[Review] Peter Eramian: Here’s to my Sweet Satan

For his third solo show, Cypriot artist Peter Eramian took over the former warehouse building of Volks in Nicosia to execute a freestyle, quasi-experimental artistic project. Titled Here’s to my Sweet Satan, the project unfolded like a free-jazz improv between “overlapping concepts, forms, references from different periods, texts” and “process” (as the artist told me over chat), all of which resulted in an exhibition featuring a large-scale installation, smaller works and a publication. While preparing all this, Peter Eramian documented his own process and teased his audience with poignant social media posts, which as I found out later were more part of his ongoing exploration than the result of calculated posting. “The task”, he told me, “is to find threads”; indeed, this project ramifies into many different directions that are somehow interconnected, albeit not always clear how. But it is on this web of ideas, executed intentions, superstition, philosophy and historical fact that we’re asked to wander, explore and make our own associations. Sophisticated, methodical and consistent, Here’s to my Sweet Satan rises to confront major conceptual questions that are much bigger than its scale, and does so with firmness and intellectual alacrity.

Voyager 1 is now beyond our solar system and travelling away from the sun at a speed of 61,000 km/h.

The whole project pivots on four stories Peter Eramian chose and sent out in lieu of a press release. The first of the stories is about “Sixteen Tons”, a song about an American coal miner from the 1940’s whose lyrics at some point say: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt”. The song refers to how mining companies back in the day exploited workers through debt slavery and scrip payment: the workers had to live in company-owned houses with rent deducted from their salary, and were then paid with coupons that could only be used to buy goods at the company store. As a result, the workers were locked into working for the company indefinitely, with little chance of saving money in order to pursue a better future elsewhere. Then we read a completely different story, namely that of the Voyager Golden Records from the 1970’s, which involves NASA sending into outer space records containing audiovisual samples of life on Earth and human culture. Meant as a time-capsule of life on Earth, these records are on both Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, and instructions on how to use them are engraved on their surface. Voyager 1 is now beyond our solar system and travelling away from the sun at a speed of 61,000 km/h.

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Representation reduces fluid processes into rigid descriptions —a procrustean mutilation of interconnected events and entities.

According to Peter Eramian, what these stories have in common is representation —or rather “the failure of representation” and “what escapes representation, which is always affect”. Made-up currency that facilitates slavery is thus connected to golden disks travelling through outer space with the hope that they’ll accidentally bump into aliens. Particularly in the second story, it’s very clear how dogmatic this projection of representation is; it also reveals its crushing reduction of fluid processes into rigid descriptions, a procrustean mutilation of interconnected events and entities in order to fit a sentence, a plaque, a record. In other words, what exists as open is folded unto itself and rendered closed, much like a mushroom is cut from its mycelium and packed to be sent to the supermarket.   

The four stories Peter Eramian picked for his project were also given to four writers with the instruction to write their own texts in response, but without any other explanation of what this project would be about or the final format of the finished exhibition. These four texts by Maria Kassianidou, Christopher Rey Pérez, Evagoras Vanezis and Emiddio Vasquez Hadjilyra were then published as a booklet released on the night of the opening. The booklet didn’t act as the exhibition’s catalogue but more as an extension of the whole project, and is still available for sale in local bookstores. Interestingly, these texts became little pieces in their own right, and shed additional light on the themes of the project, by becoming part of the “free-jazz improv” Peter Eramian orchestrated (emphasis mine):

“Regarding closeness and openness, I wanted to strike that thin line where the one is verging into the other; not too close, not too open. That’s why I also commissioned the four writers to respond to the four references, trying to ‘tightly weave’ them together and see what readings I can achieve by ‘closing’ them together. In a sense we are a band improvising together within a set framework and instruments/concepts. It’s not just the words, it’s the play between the words, myself as an ‘artist’, the ‘artwork’, the texts, the context, etc”. 

It’s here, in this creative complicity that the heart of this whole project lies. Here’s to my Sweet Satan emerges from a closeness that at the same time is ready to be smashed open like a pomegranate. Peter Eramian drew from Reza Negarestani, the Iranian philosopher, on this point, and particularly from this quote from the chapter Contingency and Complicity [1] (emphasis mine):

“Complicity exhibits this necessary shift from the inhibitive role of commonalities to the role of closure as a focused engagement with contingency, its intrusions, twists and suspensions. Whilst openness domesticates the thought of contingency through affordable states of interaction, commonalities and other forms of soft dogma, closure, on the other hand, turns itself into a ‘good meal’ or a ‘genuine prey’ for the real expression of contingency and its unrestricted play: the more closed a work, the more radically it is subjected to the interventions of its contingent materials, the wider it is broadened and butchered opened to the outside. Therefore, we can say that closure realises openness in its radical sense: not as openness toward the possibility of contingencies from the outside, but as a ‘being opened’ by the contingent materials that form the work”. 

By opening up the process to an indefinite number of constituents —that nevertheless gravitate towards a very particular place, time and theme— Peter Eramian achieves what Negarestani describes: a radical openness disguised as closeness, like a potential forest of fig trees is contained within the fruit. And although presented in the conventional format of a visual arts exhibition, Here’s to my Sweet Satan leaks through the cracks of its own container, and chips off onto us as we encounter it and reflect upon it. In that sense, the work is not the exhibition per se, but the entire (and irritatingly elusive) network of associations, actions and experiences it has ignited.

