Image 1971 is an installation comprising two old suitcases and two wooden crates that sit upon some sheets of newspaper, placed on a sheet of particle-board. The newspaper sheets overlap and have been laid out as if to protect the surface underneath. The effect of the paper and the dark board is that of a frame or plinth within which the other components of the work are contained. Image is one of a number of so-called ‘environments’ which Caniaris created in the 1970s, in a departure from his early works which were mainly de-constructed paintings and assemblages, as well as smaller sculptural installations. These ‘environments’ were self-contained installations dealing with differing subjects – some, such as the later Untitled 1974 (Tate T13027), were anthropomorphic sculptures that usually displayed only half-bodies or headless figures. In them the artist used found and ready-made objects to convey socio-political meanings and associations.
Caniaris left his native Greece in 1956 to take up temporary residency in a number of Europe’s artistic centres – Rome, Paris and Berlin. However, during this period and the years after his return to Athens in 1967, Greek politics and culture remained an integral theme within his art. During this time there was also a growing global crisis concerning the numbers of migrant workers in Europe. Many of these workers had been allowed to enter countries such as Germany, France and Switzerland in an attempt to rebuild their economies after the Second World War; however, after the 1973 oil crisis, these same countries began to close their borders in an attempt to protect their own residents’ employment. A temporary immigrant himself, Caniaris was sensitive to this situation and brought these issues together in his artistic practice. In the early 1970s he began to focus on matters of national identity, social inequality and immigration, resulting in one of his most significant bodies of work Immigrants, which was produced between 1971 and 1976. Image is a work that has strong links to the Immigrants project, conveying concerns about these same issues.
The appropriation of the found object is a key aspect of Caniaris’s work from the late 1960s and early 1970s and suitcases or other material pertaining to travel and displacement are particularly important in his work. In Image the suitcases and packing cases come to represent the situation of migrant workers living abroad. Social historian John Berger, in his book A Seventh Man published in 1976, wrote about these workers and their living conditions:
In certain barracks the authorities have tried to forbid migrant workers keeping their suitcases in their sleeping rooms … The workers have strongly resisted this, sometimes to the point of going on strike. In these suitcases they keep their personal possessions, not the clothes they put in their wardrobes, not the photographs they pin to the wall, but the articles which for one reason or another are their talismans.
(Quoted in Rosenthal 1976, p.25.)
Image embodies these concerns and the suitcases can be read as symbolising not just the workers’ living conditions, but the workers themselves and their personal histories. Caniaris has recreated one of the worker’s environments, complete with newspapers used as a floor covering and packing cases to sit on. The installation is given a theatrical element by being spotlit and set alone in a space, concentrating the viewer’s attention on its components. Curator Norman Rosenthal described this effect: ‘what the artist can do is enable the visitor to the exhibition to achieve a momentary empathy with the individual caught in a historical process over which he appears to have so little control ... The drama is silent – it is a purely visual drama and it is very real.’ (Rosenthal 1976, p.25.)
Bia Papadopoulou (ed.), The Years of Defiance: The Art of the ’70s in Greece, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Athens 2006.
Anna Kafetsi (ed.), Vlassis Caniaris: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens 1999, reproduced p.212.
Norman Rosenthal (ed.), Vlassis Caniaris: Immigrants, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1976.