Born in 1978, he studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts (1999-2004) and at the University of Fine Arts in Madrid (2002-2003). In 2010 he received the “Art House Shanghai Award” and attended an art residency in Shanghai. Works by him can be found in important private collections. He lives and works in Athens.
Casado Santapau Gallery•
The Cheater •
Casado Santapau Gallery•
Art Cologne 2010•
War, Fishing and Sex •
Valentina Bonomo Roma•
The Yellow Wilderness •
Antonis Donef •
The Yellow Wilderness
When we were children, our instincts and iconoclastic imagination were spontaneously expressed on the standardized pages of our schoolbooks. In our minds, things were clear and easy: knowledge seemed like a priceless treasure while the act of reading was synonymous to a pirate raid and pillaging. The most typical playground – the mysterious, uncharted island – of this exciting adventure which constitutes a special aspect of childhood creativity and inventiveness, was the encyclopedia, in other words, the “methodical and systematic condensation of the popularization of all human knowledge”.1
Until postmodern authors made their appearance, children, unlike adults, were perhaps the only readers in the world who understood the freedom of interpreting and transforming an encyclopedic entry or an insignificant piece of information into something that was worthy of a fiction story. The sense of curiosity and the search for truth led our young heroes to create imaginative stories, to conceive of and create a cosmogony that, almost always, served their personal needs.
The meaning of creation and the concomitant perception of a work of art changed fundamentally with the postmodernists. On the one hand, the adventure of reading entered new paths while on the other, the claims of the “grand narratives” were considered inadequate and authoritative. The upshot was that, at best, they were questioned and at worst, rejected. But even so, there was no lack of contradiction and paradox. Therefore, whereas the precepts of the Enlightenment, which for roughly two centuries served as the compass of cultural thought, were ruthlessly attacked, encyclopedism and intertextuality informed the intellectual leaders of postmodernism and became the rule.
In support of this argument, each book by Thomas Pynchon, the most enigmatic representative of postwar American literature, ushers us into a universe that “resembles a huge encyclopedia in which the smallest is related to all the rest”.2 Similarly, according to the great stylist Italo Calvino, “each book is born in the presence of other books, in close relationship and in apposition to other books”.3 The director Peter Greenaway, who has dealt extensively with the relationship between language and image in his films, meant the same when he, almost prophetically, declared: “the cinema of the future is going to look much more like the pages of an encyclopedia”.4 In other words, the image is destined to act as an intermediary, exactly like the cross-reference in a written passage, enabling the viewer to form endless associations.
The work of Antonis Donef follows the conceptual approach of the above artists, according to whom art is not only mutually influenced by but is also self-determining through encyclopedic knowledge. Although it would be limiting to suggest that he is simply a “postmodernist”, Donef seems to share their mistrust of any rational form of art and most importantly their interest in concepts such as chaos, automatism, conceptual fluidity and playful polysemy. The focal point of his drawings is the explosive dialogue between impulse and information, which he tries to depict through the shifting identities of the ready-made text and the transformations that result when chance is applied. Unlike the traditional method of creating a work whereby the artist is confronted by a blank surface, Donef constructs a canvas made entirely of words and excerpts of pages taken from old encyclopedias. Over this poly-prismatic mosaic, the artist intervenes with the same insolence of a child who, in his urge to create pictures, unhesitatingly might even deface a work of art, regardless of whether it is an original or merely a reproduction. Donef literally resurrects the obsolete text through a new, abstract language that resembles hieroglyphics.
Before pointing out the basic characteristics of Donef’s work and making an attempt to penetrate the ‘atmosphere’ of his images, it is pivotal to unveil the process he follows to create his works. The initial and relatively typical step is the accumulation of a large number of old encyclopedias purchased from second-hand bookstores in Athens. This is followed by a meticulous selection of the pages he finds appropriate which he then uses to create the background of the work. The pages, yellowed by the passage of time, are glued onto the canvas in a precise and balanced composition. The final stage is the most critical since he has to undertake the difficult and extremely time-consuming task of drawing on the surface that he has created – an arduous process that demands systematic work and can take months to complete, especially for his large-scale work.
The encyclopedias that he chooses to work with are also important as each has its own history in terms of the language and the period in which they were published. The Greek encyclopedia Helios and the German “Brockhaus Enzyklopädie”, for example, are two of his most-used sources. As with nearly all the encyclopedias of this kind, the themes in the texts and related engravings cover a broad range of fields including botany, geography, psychology, mythology, astrology, entomology, medicine, zoology, archaeology, anatomy, physics, history, education and of course, the various arts.5 When he is ready to intervene with his pen over the different aspects of human knowledge, he draws according to the illustrations (sketches and chromolithographs) and – when reading is possible – the contents of the texts.
