N I K E   S A V V A S

Big Fat Greek Ozzy Sculpture

Patricia Ellis

Black Dog Publishing


A wee forewarning to the sensitive among us, the following text may cause offence through its intentional use of post- colonial irony. This brand of off-colour humour parodies the brutish ignorance of cultural stereotypes to recontextualise them as effective tools of empowerment. Exaggerating perceived social ‘deficiencies’ and ‘differences’ to heroic, triumphing proportions (which is the central ethos of Nike Savvas’ work), this text draws performatively from the prosaic typecasting put forth by blockbuster films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Crocodile Dundee to further celebrate and champion the fantastically gregarious and self- created contemporary mythologies of Greek and Australian nationalism. In England, we call this “taking the piss” and it is a custom that may only be performed amongst friends. If you’re not offended, however, it’s not such a bad thing: it shows you have a predisposition for the  finer points of meretriciousness. And if you are, well, apologies in advance. In England, we also have another saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

When portions of this text were originally published in Australia, the above disclaimer was insisted upon by the perpetually nervous powers that be, who live in yellow-bellied fear of being mislabelled “racist” by the PC Brigade, who apparently, in their solecism-fuelled zeal, roam the Outback like some vicious species on a constant and voracious hunt for fresh prey (when they’re not too busy double-checking their recycling’s correctly sorted in the right coloured bags or attending ‘elf and safety meetings). Soundly back on British soil, where people are normal and properly educated and even small children understand parody, the above paragraph should be ignored. You know perfectly well that Greeks and Australians can never be underestimated as comedy fodder—their parochial ways are just too funny. As Brits, you should feel totally free to laugh at them because you know you are better than they are. It’s just a fact, enjoy it. PS—You get a send up too, fair play.

One thing about the Greeks is that they have no taste; it’s not that they can’t taste, but rather prefer to swallow life whole. Their appetites are ravenous, awe-inspiring, gluttonous, and bottomless. They decorate their houses like Las Vegas went on sale at an all-Hellenic discount factory, will wear any out t as long as it includes  oral print and brocade, consider a 14-course banquet to be a light snack, and have elevated idle gossip to an Olympic sport. Aussies, on the other hand, are outback innovators: everready with their can-do attitude of booze-fuelled optimism, they can shear a sheep, wrestle an alligator, and bitch slap you three times running without ever taking their eye off the barbie.1 In short, they take ef ciency to a whole new, if slightly threatening, level.2

There’s no doubt about it, all the very best things are made up by halves, and the very very best is Nike Savvas. Both Greek-Cypriot and Australian, she lives between London and Sydney; and at six feet tall and a dead ringer for Angelica Huston, Nike will be the first to tell you that she’s often mistaken for a bloke, though she’s 100 per cent all woman.3 Herself being neither one thing nor another, neither here nor there, Savvas’ art resides in the realm of liminality: synchronously formalist and narrative, incomprehensively beautiful and tacky, handmade and prefab, hers is a future brand of sculpture that surpasses existing limitations. Sculpture as we know it comes with certain rules: it has three- dimensional form that occupies physical space, and strives for a certain material and aesthetic purity. It resides in the realm of the bespoke: elitist one-of-a-kind creations, luxurious and indulgent, catering to the hardcore connoisseur. ...And then there is Greek Cypriot Aussie sculpture. Everyone knows that Down Under they do things backwards. And they just won’t stand for snobbery.

It’s a little known fact that more than ten per cent of shoppers modify the products they buy to better suit their needs. This doesn’t apply to minor things, like shortening trousers or re-upholstering your sofa, but a more determined approach to correcting the inadequacies of available options. Liquid Paper was invented by a typo-prone secretary who mixed tempura paint with a bunch of other household stuff in her kitchen blender; mountain bikes were developed by a group of guys who took a fancy to riding flat-tired bikes off-road and evolved a more durable velocipede from a mish-mash of found parts; and the sports bra was the brain child of two abundantly-chested women who had the divine inspiration to stick two jock straps together and wear them upside-down as a halter.5 The thing with all these products is that they are cobbled together from existing products. They are user-tailored modifications, overcoming the flaws of off-the-shelf ordinary.6

