ΤΟ ΦΘΆΣΙΜΟΝ ΕΚΕΊ ΕΊΝ’ Ο ΠΡΟΟΡΙΣΜΌΣ ΣΟΥ: opening speech for Stavros Messinis’ ILAND

My speech opening Stavros’ exhibition began with a reading of Cavafy’s Ithaka in Greek and in English, both of which are reproduced below.

The journeys we take define our lives. A journey might take us somewhere new, or somewhere familiar, but even when we travel to a known destination, it’s impossible – as Heraclitus and so many since have reflected – to make the same journey twice. 

Every journey changes us, invigorating our minds and challenging our resilience. 

Sometimes, we know we’re on a journey; sometimes, the road takes us; and sometimes, like today, when we place ourselves in the hands of an artist, we’re discombobulated, uncertain, tentative in our movements. What does this work mean?, we ask ourselves, and in doing so, we embrace that uncertainty and open ourselves to the unknown.

This, of course, is essential to the artists’ journey. Artists are those extraordinary people among us who have made a lifelong commitment to their practice, to the creation of work and the exploration of the ideas that give form to that work.

Stavros has been on a journey of many years to arrive at this point, here with us today, ready for our responses. And in preparing an artist book, it’s a journey he shares with some of the greatest artists of the past hundred years.

Artists’ books are works of art that are designed to unsettle our expectations of how to view, touch, handle, experience and indeed read a text. Though they’ve been around in one form or other for a very long time – think of the adventures that monks used to take many hundreds of years ago with the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts – artist books took prominence in the early C20th with the rise of Conceptualism, Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism. They take all sorts of forms: sculptural, typographical, hand-bound, hand-papered, made of fabric, wood, leather, using print techniques or hand-inked, collaged… whatever the artist imagines.

If you’re interested in seeing more artists’ books, the State Library of Victoria has a superb collection in their Rare Books department, including the La fin du monde by French Cubist Fernand Léger, but their main focus is on some 400 works by Australian artists since 1990 – including Robert Jacks, Inge King, Peter Lyssiotis, George Matoulas, Rick Amor, and renowned book sculptor Nicholas Jones.

So Stavros is in excellent company. And his book is quite the adventure.

As I touch it, as I immerse in its space and in its temporality, I see images that recall other images, that evoke place memories as well as transporting me to new places. I see the city and the sea. I see the sky, darkened, but with moments of illumination, subtle yet powerful. Continuities and discontinuities…

I’m awed by the rigour, the precision, the craft of the work. I can see Stavros’ great skill as an artist, honed over many years. 

For the artist themselves, the artist book is a space for experimentation and exploration. Like the architect’s pavilion, the artist book affords us a more intimate, more personal way of engaging with the artists’ ideas. Unlike photographs, paintings or sculptures, we can touch an artists’ book. We can take our time, in our own space, our own reading posture, and go on that journey together in our own way. 

Κι αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή/ συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει./ Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας, τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις.

Of course, that’s not always possible. We enter a space, we start a journey with lightness, but the darkness always lurks. Perhaps, these past few pandemic years, we’ve tried to avoid that darkness. Perhaps, we’ve only discovered it for the first time.

And sometimes, we seek out the work of an artist because we want to search our own emotions in new and different ways. Sometimes, we want to be better prepared to face our demons – and the past couple of years have given us all those darker experiences, as well as those yearnings to understand ourselves more deeply. To make that journey into our own interior. 

Όταν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου, κι όταν η ψυχή σου τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

So how do we set out into the world? Are we seeking wisdom? Do we know where we’re going? Do we understand where we’ve been?

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξίδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θα ‘βγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

The rest is up to us.

Ιθάκη
Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης (1911)

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι να ‘ναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι να ‘ναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστηση, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοϊδωμένους·
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κι έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά·
σε πόλεις Αιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου να ‘χεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Αλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξίδι διόλου.
Καλύτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει·
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξίδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θα ‘βγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες οι Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

Ithaka
C. P. Cavafy (1911)
(Translation by Edmund Keeley, with one minor amendment by me)

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope that your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is your destiny.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

IMAGE: Installation view of ILAND. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.