To a great extent, the appeal of Donef’s work lies in his distinct allusions to iconographies from the past, thus conveying the aura of major works in the history of art, although not necessarily from one particular era. For example, his use of the printed page refers directly to Picasso’s cubist collages and drawings and – secondly – to Braque. Even though his works belong stylistically to this tradition they differ significantly from the art of these legendary artists. Comparing the style of his drawings with the papier collé technique of the cubists, one easily detects the common elements as well as the different intentions. While they are both characterized by the transient and the transitional, the outdated information of the encyclopedic entries used by Donef – let’s not forget that technology has advanced rapidly in the more than 50 years that have elapsed since these texts were written – automatically sets them apart from the topical, journalistic style of the newspapers found in cubist collages. Furthermore, the complexity of his drawings, one of the most distinguishing elements of his work, does not permit further comparison.
Aside from the printed page, the large format, where Donef’s draftsmanship is at its best, also creates corresponding associations. In fact, the way Donef handles the geography of the canvas and the aggressive character of his drawing, are reminiscent of the radical style of Jackson Pollock. The drawing achieves such levels of expressionistic excess and action that it spreads over the canvas trying to overwhelm and reach beyond it. This is more evident when Donef extends his drawing onto the walls of the exhibition space. But again, in spite of the similarities, there are also significant differences. In Donef, there are ‘privileged’ areas on the surface where, unlike Pollock’s works, one’s gaze rests on precise areas of the composition. Unable to follow the full course of the pen, the viewer has to focus on and scrutinize every area of the canvas separately. As a result, Donef’s works are ‘read’ piecemeal, sequentially, like jigsaw puzzles or musical symphonies that one cannot hear in their entirety. And let’s not ignore the fact that Donef’s pen wanders over texts written for the same purpose and context but in a different era, so it is logical for the emphasis to be on the strata of time, the layers and conceptual levels that are created. Furthermore, the exceptionally slow speed with which the works are created does not leave much room for comparison (with Pollock’s practice).
Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Plates of the Encyclopedia”, written in 1964, can provide the means for unlocking Donef’s art and enlighten the viewer. It offers a perceptive interpretation of the function and depth – the “Poetics” as Barthes calls it – of the encyclopedic image, attempting to capture its ultimate meaning, its cryptographic literary aspects. For Barthes, the “Encyclopedia” is a constant evidence of a certain way of perceiving the material, an extensive account of ownership, while a certain philosophy of the object is applied in its plates – a philosophy based on its humanization. According to his analysis, the encyclopedic image not only educates but also contains the element of spectacle. That is why, as he points out, one “must turn to the plates of the ‘Encyclopedia’ just as today one goes to exhibitions in Brussels or New York”.6 Therefore, if we want to understand Donef’s works, we have to keep Barthes’ final assessment in mind: “The ‘Encyclopedia’ constantly executes an irreverent fragmentation of the world but what it finds at the end of this rupture is not the fundamental situation of the real reasons: the image forces it on most occasions, to re-construct an object in itself irrational; once the first nature has been dissolved, another bursts forth just as shaped as the first. In other words, the fragmentation of the world is unavoidable: a glance – our own – is sufficient for the world to be eternally perfect”.7
Espousing Barthes’ verdict, Donef attempts to bridge two antithetical poles: the Reason of science with the language of metaphor and instinct. To put it differently, his entire work centers on his unceasing attempt to bring to light the “pediki” (childlike) dimension of the word “encyclopedia”. In his drawings didactics collapse, the conscious battles with the subconscious, and historical memory, which is not made up only of material of mechanical reproduction (photography, film, video and sound documents) but also from the corpus of an encyclopedia, revolves around a kaleidoscopic narrative. An otherwise dead language is reborn through the ‘mechanical’ process of drawing. The child is no longer the ideal reader. The text no longer transmits only knowledge and, as with the writing, it becomes an object. The areas of the synthetic image are abolished. Language is nothing more than a game where chance and the “dice” – as Mallarmé taught us – have the first word. The process of the unending cycle – that is, the process of the encyclopedia, according to Barthes – is personalized and acquires identity the moment it decomposes. In the end, one realizes that Donef’s work is both an explosion in the galaxy of knowledge and a kiss of life to the inanimate body of systematized thought.
Christoforos Marinos Art Historian – Curator
* From the catalogue of Antonis Donef’s exhibition “The Cheater”, Kalfayan Galleries, Athens, 2010.