Leila Heller: La Grande Dame of Middle Eastern Art.

Leila Heller: La Grande Dame of Middle Eastern Art in conversation with Hania Afifi.

When the clock turned 7:00pm, a second window appeared on my screen and I saw the familiar perfectly coiffed blond bob of Leila Heller, swiftly followed by an extreme close-up of glossy lips.  Clearly, like myself, Heller was still grappling with the new norms of social distancing and online meetings.  

“Hellooo,” I exclaimed, failing to contain my excitement for the opportunity of interviewing a Middle Eastern art market legend.  She responded with a beaming smile and we quickly settled into our roles of storyteller and listener.  

Portrait of Leila Heller, Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Heller grew up in Iran during the reign of Shah Ali Reza Pahlavi and moved to the United States of America in the mid-70s to pursue her undergraduate studies.  Initially, she intended to complete a degree in Economics at Brown University to follow through her father’s footsteps into the world of finance and business.  

Portrait of Leila Heller, Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

“I had no intention of studying art at university.  I was very much into economics.  I wanted to go back and become an immensely powerful woman … to be on the same level as men running businesses in Iran.” There was nothing unusual about women joining the workforce in Iran in the 1970s.  However, it was unusual for women to compete in business and trade with their male counterparts.  Yet, this did not deter Heller from pursuing this course of studies and interned every summer break at her father’s company until the first year of college.  “I really felt I was a good student, but by the time I got to Brown, I realised I am really not that great”, she explains, frankly.  Her sudden exposure to modern mathematics and computers; an alien object she had never encountered in Iran, left her feeling bewildered and not on par with her fellow students.  Fortunately, she had also enrolled in courses outside her major one of which was a study in art history’s Impressionism period.  And so, the formation of Leila Heller the gallerist had begun.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Unlike the economic courses, the art classes proved to be a joyful ride for Heller.  She bolstered her wide art exposure during early life with academic understanding of historical contexts and artistic genres.  Her parents may have provided her with enticing visual experiences during museum visits across Europe, but it was Brown that shaped her artistic outlook.  Inevitably, she switched majors and left Brown with a BA in Art History and French Literature. Heller was determined to apply her newly gained art knowledge to further the work of the recently inaugurated Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977.  She joined Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London to acquire the necessary museum management and curation skills.  Her uncompromising work ethos and strive for perfectionism is best exemplified when she spent two hours digging through Sotheby’s outdoor garbage cart at St. George’s Street in search for a small piece of twine.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

“One day during lunch hour, I was at my desk and one of the gentlemen who worked in the front desk brought me a piece of plastic with twigs in it.  I asked him what am I supposed to do with this? And he said this is supposed to be a Christo, But Christo’s are wrapped!” she recalls vivaciously.  

It turned out the front desk had unwittingly unravelled Christo’s artwork and threw away parts of its assemblage which Heller rushed to salvage from the refuse pile of the auction house.  Although she re-wrapped the piece as instructed by her superiors, she continued to question its authorship until she met Christo many years later in New York.  He put her fears to rest when he re-asserted his authorship of the artwork, casting her as his inadvertent assistant.

Christo  
Wrapped Magazines 
1962  
15 x 12 x 2" (38 x 30 x 5 cm)  
Polyethelene, rope, cord and magazines  
Photo: Christian Baur  
© 1962 Christo

Her zeal for perfectionism led her to a second museum studies program at George Washington University in the US.  Being only one of a handful of institutions that offered a post-graduate degree in museum and curatorial studies at the time, Heller was boosting her chances of securing a notable position at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  She opted to train at the Hirschhorn Museum during her final year where she worked with renown curator Miranda McClintic on the 1st ever retrospective exhibition for David Smith. “I learnt a lot from Miranda.  She was fascinating.  And I learnt a lot from Mr. Hirschhorn himself because when he would visit with his wife, I was put in charge of taking care of them.  He would show me a lot of the works he bought, where he bought them, why he bought them and why he collected so many French sculptures”, she fondly reminisces of that time.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 5: Leila Heller attends Inaugural Exhibition - March 6 - April 15, 2019 at Leila Heller Gallery on March 5, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/PMC)

Inevitably, all good things come to an end.  However, the end of Heller’s studies was nothing like she had planned.  Her final year at Washington coincided with the Iranian revolution of 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, and his government replaced by the Islamic Republic.

“My dreams of going back and becoming a curator in Iran never ever happened.  I moved to New York; where my brother had just gotten into Columbia Business Schools, without a job, not knowing what to do.  We were separated from our parents because our passports were cancelled.  For 2 years we didn’t see our parents.” Overnight, Heller and her brother found themselves stranded in a foreign country with cancelled passports, invalid residence permits and limited financial resources.  Once again, Heller was derailed off her chosen path by political turmoil.  In 1968, the student riots in Paris led her to switch from the French Lycée in Tehran and plans to study at the Université de Grenoble to an international school so that she can pursue her studies in the US.  Whilst the gravity of the situation was more intense this time, the outcome was the same.  Heller had to adapt and change course quickly.

“I reconnected with Lisa whom I knew from Brown at an event.  She was appointed Assistant Curator to Diane Waldman at the Guggenheim, and she offered to see what is available there”, recalls Heller.  She was content with whichever job was on offer and keen to acquire new skills.  She landed a position in public relations eventually working her way through the different departments at the museum until she was united with her friend and saviour Lisa Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim and current EVP and Chairman of Sotheby’s Americas, at the curatorial team. During her two years at the Guggenheim, Heller cultivated a support network who remain until today her best friends.  “I fell in love with being in a museum and the pain of being away from my family and being so scared about the future, they became my family.” She refers to the likes of Michael Govan; Director of LACMA, Wendy Lawson-Johnston; great grand daughter of Solomon Guggenheim, and the late Thomas Messer; former director of the Guggenheim museum as members of her extended family.