When it comes to making sculpture, for Savvas, nothing short of monumental will do. Being Greek, her penchant for the epic is genetic, as is the out of proportion spirit of generosity that underlies her spectacles. Her installations—which have encompassed entire museums, city streets,7 and once even subsumed the Turkish-Greek Cypriot border—are nothing short of astounding.8 Especially considering how they’re made. Being Australian, Savvas’ favourite media by far are the Yellow Pages and Amex. For her, shopping is a creative process.9 From dollar stores and market stalls, remnant outlets and dodgy websites, to cottage industry craftsmen in obscure parts of the world: plastic bobbles and tinsel, mirrored bijoux and glass knickknacks, disco balls and flashing lights, pretty much anything shiny, glittery, or dayglo (i.e. Greek) are acquisitioned for her sculptures. Tat, for Savvas, has a magpie appeal in its democracy of affordable glamour. It holds the bedazzling allure of simulation’s excess, of movie starlets and drag queens, night clubs on holiday, make believe and transient fantasy. It signifies commerce, and globalism, mass manufacture, and fetish, kitsch’s epitomising cultural summation. Within tat’s abjectness lies aspiration, of a dispossessed kind: of the misfit and inferior, can’t-afford-it-make- do, immodest and tawdry, unsophisticated. (And this unspoken of always: new immigrant dreams, wanna-be and ambitious; the garishness of difference and glistening allure of ordinariness, the adornments of little girls too brown, too tall, or too ‘ugly’).10 It’s not things that sparkle that ever get noticed, only the fleeting illusion of their reflection.

In TV shows,  flashback sequences always have that on-the-cheap nostalgia- land aesthetic and retro  lm stock quality—imagining the set of Summer Bay will do nicely. The picture will go blurry then white, with some psychedelic cloud effects. When the scene focuses again it’s the late 80s (in all its embarrassing glory). The camera pans down a street of perfectly manicured homes—passing tanned surfer girls, muscley boys waxing sports cars, waspy women ringing doorbells armed with Marmite sarnies in Tupperware—and stops at the Savvas’ humble abode.11 Nick Cave is blaring loudly from the garage (zoom in). Young Savvas is a burgeoning Goth yet to discover the powers of conditioner and more-is-better cleavage: long black hair, frizzy and feral (more Slash than Morticia), and enough eyeliner to frighten Alice Cooper. Her out t—black (for lack of a better word) garb12—is lying on the  oor in a morass, heaped between a freezer full of moussaka13 and the family’s prized gaida collection.14 Savvas is butt-ass naked, making Yves Klein- style body prints.15 Her mum believes nudity is the eighth deadliest sin16 and Sister number one17 is on the lookout. The only thing more acute than a Greek mother’s sense of ‘something’s up’ is her children’s life preservation instinct:18 so, when Mrs Savvas comes in, Nike’s magically fully dressed (thoroughly covered in wet ink underneath) with paint brush in hand. To this day Mrs Savvas believes her daughter was making abstract paintings. (oops, sorry)

Despite Savvas’ predilection for ‘stuff’, the paradox of her work is that it’s immaterial. The physical antithesis of sculpture, it’s not objects that are important but their re ectability, luminescence, or aura. No matter how large, corporeal, or concrete, her art is always intangible. The essence lies somewhere between effort, experience, and non-surface, like a blessing or wish, an offering of heartfelt generosity. Her thrifty goods are mere components, loaded readymades for disembodiment, disappeared by their own in nite volume. It’s not the materials themselves that imbue the work’s enchantment, but Savvas’ devotional hand- making. Her aggregative compositions are the result of consummate determination and labour, the disciplined and meditative repetition of actions. Hers is a process of physics, of time and energy, of arithmetic inverted to Zen. The cumulative difference between one and 1,000 is endlessly expansive nothingness.

