When the artist departs

When the artist departs

Away from the institutional art scene.

I was preparing myself for a light new article, as too much darkness had weighed on my writings this last period. Let me be a blasphema (I always wanted to use this word as hilariously pronounced by the English speaking crowds in biblical movies), but well, art is not worth dying for. I had planned to put this blog through a digital analyses, something in the line of digital humanities, where words are retrieved and counted and you get a graph, or even a more elaborate image, of what your blog is about, its atmosphere too; a fun way to see what we are talking about here.

But, the devil has it, that I received as present the book ‘Tell them I said No’ by Martin Herbert (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016) which, in ten documented essays, talks about artists who took a distance from the art-world or dropped it completely; with enough variations to fit the cases of ten artists. The content of the book is well described in this article/ interview with the author: ‘Goodbye to All That: Why Do Artists Reject the Art World?

The departed artist is a critic of the field where in he/she is asked to work. With the exception of the painter Albert York (essay title ‘The Next Hill’, pp. 29-38),  and the anarchist/ activist Christopher D’Archangelo (essay title ‘Forever Incomplete’, pp. 83-94), the presented artists have operated within the main stream art-world and the accepted game of status-acknowledgment-trend (of institution and artist equally). They departed after having ‘earned the right’ to retrieve themselves from all this; once the safety valve was secured.

What kind of virtue is silence if your stand is forgotten by art history, […]? (p. 44)

When the artist departs without having secured the safety valve he/she commits professional suicide. Yet, this may be the only decent act to do. Because professionalism in the arts presupposes reduction. Nevertheless, we hang our wares out in the light; nowadays our head too, more and more.

A big part of the artist’s role now, in a massively professionalized art world, is showing up to self-market, being present. (p. 11)

The notion of ‘professional artist’ is a dubious one. We never know whether it is there to help the artists or to dig their grave. When it helps, for ex. in claims to be paid (like, with money) for work done, or to request a societal status from the authorities, which in principle resumes in to being allowed to actually do their work and not any other work in order to exist, the word ‘professional’ has a value as in any other work field. Artists, in the course of time, have been professionals, meaning that they were getting paid for their work, unless they were monks or tribe craftsmen. The crafts aspect of the art is more than anything prominent in this deal. There was a demand, a kind of need, for the artwork, and the artists offered their work as a service. We’ve been told that this deal has faded away (or was deliberately broken), yet what was annihilated was the status of the artist in society; the authority, monetary or political, still gives out the cards: prestige-money-presence (in art history). Plus, in countries solely ‘success oriented’ like the Netherlands, art projects are not welcomed (not even by fellow-artists) if not carrying the stamp (or the aspiration) of institutional approval, most often translated into a state subsidy; thus, usually such projects are not attempted.

Within this, the artist-celebrity blurs the situation even more. Is it a joke, a blaspheme, or an exposure of the art world as it is, the artists-stars (think for ex. Hirst, Koons, etc) show in their egocentric extremity that art can be a reality show and thus not only is not worth dying for, but it is not even a field for decent people. Vanity is the opposite of the holy grail. You can not claim to set off for both.

[…] artists don’t have to have long careers. A starburst can be enough. (p. 110)

The artists’ course (career included) is not linear, as there is no given path, and it certainly does not have to be public in its entirety. Plus, the more private the less compromised.

“It is painful for me to face the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of urgent social problems” (p. 42)

The poetical, although seen as not engaged, can be more subversive because it does not fit the ‘narrative’ of any institutional authority. It is usually appreciated in out of time-bound context and when the official history (of art) is revised. Nothing useful for the artist here either.

The book provokes a plethora of thoughts about the reviewed artists, about the dominance of conceptualism, and indeed about the self-destructive aspiration for becoming an artist. It is written with lucidity, and with sympathy for the departed artists. For artists, it is good to know that there are other options than what the art school proposes and what the institutions suggest one should be busy with (brand yourself?). Whatever this is, don’t do it.

P.S. 1 No endnotes, though this piece could have them.

P.S. 2 The images are from the exhibition ‘De geborgen kamers van Transvaal’ (the secured rooms of Transvaal), set up in 2006 by Stichting Gaidaro in the closing-down part of the street Brandtstraat in the neighborhood Transvaal in The Hague (NL), a few months before demolition started. It was a composition of aesthetic rubble and sound, that no one saw, except for the artists and one or two close friends.