Heller moved from the Guggenheim to an investment bank where she became the curator-in-charge of their art collection.  She frequented artist studios like William Bailey and Martha Rosler to gain insights and a further understanding of artwork development.  During that period, the bank had acquired the renown French art publication Connaisance des Arts of Paris in which Heller became heavily involved learning the ins and outs of publishing and marketing.  When she obtained her green card and could travel again, she visited artist studios in Paris including Antonio Seguí and Fernando Botero.  By that time, Heller had witnessed and experienced all facades of an art piece.  From conception to resale, including exhibition, marketing, and promotion; she learnt it all and felt ready to embark on her own adventure.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 5: Leila Heller attends Inaugural Exhibition - March 6 - April 15, 2019 at Leila Heller Gallery on March 5, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/PMC)

“It was Studio54 days.  The 80s in New York City were fascinating.  All the artists were a buzz, Warhol was there, The Factory and all those young great talents,” she enthuses.  I glimpse a flicker of light in her eyes when she recalls the unexpected reaction of Leo Castelli when she told him she wants to open her own gallery.  “Tony Shafrazi [former art advisor to the Shah of Iran and to Karman Diba the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art] took me to meet Leo Castelli to get his blessing for Tony’s Soho gallery opening.  Leo was a father figure in the art community.  He was so nurturing and immensely helpful to Tony, and I said well, I am thinking of opening up an art gallery.  He said, my daughter … go open.  Any questions you have anybody you want to meet, just come to me.”

Indeed, it appears to be that the 80s were a time in which the art communities were happy to connect, collaborate and network regardless of financial implications.  There was a business side to the art world, but there was also a social element at which Heller excelled in.  

“I remember one night when Shafrazi was opening his gallery, he asked me for USD 1,000.  He said, “I need a $1000 in cash.  This guy wants cash.  Do you have a $1000 on you?””.  Shafrazi offered Heller a choice between 10 drawings by Keith Haring or 5 portraits of her executed by an emerging eastern European artist in exchange for the immediate loan.  “I stupidly in my vanity chose the 5 portraits of me by the Eastern European artist whom I forget his name, even Tony forgets it too.  If I had lent him the money for the 10 Keith Haring drawings, I would not have had to work today.” Such is Heller, courageous and at ease when she acknowledges her shortcomings to me.  That courage was finally directed towards a business venture that made her a name to be reckoned with in the art market.  Arguably the inception had begun during her Parisian visits whilst working at the bank, when she met many Iranian artists living in exile.  Some of them she knew since her childhood days in Iran, others, she was newly introduced to.  “I felt guilty that they had left Iran and had no career in the west.  All of them were lost and did not know what to do.  I felt like I need to do something for my compatriots”, she explains the driving motivation to opening her first gallery.

It was certainly no easy feat.  The Middle Eastern artists had not yet acquired a space on the global art scene.  To sustain her gallery, she represented American, European, and South American artists who were collected by the New York crowd whilst slowly developing her Middle Eastern artists and cultivating a market for them. “I met YZ Kami in Paris and encouraged him to move to New York City.  His name was Kamran Youssefzadeh, but I sort of changed his name.  I told him Kami, it’s going to be hard.  Youssefzadeh is a long name and everyone is going to ask you where you are from.  Iranians right now are persona non-grata with the American hostage crisis”, she reveals the story behind how the prominent Iranian American artist whose has been collected and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum, to name a few, had acquired his trade name. Her big breakthrough came in the form of a curated exhibition by Jeffrey Deitch in the summer of 1984.  Entitled Calligraffiti, the show which explored the gestural brush stroke in artmaking, combined western graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf with Middle Eastern artists; amassed by Heller, who engaged with calligraphy in some of their repertoires including Etal Adnan and Hossein Zenderoudi. 

Jacob Hashimoto, 'The Eclipse', 2017. Courtesy Leila Heller Gallery

The unprecedented amalgamation of western street art and progressive eastern calligraphy showcased the subliminal influence of abstract expressionism and pop art, thus demonstrating to western audiences the shared modern vocabulary in artmaking.  Deitch and Heller’s show narrowed the gap between east and west, unveiling modern and contemporary middle eastern gems that were buried under political tension.

“There were 120 artists in that show.  Of the 120 artists, 60 were graffiti artists.  There was also the Letterists from France.  We had a nude performance by a Letterist artist.  It was quite shocking as we did not know it was going to be performed in the nude.  In fact, David Nahmad’s secretary had almost fainted when she saw the dancer”, recalls Heller. The attendees list of the frenzied opening read like a Who’s Who directory of the artworld.  Kenny Scharf rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, CY Twombly with YZ Kami, Shirin Neshat with Thomas Messer.  The movers and shakers of the 80s artworld were at Heller’s gallery that May evening, and continued to party along with 3000 guests until the early hours of the next morning at Area; a celebrities night club that stood on Hudson Street in Manhattan.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Her successful joint curated show was revisited 3 decades later in the fall of 2013.  By then, Middle Eastern modern and contemporary artists were breaking records on the global auction scenes.  In fact, they accounted for 42% of total sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for that year according to a published report by the financial consultant Moore Kingston Smith.

“I now had 4,000 feet of gallery space. We had El-Seed do the windows of the gallery and it was the first time El-Seed was exhibited in America”, continues Heller.  Like its predecessor, the exhibition enjoyed great publicity and many reviews.  Some were aghast at the hanging of Dubuffet with wall painted LA2 murals, others felt the Twombly’s paled next to ROSTARR, but all enjoyed the playfulness and enticing experience of the show and commended the expertly written exhibition catalogue. Although most galleries deal with the secondary market to stay financially afloat whilst their artists grow into sought-after names, Heller highlights the historical significance and artistic perspective of the pieces on display to lend them an educational element.  This is evident in the fact that a lot of the artworks in her curated shows including Calligraffiti are not-for-sale and students from different art programs are invited on guided tours of her exhibitions.  The curatorial art history background had never left her, and she still employs it to this day when searching for new artists.

“I have been looking for great Emirati artists ever since I opened my gallery in Dubai.  Since the world fair, which was supposed to take place in 2020 and now is postponed to 2021, was taking place in Dubai, it was going to be the year of Emirati artists”, she laments yet again her derailed plans.

