Uncovering Lost Meaning

About Alexandros Mistriotis The Reception, by Arve Rød.

This text by art critic Arve Rød reflects upon The Reception, an artistic urban walk by Alexandros Mistriotis (GR) that was commissioned by curator-producer James Moore, produced by Østfold Internasjonale Teater (then Østfold kulturutvikling), and presented by NonStop International Theatre Festival in Moss, Norway, in September 2018.   

by Arve Rød

All places are the center of the world. These are not my words, but something the Greek artist Alexandros Mistriotis writes in relation to his project The Reception, an ongoing series of urban walks that for several days in September 2018 made their way to Moss. Or, more accurately, through Moss, in under the skin of house walls and place names and traffic arteries––into the city’s body and soul. The Reception is a dissection of the urban space, on foot, that bears witness to stories and fates in small and large scale, about everything from roundabouts, streetposts, and small signs on protected buildings to industrial development and global capitalism.

Mistriotis comes from Athens, and has worked with urban walks as art and The Reception as an artistic project for nearly eight years. Athens is obviously miles from Moss, not only in geographic distance, but in nearly every manner in which one can imagine. Athens is a world city and metropolis – with more than three million inhabitants it is one of Europe’s largest cities. Not least it is a center for European history, the birthplace of our political, artistic, and intellectual culture. It is easy to imagine that stories are more significant in a place where you, in the course of a stroll, one can happen to pass everything from the ruins of Aristotle’s school and 2,600 year old temples, to the traces of a devastating civil war and nearly a dozen revolutions in more modern times.

Moss is by comparison a sleepy, Norwegian town, and a former industrial center that is now in the process of finding a new identity and new business prospects in a new era. Even so, and precisely because of this, Moss is as much in the center of the world and history as Athens. It is a thought that has both political and existential-philosophical consequences as Mistriotis begins our four and a half hour journey though an autumn-chilled Moss town center.

The Norwegian Lady

We gather in the foyer of Kirkeparken high school, under a towering plaster statue of a female figure in a floor length gown and with a gaze searching unfathomably into the room. Mistriotis speaks quietly and calmly, and the group of 10–12 participants must train their ears and sharpen their concentration to follow along. He tells a story about the female figure, which is called The Norwegian Lady and is a copy of a galleon figurehead that originally decorated the bow of the full-rigg sailing ship Dictator, a Norwegian trading vessel with Moss as its home harbour, which in 1891 shipwrecked outside of Virginia Beach on the east coast of the United States. In memorium to the rescue operation there stands a twin statue on the beach in Virgina Beach, with her eyes toward the Atlantic horizon.

With this towering female character over us, Mistriotis embarked upon a storytelling that places Moss along the long lines of history and geography, where the modest may be seen in light of the great, and vice versa. In a spirit of kindness and curiosity he picked through layers of lived life and building developments, on a search for both the general in the world and human life, and the uniquely specific in Moss––with detours through time and space, and where the drama lay in what was told rather than in the telling. What significance do places hold––and memories about places––for who we are, and who we can become? If we transform a place, will we thereby also transform our identity and our lifeworld?  

With a view toward a low evening sun and a shimmering, black, newly-asphalted parking lot that covers the remains of the former paper factory at Verket, Mistriotis told the disturbing story about the Lidice massacre. An entire Czechoslovakian rural town––people, houses, farms and roads, even the course of the river through town––was demolished and erased as revenge after the Czech partisans took the life of the tyrannical SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. The Reception then led onward, from the eel’s journey up the Moss waterfall to the discovery of the Ekofisk oil field in the North Sea, and the story of Farouk al-Kasim: an Iraqi engineer who has much of the honor for ensuring that the Norwgian oil adventure became an adventure for common citizens. We could examine the railroad tracks’ hand-lain stone foundations versus the brick facades of the generic housing blocks along Fleischer brygge, and gain insight into the industrial logic that lay behind the town’s first traffic light at the intersection of Helgerødgata and Gimleveien on Jeløya.


These are just a few of the threads that were woven together into a complex image during the course of The Reception. In one way we ended back where we started, though this time along the canal in Kanalparken with a view toward the Bastøfosen ferry pier, once again beneath the same woman that watched over us when we began. There stands a more robust version in bronze, the third Norwegian Lady to which we were introduced on our journey, who bears wishes of safe homecoming for all travellers at sea, as inscribed upon the sculpture’s pedestal. We concluded our tour in silent fellowship with her, watching over the dark sea where perhaps that fateful voyage began for the crew of Dictator 130 years ago.