P.S. 3 A list of key-words should come in a future article on this blog. The language manufactured by all those working (and earning) around the artists gets probably the highest score among art impact factors. Brains have been shaped upon them. Art works have been pronounced as such through them. Key-words put the work into recognizable and measurable context; if the work cannot be worded, it cannot exist. Mambo jumbo it is; and yes, the world is turned upside down (these do not belong to the key-words list).



The art market as comfort food

The art market as comfort food

Imagine, you set off to become an artist. You do your studies one way or the other and then get to work to do your x hours of practice, the given minimum standard for achieving a basic level of professionalism on anything. There you are, an artist, and like all those before you, your fellows ancestors, you work to find the something more, the beyond, that special area that includes the divine as part or head of the total. Whether the divine element is placed in the work or on you, as the observer/ creator ‘above all’, it makes no difference. The truth, God in a sense, is the quest.

The thought is not about religions nor of God-fearing people or dubious beliefs about our positioning towards the unknown. However, don’t we all do that; take parts in the question of the existence or not of God? Atheists, agnostics, materialists, believers or non-believers worldwide have looked for and some made a decision about the something more than what our eyes see and any relative authority.

For some professional fields, this quest is homonym or runs parallel to the object of the profession, even if only in periods. Whoever does a research in unknown paths or strives to break limits has already positioned themselves toward this question. It happens even in fields that would not come first to mind, where the boundary breaking strive is expressed as competition.

Think of the free divers and the most known among them, the pioneer Jacques Mayol. In the filming of his story and the rivalry with Enzo Maiorca, in Luc Besson’s Big Blue (1988), he as co-screenwriter narrates his own death: fished out from the depths of the sea; a heroic end for the visionary of Homo Delphinus (Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man). Here, art acts as buffer of reality; the film takes over the implicit feel of failure and gives it back in haunting aesthetics. Mayol’s underlying suggestion was real though. Competition won, fame secured, yet something screamed of failure. Mayol committed suicide at older age being depressed, feeling alone and not understood and most of all having not found the something more down in the deep.

Make a list of people that have touched the extreme, or should I say the edge of the probable, be it scientists, astronauts, athletes, thinkers or artists, and have fallen in depression after their achievements; or shortened their lives. And then balance it with the other list, of those that have relativized successes and failures and by decision have turned to the comfort of predictable returns.

Indeed, this is a story of compromise. For, how can you indefinitely live within a quest for God? Call it infinity too, the beyond, or that thing that justifies our existence; you dissolve in it or you touch it for a moment and then you retreat. To let yourself dissolve in it translates to slipping into insanity, giving away your individual identity, losing contact with the daily life. To let go of the quest and carry on in a normality, means that you accept the compromise; with full awareness of it. That calls for comfort food; a huge amount of it. In the arts, comfort food is to be found in the market; it is called the art market.

Along the way, we come across judgments about successful artists for or against them, that bluntly suggest that there are people that become artists with sole aim to get to this success. It is true that a specific ambition, a good pitch, and the way to go with people of power has a lot to do with an artist’s success, yet the first and most weighs on work. Much more work than any other professional field demands for it is work done in solitude, in no social status what so ever, and mostly often in poverty. To say that any individual sets off to become an artist with only goal to become rich and famous is as absurd as wanting to become an astronaut so that you can send a Skype message to your local radio station.

Further on, satisfaction brought by the acknowledgement of your peers and then maybe of an audience, may be a useful filling to your practice and a soother of your social self, but in the end it is irrelevant. The purpose of art is to make visible those links that cannot be seen or explained in any other way. If that cannot be acknowledged and embraced as what it is, then the market takes the lead and uses art as a commodity.

And this is what happened: the art world annihilated itself by wanting to be part of the trivial.

And this is what we have now: the arts have fallen under a ‘creative industry’ scheme, which feeds the market and the careers built within and around it.


