Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou ran away from home at age 18 for Athens where he discovered that city’s flourishing queer and artistic underground in the early 1980s.
Before his “overnight” fame and critical acclaim for creating the magical opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Papaioannou quickly found his voice as a young artist, honing his creative genious as the protégé of iconic Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis.
Papaioannou celebrated being gay not just in his personal life, but in his homoerotic art, from the published comics he wrote as a young man to the stage works he directs at the Athens Concert Hall today.
I recently sat down with the experimental theatre stage director, choreographer and visual artist via Skype for a candid Q&A ahead of his slow-burning theatre spectacle The Great Tamer, which has become the toast of the dance world on its current global tour. The Great Tamer makes its sole Canadian stop at Usine C in Montreal from January 23 to 27 before heading to Australia.
Let’s start with your work as a comic book creator. You have published over 40 comics, mainly in the publications Babel and Para Pende.
Dimitris Papaioannou: Since I was a kid, I was very keen on painting. I was noticed by my teachers, encouraged, and started earning money from painting when I was very young. I ran away from home when I was 18 and had to support myself. I found myself alone in the centre of Athens and became successful at painting.
I was a young man whose work was being watched and purchased by much older people of a different socio status than mine. I needed to communicate with my generation. There were two popular underground magazines, so I started creating visual stories and they published them. I had an immediate rapport with my generation.
Many of the comics you wrote incorporated gay themes and explicit images. What was the public reaction?
I ran away from home because I wasn’t allowed to be a gay man or become an artist, the two cornerstones of my existence. Publishing those homoerotic comics was at the core of my existence. I needed to communicate my personal stories. What I discovered in Athens in the 1980s is there was no resistance. That’s when I realized that all inhibitions are personal.
What was it like to be gay in Athens in the early 1980s?
It was very difficult for many people but not for me. This probably has to do with the kind of gay man that I am. Everybody was ready for somebody who was honest, straightforward, cynical, fun and flirtatious. Everybody was ready.
Sounds like you were ready!
(Laughs) I ran away because I wanted a better life, and being gay was a part of it.
Were you ever able to reconcile with your family?
In a way because I became a famously openly-gay man. It wasn’t pleasant for them. It’s not easy for my parents’ generation in Greece, we never had open conversations. My mom has passed away, but I have kind of reconciled with my father, as much as he can.
You were a student of iconic Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis before studying at the Athens School of Fine Arts. What was it like to be taken under his wing?
This was one of the most important personalities I came in contact with in my life. Interestingly, he was older than my father, and he was even more daring as a gay man of his generation. What he did – like Pasolini did in Italy – he idealized rough streetwise male beauty. He made nudes of them and elevated them to the stature of classical statues. He was an amazing artist, philosopher, set and costume designer, and crystalized a type of Mediterranean male beauty, just like Pasolini. Now we have those monuments because this beauty does not exist anymore.
How did you learn to be a choreographer?
I started painting, then I had a contemporary dance teacher, and then in New York I was intensely trained in butoh, a Japanese expressionistic dance. Nobody taught me how to direct. I am self-taught. I learned my business by doing it.
You would soon combine physical theatre, experimental dance and performance art. What compelled you to create multi-disciplinary works?
I have no idea! From painting I moved into performing, then designing sets and costumes and make-up, and designing lights. At the age of 23 I realized I wanted to experiment with my own creations. I had already been doing my own storytelling through comics in the underground, so I started creating my own experiences, and it flooded my life. I am still doing this several decades later.
Do you think being a gay man – being an outsider – gave you insight?
Being part of that generation that had to dive into the underground in order to survive as a homosexual man has helped me a lot because I saw life upside down. I have witnessed a side of life that people very rarely see and this has influenced me a lot. Being a Greek homosexual man (has informed) my homoerotic approach. If I were to be born again, I would do it all the same way – gender and sexual orientation.
From 1986 to 1992, you co-edited the countercultural fanzine Kontrosol sto Haos, once of the few publications at that time in Greece to include gay content. You also contributed to the Greek gay activist magazine To Kraximo from 1981 to 1994. Do you think the gay press is still relevant today?
I have mixed emotions because I have been fighting for equality and liberation for homosexual desire, and I support movements for our recognition by society. But the centre of my attention is elsewhere. I do not consider being gay to be something special. I do not consider homoerotically-sensitive art to be gay art. I like the subculture, but it is a limited thing.
I do not think that John Waters is a gay artist, I do not think Andy Warhol is a gay artist, or Leonardo Da Vinci, and I don’t think that Plato is a gay philosopher. I have also been fighting against being categorized as a gay artist.
Living in a contemporary era where we must confine ourselves to this identity under the mask of liberation puzzles me. I feel like we are moving towards a kind of tribalism instead of a true liberation. The way we fight for equality should be rethought. There is no turning back when it comes to equal rights for everyone, of course, but being gay is just one of the characteristics of being human, and there is huge diversity in (being gay) as well.
You created the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Was that experience scary?
Yes, it was because it was an art-centric and homoerotic view of history. It was scary because I was not sure the subtleties and delicacies I would like to cook it with would survive in the final recipe, on this enormous stage. I tried to come from archaic Greece, but this was a Roman environment, it was an enormous scale. So it was scary.
But it was also very exciting – a rollercoaster – and in the end I was quite proud. Then I realized I could have been more daring. It turned out that everybody was ready for it.
We underestimate audiences sometimes.
I try never to do that. I never think about that in my personal work, but this was an official assignment. This was not a house I was building as an architect, it was a public bridge that people have to cross. But I could have been much more daring. People were ready for it.
The Great Tamer continues its international tour in 2019. The reviews have been universally glowing.
I am very fashionable now!
As with David Bowie with his 1983 album Lets Dance, the mainstream has caught up with you!
No, no, no! (Laughs)
Could you tell us what you hope to communicate with The Great Tamer?
This is always a very difficult thing, so I am going to avoid the question. I do not know what I am doing until I have done it.
Have you been to Montreal before?
You must visit the infamous gay strip joints of Montreal – they are also very popular with visiting celebrities.
You must send me the links! (Smiles)
Do men around the world throw themselves at your feet?
Not at the feet, specifically (we both laugh). I am just another traveling middle-aged man.
I look at you as a queer cultural hero. Do you see yourself as a role model?
No, but – this is one of the flattering aspects of being an artist – a lot of young men have come to thank me for being able to identify with somebody. They want to go on with their lives without lying, without playing the part of a clown.
Because I think this is what concerns many people of my generation: Can we play any other part in society except the clown entertainer? Is there anything else for us? And, of course, there is.
Dimitris Papaioannou’s production of The Great Tamer features 10 performers and headlines Usine C for five performances, from January 23 to 27. For tickets, visit usine-c.com/the_great_tamer.
Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.