The City of Games: At the Fragile Balance of Life
Eleni Athanassiou
In her paintings as well in her installations, Vassiliki has documented the productive dialogue between art and life through everlasting cultural and religious figures and symbols. Her work as a whole is defined by coherent, autonomous thematic evolutionary units, and it forms a creative polyptich, which reflects genuine existential awakenings and a philosophical contemplation on man and the divine with a clear reference to the cross.

Her new installation City of Games is composed by a plethora of colors, shapes and endless arabesques flying into the air and outlined by the figures of Dancers, Acrobats, Guards and the Harlequins -the dominant figure of the City- through swings, the wheel, balls and other machine-made divices. Following the inspired Stavroschimites (cross-shaped figures), referring to the form of virtue through its embodiment in the human figure, Harlequins emerge as a key symbol of the artist's approach toward life, death and the divine.

A magestic «stage» with all the necessary paraphernalia promising the trip to the magic world of imagination through the unknown, behind which lurks the danger of balance, the City of Games is an independent, integrated and self-sufficient environment. It carries along its visitors due to the grandness of its extension and the indescribable game of the senses.

The characteristic multi-colored diamond shape costume of Harlequin, the protagonist of commedia dell' arte, is the primary motif of the City of Games. Dressing up the walls of its surroundings, the diamond shape evolves into an enigmatic game of color combinations that is based on the so-called optical experience and perception} The color tones, the combinations as well as the diamond shapes are almost never perceived to be the same. This differentiated optical perception is due to functions and stimuli of the human brain. A game of dizziness and intoxicating «hypnotism» accompanies the acrobatic attitude of the brain this time.

From social criticism and existential wanderings to metaphysical speculation; from the writings of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance commedia dell' arte, the 19th century vaudeville, and lonesco's theatre of the paradox, Harlequin never stopped stimulating the imagination, and feeding the charm of mystery Harlequin's enigmatic and continuously changing character, the persona who stood against social corruption and the paradox of life since the 16th century, is being revived in theatre, dance and the fine arts. In Vassiliki's work it plays a distinguished role, which also defines a certain standpoint regarding life.
Walking the tightrope between good and bad, serious and funny in order to conquer life is absolutely dangerous behavior, which entails tragic irony. A tragic figure, Harlequin is conceptually defined by the vivid antithesis between his colorful, entertaining appearance and his exceptionally serious psyche, demonstrate the fragile balance of his course and role, and alluding to the ontological dimension of the artist and the actor.

Perhaps the most suitable comment on Harlequin's psyche is the one given by Charles Baudelaire when referring to actors, that behind their triumph and hypocritical talent, actors hide a desperate soul. «How week and awkward, even comical this traveler but lately so adroit.»2

C.Baudelaire does not limit himself to the actor, but broadly refers to artists within the context of creation, and he attributes to them the dimension of a double identity or dual entity The importance of this dimension is exceptional, considering the particular relation between artists and their works as well as their fragile balance within the world.

Harlequin became once more one of the most popular figures in the cultural life of the 20th century, not merely with regard to history and the evolution of theatre, but as a archetypal figure: a personal, and at the same time impersonal figure, transcending psychology and history, referring to artistic archetypal figures.

Vassiliki was inspired by Harlequin's aura, which she perceives as a depository of energy with a dual substance; she also perceives it as a challenge for creation, and a dangerous, yet appealing fascinating standpoint toward life and death, due to the interaction and effervesce of the opposite powers of the soul. For Vassiliki the depiction of Harlequin and of the notion of the paradox, which gives life its tragic substance through the arts, has been a challenge of expression.

The comic and, at the same time, tragic basis of the absurd through pain and human sacrifice, a model of which is Christ's sacrifice, is perceived by the artist as a moving power for the research on Harlequin and his world. Within the Harlequin's figure, man sees the struggle of the soul against the martyrdom of its embodiment.

Similarly, Harlequin's tragic figure, receiver of misfortune, appertains the sacred sacrifice. In this respect, Vassiliki's Harlequins maintain the primordial bonding of every living organism with death. Their cross-shaped figure is a clear indication of God's awakening power through Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
The cross-shaped opening of their arms clearly demonstrates the inevitable human pain. However, the pain of Vassiliki's Harlequins is not a pathetic, stoical, and without complaint outlook of facing things. On the contrary, signifies an excessively energetic, positive temperament. At the same time, the arched poses of their bodies and hands formulate coordinating complexes within the surrounding space by adopting opposite directions.

The faces of the Dancers, Guardians, Acrobats and Harlequins -stripped of expression due to their invisible characteristics- are formed by smooth, sleek surfaces with intense contours. The circle, which is clearly a depiction of the world, has a semantic significance for the circle of life.