4 hours in Zurich: art and coffee on tight budget

Zurich is a fantastic place to be stranded for a few hours, but you must make a plan before you go off into town, especially if your budget is tight. I had decided not to spend more than forty euro, which is the same amount in Swiss francs; but did want to see some art…

The cancellation of my connecting flight and its replacement with an evening flight left me with a frown at first; then I picked up my 3 hour sleep energy, put my hand luggage in a locker and went out to see Zurich. It was a winter’s day with dry cold and grey light, but no wind nor rain, perfect for walkers. From the airport I took the train to the city, a little ten minute ride. I was most kindly informed at the airport desk to buy a day ticket that would serve for the train and for all public transport into town: ticket about 14 francs, locker 6 francs for 12 hours storage; half of my budget was spent before making a move.

Once off the train and walking with a tram map in my hands, I had to orient myself: tower at the left, man on scooter, stoplight, Christmas market, train rails; I should cross and be at the other side. Not sure of distances, I took the first tram that would bring me to the Kalkbreite building complex which opened a few months ago. They advertise it as an urban experiment; this was enough to attract me, a 100% city person. The complex has an elevated common central yard with a playground and stairs that lead to a higher level with view to the city and to the complex itself. There are community places (with common dining room with chef), cluster houses (with some shared rooms), office and cultural spaces. Connecting requirements include keeping energy consumption low and not owning a car. It was too early in the  morning even for a coffee at the Houdini film house, so I took the tram towards the other side of the river Limmat.

Kalkbreite urban experiment - Zurich
Kalkbreite urban experiment – #Zurich

I had to choose fast between contemporary art from Japan in “Logical Emotion” and the exhibition “Egon Schiele-Jenny Saville” at Kunsthaus. I went for the second; Schiele could not fail me. The ticket was 16 francs, with reduction, and free audio-guide which I switched off after the first two works. Schiele’s paintings and drawings deserved some active response from my side; a real painter this one, color and line with accuracy. Seen as a total, the exhibition makes once more obvious what a difficult art painting is and even more how easy it is to fall into lies and effects. Artists have been too eager to give away painting… After this, I walked upstairs to the permanent collection, the “classic illustrated” as I call them. What can one feel walking among Giacometti’s, Dubuffet’s, Rothko’s, Matisse’s, etc. and then further deep into history through Canaletto’s, Rubens’s, van Dyck’s, etc. The rooms were too stuffy and the walk too long for my strengths. On the ground floor there were those dark rooms with a presentation by the Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez called “Shadow Play”. I entered without expectations but stayed, legs resting on a bench, to watch two lengthy films. This is an extract from “Artaud’s cave”, one of his art films included in this presentation:

Taking the way back to the train station and the airport, I had to find the place where the dadaists were gathering in the ’10’s of our 20th century. I went by tram, found it and photographed it; what else could I do, make up an instant poem? However, they seem to organize poetic evenings in that same building; there is also a shop with dadaist objects in the semi-basement. It was just afternoon; the evening would offer a different view I suppose.

Cabaret Voltaire, the dadaists house - Zurich
Cabaret Voltaire, the dadaists house – #Zurich

My time was up, my money too; I had to go back to collect my stuff and wait for the flight. Zurich is a good stroll; not a luxurious city, despite the high prices; quiet though busy, safe too. Not to worry if you get stranded for a few hours.

P.S. a kindest young man at the museum café gave me a cup of coffee though my last coins did not make the full 4 francs. Thanks again! #Zurich @Zurich

Walking In the old center of Zurich
Walking in the old center of Zurich

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From Lausanne to Beijing – 8th International Fiber Art Biennale

September 30—December 16, 2014 
From Lausanne to Beijing 8th International Fiber Art Biennale 
1895 creative cultural industry park
Nantong (Jiangsu Province)

The works are already hanging, the organisers are making the last arrangements for the official opening today, 30 September at 3:00 p.m. East China time (about 9:00 a.m. CET). I won’t be there this time; will have to wait patiently for news from co-exhibitors and the catalogue after the end of the exhibition together with the return my works. The exhibition is of course  certain to be big again, but not exhausting I must say. The former factory where it is held is something like the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam or the Technopolis-Gazi in Athens.