The Norwegian Lady was prologue and epilogue for a performance that offered perspectives both epic and commonplace. She is a monument such as we are used to think of monuments––a memorial or a figurative form, placed on a site of special significance, in memory of a person or event. For the inhabitants of Moss and Virginia Beach the statue is a marker that sustains the tragedy and the rescue effort in the collective consciousness, as well as a physical manifestation of the two towns’ official fellowship as sister cities––also a result of the events of 1891. Otherwise Moss, as with most Norwegian towns, is a place where classical monuments are the exception. That Mistriotis chose to frame his walk with two of the town’s few examples of memorials, as traditionally understood, contributed rather to underscore the absence of such in Moss. Mistriotis also made a stop by a large, old gear from the former Moss shipyard, which now stands in a roundabout in Helgerødsgata. He presented this as equally effective ––and monumentally significant––for the town’s history, identity, and feelings of fellowship, as all the world’s great men (and in seldom occasions women) on pedestals.

Walking in Art History

If we are to consider the tour, or event, as an artwork, then it is natural to speak about The Reception as performance art rather than theatre. Mistriotis does not play any role apart from being present as himself, and nothing is rehearsed other than the extensive groundwork he has done during his many visits to Moss in advance of NonStop International Theatre Festival. He says himself that he does not distinguish between poetry, reflection, and theatre in his presentations. They are stories that “alternate between analytic poetry and poetic theory;” that avoid the spectacular, and rather attempt to create scenes in the mind of the participants. 

If we consider The Reception in a more critical and art-historical context we find many possible references. The Dadaists announced several guided urban walks already in 1921, in the form of excursions to “places that had no reason to exist,” according to themselves[1]. In the 1950s and 60s the French Situationists encouraged people to wander aimlessly around the city in small groups––dérive, as they called it––in order to bring about unexpected situations that could liberate individuals from what they saw as “Capitalisms false seduction.” The Situationists are truly the most well-known example of artists that in various ways have utilised the act of moving through urban space as both a political-critical and consciousness-expanding tool. They also may be linked to a tradition of so-called ‘participatory art,’ or relational aesthetics as it is called in the language of art theory––something that is one of labels we may apply to The Reception. More recently we find several examples of artists who use wandering/walking as an artistic expression and a social tool, and which in different ways may be relevant to see in relation to Mistriotis’ urban walks, from Richard Long to Francis Alÿs, Janet Cardiff and Hamish Fulton – the latter recently organised a group wandering in the center of Oslo in connection with his exhibition at Galleri Riis in October.

Alternative Monuments

Yet there is another project I consider as more relevant background material for a reading of The Reception, separate from the idea about the social participation aspect of wandering in the urban landscape, and more closely connected to an alternative understanding of monuments. In 1967 the renowned American artist Robert Smithson travelled from New York to his hometown of Passaic in the neighboring state of New Jersey. There he undertook a journey––with no participants other than himself––around the dilapidated industrial urban landscape, while he documented with his camera what he paradoxically defined as ‘monuments:’ iron bridges, sewage pipes, parking lots, sandlots, and so forth.[2] [3]

He called the resulting series of black and white photos Monuments of Passaic, and an article about the project published in the periodical Artforum was given the subtitle, “Has Passaic Replaced Rome as the Eternal City?” Smithson is perhaps subtly ironic with both the title and subtitle, but its meaning is something akin to what we can detect in Mistriotis’ encounter with urban spaces in Moss. The Reception asks us to pay attention to the hidden or overseen places in the cityscape, and to see these as equally significant as the more recognized and accepted important monuments and buildings. Similarly, Smithson allows the anonymous, despondent, machine-created suburban landscape in New Jersey to emerge as an equally important testimony for our time, as the remains of Roman greatness in ‘the eternal city’ are for the development of modern, civilised society.

Viewed in this manner, Moss is just as much in the center of the world and history as antiquity’s Rome, or Athens for that matter. In his article, Smithson draws attention to a parking lot that covers the old railroad tracks that once crossed through Passaic––much as the asphalt that now covers the former industrial property at Verket. The lot divides the town in two, writes Smithson, and becomes at the same time both mirror and mirror image: “One can never know on which side of the mirror one finds oneself. There was nothing interesting or strange about this flat monument, yet it gave an echo of a kind of cliché idea about eternity; perhaps the ‘secrets of the universe’ are just as uneventful – if not to say boring.”[4] Perhaps Mistriotis is onto something of the same when he also speaks about the city as “the mirror of all possible questions,”[5] where our shared concerns, our past and future, lay hidden, and where we must repeatedly return to the public realm to find the answers – or the questions – and to uncover lost meaning.

translated by James Moore

[1] Only one of these were actually implemented, in an overgrown graveyard in Paris (Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre).

[2] Robert Smithson (1938–1973) is one of the most known American artists from the 1960s and 70s. He is known for his work with what he called “non-sites” and the relationship between natural and manmade landscape. His most famouns artwork is Spiral Jetty from 1970, a spiral-shaped breaker wall that stretches for 500 meters into a lake in Utah.

[3] Smithson shall also have considered to organise guided tours to the monuments of Passaic, something he never managed to implement.

[4] Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforums desembernummer 1967, s. 52–57.

[5] Alexandros Mistriotis om The Reception, på http://www.in-situ.info/en/artists/en/alexandros-mistriotis-123