Despite this setback, she installed midst the pandemic a solo exhibition for Abdel Qader Al-Rais; one of the UAE’s pioneering painters.  By showcasing the different phases of his artistic oeuvre that span from representational realism to meditative abstraction, Heller presented the painterly alternative to current understandings of the UAE’s art history as rooted in highly concept-based and anti-aesthetic installations.  Like other guest curated shows, she preserved the educational and historical context.

It has become increasingly apparent throughout our conversation that this was not your classic rags to riches story in which the protagonist overcomes adversity through perseverance and sheer force.  On the contrary, Heller hails from the bourgeois Iranian society where notable figures like her parents travelled the world and collected fine art.  Even Andy Warhol had mistaken her for a Persian princess.  Instead, this was a story that made me reflect on Epictetus words nearly 2000 years ago, when he wrote “Circumstances do not make a man [or woman] they merely reveal him to himself.”  Heller faced every calamity with grace and the classic Middle Eastern traits of collaboration and extending familial support.  Your mentors and your elders become your uncles and aunts.  Your friends turn into your brothers and sisters.  You extend to them the same love, respect, and generosity that your freely give to members of your own family.  As Heller said, “I just could not get the Middle East out of me”.

It is that familial setting which she loves most about the business environment in the UAE.  Speaking about the handling of the COVID 19 crisis by the local authorities, Heller gushed, “In the UAE, I feel we are doing it very much as a family,  It’s really a family and that is a feeling you can never have in the west because it is a big country.  Whereas here [in the UAE] everyone is so approachable, so kind and I really feel like I belong here”.

To Heller, the concepts of Home, Family and Friendship denote to the same things: love, warmth, comfort, and security.  She can adapt to whichever situation she finds herself in and climb over hurdles that life throws in her path if the aforementioned needs are maintained through the circle of people around her.

Interview with DARA BIRNBAUM

DARA BIRNBAUM in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Since the mid-1970s, Dara Birnbaum (b.1946, New York) has painstakingly been investigating the multi-layered ways television and film are constantly being resculpted and redesigned, reflecting contemporary economic and socio-political conditions. American mass culture has always been in the epicenter of Birnbaum’s visual lexicon. Her pioneering experimental video works focus on specific qualities that define the construction and deconstruction of the identity of American household through the prism of televised imagery and its ideological follies. Repetition, fragmentation, image manipulation and visual analysis are only but a few key-elements in Birnbaum’s practice. Her video installations are often characterized by profound architectural elements echoing her primary studies in architecture. 

Dara Birnbaum
Erwartung/Expectancy, 1995/2001
(Partial view)
Video projection on Duraclear mounted on Plexiglas with quadraphonic sound
Dimensions variable
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2001
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Jon Abbott
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum
Dara Birnbaum
Damnation of Faust, 1984
Two-channel color video, quadraphonic sound, black & white photographic enlargement, and painted colored walls 
Dimensions variable
Installation view, S.M.A.K.(Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst), Ghent, 2009 
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Dirk Pauwels
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

Spanning six decades, Birnbaum’s career is empowered by the in-depth evocation of the balances between public and private domains. Her solo exhibitions and screenings have been presented at various museums and galleries around the world, some of which are: Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI), Rome, Italy (2019); Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA (2017, 2011, 2002) and London, UK (2018); South London Gallery, London (2011-12); Serralves Foundation, Porto, Portugal (2010); S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, Belgium (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008 and 1981); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria (2006); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany (1997); Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt, Germany (1996); École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, France (1994); The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA (1989); Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland (1986) and The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts, USA (1984). 

Dara Birnbaum
Portrait
Photo credit: Rehan Miskci
Dara Birnbaum
Self-Portrait

Her work has widely been presented in hundreds of international group exhibitions at museums, art foundations and film festivals worldwide such as MoMA PS1, New York (2019); Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany; Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (2019); National Portrait Gallery, London; Grand Palais, Paris (2018); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2018); The Met Breuer, New York (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (2017); J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center Los Angeles (2016); Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); MACBA Collection, MACBA, Madrid, Spain (2012); Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris (2012); MoMA PS1, New York (2011); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2008); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007); Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan / Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Sydney, Australia (2006); The Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel (2003); Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2003); XXIII Moscow International Film Festival, Moscow, Russia (2001); Seoul Biennial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea (2000); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (1999); Museum of the Moving Image, New York (1998); Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York (1997); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1995); documenta IX (1992), documenta VIII (1987), documenta VII (1982), Kassel, Germany, and Whitney Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1982). 

Dara Birnbaum
Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978/1979 
(Video still)
 Single-channel video, color, stereo sound, 5:50 min.
 Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
 Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

She has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards such as The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts Residency (2011); the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2011) and the prestigious United States Artists Fellowship (2010).

Dara Birnbaum
Psalm 29(30), 2016
Six-channel color video and sound; 8 min., looped
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, 2016
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Rebecca Fannuele
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

Kostas Prapoglou: 

Your visual vocabulary engages with the architecture of those tropes that dictate how truth and reality are being presented and communicated by the media to wide audiences. What triggered your interest in such a practice? 

DARA BIRNBAUM: 

I had become good friends with Suzanne Kuffler in the mid-70s and subsequently was asked to present my work alongside hers at Artists Space, NYC. At that time, I had barely begun to seriously approach my own art and mainly had been working on some performance/conceptual works (Six Movements,1975.) Confronted with my first gallery show, I had to think about what was most important to me at that precise moment and I realized that it was the language of television. This was directly because the average American family, in 1977, was –according to the Nielsen ratings– watching television some seven hours and twenty minutes per day. I felt that it was thus our main vocabulary and language. Journals, important to me, like Screen magazine from London, were analyzing film but never –at that time– approaching television. Therefore, I thought this type of television analysis must be done. My first show at Artists Space, entitled Lesson Plans: To Keep the Revolution Alive (1977), consisted of five sets of B/W photographic panels. Each set of five photos depicted a reverse angle shot from a prime-time crime-drama series on television and it was matched with a text panel, which revealed what was being said on TV during each of the captured still frames. Together, these pairings revealed to the viewer the way reverse angle shots were the prime piece of vocabulary for such shows. However, it seemed that viewers exposed to my work, took this critical information, or dialogue, home with them to explore other programs on TV, including and especially political programs. My second work, (A)Drift of Politics: Two Women Are Active in A Space (1978) took the popular TV-show Laverne & Shirley. I utilized the ‘two-shot’, which had these two women actresses (Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Freeney, as played by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams) confronting the audience, thus the world, together. In the beginning of each show, these two actresses sang a song, which included the phrase “doing it my way”. Again, this show was presented with Suzanne Kuffler’s work, this time at The Kitchen, NYC. I continued using prime tropes from TV with Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/9). That work, now considered a classic of video art, utilized a ‘special effect’, when the average secretary turned into a ‘Wonder Woman’ to help save mankind. 