But here is a part of the forward from the organisers*:

“…Since 2000, “From Lausanne to Beijing” international fiber art exhibition has been held for 7 sessions which has come through 14 years. It has gradually become an international well-known brand with a development pattern of popularization, socialization and internationalization…

…There are 655 pieces of artwork applying for the 8th  Biennale (including 363 works from China and  292 works from other countries).  186 pieces of artwork were admitted into the ‘From Lausanne to Beijing’ 8th International Fiber Art Biennale Exhibition(including 75 works form China and  111 works from other countries. In 2014, with the invitation of the Nantong government, the 8th biennale will still be held in 1895 creative cultural industry park in Nantong City…”

I volunteer for tele-transportation! (…have been volunteering since the 80’s in vain…)

Patience promotes!

* organization: Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University People’s government of Nantong Fiber Art Committee, China Arts & Crafts Association Fiber art institute of China National Academy of Painting

The photos are from the previous edition of the Biennale; once I have new photos or news I will publish them as well.



Nantong_2012_main hall entrance view
Nantong_2012_main hall entrance view
detail of a stupendous embroidered work by Chang YoungRan from Korea
detail of a stupendous embroidered work by Chang YoungRan from Korea

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Mark Rothko at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

This is not a review of the Rothko exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum; a super event surely, advertised all over The Hague on a poster with the most attractive purple colour ever. This is a stream of thoughts by a painter, me, walking by the works of one of the best artists of the last century at least. The exhibition is so much museum minded, educational, a set up for the wide public, with the beginning, the middle and the end clearly marked and explained. It is not bad to use the language to guide; can’t imagine what the reaction would be if there were only the paintings standing there, calling to the chaos. I am not sure whether Rothko would have approved the exhibition, but then he is dead so long that his opinion is a relic for historians and archivists. His works on the other hand stand like space rocks on the walls, detached from the content of the room. We, the spectators, belong to the squared floor and the air above it while the paintings pulsate in present-infinity. They represent the rarely heard moment of tuning to the universe’s sound. Some of us feel that this tuning is what painting is about, just like music. Yet, it is rather improbable for anyone to weep in front of them in the company of at least thirty others in the room and the audio guides in hands and ears.

It is kind of odd this high-end presentation in between the produces of the creative industry (which of course has goggled up the myth and the money about Rothko too, no doubt). However, in the times of no-object art, this is a formidable reminder that painting is not some kind of trick, is not entertainment nor a description of anything, and certainly does not need words to go with it nor heavy meanings and references. By the way, painting does not need to be interactive either; standing contemplative in front of it should be enough.

Still, Rothko’s earlier works are amusing throwing into insignificance the charms of shape or texture: mucky, indelicate, incomprehensible just as observations of something not visible. Colour passes by quickly and then as the rooms darken to host the reds and the blacks, I align once more with his view, that red and black are not like the other colours. They are as far as it can be from being decorative or descriptive and therefore closer to the step beyond. Besides, once you’ve shifted towards them it needs a good dosage of insanity to help you get by; the emotional crack is unbearable. When you have a good hatch in reality to get back and forth, it can very well not be the end. But then again, talking about the self inflicted end; imagine, you have an ailing body, you’re working in loneliness for a spiritual experience in painting and then this is your destiny: you have rallied with a soup can and the soup can won (and in an extended time projection too).

It can also though be the accomplished life that allows the end.

“Silence is so accurate.” M.R.

Read also my article on Dutch Review Mark Rothko in The Hague

Mark Rothko at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Mark Rothko at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
...as the rooms darken...
…as the rooms darken…

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Men in beards

How much a dedicated follower of fashion one must be to grow a beard or a moustache because the magazines suggest it (now commercial flyers too), I don’t know; but it happens … let’s see, a beard or a moustache are a statement of: prestige and authority (going back to history a bit), nonchalance and opposition to society’s rules, hermitisme and wisdom, a certain sense of adventure, etc. But, what if the come-back of beards combined with fancy clothes (a somehow awkward look) is an artistic attempt to even out, in a stylish and inclusive way, the look of young people of different cultural backgrounds who grow up in the same country; meaning a western country. I cross fingers for that and go back a few years, again triggered by the coming back to news-lights of a bearded man, the photographer Miroslav Tichý. Here follows a text I had written (but never published till now) about the exhibition at the Fotomuseum of The Hague with works of Gerard Petrus Fieret (NL), Anton Heyboer (NL) and Miroslav Tichý (CZ); the exhibition was titled ‘The tireless epic, Fieret-Tichý-Heyboer’.