At the same time, the bodies remind us of the characteristic circular movement of the creation, birth, and formation of soulless substance into a living entity. Tall and thin bodies, fragile, innocent, naive, dangerous, constantly moving and seeking to achieve and maintain their balance with wide open arms, are the acrobats of life and soul. They constantly sense around their bodies an abysmal and mysterious void, the unknown that they desire to explore.

This void, that we could imagine as the universe itself, the beyond, is where they derived, the ethereal mass by which they are joined, and in which they become assimilated. Each one of them takes on a masterly dancing pose, perhaps due to the perpetual circular movement of the bodies and of their spirit. A theatre group or members of a ballet, the Harlequins of the City of Games acknowledge their collective presence by forming a community of angels of life, representing love.

Harlequin's perpetual movement, awakening wide open embraces, and welcoming gestures are symbolically found between sky and earth, life and death, thus referring to transitions, constant evolution and exceeding situations, feelings and limits. Maintaining their contact with the universe signifies a primordial standpoint/approach with regard to the circle of life.

Relating to danger, their fragile balance drives them close to death, the traces of which become integral parts of their being. However, they exorcise it with love. Vassiliki's Harlequin is not the diabolic grotesque Ellekin, the animal bestowed to us from the Middle Ages, the Satyr and Selene in the pagan world order of antiquity He is the sublimated angel of virtue. In order to be purified, he played the game of Vice and Virtue and subjugated his primitive instincts. From Dionysus' comrade he becomes Apollo's priest and Light, while being Mercury he is a tightrope walker from life to the dark paths of Hades, and from the sunbathed earth to the bright and opalescent moon.

Guillaume Apollinaire has the answer to the question of Harlequin and Mercury when he detected their opposite transitions from good to evil, where they managed to balance. This is how he explains the birth of various aspects of art such as theater and dance.3
Traditionally Harlequin, like other characters of commedia dell' arte would travel to far and exotic places, occasionally beyond the limits of earth, peronifying glorious ancient deities and heroes. «Aggressive and jaunty clowns, I believe you will leave your various troubles, daily woos, and poverty in the cloakroom, for it is decreed that clowns can fly to seventh heaven, abandoning the sad winters of earthly life, to satisfy their taste for the imaginary. All you need is patched-together, showy costumes, Baroque decor, and footlights in order to feel lighthearted and to see blossom around you an artificial and charming world.»4

In the book illustration of the French play Harlequin, Gallant Mercury (1682), in which he plays the role of an ancient Roman god, there is a depiction of an eagle, the wings being wide open, coming down from the moon to the earth. 5 Mercury's (Hermes') magic and flexible nature matches perfectly with the constantly changing persona of Harlequin, who often becomes the subject of metaphysical speculation and research.

Harlequin develops subsequent layers or masks of flesh, which ensure him, except of a physical acrobatic flexibility, an indescribable behavioral flexibility. These layers are worn successively, that is, one on the top of the other, until he attains the mask of the Emperor of the Moon6, the most representative mask, an alter ego of his personality. Vassiliki perceives all these masks as the undertaking of incompatible standpoints in life, a walking on thin ice, being the achievement of a sensitive balance and paying its price.

It deals with the enigma of Harlequin... It pictures his comrades and his natural surroundings - the theater stage of the world playing the theater of the paradox... A fête, which stimulates the senses as well as the mind, and is supported by spontaneity, «curiosity» and improvisation, Vassiliki's City of Games develops a semantic reference to the revealing notion of tragedy, irony and sarcasm of life.

With a clearly light, full of emotion and tenderness interpretation of the relation between internal workings and external conditions, the sculpted works of the City revive the allegory, the capricci and scherzi di fantasia of the 18th century Venetian theatrical tradition. The Harlequin, the Dancer, the Acrobat and the Guardian are our alter egos. They epitomize the tragedy of comedy, and they remind us of the melancholy upon returning to reality.

Eleni Athanassiou
Art Historian

1 David M. Rosenthal (ed.) The Nature of Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 417
2.Charles Baudelaire. Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 19
3. Ζαν Σταρομπίνσκι. To Πορτραίτο του Καλλιτέχνη ως Σαλτιμπάγκου. Μετάφρ. Χαρά Μπακονικόλα Γεωργοπούλου (Αθήνα: Εξάντας, 1991),
4. Lynne Lawner. Harlequin on the Moon. Commedia dell Arte and the Visual Arts (New York: Harry N. Abrams), 169-170
5. Ibid., 25
6. Martin Green and John Swan. The Triumph of Pierrot (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 1993), 194