Savvas’ Atomic: full of love, full of wonder, 2005, strung 70,000 hand-painted (in 25 colours) Styrofoam balls on  shing wire across a room; 40 rows deep, 40 rows high, each spanning 14 metres. The numbers were astronomical, but the effect was sheer emptiness: creating the illusion of a landscape that sprawls, reaching for forever, in the hazy vapour of mist. Equally elusive, her Sliding Ladder, 2010—an architectural-scale work of string art created entirely from wool—is also pure maths, based on the formula x2/3 + y2/3 = L2/3.19 It incorporates over 5,000 meters of yarn, twined around 4,000 nails, contains 1,200 vectors, and took over 70 hours to achieve. Savvas’ vast multiplied sums prove the implausibly absurd logic of building\ a line in three-dimensional form. The real enigma, however, is how the strings are irrelevant: they’re a functional supporting device like a plinth. The experience of the piece is like being inside a rainbow, awash in the clouds of luminous aural hue that radiate in the air around them.

To create magic from muck is an alchemy-voodoo, an endeavour at home- made utopia.20 It starts with the mystical tricks of the mind, and the sugary web of nostalgia: a children’s craft camp exercise, ill- tting nana’s knitting, the stuff of 60s shag-pile suburbia; Bridget Riley’s psychedelic paintings, Vernor Panton’s environments, and Robert Morris’ shape interaction. Private and public entangled in memory, Savvas treats all as intrinsically, preciously, personal. Art history, for Savvas, is yet another readymade product, for democratic ownership and use. Minimalism’s couture, its svelte high-class aesthetic, like tat, claims a pretentiousness and vulnerability. As if Sol LeWitt took a wrong left turn at Dame Edna (with all of her down-home charisma), Savvas’ sculptures craft grandness from meagre means. Con gured from yarn and pine planks, her small scale sculptures from the Sliding Ladder series,21 such as Dihexagonal #1 and Pyramid #1, refract like gems in their humbling simplicity. Their geometric frames, like reliquary shrines, house visions mystical to behold, as trajectories of colour, with their peripheral fuzz, create supernaturally phantasmal prisms. Each one an encased story of shared memory and desire, laced with optimism, hope, joy, peace and love; sentiments so huge, so important, universal, can only be told through abstraction.

Inspired by the 1965 Responsive Eye exhibition held at New York’s MoMA,22 Savvas’ Liberty and Anarchy, 2012, translates the psychedelia of Op art painting23 into a fully immersive and interactive experience: it’s comprised of 18 parallel free- standing screens, transforming the Leeds Art Gallery24 into a labyrinth. Based on the principle of moiré,25 where unaligned grids are overlapped, each of the panels stretches three metre lengths of coloured plastic ribbons, 2,500 bands in total, at skewed angles. When seen head-on it looks like a gargantuan DIY Vasarely. When the viewer moves even slightly to the right or the left the entire pattern shifts, becoming an Anonima Group design, a Gene Davis painting, a rave’s hallucinogenic projection, (or a nightmarish vision of Paul Smith’s HQ). As visitors traverse between the screens, they see not one painting, but millions, in constant mutation and morph, each more excessively dazzling than the next. Because everyone is different, no one will view the piece at the exact same eye-height angle of perspective, proximal distance or speed; Liberty and Anarchy is a truly bespoke experience: being inside a painting, that is every painting, each one made especially for everyone: especially for you. Its effect is overwhelming, rapturous, splendorous, vertigo-inducing, and visually aggressive. It’s an indescribable sensation (being neither one thing nor another), genuine awe is anxiety-pleasure. Like so many inventions, Savvas’ own brand of sculpture is made not of wholes but by parts: part underdog and part glorious; vulgar and re ned; plebeian and utterly phenomenal. Her user-modi ed monumentalism is a refreshingly human and democratic art, celebrating the ordinariness of difference: the unequivocal, stupefying, magni cent, astonishing beauty of the Big Fat Greek Ozzie in all of us.


1 To further clarify the terminologies used in this text, Greeks are a people who either live or have ancestral origin in the country of Greece. Greek-Cypriots are Greeks who live or have ancestral origin in the island of Cyprus. Aussies are people who live or have ancestral origin in the continent of Australia, and are well known as role models of good humour and healthy living, as exemplified by famous Aussies such as Nicole Kidman, Kyle Minogue, and the entire cast of Neighbours. Ozzies, on the other hand, are largely a  ction of stereotype, made popular by Paul Hogan’s infamous character, or the more anthropologically regressive image of Mel Gibson on a bender.

