The work of Nike Savvas is characterised by forms, structures and materials that suggest an association with Minimalism. At first glance this identification would seem justified, but closer inspection reveals a formal affinity only. Savvas’ work departs from the conventions of Minimalism through an engagement with subjects that are quite apart from material and formal considerations. The subject matter in Savvas’ work frequently engages with the personal. When asked to speak about her installations, for example, Savvas relates circumstances or incidents as a direct influence. Her experiences as a Greek-Cypriot/Australian woman, being both between and within two cultures, is the basis for an exploration of the duplicitous nature of interpretation. Circulating specifically and at other times generally, the impossibility of translation between different cultures is a constant theme throughout Savvas’ installations. Minimalism, as seen in Savvas’ use of monochromes and industrial materials, is thus a vocabulary or a means of communication rather than an end in itself. Communique (1992) resembles the format of a book. Open, that is, at a puzzling yet remarkable page. The white gallery wall has been extended to the floor, which offsets over two hundred fluorescent monochromes arranged in horizontal lines like letters, words and sentences. The overwhelming brightness of the fluorescent colours jostle for visual attention with all the urgency of an advertising billboard. An occasional yellow painting is encased by Perspex, protecting one equally bright azure blue Ulysses butterfly from damage. The similar neon qualities of the butterflies and fluorescent paint conflate the natural and the artificial. This blurring of the distinction between real and false is also reflected in the idea that Communique is a translation. If this is the case, then, what is the original text of Communique? At the opening of this exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, Savvas was scolded by a viewer because she would not ‘translate’ the meaning of the code. The anxiety felt by this viewer is, perhaps, an expected reaction to the denial of information. In this case, however, the actual meaning of the code is immaterial because Communique attempts to resist translation. Communique’s significance, instead, lies in the way that it mimics language. Savvas has replaced letters with monochromes to draw our attention to the fact that language is itself a system of arbitrary signs which come to signify the real. Thousands of different coloured balls float within the gallery space. Made out of polystyrene, they bob up and down depending on the breeze. Titled Simple Division (1994-6), the saturation of colour and linear arrangement of balls in this installation is reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s colour theory of pointillism on a number of levels. Seurat’s pointillism is not only a painting style but also an analysis of the optical effects of colour. Savvas is interested in Seurat because of his critical breakdown of what we take for granted, namely vision. Simple Division is not simply a reference to Seurat but rather a translation from the two into three dimensions. In place of Seurat’s myriad of coloured dots on canvas, Savvas’ installation is composed of coloured beads in a state of flux. Another part of this installation comprises small black letters on transparent acetate, which were pinned to the opposite wall in reverse and arranged randomly. The placement of these letters in relation to the balls is disconcerting because it creates an uncertain viewpoint. In addition to this initial confusion, the letters oscillate between being familiar and strange. English is shown as a garbled mass of letters, in much the same way as it would appear to someone for whom it is a second language. This reversal of letters and the breakdown of vision into coloured beads alters, through perception, the way that we consider sight and language. Simple Division draws our attention to the fact that language, like visuality is naturalised.
Savvas’ work has also evolved to incorporate material differences in place of linguistic ones. This has recently taken the form, in particular, of anodised aluminium and polystyrene. The material opposition, between hard (aluminium) and soft (polystyrene), is also complemented by the subject matter. While the aluminium panels resemble hard edge minimal paintings, the polystyrene pieces nearly always possess a whimsical element. Head Boy (1995), for instance, combines a blue anodised aluminium painting with white polystyrene flowers. The blue monochrome has the numbers one two three cut out of its surface while on adjacent wall a series of generic flowers bloom. A strange numerological system is established, with each line reading like a chant – ‘1231’, ‘2312’ and finally ‘3123’. Savvas has spoken about this order as a reference to the waltz that as one dances, counting aloud becomes a way of maintaining the rhythm as well as remembering the steps. The tenuous link between flowers and numbers lies in the notion of systems. Head Boy suggests that the flowers, which seem randomly placed, are just as much part of a ‘natural’ system as a mathematical. This reference to systems is central to an understanding of Savvas’ practice. By using minimalist forms to express complex subjects, Savvas suggests that the artworld itself is a system which needs to be learnt.
Pure white bunny rabbits hop towards wall targets, perhaps hypnotised by the jarring optical patterns. This is the somewhat strange scenario depicted in united states (1996). A series of ten aluminium panels recall Frank Stella’s hard edge minimal paintings of the late 1960s. Although the arcs of different colours are similar to Stella’s innovative shaped canvases, the paintings in united states combine colour and pattern to destabilise vision. Making our eyes swim – garish colours are paired within each panel so that orange is with blue, chartreuse with magenta and orange with yellow. Each pattern forms a different perspective of circular radiations from central targets to concentric lines. In addition, the optical effect creates a shifting ground so that our eyes focus alternately on one or the other colour as foreground or background. All nine polystyrene bunny rabbits have a number cut out of them suggesting a correspondence with a painting. The bunnies are also mute and expressionless which is evidence of an industrial process of production. Although together the aluminium targets and polystyrene bunnies can be read as a tableau, in the context of Savvas’ oeuvre that can be best described as a commentary on interpretation. United states explores the tension between form and content. Taken literally the form of this installation resides in the minimal, both in presentation and materials, while the content appears to set the scene.
With the backdrop of yellow polka dots, a petite woman and pumpkin carriage, Bridget and Georges (1996) conjures up a scene from Cinderella. Savvas’ aluminium panels of yellow polka dots on a cyan background are a strange combination of Riley’s optical paintings and Seurat’s pointillism. Arranged in a grid, these panels are not uniform as one would expect from an industrial process. Instead, the tones in each panel alternate from light to dark which creates the sense of a grid rather than a large singular painting. The polka dot motif holds childhood associations of playfulness, which is reinforced by the polystyrene forms. A princess, pumpkin carriage and number three appear as if they were cut directly from the pages of a fairy tale. The title of this work also suggests a twee pairing of Riley and Seurat, not unlike characters from stories such as Hansel and Gretel. In these works of aluminium and polystyrene, as well as her earliest explorations of systems of meaning, Savvas incorporates the personal into what is most often perceived as an international style. What first began as an interest in the difference expressed through slippages in language, has now developed into a translation of material experience.
ISBN 0 9586920 1 7
Published by:Art Documentary Editions, Sydney, 1996