Some things stay current (or, the basics will always haunt us) …

The first thing that attracted my attention, already before entering the hall, was the portraits of three bearded men, fitting the stereotype of the artists of the 19th century rather than of photographers of the 20th. The connection was not made in vain; as I went through their works the linking thread was revealed naturally. The exhibition showed the works of three photographers born in the 1920’s, two in Holland and one in Czechia. All three were trained painters, visual artists we would say now. With photography though they had no technical guidance; they found their way by themselves and followed it in their own terms.

Men in beards
Men in beards


The Hague Museum of Photography which hosted the exhibition ‘The tireless epic’ with the works of Gerard Petrus Fieret (NL), Anton Heyboer (NL) and Miroslav Tichý (CZ) notes that these artists arelinked not only by their chosen themes, but also by an obstinately idiosyncratic way of life’. Their chosen themes were in fact their eccentric world, external as well as internal. We see photographs of cars, women and children in the streets or inside, simply living their lives. Wherever there is posing, it is so home-made that we feel that we intrude into the private life of our naughty auntie. The particular way of depicting this life can be called eccentric as an irony to the main path of aspirations. Photographs in b/w often blurred or maltreated in the process, fill up the walls of the museum and raise questions about quality marks of any artwork. Especially for us, living surrounded by embellished images, corrected imperfections, studied to detail poses, lights and special effects, it comes almost as a shock, that a museum decides to show the real people photographed by their equals. Models and artists in this case are working on the same level; an approach to art practice that is met often in the 20th century (think of Pier Paolo Pasolini and his actors) and it continues in the 21st (think of the Michael Clark company dance project in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall during the summer of 2010).

raw material roughly stored
raw material roughly stored: the negatives of Fieret

The power of such works is timeless. Throw the garlands out of the window and you have the raw thing to battle with. But then what distinguishes these three from the amateur photographers of our families? As first, it is the perseverance; it is the volume of the work. We don’t talk about ten women photographed randomly in the street. We are talking about hundreds. These three men got obsessed with their themes and photographed them consistently for a period of time until they exhausted them. Then there is the look. An artist’s look shapes the images even when technique is neglected. The look of the artist becomes recognisable in any of his/her works as it entails the personality and the artistic vision. And last but not least is the experiment. The accompanying notes in the museum talk about the lack of interest for creating a perfect art work but even more for preserving their own work. The experimentation goes further to the home-made cameras in the case of Tichý and to the apotheosis of the ‘snap-shot’ in the case of Fieret. Heyboer should be considered as a special case, since he had even created his own model of domestic life, living in a communal farm together with his four women. Here, the experimentation is diffused between subject and medium. Heyboer, consciously retreated from society, pursues his artistic vision in that farm, photographing the daily life and his companions.

The fact that they were born so early in the 20th century puts them in discussion with modernism whether they like it or not. As still a medium under exploration in that time, photography passed to that generation as an open ground. Besides, because of its technical side and as of its social aspect, it was meant to be mainly explored by men. These three skilled painters escaped the obligation of breaking ties and boundaries in painting but got the new manly gadget and stripped it from its glorious masculinity. They saw their women through their medium standing at a retreated position, almost as from the psychoanalysis sofa. They disdained social and artistic achievements but built their creative vision in a secluded domesticity. They almost missed post acknowledgement out of honest negligence.

P.S.1 back- to-basics reminder (always useful)

P.S.2 One of the articles I recently came across shows many of Tichýs photographs and the photographer himself with his self-made cameras (text in Greek): recent article about Tichý

P.S.3 See the beauty of real women through the eyes of an artist :

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It is good to keep your own archive, as the brain can not bother to keep all this at hand. These collages were made quite some years ago; I do want to get busy with them again… nowadays printing possibilities can even turn such work into something more interesting (because of size and paper quality). Herewith, I take note.