2 Both of which are a damned sight better than the Poms, with their priggish superiority, poor dental hygiene, utter bureaucratic ineptitude, and buggery-orientated sexual repression.

3 As Greeks have such a fine appreciation of gossip I don’t mind recalling here the time Nike was in a bar in Scotland and was propositioned (yet again) by a Glaswegian primordial dwarf* with the never-fail pick up line: “Go ahead, luscious, show us your balls.” To which Nike, looking way, way, WAY down, without batting an eyelash, replied, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”, and got MUCH more than she bargained for. * Not to be confused with the general shortness and slightly Neanderthal appearance of many Glaswegians (a genetic trait common due to malnutrition from deep fried Mars bar-based diets), this lusty guy was a genuine medical primordial dwarf, characterised by his very small size and proportionate body parts (except for one!).

4 Bette Nesbitt Graham was also, coincidentally, the mother of Mike Nesbitt, the be-tuqued singer with the 60s pop band The Monkees. http://inventors.about.com/ od/lstartinventions/a/liquid_paper.htm

5 In 1977 by Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl; adverse in every way to keeping good women down, Miller became the senator of Vermont in 2002. http://www.inc.com/ ss/14-inventors-we-love?slide=3

6 For more on user-modified inventions check out: Eric Von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, 2005.Free downloadable copies at: http://web.mit.edu/ evhippel/www/books.htm 

7 Commissioned as part of the Laneway Art Programme, Savvas’ Rush, 2010, ceilinged the entire length of Bridge Lane in Sydney’s city centre with multicoloured bunting. The thousands of shiny ribbons, waving in the breeze, transformed the sky to a  oating wave of pure light, ever-rolling with its sense of weightless celebration. This piece’s simple technology and community spirit were inspired by a trip to Brazil, where she saw locals transform their neighbourhoods with homemade FIFA World Cup decorations crafted from plastic shopping bags.

8 One of the few artworks in world history to be of cially classified by the UN as an International Incident, Savvas’ Green Line Project, 2001, was never actualised. As a humanitarian endeavour and exemplar of art’s real power, her idea exists as a very poignant piece of conceptual art. The plan was to launch 10,000 balloons from the Town Hall in Nicosea, each bearing a handwritten personal message from the citizens of the Republic of Cyprus seeking to reconnect with family and friends they’d been separated from since the 1974 Turkish invasion. The balloons were meant to rise up in the colours of the Cypriot flag and float over the border to the north of the island. The piece was highly publicised in both Greek and Turkish media, resulting in political furore on both sides: President Denktash (Occupied Cyprus) issued an of cial complaint to the UN, closing the border checkpoints, and threatening to have the military shoot the art work down, and President Kleridis (Republic of Cyprus) insisted the piece be postponed...indefinitely.

9 Nike will surely be appalled by this statement, as her work is so painstakingly labour-intensive. I can imagine her now saying, “If I could just buy the bloody work I would!” (yes, Aussie). But it’s during the initial shopping process where Savvas’ ideas are formed: the strolling up and down aisles, roving eye, touchy feely, making mental, tactile, intuitive connections, her brain lighting up like  reworks. When she  nds the right thing it is truly a sight to behold: she’s like a warrior goddess of nuclear explosion desire, armed to the teeth with a Greek mother’s bartering skills. Truth be told, I pity the shop keepers, they really don’t stand a chance.

10 Savvas herself never overtly speaks of this, though the sentiment of otherness runs through her work with an intense power. Once, just once, on a late night visit to Savvas’ studio in 1996, there were a few beers partaken, and an unguarded remark slipped out about being called “dirty” at school because of her skin tone. It was at the time Nike was working on nice bubbles, a mesmerizingly precarious installation of a wall completely covered in hand blown glass orbs that looked nothing like glass at all, but rather hundreds of swollen soap bubbles impossibly frozen in pearlescent, purifying wonder.

