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The collator and the dreamer
An exhibition in Nicosia pokes fun at a lot of what it means to be Cypriot. THEO PANAYIDES meets the man behind it
A coffin on a bier, just off Eleftheria Square in Nicosia. Passersby seem untroubled by its presence. Most of them don’t even blink when a brass band appears, wearing masks that make them look like big babies. These are the ‘Mamothrefti’, or ‘Mummy’s Boys’ (the piece is a video loop called ‘The Death of the Mother’). They surround the coffin and strike up the national anthem of Cyprus, which of course is also the anthem of Greece, the ‘motherland’. Watching bystanders seem unsure what to think. One old man sings along. The music finishes; the band leader turns to camera, and bows solemnly.
Peter Eramian’s work makes you want to know more about him. Who comes up with something like ‘The Death of the Mother’, paired – for cultural bona fides – with the modified text of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’? Who, amid the hubbub of the Diamond Jubilee, takes Mrs Maria Aresti (a homely old lady with a fuzzy moustache), decks her out in a gown resembling those of Queen Liz, and photographs her in regal poses for a piece called ‘The Queen and the Pauper’? Who makes something like ‘My International Mall of Cyprus’, a piece that imagines the deserted hulk of Nicosia Airport turned into a giant mall with shops and rides (‘The Green Line Rollercoaster’, ‘UN Go Karts Mayhem’), the latter illustrated with purposely crude collages – the kind of Art “where the audience is faced with a certain kind of tickle, which they don’t necessarily expect from Art”?
‘International Mall of Cyprus’ takes up an entire room at Omikron Gallery in Nicosia, part of Peter’s exhibition called ‘The Laughter’ (six pieces in all, including the three mentioned above). Omikron specialises in artists who are young and unconventional, and Peter ticks both boxes – yet he’s actually much sweeter and dreamier than the scabrous satirist implied in his work. He’s 28 but seems younger, his Adam’s apple, close-cropped hair and thin, gangly frame recalling someone just out of their teens, albeit set off by a beard and enormous glasses. Then there’s his manner, which is diffident and refreshingly awkward; he stumbles over words – wondering if the ‘g’ is hard in ‘Angela Merkel’ – and punctuates his sentences with “kind of”s and “sort of”s. Despite the satire in his work, he dislikes the kind of humour borne of anger; he hates stand-up comics, for example. “I don’t like that humour, that kind of attack. It’s too cynical.”
It’s important to note that he’s not (just) an artist: he’s primarily a publisher, and indeed ‘The Laughter’ is “in essence a publishing project” – a tribute to the eponymous, now-forgotten satirical magazine that flourished in Cyprus in the 1930s. If the Omikron exhibits were the whole story, you might write him off as a smart-aleck young man with a knack for eye-catching concepts (the work, to be honest, has a touch of the dilettante), but in fact he edits and publishes two literary magazines, Shoppinghour – which is based in London and is up to Issue No. 8, ‘The Critique of Science’ – and The Cyprus Dossier, whose third issue (‘Sexual Tensions’) was published last month.
In effect, Peter is a gatherer – a gatherer of concepts, and a gatherer of people. Being an only child (his dad’s Armenian, his mother Greek Cypriot) may have had something to do with it. Being a quiet child also played a role. “Something that always, kind of, personally defined me when I was young was my apolitical-ness. I wasn’t very much aware of what was going on. I never really watched the News. I enjoyed playing a lot of videogames…” Art was a Plan B, something he fell back on when he didn’t get the grades for Philosophy (though he later did a Masters in that subject) – and he still seems a bit embarrassed by the naked Ego that comes with artistic self-expression, stressing over and over that almost all the works in ‘The Laughter’ “were done collaboratively”. On the magazines, too, “I’m working with people I love – not just because of their qualifications … One thing I love about Cyprus is the fact that you know so many people and there’s a certain kind of community, and wherever you go you meet people you know.”
He gathers them up, writers and collaborators and friends. “The best kind of fun is simply spending time with your friends,” he replies when I ask what he does for fun. His friends are “like family,” he adds – they’re the siblings he never had; “I’ve found it in my friends, this sort of brotherliness. Comradeship, you might say”. 40 years ago, Peter Eramian might’ve been a hippy organising Marxist communes. Now he edits magazines and makes avant-garde video loops – though still with a hippy’s disdain for angry people and big institutions. The EU is an “oppressive structure” replacing old-style colonialism with market colonialism. Globalisation is “international class war”. Some might say he’s not realistic, and that’s fine with him: “I don’t believe in realists. Realists are just cynical people, basically.”
Here’s the thing: walking through ‘The Laughter’ you might sniff the jaded air of yet another over-educated clever-clogs hurling barbs at Cyprus – poor old Cyprus, with its malls and corruption and domineering mummy culture. Yet the artist himself is nothing like that, a shy, dreamy fellow with a fervent-young-person’s idealism that’s really quite touching. “I’m not cynical about Cyprus – at all. I really believe in Cyprus,” says Peter Eramian. “If you want to take society forward, you have to believe in it. That belief is the most important thing. So I reject any kind of cynicism, in my magazines and so on”. You can’t change the world, he admits, “but the effort to try and change the world is invaluable”. So he wakes up at 5.30 every day, goes for a walk then spends six, seven, eight hours a day on the computer – seeking funds and collaborators, editing text, organising magazines and playing the occasional videogame (currently Batman: Arkham Asylum) just to “help [me] kind of explode a little bit”. Then he dresses up old ladies as the Queen of England, or indeed puts a coffin on a bier off Eleftheria Square.
Solo art show byPeter Eramian . Until June 21. Omikron Gallery, 2 Vasiliou Pavlou St, Nicosia. Monday-Friday 11am-1pm and 4pm-9pm. Saturday 10am-2pm. Tel: 22-678240