Sondheim Finalists 2016: Christos Palios explores consumption and conservation in Greece's past and present

Littered with fish bones, ashtrays, and car keys, the photographs in Christos Palios’s series “Conversations” seem like a less utopian version of a food blogger’s Instagram feed. These cluttered tabletops appear more authentic than the painstakingly staged photographs we scroll through on our phones. Here, the linens are dirty, the napkins are crumpled, and the food is half-eaten.

The series recalls the work of Daniel Spoerri, founding member of Nouveau Réalisme, an artistic movement that originated in 1960s France. Spoerri famously fixed the remnants of meals to their bases—tablecloths, plates, half-smoked cigarettes, and all. He would then hang these works, which he called tableaux pièges, as if they were paintings or photographs.

Palios’s photographs are almost indistinguishable from those of Spoerri’s tableaux pièges, at least at first glance. Both artists explore everyday compulsory consumption (and its inherent production of waste) by presenting readymade tabletops post-meal. There are clear distinctions between the two series: Spoerri’s tableaux pièges are assemblages—not photographs—and though they may decay over time, the objects are permanently fixed in their positions and thereby immortalized. Palios’s tabletops are forever pictured in their immediate post-meal states, though the objects themselves are put back into circulation or thrown away.

In different ways, each series preserves arbitrary configurations of objects, configurations that were not intended to last.

The relics of the meals Palios photographs are not only utensils and scraps; he places cellphones in each piece. Also integral to the contemporary meal is the unyielding pull of technology—devices that allow us to engage while simultaneously requiring that we disengage from our immediate surroundings. There’s a sort of beautifully capitalistic gluttony that characterizes our consumption not only of food, but also of new technologies. Cellphones are representative of modern devices—not unlike the Butterball turkey or box of Cheerios—that are advertised to bring us closer. Ultimately the site of a meal is an intimate space, one that allows people to come together, but it is first and foremost a venue for consumption.

Palios photographed this series in Greece, a country whose economy has been suffering for years. There are class implications among the photographs in “Conversations.” Some show shiny new smartphones, car keys, and money across the table from dated devices and closed wallets. Food itself has been deemed one of the greatest class signifiers. The ability to indulge—to eat a generous meal or buy the latest smartphone—is precarious for many Greeks. These photographs trap in time the remains of abundant, intimate gatherings that might be under siege for some.

The second of Palios’s series on display, “Un-Finished // Contemporary Ruins,” depicts the frames of fairly recent architectural projects never brought to fruition (largely due to Greece’s economic crisis) against the backdrop of Greek landscapes. These abandoned structures are weighty, crude, and often bizarre. Set on barren, less-than-lush terrains, these bones of forgotten buildings evoke a sort of dystopian post-industrial world. 

Palios draws a parallel between ancient Greek ruins and the frames pictured in his series. But the ancient ruins were once magnificent structures, important both civically and religiously, while the structures pictured here were forgotten long before they were finished. With their skeletal frames, these buildings evoke a sense of loss, of being forever incomplete. The resources—plans and proposals, funding, labor—that have been poured into each structure appear wasted.

In its subject matter and grid arrangement, this series draws from Bernd and Hilla Becher, who photographed aging industrial structures in Germany and arranged them based on their “type”: grain elevators, cooling towers, and so on—neglected structures, set starkly against the natural world. This series shares a conservationist impulse with Palios’s “Un-Finished // Contemporary Ruins.” But whereas the Bechers explore repetition and serial documentation, Palios highlights the individuality of each structure when he places them side-by-side. And while the Bechers distanced themselves from the Weimar avant-garde and resisted the impulse their contemporaries had to romanticize industrial artifacts, Palios looks to the history of Greece—including its ancient flourish and recent economic crisis.

The Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist show is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 31. City Paper will be posting reviews of all of the finalists leading up to the award announcement on July 9. For more information on the Sondheim awards, click here.

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