11 Lovingly built brick by brick by Nike’s father, the Savvas family home is a testament to the integrity of Mr Savvas Kyriacou, whose story exempli es the plight and unsung heroism of immigrants everywhere—though he would surely have disdained such grand claims: virtue and humility are fundamental Kyriacou family values, and ones which he  rmly instilled in his children. Mr Savvas grew up in Trachoni Kythrea, Cyprus, in what might optimistically be described as abject poverty: a family with six children living in a one-room dirt- oored shepherd’s cottage, they were hard-working folk who made their living from gathering herbs from the mountains to sellat the local market. He left school at the age of nine to become a builder’s apprentice; by some form of miracle (and sheer grit determination) he was able to save enough money for a steerage ticket and emigrated to Australia in 1949, where he anglicised his name to Ken Savvas and took up day-labour in construction, sending the majority of his earnings back to Cyprus to support his family (which, in keeping with the Kyriacou code of honour, was never spent, but kept in trust for him in a post of ce account). Working gruelling hours, Mr Savvas eventually earned enough to purchase a second-hand truck and went into business for himself, gaining a wide-spread reputation for his diligence and honesty. He was recognised by all, Greeks and Aussies alike, as a gregarious community leader, devoted to his family, church, and neighbours. He took special pleasure in welcoming new immigrants to Canberra, his adopted home, which he was so proud to be part of, and was renowned for his generosity in charitable and civic projects. Mr Savvas rarely spoke of his early life experiences: his mother, brother and sister were murdered in the Turkish Invasion, and he bore such unimaginable horrors with quiet dignity, teaching his children to cherish every precious moment of life, to honour their humble origins and share their privilege. Modest of his worldly successes, Mr Savvas considered his family to be his greatest achievement, and he lavished his children with attention and love, bestowing them with the guidance to “do the right thing and you’ll never ever fall by the wayside.” In 1986, Mr Savvas was invited by the Australian government to assist with the development of his neighbourhood nature strip, where the 14 olive trees he planted, with their rustic shimmering leaves, stand as a continuing symbol of his legacy.

12 Adorned with (Greeks can do Goth too): black sequins, black lace, black pearls, black  ligree skulls and pentagrams, each morbidly glam layer with its own set of ever larger shoulder pads, topped off with about  ve kilos of costume jewellery and rhinestone-studded Doc Martins (picture a satanic Elton John at a funeral).

13 That the garage at the Savvas’ family home in Canberra resembles a NASA-style deep freeze warehouse is something of a  ctional embellishment, though likely not far from the truth if assuming Nike’s home economic skills were learnt from her mother. Nike’s home in London is the site of the largest refrigerator in the British Isles and houses no less than 60 ‘emergency’ moussakas at any given time (you never know when someone will pop in for lunch). Any remaining space is given over to spanakopitas, yiaourtlou, and baklava, which, by the way, freezes exceptionally well.

14 Developed c. 100 AD, the gaida is a Greek instrument, not dissimilar to the Scottish bagpipe, with the exception that it is made from the entire body of a goat and not just the stomach. The goat is hollowed out and its legs are replaced by chanters and drones (also inserted into the goat’s mouth if the head is left intact). The gaida player holds said goat against their belly and squeezes the bloated carcass to make noise, which sounds very much like a live goat would if it were to be squeezed in a similar manner. (There is a reason the Hellenic empire failed...)

15 ‘Savvas’ earliest works bear little resemblance to her monumental installations for which she’s become well- known, though give insightful precedent to her interest in identity politics. Made from police  ngerprinting kits, these student-era works incorporate imprinted body parts, Orthodox crosses, and untranslatable Greek words, highlighting the problems of measuring personal identity against wider cultural frameworks: the texts for example, can be read by someone who is Greek literate, but the true meaning the words convey canonly be grasped by someone who is fully  uent in Greek culture. Savvas explains that most of the words relate to emotions—but insists there are no English equivalents; this untranslatability isn’t only a description of cultural difference, but also a metaphor for the incommunicability of individual experience, the uniqueness that de nes all of us. Over the past twenty years, Savvas’ work has increasingly moved towards abstraction: shape, form, and colour creating a truly open and universal language that encourages individual interpretation and response.

