo by Julian Mommert.

And then I would move to the age of 37 to 40. I worked hard to create the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, which is not important by itself but it is important for me for many reasons, because I had the chance to practically use everything I knew, and all the skills I had acquired, and it helped me get rid of issues like over-delivery and achieving something that was beyond my reach. It freed me from ambitions and ridiculous things that a modern person has about fame, money, big tasks—stuff like that. That would be still in my psyche so it was a kind of liberation.

It sounds like you’re intensely conscious of having gone through multiple periods of intensive, meaningful growth as a person. 

Yes, yes. With my profession—with my art, if I dare to say that—I have to write, I have to create stories on issues that concern me as a human, so I do have to have an awareness about phases that I have been through because I think that this is what connects me to all humans. Of course I am very chaotic and I don’t have any idea what’s happening to me, but I have been thinking about how a human is formulated, the phases of transformation towards maturity.

How much do you feel that your work responds to what’s happening to you personally and how much is it an effort to respond to what’s happening to everyone?

I have a favourite Greek poet. During the ’70s he wrote rough poetry that was also very daringly homosexual poetry, and he was accused in a way of speaking on behalf of a smaller group of people, and he gave an answer that has always resonated with me. He said, ‘There is a very small territory of eroticism that concerns me, and if I am a good poet, my poetry will make this territory prouder.’ So I do have a trust in art itself, and I do find it appropriate to think that if art is good, it broadens the territory that it is talking about and makes it universal.

I think inevitably I am formed by my times, by my country and my own personal experiences. Like a sponge, the individual takes in the atmosphere and the challenges of his own era, and I like to think that my personal experiences, my works, which are a reflection of my personal perception of the world—it’s like a chemical reaction that happens by itself. I do have another favourite quote by another favourite Greek poet. He said that small poets talk about the news, the current situations, medium poets write about their times, and great poets focus on insignificant details that explode into a universe.

That’s amazing.

It is, isn’t it? [Laughs.] One of my other favourite artists, Laurie Anderson, said that as an artist I have to draw and redraw the line about the personal and the political—I have to constantly draw that line. But there is something, as an old-fashioned man, that I keep thinking—that art is not information, art is not commentary, art will not change the world.

What is the essence of art is some kind of alchemy, transforming material into multiple, like a crystal, multifaceted—not comments but ideas about the human perception of existence. Art needs to be transformative. Art serves, I think, in human history, to reveal some kind of mystery about life, to raise questions, a little bit differently but close to philosophy, and differently than science … Ah! Anyway, I took it a little bit too far.

Photo by Julian Mommert.

[Laughs.] No, no, not at all. It seems to me like you’ve dealt very deliberately with themes of the male psyche and humankind’s perpetual toil, and that certainly seems to be a figure in Still Life. What has your exploration of yourself, and your sense of yourself as a man, specifically, meant to the work that you do and to Still Life?

Mmm. How do I answer this question? I don’t know. I don’t know. I am dealing with the male psyche because I am a man. And I am also a homosexual man, which means that also the human eroticism from my side, it mainly has to do with males—and also … D’you know, I never thought of that. It’s like … it’s like inevitable. It’s like—I really don’t know. The female body is a little bit more idealistic in my work, but I don’t know what to say about that. If I have to be defensive I would say that I am an artist that has to deliver my personal point of view. A genius like Pina Bausch is an artist that has to deliver her point of view, which is definitely closer to the female perspective. Um, I don’t know.

Well, what have your relationships with men been like over the years, compared to your relationships with women? Do they mean different things to you?

Yes, definitely, but simply because I do come from a—I was born in ’64 and I was raised in the Mediterranean. Different genders deal differently with life and I tend to understand the female element in a more idealistic and abstract way. I tend to understand the female element like nature, in a way.

We are all of each gender, the duality of female and masculine elements, but I do understand boys more, being myself a boy, so I tend to be more daring with that. I tend to ridicule males on stage more than I ridicule females. I feel entitled, I feel like I am liberated to do that because I am ridiculing myself, something that I know, something that I own, so I can be violent with this. Like in a way with a culture. I can make a lot of jokes and I can ridicule Greek culture—I don’t feel that with another culture. I have the permission to, in a way.

