a photo of a dark seaside in low tide with stormy skies

Aristotle Roufanis:
Worlds Apart

'Worlds Apart', Aristotle Roufanis, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist

For some, grief does not arrive in waves or lick at a desolate spit of land but rushes like a rip current, overwhelming and unforgiving. For others, it lingers in the subtleties of our existence and clings to us, gossamer thin, breathing the fetid air of loneliness. At times the emotion is as subtle as to be imperceptible. Forgetting to remember to be sad. Remembering to be angry at forgetting. All bound by incalculable, unbridgeable distance. But how might we codify and display the complexities of these emotions?

I recently suffered the death of my father and the pangs of his absence were particularly prevalent upon the anniversary of his admittance to hospital. It is my first time visiting Hull, heading in on the train and taking a bus along Princes Avenue – or ‘Prinny Ave’ as the locals have come to know it. 87 Gallery stands squat next to the Prince Avenue Methodist Church. The shallows and flats of the Humber estuary sprawl out, grey and mysterious. What begins as an adventure to an unknown land becomes a dour sojourn into my own heart and mind. 

I surrender to this feeling when viewing Worlds Apart by Aristotle Roufanis. The exhibition is named after the central piece, which uses moving image to liven a glass cube. Spread across this series of screens, the cube shows a domestic scene filled with all the trappings of home comfort. The different points of view slowly shift between objects within the room: an elaborate rug upon the floor, today’s newspaper with the headline of the day pulled from the cloud. The screens also display weather data, BBC News and the beginning of an episode of ‘The Simpsons’. I note how the cube sets the boundaries of comfort and familiarity against the sprawling coastal landscape. The moving image mirrors the scene outside, a digitally created landscape of flat sea and morning light creating an austere, bleak backdrop. I feel seasick, claustrophobic and overwhelmed. I take a moment to collect myself, the feelings of personal loss and pain reverberating as if I were the glass cube. 

Installation view of Worlds Apart, Aristotle Roufanis, 2021. Image credit: 87 Gallery

The eponymous piece also includes a series of still images that, in contrast, depict the glass cube in the centre of a deep blue shoreline where it acts as the only source of light. Much like the architectural images Roufanis is known for, the stills play with the tension between darkness and light to create a feeling of alienation. I can sense my own social anxiety looking back at me. An almost fractal geometry emerges from the undulations and rivulets of the shoreline; an insular path runs within the delineated confines of the space within the image. I am reminded of my experiences yearning for connection, like the unquiet sea and sky encroaching upon the boundaries of the glass cube. It is against this darkness that the cube shines brightly, invitingly. For me, it seems easier to grasp the artist’s intention in these still images. Instead of adding depth, the movement and three-dimensionality of ‘worlds apart’ detract from the clarity of the loneliness. 

Roufanis explores the melancholy nature of urban deserts in ‘Alone together’ (2017 – ongoing), in which vast empty buildings appear to long for connection in the wee hours of night. Architectural monoliths are illuminated by a small, single source, showing buildings in a state of absence. The cold, gravity defying vastness of the buildings in ‘Alone together’ seems to reflect the vastness of the seascape of ‘Worlds Apart’. But where the singly lit rooms of ‘Alone together’ speak of a desire for connection, the glass cube – a recurring theme in ‘Worlds Apart’ – turns to over-connectivity. The multitude of displays and information bombard the viewer, compounding the feeling of detachment. The transfer of information used to be a communal act, with people gathering around the fire to exchange stories of kin and danger. Now, the news come directly to us via our mobile devices, manipulated by those that seek to propagate their versions of truth. This relationship between the cube and the surroundings it sits within is equally uneasy, a harsh beam cutting through the shadows.

Similarly, in his earlier work ‘Insolation’ (2016), Roufanis brings us to the threshold between sea and shore. The overexposure of the image accentuates the scene’s otherworldliness. Sunlight dances upon the water, blurring the edges between sea and sky. This affective motif is one the artist returns to repeatedly. Reality and memory become increasingly interchangeable, particularly poignant in a post-truth world where differentiation between fact and fiction no longer matters. But rather than desolation, the image emits a feeling of hope. Much like a lighthouse beckoning from the shore, the placement of the cube within the landscape seems to long for connection. More than ever, we are constrained by our own comfort zones and becoming more avoidant of crowds, of company. Friends invite you out, but socialising feels like the last thing you need. The weight and bleakness of the landscape correspond to this inward inertia, this unwillingness to step beyond. It can feel daunting to move into a world that you do not know, whose horizon is far from view.

‘Worlds Apart’, Aristotle Roufanis, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist

In my state of mind, Worlds Apart appears to be questioning what it means to hold on to a construct that prevents us from moving on. Roufanis revisits the illuminated cube within a landscape in many of his works. In his own words, ‘The bigger the city, the lonelier we feel. It is important for people to understand that although lonely, they are not alone. Individuality does not equal alienation’. And indeed, the loneliness of the crowd feels very present in this collection of images. The distinction between loneliness and solitude allows hope to shine through, like a beacon in the dark. For those that have acquired immunity and the few that are released into the (post-)pandemic unknown, we should question whether the ‘new normal’ is something worth aspiring to. Normality, new or old, can still leave the vulnerable behind and it is only natural that anxieties around social mixing and interacting persist for many of us.

At my father’s funeral, I recited a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The play is replete with imagery of the sea and of consternations related to love, loss and truth. Salarino, the story’s narrator, laments the plight of his ship as it battles the elements: ‘What harm a wind too great might do at sea. I should not see the sandy hourglass run / But I should think of shallows and of flats’. It is a study of the futility of the mind seeking control over the uncontrollable, fixating on the minutiae and neglecting the bigger picture. Roufanis’ work likewise draws us into a spiral of introspection and anxiety, though there is ultimately hope. Sharing our narratives is, perhaps, one step towards it.

Aristotle Roufanis: Worlds Apart is at 87 Gallery 15 January – 26 March 2022. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

Steve Allen is a writer and critic based in Sheffield.

This review is supported by 87 Gallery.

Published 03.03.2022 by Sunshine Wong in Reviews

1,200 words