16 I’ve never met Nike’s mother, but I can certifiably guarantee three things about the woman: 1) she commands ultimate respect—earthquakes, tsunami and other world-ending disasters do not invoke the awe that Mrs Savvas does in her children; 2) Mrs Savvas possesses more secret intelligence than MI5: only a mother with full and complete knowledge of her children’s misdeeds could tolerate their  imsy excuses and cover-ups (because even well into their forties, none of her kids have ever drank, smoked, done drugs, had sex, or been naked, even in the bath). And 3) she is extremely serious about laundry. Her iron is the most expensive and complicated piece of technology existing outside of the LHC compound. It is such an impressive bit of equipment to behold it radiates an aura of divinity. I pressed a pair of trousers with it three years ago while visiting Nike in Cyprus and they are still crisply creased. Amen.

17 Nike has so many sisters no one can keep track of them; they surely have names, but due to sheer volume and the exclusively Greek-gossip context of their supposed existence, they are known only by exploit: there’s the one who’s the semi-pro grand prix driver (“the tabloids here call her The Helmet Haired She-Speeder, you’d think it’d be insulting, but the kids are emulating her look!”), the one who got her luggage lost en route to Thailand (“she complained so loudly the airline put her up in a 7 star hotel for the whole duration of her holiday and bought her a new wardrobe, good on her”), the one who climbed Mount Kilamanjaro and raised $3 million for charity (“she’s a saint sent from heaven saving all of those children, but it’s totally ruined her manicure”), the one with the incredible fashion sense who never pays full price for anything (“seriously, you should have seen her in that dress, she looked like Angelina Jolie on Oscar night, and she found it at Sally Ann, would you believe?”), and the one who invented the steel capped stiletto ( “she’s an absolute genius—now ladies can do industrial labour and show off their shapely legs. She’s made a fortune out of it, but still keeps her job at the mill—and who can blame her, the hunky blokes down there worship her like a goddess. She’s working on a new non-skid variation so she won’t slip in their drool.”) That’s already more gossip than sisters: you can see how easy it is to get confused. She also has a brother, who is adored, if traumatised.

18 Except when it comes to  sh, which is a cultural difference worth pausing to explore. When right-minded people (i.e. British) see  sh, they think: tasty. Regardless of species, for the English,  sh serve one purpose only, and that is to be battered and served up with chips and mushy peas. When they see small  sh, they imagine using them as bait to catch larger, tastier  sh, then their thoughts will meander to various batter recipes, ranging from traditional lager- based mixtures to more elaborate Heston Blumenthal liquid nitrogen concoctions, to fry or to freeze being the most contentious national debate. PC-mad Australians on the other hand, see  sh and think: human rights. And immediately phone Amnesty International if they perceive it’s in any way oppressed. Done in collaboration with the artist Nicole Mather, Savvas’  rst large-scale installation, Ichthyoid, 1991, which used live gold sh— in their natural habitat:  shbowls—as a metaphor toaddress social isolation, caused such outrage that she’s still registered on a Piscesphile Offenders list in Sydney.

19 Like most maths, x2/3 + y2/3 = L2/3 has a very practical everyday use: it is the equation that will tell you how high a ladder will reach pending the distance you place its base from the wall. Note: A Brit will always work out this problem in longhand, being sure to show all calculations and sums, before commencing any building project; an Aussie, on the other hand, will just move the ladder as appropriate. (Yet only one of them is a genius...)

20 Globe-trotter Savvas has designed her practice entirely around her liminal existence, with her large studio in Canberra acting like the mother ship to her various satellite bases. Sliding Ladder and the accompanying sculptures were entirely made at home(s) between London, Nicosia, Sydney, and Canberra.

21 The small sculptures in this series measure about 1.20 metres and allude to architectural maquettes envisioning sublime hyper-futuristic structures with some primordial ritual function. Savvas’ recent sculptures, such as Sliding Ladder (black with white pentagon), utilise the same methodology to create modular life-scale ‘virtual realities’, which occupy the gallery like DIY space age black holes or force fields.