Dara Birnbaum
PM Magazine, 1982
Four-channel color video, three audio stereo channels, 6:30 min; 
two chromogenic prints, Speed Rail® structural support system, aluminum
trim, one wall painted Chroma Key Blue, and one wall painted red
Dimensions variable 
Installation view “Cut to Swipe” at MoMA, New York, 2015
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo credit: Jonathan Muzikar
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

KP: 

Shooting methods, language techniques and other broadcasting manipulation systems employed by the media have been the focus of your filmmaking for years. Have you detected a shift in these practices involving specific changes in the aesthetics and ideologies as well as the ways subliminal political meanings are structured and transmitted? How are these reflected in your work?

DB: 

In 1980, I did a work in collaboration with Dan Graham entitled Local TV News Analysis for Cable-TV. We did this through A Space, Toronto, Canada. The work showed an hour of local TV news and we formatted the footage so that it revealed: 1) the inside of the television station and its control booth; 2) a family-at-home watching this news; and 3) the actual news broadcast itself. This composite of all three elements was then screened the following night on a separate cable-TV station, exactly during that next night’s evening newscast. It turned out that the structure of the news was basically the same from one night to the next. This included the way that the news was announced, to when certain types of stories would occur, to when the weatherman/woman would take over, to a recap, with some humor, etc. I think that since the mid-60s the structure of major network news has stayed mainly the same. However, CNN broke the mold when they delivered 24-hour international news. Now certain stations will do breakaways to major breaking news stories. Or, for example in the U.S., if the president chooses to make a speech to the country during prime-time, the news will breakaway for that. Some roles have changed. More women have been given bigger roles/positions, such as ‘anchor women’ on major stations in the U.S. Also, the traditional weatherman will now sometimes be a weatherwoman. Dan had previously observed that the formatting of the news team actually resembled the family-at-home, with the anchor being male and thus similar to the post WWII man in the U.S. at the head of his household. However, across the last decade the gender of such role positions has changed. In addition, several years ago stations such as CNN would have reporters in the field. With the desire to keep production budgets down, now there is more use of online interviews and ‘panels’ that perform commentary and less in-the-field work.  I also think that the audience is now more aware of such structures and that there is less oblique or subliminal political meanings behind newscasts. There is more directness as to the political leanings of each channel, or station. So, it is directly known that i.e. FOX news represents primarily Trump and the Republican right. Whereas, stations such as CNN are more overtly ‘democratic’ and present a more complete news picture, with some attempt to present both the left and right opinions of news stories. On the left you have stations such as MSNBC in America. For my own work, I have usually used news stories for the content of their shot, such as showing how CNN and CBS were both taken off-air by the Chinese government, in the summer of 1989, in light of the Tiananmen Square uprising (Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1990). There is also in this work the footage from a cable channel (Channel-L on Manhattan Cable TV), where a song performed by sympathetic Taiwanese students was aired. However, it was coming through very broken up, but they chose to transmit it anyway. Major news channels would never have allowed such broken-up footage to be televised. I showed each of these critical moments in the work.

Dara Birnbaum
PM Magazine, 1982
(Partial view)
Four-channel color video, three audio stereo channels, 6:30 min; 
two chromogenic prints, Speed Rail® structural support system, aluminum
trim, one wall painted Chroma Key Blue, and one wall painted red
Dimensions variable 
Installation view “Cut to Swipe” at MoMA, New York, 2015
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo credit: Jonathan Muzikar
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

KP: 

You have been working in the fields of video and installation since the 1970s. How have these evolved over the past five decades?

Db: 

The work has gone through several different phases. I would say that mostly from 1975-1982 I concentrated on being able to express several observations and concepts about the language of television. Hoping that by the use of different approaches –repeated edits, slo-mo, and then what became known as  ‘appropriation’ and ‘deconstruction’ of the vocabulary of this medium– I could reveal its hidden agendas and make this basically commercial media’s manipulation much more apparent. When I was in Documenta 7, in 1982, I felt that perhaps such manipulations were already becoming apparent, through my work and that of other artists (eventually known as The Pictures Generation) –such as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine– whom I felt close to at that time. I decided to alter my strategy and started a series entitled Damnation of Faust Trilogy (1983-1987), where I composed my own imagery, yet again tried to dissect a mythology, that of Goethe’s and Berlioz’s versions of Faust. By 1987, when I finished this trilogy, I then took on other projects of interest –an Artbreak (1987) for MTV and Rio VideoWall (1989), as the winner of an international competition held by Ackerman & Company–for an ‘electronic art work’ for their commercial shopping center, designed by Arquitectonica. These projects, in ‘public space’ were an attempt to bring the investigations I was doing earlier on into a larger arena, while still providing a type of ‘deconstruction’. The 90s started a period of working more directly with political events, such as the kidnapping and slaying of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Hostage,1984) and the Gulf War (Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992). On the contrary, works from 2000 forward attempted to deal further with gender, such as Arabesque (2011) and Erwartung/Expectancy (1995/2001). By 2014, my focus went back to investigating how to express the necessities of our time, as through Psalm 29(30) (2016), which relates directly to Syria’s civil war and unrest and its subsequent devastation. This work compiles, in part, an interior chamber revealing footage from the World Wide Web, which soldiers –against the regime in power– shot while on patrol. The last work, which was also very political in nature, The Soul Train (2018) was actually censored by the very museum that commissioned it! This work explores civil unrest in this country in the 1960s. I thought its attempt at revealing this critical time period was crucial, perhaps too much so –given our current demonstrations and unrest in the U.S., which has emerged on the tip of the COVID-19 virus and as sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Dara Birnbaum
Arabesque, 2011
(Partial view)
Four-channel video installation; four audio stereo channels; 6 min 30 sec., looped
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: John Berens
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

KP: 

Have you observed any significant changes in the way feminist artists express themselves through video or other/new mediums?