*

Like a case of aural pareidolia, abstract sounds inevitably acquire meaning because perhaps that’s just what our brains are wired to do.

The exhibition’s title alludes to the third of the stories, this time from 1982: it was then claimed that hidden messages could be heard in many popular songs if they were played backwards, the most famous example of which being Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Supposedly, if played backwards, the song contained in its middle section the phrases “here’s to my sweet Satan” and “I sing because I live with Satan”. Like a case of aural pareidolia, abstract sounds inevitably acquire meaning because perhaps that’s just what our brains are wired to do. And naturally, when one discovers meaning on the dark side of reality, that meaning has to be dark itself —and within a Christian context, whatever comes from the other side of rationality and dogma comes from Satan. It makes perfect sense then that, in a way, Peter Eramian dedicated the whole project to Satan, as the title he chose for his project implies. But he introduces Satan more as a symbol of emancipated emotional potentiality: “Language/representation is always dogmatic, in that it claims something it always fails to convey, like most religions. Satan within this framework is the negative energy that rejects dogma. Satan thus exists as affect”.

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To destroy structures of representation in order to make room for affect: this is exactly what this exhibition set out to do. The vast space, like a huge concrete cave, was echoing with the song “Here Comes the Sun” playing from an unseen speaker (as part of the installation Over and above just play; over and above mere curiosity, 2016). Adding to this repetitive soundtrack was the passing by of cars on the avenue behind the warehouse, rhythmical and even, coming and going like waves crushing at the doorstep of a seaside cathedral. In the centre of it all, the immersive installation Almost Literally (Queer little gods) (2016), for which Peter Eramian brought no less than 16 tons of rock to Volks and spread them across the concrete floor, under the eerie light of red fluorescent lamps. The rocks were brought by a large truck and were unloaded outside the building, and then the artist spent a week carrying them inside by himself: he would first wash them with water one by one, then put them in a wheelbarrow, carry them inside, and unload them in piles without any conscious intention of arranging them in any particular order. The piece’s title references American scholar and writer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and her description of every affect as a “queer little god”. Sedgwick uses the term to describe any affect, and that for Peter Eramian “opposes the idea of one totalising dogmatic god”. For the artist, each pile of stones in the work “is a queer little god”. Like a field of monuments or burial mounts from a time well before history, these piles create narrow, random pathways, along which visitors wander and explore.

The overall experience inside the exhibition space was indeed one of mysticism and reverence.

Interestingly, the environment the exhibition creates is clean, almost purified. The fact that the rocks were carefully washed before they were brought inside, and that dirty debris (when introduced) is neatly placed on a table (Broken Record, 2016) add to the sense of cleanliness, or purification even. The aforementioned installation Over and above just play… was installed inside a dark room and consisted of just its darkness and The Beatles’ song playing over and over again, creating an almost religious contradiction between its lightless immateriality and the illuminated massive rock installation in the main hall. The overall experience inside the exhibition space was indeed one of mysticism and reverence: visitors walked carefully and silently amongst the rock piles, their black figures moving like apparitions in the red light. Walking around this installation I felt that the rocks could be islands or mountains, and the “queer little gods” of the title were in fact us, towering divine and powerful over these scattered worlds, visiting briefly from another dimension.

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Outside the exhibition space and in front of the closed garage doors sat another work titled 1 percent (2016). This was made basically from the soil and gravel that was left from the larger rocks: as Peter Eramian was washing the rocks with a hose, the soil ran down to the base of the pile forming a layer of mud —a “footprint” as the artist called it of the labour that had taken place there. The title refers to a Cypriot law dictating that one percent of the budget of all new public buildings should be spent for commissioning new artworks, which are then installed in the building. For the artist, this trace of work done also relates to representation:

“By spreading out my labour across Volks, and giving the viewer the chance to walk through [the traces of] my labour, I am challenging the dogmatic notion of representation as a claim (be it information, language, numbers, media, and also religion, ideology, etc). 16 tons (as a number, a representation) is rejected by me as a number, words, and translated into a performance where I actually ‘experience’ 16 tons directly via my body”.

Evidently, for Peter Eramian, the process of making the works was as important as the finished result, hence the deliberate incorporation of traces, marks of the artist’s presence. But the intention here was not to create *a room filled with rocks*, but simply to fill. In that sense, Here’s to my Sweet Satan doesn’t point to the hardships that will eventually release us into the bliss of heaven (as in the famous Roman quote per aspera ad astra), but points to the stars themselves, as if they were on Earth all along. Toiling on the Earth is part of being human, not the means for escaping humanness. In Here’s to my Sweet Satan, what at first appeared as a hellish nightmare of mortality dissolves within an explosion of stardust, that sticks to one’s clothes like glitter after the party. 

Sic itur ad astra

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The exhibition Here’s to my Sweet Satan by Peter Eramian was presented at Volks Project – Warehouse 5 exhibition space (101 Charalampou Michael Street, Nicosia, tel. +357-22003300) from 24 November to 16 December 2016.

Peter Eramian Official Website
Volks Project Official Website

Notes
[1] Reza Negarestani, 2011. Contingency and Complicity. In: Robin Mackay (editor), The Medium of Contingency. Urbanomic. pp11-18.

All photos by Kiriakos Spirou.

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