“Now, by my life, mankind again! But who? Savages, are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk, who know and fear the gods?”
Odyssey, 102, Homer
“Chez Nausicaa” is a dinner-performance based project that revisits the definition of ξενία (xenia) in the light of the current refugee situation while actualizing the practice of Ancient Greek hospitality and French Savoir-Vivre in contemporary society. Xenia is one of the most important themes in The Odyssey. More than just being polite to strangers, it represents a set of rules and customs that define the guest-host relationship between two individuals or groups of people. In this reciprocal relation, the host had to show respect to the guests by providing them with food, drink, bath and gifts and treating them as if potentially a disguised divinity without never asking any question about their identity. In return, the guests had to show respect to the host by being courteous and, when ready, reveal his/her identity and share their story. The guest-host relationship is explored in a number of episodes throughout the Homeric epic but the episode of the Phaeacians offers the best illustration of an immaculate application of Xenia.
For this project, Greek-French artist Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos recreated this Phaeacian meal by inviting in a traditional Greek home, small groups of locals, refugees, expats and tourists to share anonymously a home-made dinner, reactualizing along the way the guest-host relationship described in The Odyssey. The first set of dinner-performances took place in Athens in October 2017 and gathered at each table 16 to 20 people from age 1 month to 86 year-old and from 11 nationalities (Afghanistan, Denmark, Iran, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Pakistan, Slovenia, Syria and United States) that communicates with each other using five different languages. As a host, Kosmatopoulos treated all guests with the rules of hospitality described in the Homeric. On their side, guests were welcome to reveal, if and when they wished their name and share their story with the rest of the group.
The human interactions and personal stories that unfold at each of the four tables acted as the starting point for the artist to create a multimedia body of works (work on paper, video, sound, text art, installation…) exploring the revealing of the Self and the construction of the relationship with the Other. The body of work from the first set of diner-performances was exhibited at the French Institute of Athens in January 2018.
The viewer is greeted by the neon sign “MY GRANDMOTHER ALWAYS USED TO SAY” that appropriates the old Greek say «Όλοι οι καλοί χωράνε» ("there is always room for good people). Place as the epilogue to the project, it acts as the opening line to the human story that will narrate by the multiple puzzles that follow.
The puzzles from the body of works The plate is always half... use photographs of the plates taken during the performance dinners before arriving at the table and after leaving it as a metaphor to explore this timeframe where identity shifts from “perfect host”/ “perfect guest” to Self. The artist printed these “before and after” photographs of a same plate in large puzzles and then manually shifted pieces between the two images to create these fragmented images of an identity under construction. The works focus on the way one’s identity is perceived by the Other within a social encounter and asks the question: “what happens from the moment the plate arrives at the table full and the moment when it leaves it empty?”. Each puzzle is treated as a portrait where the appearance of the “perfect plate” gets altered and “humanized” by the singularity of the individual to whom it was served.
On the floor in the middle of the room is a two-side LED sign where the letters /bar.bar.bar.bar.ba.re/ scroll at a fast pace. The word Barbarian originates from the Greek βάρβαρος, which in turn originates from the incomprehensible languages of non-Greek-speaker that were heard by the Greeks as "bar..bar...bar". Appropriating the original roots of the word, It all sounds Greek to me acts as a reminder of the complexity of the relation between language and Otherness and questions the way "we" - be it the participants of the dinners or the viewer - perceive and understand the one that is βάρβαρος to us.
The exhibition culminates with the video work A (4) table(s) that uses the unedited uncut footage taken from four different tables during different dinner performances to explore the physical interactions and non-verbal communication that occur between the strangers/guests of the table. Starting with one video in the first piece À (1) table(s), the artist starts superposing a second in À (2) table(s), a third in À (3) table(s), and ultimately a fourth in À (4) table(s). The body of works explores how the same gestures, patterns and rituals keep on repeating among strangers within a table but also between the tables themselves. The layered videos take on different days during different performances seem to continuously respond and interact with each other as all guest were part of one single table.
While Xenia is a concept deeply rooted in our culture from time immemorial this idea of generosity shown to those who are far from home finds itself challenged today as modern societies struggle with the refugee crisis. The aim of the project is to rebuild this human bond between the participating people that may have been living on the same place for years while remaining foreigners to each other until now and also to question the general public on their own relationship with the Other in our contemporary globalized society.
“Chez Nausicaa” in Athens was developed with the support of the French Embassy, Nicos A. Vernicos and the Contemporary Art Foundation (USA).
List of works