The risk-free ‘art’ of Kon Dimopoulos

The general flavour of reporting about the failure of Konstantin Dimopoulos’s tree-painting project in Melbourne was sympathetic. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt took at a swipe at the waste of public monies. Aside from that, it was Victorian politician Mary Delahunty who took most of the ‘blame’ dished out in public over the failed plan.

Dimopoulos came to Australia from New Zealand in 2004, and calls himself a “public artist”. This is the kind of heroic claim that should immediately make our ears prick up. I think, considering what is at stake, we might be entitled to a definition of what a “public artist” is. Most of Dimopoulos’s work in the past has been, in type and character, distinctly ordinary: paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, and a few pieces that have been placed in spaces that, on the face of it, appear to be accessible to the ‘public’.

The language that Dimopoulos gathers around his project assures us that ‘Sacred Grove’ is no mere work of art: it is an “art action”. Other kinds of art—painting canvases, writing books, composing music, and so on—are the inactive arts: the arts that do nothing, do not get up out of their armchairs and go marching in the streets.

Dimopoulos leaves visitors to his web site in no doubt that painting trees blue is not just a magical aesthetic experience, but one that will help to prevent the de-afforestation of the planet. In this way, he wraps himself and the ‘Sacred Grove’ project in the pure intentions of Gaia. This is what the [2006] web site said:

Sacredgrove—the blue forest is a public art installation by conceptual artist Konstantin Dimopoulos. Sacredgrove is a global afforestation art action using art to highlight trees as sculptural forms, and the need to replenish the world’s trees.

When the Melbourne City Council finally rejected the ‘Sacred Grove’ project, and the State Government in Victoria was called on to justify the c. AU$100,000 it had given to Dimopoulos, it came to light that among the expenses for the project were amounts for promotional multimedia materials to be distributed to other cities around the globe. The purpose of these materials was to promote similar projects in other cities: sacred groves growing up all over the planet… Just imagine it! What a neat little money-spinner the success of ‘Sacred Grove’ in Melbourne would have been. As it turned out, a Melbourne hotel took pity on Mr Dimopoulos and allowed him to paint a small grove of trees it manages at the entrance to its Collins Street building. (Dimopoulos’s promotional materials, including a Wikipedia entry written by his publicity team, now refer to the ‘Sacred Grove’ episode as a “pilot”, no doubt in order to prepare anyone who sees photographs of it for how underwhelming it was, and to gloss over the fact that negative public opinion killed the actually proposed project before he got a chance to get away with the loot.)

Konstantin Dimopoulos, installation of blue trees at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne, 2005.
Konstantin Dimopoulos, installation of blue trees at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne, 2005.

As a ‘public’ and ‘conceptual’ artist, Dimopoulos makes claims that, from an art historical point of view, make no sense. For example, Dimopoulos is quoted in the article, above, saying to a journalist (who cannot be blamed for not knowing what the next question should be):

Public art is about taking risks. It does cost money but it brings people together.

I think this must be disingenuous. It is simply incredible that someone who calls himself a ‘public artist’ would not know about Christo and Jeanne-Claude; or have the temerity to believe no one would or could make the just comparison between this kind of public art and the public art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. There are obvious comparisons to be made, in both the approach to getting works approved and in the works themselves.

For anyone not familiar with the details, here are the basic facts, to help the comparison along…

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Wrapped Reichstag’ project, to take a well-known example of their work, took 24 years to bring to fruition. During all this time, and after it was achieved, they did not accept a single cent, or a single pfennig, of payment from public funds. In fact, Christo and Jeanne-Claude never accept any public monies to complete their art works.

It is also instructive to note that the Christo and Jeane-Claude’s process for achieving their public art includes having to convince everyone, including the public and any interested parties, that the artwork should be permitted to proceed.

They are justifiably famous around the world for the rigour of their approach. Think what you like about the aesthetic experience of their art, no one I know of doubts the purity of their practice. They are beholden to no one.

The risk they take for their public art is their own misfortune.

Dimopoulos’s plan to make the people of Victoria pay for his project to re-aestheticise the world’s parks and avenues does not sound so heroic in this light, does it? His public art does not sound so risky.