Db: 

I have basically followed the dynamics of the changes that have occurred in mass media over the decades. Thereby, my concentration has not been in feminist art, although I am included in the category of ‘feminism’ in the arts. I have definitely attempted to unwrap the role of women, mainly historically, through such works as Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Arabesque, and Erwartung/Expectancy, etc. Works regarding the ‘role’ of men on TV have perhaps been less noted, although I feel they are equally strong, such as Pop-Pop Video: Kojak/Wang (1980). I think that grouping women artists into a feminist category can limit the reading of the work of the many women artists I know. There was a wonderful poster by the Guerilla Girls, which in part stated: “Don’t worry, any art you make will be called feminist”. This is not to discredit, at all, those women working very hard on the ability for women to strongly express themselves and also choosing to make strong statements directly affecting their voice through their gender. However, I have not followed through on those significant changes made by ‘feminist artists’ through video and other mediums. Perhaps now, with a bit more acceptance of ‘women artists’ their voices are all the more strongly felt and heard. 

Dara Birnbaum
Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, 1979
Two-channel color video, two channels stereo audio; 6 min 26 sec., looped
Installation view, The Art Institute Chicago, 2019
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

KP: 

What does someone like yourself think when watching the news today, especially with all these ongoing disturbances set off by the global pandemic and the current social unrest? To what extent do you feel artists will get influenced by these and how will they respond?

Db: 

The only agreement I may have with our current president is that there is what he chooses to call ‘fake news’. Since the mid-60s in America, the news has been ‘owned’ by corporations, such as CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN. Before that time, historically, news was not owned by corporations. The mid-60s was a turning point in America, with the killing of major important leaders ‘on the left’ such as John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. However, ‘fake news’ is also a horrible term –causing one not to believe in anything, or any attempt to get real news across to the people of a country. It is just that if one chooses to educate oneself, it becomes possible to read the prejudices involved with most news stations. I would say that the majority of reporters in this country make a great attempt to give facts, but during such difficult times, ‘truth’ is very hard to come by. The use of the term ‘fake news’ is for this president an attempt to shut down valid news reporting, so that nothing can be believed. That is a crime and takes away from our first amendment rights. Artists have always questioned a dominant way of looking at the world. I believe that one gift of art is that perception is challenged and new observations can be made. The currency of these times challenges all, including artists. I would think that many artists will comment directly on this unique and critical time period. Others may choose to carry on the work they already have been engaged with, despite the overwhelming crises of this time. I would like to think that it is not the responsibility of artists to always and directly reflect their times. However, many may choose this path and that certainly can be for the good of a society. Already some people here, in the arts, are almost readily dictating that the only path an artist can choose, at this time, is to reflect the crisis we are in. I think this will happen naturally but does not have to be a dictate that all artists must pursue.

Dara Birnbaum
Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992
(Detail)
Eight-channel color video, nine channels stereo audio, two sections of Rohm steel transmission tower, custom-designed hardware and brackets
Installation view “Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011” at MoMA PS1, 2019/2020 
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Alex Yudzon
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

KP: 

Do you see the beginnings of a new era in artistic expression following such paramount events?

Db: 

Such epic events as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests and demonstrations, strongly based in current critical movements, such as Black Lives Matter, will certainly have an effect on many artists and creative people in the United States. I do think a new era in expression will evolve. In the U.S. there, for decades now, has been an emphasis on the marketing and commodification of art. Art was beginning to be seen as stock to some people, including investing and collecting enterprises. An earnest love of artwork seems to have been replaced by a wheeling and dealing mentality toward finding ‘genius’ artists, who are then collected. Just now, in the U.S., our unemployment is greater than it had been during the Great Depression. The art market is prepared for a serious hit. Perhaps a time of experimentation and freedom from commodification can re-emerge. That would seem to be a very good thing. We are at a point of inevitable destruction if we continue the ways in which we have lived and how we have treated our planet. We must choose a path out of this destruction, or we will be at the beginning of an end. Artists have, historically, paved the way for new insights and it is my hope that this can happen again.

Face to face with Giuseppe Maraniello.

Face to face with Giuseppe Maraniello.

Giuseppe Maraniello is interviewed by Alice Ioffrida

Giuseppe Maraniello was born in Naples in 1945. Since childhood, he showed his passion for art: as a matter of fact, one of the first things he tells me is the memory of the priest of his parish scolding him while he was busy drawing on a tiny piece of paper lying on the church stairs. He started studying art in the Naples Art Academy when he was 11 and then continued mixing with art circles and artistic personalities open to new experimentations during the sixties when the turmoil of the social changes arrived in Naples as a faint echo. The meeting with LUCA – born Luigi Castellano  – and the active role in the “P.66 Studio Group”, introduced him to the artistic scene of the sixties together with those that were against the commodification of art and the establishment of the art galleries and art collectors. His reformist and dreamy spirit was too big to remain within Naples, that’s why in 1971 he decided to move to Milan. This choice later proved to be the right move, and today Maraniello is amongst the masters of art that knew how to interpret the conceptual moment of that time while defining a personal style, allowing him to interpret in the best way the post-modern period that came after the fall of 1960s ideals. Maraniello’s works are designed with a constant regard to the reverse, to the opposite; antitethical elements, at times anthropomorphic, move along the line that separates painting from sculpting. This theme is at the core of his sculptures, his paintings, and his famous wood pieces. His photographic work, instead, is less known, and it expresses the social and political situation he found once arrived in Milan.

ph. Lorenzo Palmieri

In Naples, when you were very young, you were already very  active, attempting to represent best what was happening in the artistic circles of the time. What happened when your ambition drove you to Milan? 