"surveillance", collage, S.Kapnissi
“surveillance”, collage, S.Kapnissi
"reaction", collage, S.Kapnissi
“reaction”, collage, S.Kapnissi
"escape", collage, S.Kapnissi
“escape”, collage, S.Kapnissi
"extermination", collage, S.Kapnissi
“extermination”, collage, S.Kapnissi

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Artists in literature – the perils of success

The advice of the teacher starts with a sharp “don’t get carried away by the elegance of your line” and ends to a “don’t submit to time wasting activities like making money”; being elegant and submissive are however the demanded skills (even if sketched differently) with poverty the other side of the coin; speaking of artists. The story is been told myriads of times practically unchangeable. As I find comfort in the Russian classics, especially when times get tough, I could not but stumble upon this top short story about the perils of success. Written in the first half of the 19th century, it still keeps its urgency; this is a short excerpt:

… He seized a brush and approached his canvas. One thought possessed him wholly, one desire consumed him; he strove to depict a fallen angel. This idea was most in harmony with his frame of mind. The perspiration started out upon his face with his efforts; but, alas! his figures, attitudes, groups, thoughts, arranged themselves stiffly, disconnectedly. His hand and his imagination had been too long confined to one groove; and the fruitless effort to escape from the bonds and fetters which he had imposed upon himself, showed itself in irregularities and errors. He had despised the long, wearisome ladder to knowledge, and the first fundamental law of the future great man, hard work. He gave vent to his vexation. He ordered all his later productions to be taken out of his studio, all the fashionable, lifeless pictures, all the portraits of hussars, ladies, and councillors of state.

He shut himself up alone in his room, would order no food, and devoted himself entirely to his work. He sat toiling like a scholar. But how pitifully wretched was all which proceeded from his hand! He was stopped at every step by his ignorance of the very first principles: simple ignorance of the mechanical part of his art chilled all inspiration and formed an impassable barrier to his imagination. His brush returned involuntarily to hackneyed forms: hands folded themselves in a set attitude; heads dared not make any unusual turn; the very garments turned out commonplace, and would not drape themselves to any unaccustomed posture of the body. And he felt and saw this all himself.

“But had I really any talent?” he said at length: “did not I deceive myself?” Uttering these words, he turned to the early works which he had painted so purely, so unselfishly, in former days, in his wretched cabin yonder in lonely Vasilievsky Ostroff. He began attentively to examine them all; and all the misery of his former life came back to him. “Yes,” he cried despairingly, “I had talent: the signs and traces of it are everywhere visible–” …

Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Mysterious Portrait” can be read on line here

P.S. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian but wrote mainly in Russian; because of the political history of the area he was always considered a Russian writer.

"Assimilated information 1/6", acrylic on wood, 2009
“Assimilated information 1/6”, acrylic on wood, 2009, S.Kapnissi

Cannibalism reoccurring

The following thoughts could also carry the title “cannibalistic years in the artist’s life”; these years characterising the artists’ wanderings into the wild. What is more interesting though is the reoccurring nature of those periods. Those are times of adolescent feel for the work and for themselves; it can be manifested as self-destruction or as violent approach to whatever consists the arts, from the social extent of it to its very core, the artwork itself. In those times, materials are stretched to bring out something that they can not, codes of social behaviour and community tolerance are disturbed, the instinct of self-preservation of the artist is sunk; just envision it and then think what it can produce, good or evil.

It is more common to go through this in younger age, when the flame in the guts is burning full blast, leaving no space for reasonable doubts. The options, this open terrain of youth, are the pegs keeping the eyes and the guts on red alert. However, artists may also start as good-will soldiers fighting for the cause in terms of fair game, if there is such thing. Inevitably, sooner or later a rage occurs eating its own goodies first and before anything. Maybe the most common though is the model of reoccurring cannibalism as result to attempts of aligning to something that is crooked to begin with.

Let’s not call it the “urge to break boundaries”, an expression (and notion) so overused that I see it already floating in the pond of clichés. Let’s avoid explanations on temperaments and social positioning too. Cannibalism, eating one’s own, is a primal scream; maybe to such call we’ll one day awake from our numbed walk.

"The egg", 190x160cm approx., pigments and spray paint on canvas, 1999
“The egg”, 190x160cm approx., pigments and spray paint on canvas, by S.Kapnissi, 1999