How did leaving Greece and travelling the world influence your sense of yourself and the possibilities of your masculine identity in the world?

One thing you must know there, you must think, is that my sense of myself in Greece is formulated by marble, nude, male, fragmented bodies. This is the Greek identity. I mean, besides the sense of nature and light, the images that formulate Greek identity are marble body parts, mainly male, mainly nude, as a symbol of identity. Do you realise that? Whenever you enter the Greek department of a university, this is what you are faced with. This is very important for me, because I am in a way in love with this kind of past.

I realised this once at the age of eighteen. I lived abroad for four months, and I realised a sense of this identity. Ever since that time I deal with my sense of Greek identity, not because I’m fixated with that but because it’s important, it’s important for one’s self. And in my latest travels, with Still Life and Primal Matter, I can ridicule the ancient past freely.

So I do feel that there is a sense of communication through my work of this small spot in the Mediterranean. And of course I am lucky because I happen to come from a culture that has some special memory—the world is a little bit familiar with it, so when I comment on that through my fantasies or fixations or ridicules of my past, other cultures know what I’m talking about, so I’m lucky with that because you know what the stereotypes are.

Photo by Julian Mommert.

I watched the trailer for Still Life. The billowing sky, this sense of destructive and yet constructive confusion, formation and creation of humanity through physical labour, and I feel like there’s ultimately still, in what I’ve seen, a kind of hope in the aspirational nature of it all, and the fact that the mundane exists right next to this sort of gruelling labour, this toil that underpins all of it. Did I read that hope correctly? Do you feel hope?

Yes. Yes, you read it perfectly.

[Laughs.] Thank you.

I think the very fact that humans communicate is hopeful, even if the show would not be hopeful. I think the fact that we are talking about it and trying to communicate about it—even if it is about hopelessness, the fact that we communicate about it is hopeful. So I think there is something in the gesture of creation that is hopeful. It is not about nagging upon the fatality of existence. It is about believing that labour creates.

That’s why this is the finale of Still Life—all this stony and cloudy and violent, this earth that seems to need constant labour from humans to survive and develop, in the end, all these broken parts of life in the performance, I see them as a puzzle, as facets of one self. So they come together and they eat, and what they eat are the fruits of this earth, the vegetables and the bread, the things that this earth is offering us, and eating together in the end is the most hopeful thing.

Did you always feel hopeful?

By nature I am an extremely melancholic person. But yes, I am very hopeful—yes, of course, I am very hopeful. First of all I am extremely grateful there is a way out for my inclinations, there is a way to express myself. This is hopeful by itself. Of course it’s vain, it leads nowhere and maybe nothing happens with it, but for me it is a hopeful and extremely positive element of my existence. I can somehow express myself. It may be awkward or maybe completely ridiculous but I have found a channel to express my existence, and I can reflect upon it and then I can regenerate the drive and the need to do more and to take a piece of plexiglass and transform it into a storm in front of a woman and I find this very, totally satisfying, because that’s what children do when they play. So yes, I am. No matter how dark or desperate or melancholy my existence is.

What on a day-to-day basis brings you joy? What do you love?

On a day-to-day basis—art! Well, but mainly my connection with others. What brings me joy is watching the plants of my balcony bloom or grow, and finding that the pain of my body can be translated into some kind of art. Talking and meeting dear friends, and of course being loved or being wanted—love and sex, I mean.

And mainly, of course, being in the privileged position to enter into a studio where a group of people have gathered in this vague belief that I could compose them. We spend hours and hours and we play and we try to create, we try to invent. I step out of myself and I discover that I am surrounded by people that basically trust in me leading this workshop. [Laughs.] These things give me complete joy.

Photo by Julian Mommert.

What do you grow on your balcony?

I know no English names of those, but they are mainly Mediterranean plants and I am trying create a garden that seems wild and not very calculated.

Ah, that’s hard.

Yes. [Laughs.] It is. It’s a matter of design, in a way. I give them room but at the same time let them overlap each other a little bit like in nature. It is the first time in my life that I am privileged to have a big balcony, and I do have plants for the first time in my life, and it is an exciting situation to live in.

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