Perhaps it would help if his project had the advantage of originality, but it cannot even claim that. Dimopoulos knows that the tradition of painting trees is a very old one in Greece. It survives today, to the surprise of many visitors, in the practical habit the Greeks have of painting roadside trees white where there is no road lighting.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.

Beyond that, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have beaten him to the tree game as well.  (The photograph, above, is of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.)

There is a striking similarity between these pictures and Dimopoulos’s “BLACK PHARAOHS APPROPRIATION 2005”.

Dimopoulos's 'Black Pharaohs'.
Dimopoulos’s original description of the project ‘Black Pharaohs’ refers to the inspiration of his childhood, but does not mention he copied Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

The original 2006 website posting about Dimopoulos’s pharaohs refers to Greek mythology and the legend of Theseus (the pretentiousness of it is excruciating), but not a single reference to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Then, sometime in 2006, images of the “BLACK PHARAOHS APPROPRIATION 2005” were removed from Dimopoulos’s website, only to reappear years later with a different description, written by Ken Scarlett.

The new description acknowledges the original work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and says that the Dimopoulos variation is “interesting”—the kind of thing critics say with their chins balancing precariously on a curled index finger, à la Steve Jobs, while they try to force their eyebrows together to form a landing-platform for new idea.

The suddenly proper acknowledgement of the debt to Christo and Jeanne-Claude still does not include any comment on the difference between Dimopoulos’s methodology and that of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Dimopoulos’s public relations team would be happy for you to think he works ‘in the tradition’ of Christo and Jeanne-Claude; not so happy for you to know his public art is an intellectual vacuum whose purpose is to suck up public funds.

In the years since Sacred Grove in Collins Street, Melbourne, ‘The Blue Trees’ project has become a whirlwind of public relations spinning. Though Dimopoulos has been happy so far to take $100,000 here, or $25,000 there, to paint trees in Melbourne, or Houston or Vancouver, or wherever local governments can divert funds from worthy projects to pay for his airfare, his ultimate aim is to paint the Amazon.

In the long PR journey that the Blue Trees is on, there is no mention in the world’s media so insignificant that it cannot be turned into an artistic aggrandisement. His 2013 website résumé proudly proclaims that the Blue Trees was named by TrendHunter as one of the top 100 activism trends of 2012. Indeed. Here is the reference from the TrendHunter site:

Trendhunter website screenshot.
Trendhunter website screenshot.

With a score of 3.7 on the TrendHunter scale the Blue Trees project ranked below the trend of making sub sandwiches out of cucumbers, which scored 4.8.

Trendhunter website screenshot.
Trendhunter website screenshot.

TrendHunter has estimated the worth of Dimopolous’s “art actions” perfectly. Here is a picture of the winning sandwich:

Photo of the 2012 'cucumber sub' trend, which was a much more significant trend than Dimopoulos's 'blue trees', according to the Trendhunter website.
Photo of the 2012 ‘cucumber sub’ trend, which was a much more significant trend than Dimopoulos’s ‘blue trees’, according to the Trendhunter website.

Post script, 22 March 2015 — the Squamish affair

In the world of public relations even failures must be put to work boosting and spinning whatever it is ‘the company’ wants to foist on dazed consumers.

So it is with Mr Dimopoulos. In his latest pretence, on the unsuspecting citizens of Squamish, Vancouver, he uses images of his failed attempt to paint trees in Melbourne’s Yarra Park. The electronically altered image of Yarra Park appears on the Vancouver Biennale website, alongside images of other projects (which may or may not be altered, too, I don’t know).

Here is the image of the ‘proposed’ Yarra Park project, which never happened:

Image of the proposed Yarra Park project in Melbourne, reproduced in a Vancouver Biennale website where there is no comment on the fact it is not real.
Image of the proposed Yarra Park project in Melbourne, reproduced in a Vancouver Biennale website where there is no comment on the fact it is not real. The blue trees in this picture are digitally altered to appear blue; they have not been painted.

Here is an actual (that is, unaltered) photograph of the blue trees project (aka ‘Sacred Grove’) in Melbourne, as it actually happened:

Entrance of the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where the blue trees project ended up after a public scandal over the waste of public funds.
Entrance of the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where the blue trees project ended up after a public scandal over the waste of public funds.

It does make me wonder if the good people at the Vancouver Biennale ever saw the real thing, or if they know they have published photographs of projects that have not happened?


Further reading