“Naples was a restricted environment – Maraniello explains – and not very aware of what was happening, and my ambitions were focused on my artistic growth. I chose Milan because it was, and still is, very open to quality, and they recognized quality as valuable. Furthermore, the market, was very active and investments were big. I have never thought about getting rich by being an artist. I taught in Benevento at the School of Art and when I asked to be assigned in the Northern area they finally sent me to Busto Arsizio. An artist was my host during the first period, Pino, Guido Biasi’s brother that at the time lived in Paris. Bruno di Bello advised me to get an idea of the existing trends before presenting myself. I discovered a whole new world: it was 1971, the full conceptual and behavioural age, when all the most characteristic trends were happening here in Milan and while others were coming from abroad. One of my firsts gallerists, Luciano Inga-Pin for example, was hosting, Gunter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Marina Abramovich and other artists from the alternative scene. For two whole years I hung out in many galleries without presenting anything in order to understand the direction art was taking.”

ph. Giovanna Biondi

In Milan, your first exhibitions were about the conceptual photography, an artistic practice already popular in the 1950’ thanks to the phenomenon of the “Extra-Mediality”. If we want to compare that historical period, full of strong turmoils and social protests with today, do you believe nowadays artists are less socially involved? 

“In my teaching period I noticed a certain resignation amongst the youth, meaning that they did not even claim their own rights. I believe it is a tendency that it must be linked to that moment, in fact it was a period where everything was accepted lightly. My generation, instead, was coming from an ideologized environment in which the socio-political aspect strongly involved us. However, with the fall of ideologies, we went from a deep conceptual work to one that was less politically involved and freer. We came back to a peculiarity that underlined the necessity to enjoy the pleasure of doing. Every artist locked himself in his studio and, in time, started doing very different things from the ones that were being done when there was political commitment. This is simply a matter of historical times, because the artist reflects the moment we live in. This doesn’t mean there aren’t true artists, I don’t believe that today there is less commitment by contemporary artists but I believe, that there is a different kind dedication”.

Devitalizzazioni 1973

Regarding your actual production, what are you working on at the moment?  

“This for me is a period of crisis, not just economical but also of ideas, I believe, I am reorganizing what can be defined as my life. A first book is already planned, thanks to the idea of Danilo Eccher, who decided to analyse the most consistent part of my production: the wood pieces. Other books should come after this one with the rest of my production. At the same time, I am busy creating the liturgical setup for a church in Calabria together with the architect Mario Cucinella, one of the most interesting architects of our time. It’s not the first time I have had to put works inside a religious building. I already worked with Arnaldo Pomodoro in 2001, we created a Christ for the Milwaukee cathedral; then in the US I also created an icon of Christ for the Yale University chapel. When I am the one that has always made devils!

Alice Ioffrida

Interview with Jonathan Monaghan

Jonathan Monaghan in conversation with Alexandra Gilliams

Jonathan Monaghan is an artist working across multiple mediums, including installation, sculpture, and print, with a common thread exploring the fragility of dependency placed on technology and consumerism.

Using video game software and 3D printers, his haunting, yet playful pieces merge historical references with sci-fi, and morph contemporary anxieties into surreal, technological outcomes. In other words, the outcomes of a hyper-capitalist, technological society if it were to further develop and eventually succeed. By using classical, Baroque motifs, Monaghan intersects the future with the past through the repulsion evoked by decadence and exhibitionism, aligning it with similar feelings induced by social media and consumerist culture. Soft-looking cushions have been manipulated into obscure shapes, and are superimposed with electronics and golden surveillance cameras. Others tend to be ambiguous, resembling commercial products or spaceships mimicking Fabergé eggs, complete with cameras and consumerist objects created for convenience, such as bike-share stations and vending machines. Monaghan has created a new world: a dystopian, consumerist police state under the seductive guise of gilded ornamentation and decadent imagery.

Disco Beast 2016. video (color, sound), media player, screen or projector, 18 min loop. Music by Furniteur. Disco Beast follows a psychedelic unicorn as it wanders through a series of empty commercial spaces, including an abandoned shopping mall and a luxury hotel lobby. The work references both medieval iconography of a unicorn in captivity and its appearance in popular culture to build a new mythology about modern confinement by technology and materialism. This symbol of otherworldliness and the unobtainable in discord with banal, corporate spaces in the piece elicits subconscious anxieties surrounding globalization and consumerism.

AG: Could you describe what your days have been like during confinement? Are there any new pieces that you are currently working on?

JM: I’ve been in quarantine making artwork. I’ve had a lot of exhibitions and shows postponed and cancelled so this is an opportunity to make new work. It has, I think, influenced my work quite a bit. I’m working on a new piece right now following these wolves that are scavenging these empty grocery stores and environments from our consumer culture – so it’s a surreal, dreamlike film that looks at our fears and anxieties that we have about the current situation but also about the future in general.

AG: You’re working more with video animation than with sculptures and prints?

JM: It’s a little hard for me to work with the physical mediums right now because number one, there’s just not many opportunities to exhibit them right now, and number two, I work often with fabricators and other people – I use a lot of digital fabrication and a lot of 3D printing, so a lot of those services are delayed a little bit because of the situation. So I have been focusing more on the video work which has always been the central focus of my practice and it allows me to be more fluid in the ways I exhibit it.

Animus / Animus is a series of sculptures evoking animals entombed in ornamented couch-like skins. Fabricated in materials such as marble and gold, the works elicit the aesthetics of baroque decorative arts, while conjuring notions of confinement by technology and materialism.

AG: Your pieces are loaded with references: classical art, technology, surveillance, capitalism, consumerism, science fiction, mythology, video games… From where have you been inspired to make these references?

