At the Venice Biennale’s Cyprus Pavilion, Polys Peslikas explores the power of light and colour as he asks how we want to shape the future
When Polys Peslikas responded to the curatorial concept for this year’s Cyprus Pavilion at the Venice Biennale — to use painting and colour as a way to explore possible futures — he chose not to highlight the differences between East and West, but instead to dwell on the spaces between, and the colours that transcend borders and nationalities. The Cypriot painter is based in Berlin, but when he was selected he returned to his native Cyprus to begin work on a series of paintings, using delicate swathes and veils of colour to create a rich accumulation of overlapping layers.
“I think it’s a different perspective looking from the West towards the East than living in a place like Cyprus or Lebanon or Egypt,” he says. “It’s part of our everyday life, the way the colours are used — the colours of the houses, of people’s outfits, of the icons — and in Cyprus of the mosaics and the modernist paintings. If you live here, colour filters through your life on every level, from domestic, to trade, to architecture, to history. So I just take things as they are. If it’s an Iranian blue, it’s an Iranian blue, and if it’s a Venetian blue, it’s a Venetian blue. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the way we understand colour when we see it and how it makes us feel.”
The miniature painter, 217cm × 162cm × 7cm
Umm Kulthum faints on stage 32cmx 42cm × 3.5cm
Curated by Jan Verwoert, the Cyprus Pavilion is intended to serve as a meeting point. Peslikas’ abstract landscapes open up discussions about art across nationalities and mediums. As part of the exhibition, which is on show at Associazione Culturale Spiazzi for all seven months of the biennale, Peslikas is collaborating with Cyprus-based artist collective Neoterismoi Toumazou, Lebanese artist writer Mirene Arsanios and Cypriot ceramicist Valentinos Charalambous, a veteran artist now in his 80s who spent decades living in Iraq. Each collaborator will produce a newspaper that will be available at the pavilion, to be read in front of Peslikas’ paintings, and a series of events will run throughout the duration of the biennale.
“It’s about this connection that painting can create with other mediums,” he explains. “All these three collaborators are people we consider guests in the pavilion, so the idea of the guest is very important — how you can shape this idea of inviting people in and creating new spaces.”
Using opaque layers, Peslikas evokes the past as well as the future. “Every time I come back here I think the way I experience everyday life is through layering — the layers of histories and also the layers that light reflects, which shape our view on the landscape and on the colour,” he says. “The paintings that are made from lots of translucent and transparent layers and the colour is very diluted but at the same time it’s almost as though it’s a fresco surface. There is this idea of the patina of time and of history shaped on the surface of the canvas.”
Although his layered colours speak of the Mediterranean as a meeting point between cultures, he worries that things are becoming more closed. His paintings aim to initiate discussion about the future. “We’re using a more poetic way of saying things about our generation’s experience and knowledge, asking how you carry knowledge from Valentino’s time to today, and how these things can connect people. It’s about asking what you know, what I know, and what can the two of us do together. This is very important for all of us involved in the Cyprus Pavilion this year: What can we do together?”
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 92-93.