Surface Tensions: On the work of Phanos Kyriakou

Andrew Berardini, 2020                                                                                             

Standing over a still pond, I’ve watched the the water striders shimmy over the thin sheen of water that separates this world and the wet one submerged beneath. With long legs and lithe bodies, these insects figureskate past lily pads and cattails in swift choreographies over the delicate surface tension of the water.

Very occasionally in the murky depths, you might spot the writhing glitter of a slippery fish leap up to make a meal of these water dancers, breaching worlds with a gasp and a bite. This is altogether rare though I’ve read, water striders have a flavor that fish despise and only munch them when they’re desperately hungry. Coming so close to the surface of the water is always dangerous for a fish. They’re death can come easily from above when a peckish bird swoops down for a snack, a visiting predator from that third atmosphere whose invisible surface is impenetrable to all creatures but those with wings. Some striders fly too, and some can dunk beneath the water to try and hide, but still many a strider or the fish that starvingly comes to the surface to munch them end up in the belly of a bird.

When I swim deeply in still waters, I have sometimes looked up to the surface and felt the weight of an ocean of air, only the thinnest border and the the weight of water protecting me from its infinity and the breath I need there.


I want to be a lizard in Phanos Kyriakou's studio. Beetles and flies buzz around the shards of pottery and slim metal tubes, and though the promise of flying has its own aerial allure, the blunt mass of beetles along with their hard loud buzz always freaked me out a bit and flies (I'm sure have a bad rap, but anyhow) are just gross. The little lizards with slippery curling bodies hotfoot it over linoleum, wriggling under doors and past the tangled wires along the walls. In their mad dash, they sometimes make a hard stop, doing their best to blend into the cool beige of the tiles. Or tucked behind a bit of ceramic, momentarily stock still, they could almost be another bit of the usually static sculptures. Near the rippling milky plaster of a totemic sculpture on the patio, a lop-eared dog lazes in the sun, his patchwork fur more shades of brown amongst browns.

The light in Phanos’s studio is liquid, a lick of golden orange juice. Even so, it’s still hard enough to cast deep shadows, thick lines and dark pools. Hanging on the walls crumpled clothes cast in plaster bear a slight pink stain, the wrinkley fabric arrested forever make them look like the dirty laundry of marble gods. We are in Nicosia afterall, on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterreanan Sea. It’s where Venus half-shelled her birth from the sea, and with the texture of its colors, one can easily imagine deities swimming to life there. Whatever stories or laundry the gods may have left behind, objects here wear an aura. Not too heavy, but enough to lend them a history, a whisper of older mysteries just beyond the reach of mortals.  

Both the light and its shadows feel like they’re part of his sculptures, as does the pale sepia mountain peeking from the window and the street just outside the door, as does the loping flights of the flies and beetles and the scurry and pause of the lizards and the lazy lope of the dog. When a soft tuft of some plant floats into the room and it shivers over the artist’s hand as he tries to keep its delicate flight and dance in the breeze, this feels important too, a part of the whole.

Phanos’ works often begin with craft, accidents, anomalies, and experiments made with master craftsmen in Nicosia. From there, they gain supports that lean and stretch in their rooms and spaces, his sculptures are about their armatures and atmospheres as much as anything, the literal arms and legs of tubular metal that hold them up and the rooms and buildings and rooftops that host them, but also they way behave with with one another. The videos that sometimes bloom from the metal armatures often and sweetly show moments of these interfaces between things, humans regularly a comical interloper and catalyst.


Surfaces are just like borders, they mark the boundaries between a world, an atmosphere, a between spaces with different rules. Surface implies disperate densities: the earth and sea below, the heavens above, but is not limited to them. I cannot ever cross the divide between me and the creatures around me, I can maybe carve a god from marble but I can’t make it answer my prayers.

The water striders beauty isn’t their ability to cross between atmospheres, but to find so powerfully, gracefully a way to thrive because of the tension between them.


The title of Phanos works and exhibitions are like poems, they jangle just a bit with the technical and abstract, but still find the fold between one meaning and another, metaphors that rub against the surface of both without belong properly to either.

The different components all have to interface smoothly, 2019

‘Curiosity' has been roaming the surface of Mars since 2012, 2019

A kind of “there” there  

This Case is in Process of Arrangement        

Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts (2013)

Always ever in between, the street and the shop, inside and outside, form and content, art and craft, humans and our machines, between the thing and the space around it, the objects themselves are like guests at a party. Each individual, but the story loses its drama if you focus too closely on any one of them. The story is all of them together, the room they stand in, how it affects their unity and disunity, how they dance and interact and flirt and fight. The in-betweenness is there of course, but it’s the tension and harmony in that space that makes them full of pathos, which makes me both care for them and maybe even want to take care of them. There is some kind of web that connects them and each other and me and the place we all might find ourselves, but even as I receive emotions from them, I cannot send any back.

When Phanos participated in the joint Lithuanian and Cypriot Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, he filled the stands of a sports complex with common objects (a broom, the back of a chair, lamps) with vertical supports and called it Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts (2013). They look like a lonesome scatter of audience members for the sports and dances and art that filled the working gymnasium that hosted the exhibition. Somehow their supports, standing them up, made them more than just things, placing them in the stands together enough to make a group but separate enough to make them seem apart too, and the tension of their singleness and their togetherness makes me feel a little sad when I look at them in pictures. The hosts and the guests and the ghosts. There is no show or performance, game or contest that could possibly entertain these objects, but still I wish they would.

We exist in two different worlds these objects and me, Phanos has made them alive with their arrangement and props, but I wouldn’t know how to break the barrier between us. I feel like a ghost trying to entertain the living, they cannot see me but I wish they could. Phanos in a text from a show in 2012 quoted Rebecca Solnit and the phrase feels so true when I look through around, at his sculptures: “the inescapable feeling of distance”. Phanos has found a way for them to communicate to me, to make their muteness into a quorum, a play, a party, but try as I might I cannot find a way to speak back.


Even though humans are clever enough to find a way through other atmospheres, we know we don’t really belong but in our own. However exuberant we find flying, we know in our bones we belong under the trees. More than a few of us have felt the precarity of such transgressions when gravity calls our bodies abruptly back to the earth. Stay too long under the sea, and you’ll stay there, a lifeless corpse in the tides. We can pierce the surface, but cannot linger long on the other side. We emerge again and again, and each time we linger outside of our own atmosphere is dangerous. But with the right lens, the right guide I can sometimes imagine what it is to live beyond these borders.

Even though the water strider can exist in water, on the surface, and in the air, their magic is in using the qualities of each against the other, to find force in between. And so does Phanos.

I can only imagine myself a lizard in Phanos’ studio, or the conceive of the lives of the beetles and flies and dogs there, or how they objects interact, interface, party, because the artist pointed them out to me. There is a force in-between and Phanos Kyriakou knows how use it.