JM: A lot of what I do is combine elements that are very familiar to us from the present day, things like consumer products and company logos. This is very much in the tradition of American pop artists who look at our consumer culture with a critical eye, and examine this culture that we are all apart of. In addition to that, I take elements that have a reference to art history, whether that’s Baroque architecture or historical artworks, and I combine all of these different things together to create essentially what I call a “new mythology.” Mythological stories have traditionally been invented or used as a means to help people cope with the unknown, or with what they’re scared of. One that might have a relevance or pertinence to our present situation, so these different elements combined seem familiar but sometimes it can be new and alien, and dreamlike all at the same time.

Sentries 2019. custom wall decals Sentries is a series of custom wall decals. Candy-colored, yet unsettling, the large installations take on a confrontational presence. With computer-generated imagery of soft fabrics juxtaposed near ambiguous electronic devices and surveillance cameras, these cryptic works draw attention to the increasingly blurry lines between the organic and artificial.

AG: I find your use of Baroque motifs to be quite compelling, and you have mentioned the similar ties between social media and Baroque extravagance. What are some of your ideas behind connecting classical imagery with contemporary themes of technology and consumerism?

JM: I think we live in a very decadent time with our obsessions with technology and consumer goods and consumer items, so often I will draw references to the Baroque era through architecture and through the artworks of that era – I think decadence often leads to downfall. I think it provides a cautionary message for the way we live our lives today, and what that could lead to, particularly in the context of whether there are ecological consequences of our consumer culture or our open dependence on technology and the alienation that comes with that.

Beam Me Up 2019. powder coated steel frame, 3D-printed rose gold-plated brass, LED display. 18 in x 29 in x 3 in Beam Me Up is a series of computer animations housed in ornate frames. The video depicts an otherworldly scene where an egg-like form emerges from a portal, only to be sucked backed in. The work contrasts a wide-array of references, such as baroque architecture, science fiction, designer fabrics and organic life-forms. Combining both video and sculptural elements, the work defies boundaries while drawing attention to the increasingly blurry lines between the natural and artificial.

AG: Having described that you are “attempting to create a contemporary form of mythology while referencing historical mythology”, what does creating a “mythology” for contemporary society mean to you?

JM: In one of my films, Disco Beast – this artwork follows a psychedelic unicorn through different environments. This piece, for me, was a kind of recreation of unicorn tapestries; there is a famous series of these tapestries housed in the cloisters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. They’re medieval French tapestries that show the hunt and capture of a unicorn; this is a multi-faceted mythology. I was looking at this unicorn that was hunted and captured and “confined,” and I was thinking about that as a metaphor for us today, and our relationship to technology and our relationship to consumer culture… we are very much trapped. When the Met wrote about this artwork, they said that the unicorn could escape if it wished, that it was a particularly “happy” confinement. That, I think, is a very interesting metaphor when we look at ourselves today and our obsession with or reliance on technology, within a security and surveillance state; I’m trying to draw these parallels. There are these deep, kind of psychological connections, these mythological stories which go into the unconscious – these kinds of raw human elements – and [what I am doing is] sort of connecting that with current elements, whether that’s technology, consumer culture, etc.

Police State Condo 2017. dye-sublimation on aluminum, 3D printed 18K gold plated brass, acrylic, 3D printed acrylate, MDF frames A dystopian tone characterizes these sculptural print works as security cameras, TSA checkpoints, and ATM machines blend with designer fabrics and penthouse views to create ominous vignettes reminiscent of advertisements for posh apartments. Each work in the series is titled with a corporate slogan of a defunct American bank affected by the 2007 housing collapse. Composed of both two-dimensional imagery and 3D printed sculptural reliefs, the works occupy the liminal space between the virtual and physical.

AG: I’m interested to know more about the relationship between the organic and artificial in your pieces, where despite having no human beings in the world you have created, there are eyes, teeth… organic elements adorning artificial ones.

JM: I always strive for a strange discordance between these natural and synthetic elements. For me, it is an examination of our very discordant relationship we have to ourselves and to nature, in the context of technology. So much of our lives are lived and so many of our emotions take place on these technological platforms, and the consequences of our society ecologically are quite drastic as well, so there is a serious imbalance, I think, that’s causing a lot of problems. I am trying to personify that visually, through these tensions, these contrasts and juxtapositions between these natural and synthetic elements in my work.

Wind 2016-19 Wind is an ongoing series of animated videos and prints which re-imagine highly-ornamented building facades as flowing organic material. The result is a dream-like discordance, which examines the increasingly blurry divide between reality and the virtual, between the natural and artificial.

AG: Do you think you will display or diffuse your work in a different way during and after confinement?

JM: I have been working experimentally on online presentations, considering how people might experience the work. Ideally, my work is experienced in a physical space – in an art gallery or museum or some sort of public space, so the videos are really not designed to be looked on on a small screen at home. There is actually no beginning nor end to my works, there’s not a spot where you are supposed to press play. These works are seamless loops, and so you enter a physical space and you are presented with the work at any point in time and you just sort of jump into this world for however long you want, and then you leave. So it’s definitely a different situation in terms of exhibiting in these online platforms.

AG: You work across a variety of disciplines, including 3D printed sculptures, inkjet prints, wall decals, and video animations. Would you ever consider making an interactive piece?

JM: I am very interested in these platforms, and I guess today they makes more sense. One of the things that I really enjoy when I display my work, [is that] I display them as these large video installations, so you go into a physical gallery and you see a large projection on the wall or on some sort of surface. You are oftentimes experiencing that with other people in the gallery, so there is a sort of communal, social aspect to these works, you are immersed in this world together, and I really enjoy that. Moving onto these more isolated viewing experiences, whether it’s at home, on the computer, or through a VR [headset], it’s definitely a different situation. That is a challenge for myself and other artists to remove the social aspect of experiencing artwork.

AG: What are a few things have been the most therapeutic or inspirational for you during confinement?

JM: Definitely cooking and food, I am doing a lot more cooking. I guess also, wine and alcoholic beverages are therapeutic! I’m a little ashamed of it, but I’ve been playing video games more than usual. We’re just so isolated in here and you can “get out” virtually.

Rainbow Narcosis 2012. video (color, sound), media player, screen or projector, 9 min loop. Music by Evan Samek. Rainbow Narcosis follows a headless lamb through a series of otherworldly environments. With a visual style that shifts between photo-realism and video games, the work highlights the increasing disconnect between whats real and whats mediated. From the Palais Garnier to an art-filled modernist loft, the subject matter references wealth and power, while maintaining an unsettling ambiguity.

Interview with JAKOB KUDSK STEENSEN

JAKOB KUDSK STEENSEN in conversation with Alexandra Gilliams

During a trip last year to Venice, Italy for the Biennale, I wandered into the Palazzo Ca’ Tron, a Venetian Renaissance palace that was hosting the Future Generation Art Prize exhibition. I walked into a long hall adorned with decorative molding, marble, and large-scale Renaissance paintings. Two sections of the floor were covered in wood chips, and in the center of these sections were metal towers hoisting black computer engines and holograms of forests. Next to them, visitors swayed in place, their heads softly turning underneath bulky virtual reality headsets. Intrigued, I placed one on and, through sense of sight, touch, and hearing, got lost in an alien forest, guided by the haunting echo of an extinct bird… RE-ANIMATED was my first experience in one of the vast and beautiful virtual worlds created by Danish artist and New York City resident, Jakob Kudsk Steensen.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen Field work in the Camargue, Saline de Giraud 
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Immersing himself in a salt flat and wetland over 5 months, Jakob Kudsk Steensen documents salt crystals, algae, mud and bacteria at macro level. This is done by taking 100-300 macro-photos of single elements like mud, algae and salt, then converted into highly sensory and delicate virtually simulated worlds.  Credit: Jakob Kudsk Steensen, 2020
All visual and audio material is collected within the landscape. Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s work will accumulate as an ultra local engagement with macro-life processes, and how these relate to global patterns in wind, water and salt, in an international lucid virtual medium. 

By collaborating with field biologists, NGO’s, researchers, and artists across all disciplines, Steensen creates ecological simulations that envelop the senses and elicit connectivity to an environment. They are played on VR headsets, in large scale installations, and through augmented reality on cell phones. After periods of research, he ventures into rural landscapes for months at a time, where he quite literally plunges in. He crawls through the environment with a macro lens, photographing and experiencing his surroundings, and returns to his studio where he places his scans onto 3D models that he sculpts in virtual reality. One of his most recent pieces, The Deep Listener, was commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery in London, where he studied the environment of the Kensington Gardens. He created an AR application for smartphones that can be used while walking through the park that heightens the sense of sight and sound, immersing the user more deeply into their surroundings.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning
Courtesy of the artist
Catharsis installation, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2020. Public welcome, free outdoor installation open 24/7 connected to a global live-stream video.
Catharsis is a large-scale, immersive installation that pulls audiences into a digital simulation of a re-imagined old-growth forest. Jakob Kudsk Steensen and his primary collaborator Matt McCorkle, and its virtual ecosystem and synchronized spatial audio were built from 3D textures and sounds collected from North American Forests. Catharsis draws on Kudsk Steensen’s concept of ‘slow media’, using digital technologies to draw to create new narratives on our ecological futures. 


I sat down with Steensen on Zoom to discuss the crystalline environment that he and his collaborators are developing during his residency at the Luma Foundation in Arles, France, as well as his plans for the future in the midst of COVID-19.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning
Courtesy of the artist
Catharsis installation, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2020. Public welcome, free outdoor installation open 24/7 connected to a global live-stream video.
Catharsis is a large-scale, immersive installation that pulls audiences into a digital simulation of a re-imagined old-growth forest. Jakob Kudsk Steensen and his primary collaborator Matt McCorkle, and its virtual ecosystem and synchronized spatial audio were built from 3D textures and sounds collected from North American Forests. Catharsis draws on Kudsk Steensen’s concept of ‘slow media’, using digital technologies to draw to create new narratives on our ecological futures. 

ALEXANDRA GILLIAMS: First off, how are you doing?

JAKOB KUDSK STEENSEN: I am doing okay. Fortunately, we are doing a project in the South of France with the Luma Art Foundation, we already had a residency. We were given a nice, beautiful flat next to this wetland called the Carmague. In January, February, and March, I was 3D scanning different, beautiful crystallization processes in the wetland that are formed by algae, by bacteria, salt, water, wind – very basic life components. Right when we had the lockdown, I had already scanned the material and was entering a period of collaboration with different artists by building [the simulation] virtually. I have been coping with this situation by being able to really focus on my work as an artist and express myself, by working with these materials from the landscape, which is making me think a lot about the lack of physical touch and connection to a landscape, and what that means when you’re working with it virtually. 

We’ve been quite fortunate that we’ve had this residency and this big project lined up, but I also had multiple shows cancelled, and I was sad about that. But we are happy about the conditions we are under. I spent three months going to the landscape, and using a big macro lens I took about three hundred photos of different small objects, such as salt crystals. From those photos, I reconstruct them in 3D, I then have a whole landscape digitized that way. I had all the source material, all of the photographs… I did my last shoot the day before the lockdown happened, we were capturing different sky lights. The lockdown happened right before I was set up to fully work virtually.

I work with different people in Kiev, in New York, and Canada, and we have a virtual collaboration platform where we all log in, connect to a virtual space, and build together at the same time. It was kind of this uncanny thing where, I was working with these basic bacterial processes in a landscape, documenting them, and working in this international network platform that I had built for my studio right when COVID hit. So there was this uncanny condition where I felt like I was already working on something kind of similar in theme, and the way that I am creating, to what’s happening now. It almost feels like the future kind of became what I was working with before.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, The Deep Listener, 2019
Courtesy of the artist
Selected as the first Serpentine Augmented Architecture commission, Kudsk Steensen created The Deep Listener, inviting the public on a journey to both see and hear the sights
and sounds of five of London’s species that are part of the park ecosystem that might otherwise be ignored, intangible or simply invisible. Through the innovative use of
Augmented Reality, VR, Spatial audio visual simulations and what he refers to as a Slow Media approach. His installations allow the public to experience the natural world in an
accessible, informative and playful digital format. Drawing on the principles of deep listening, Kudsk Steensen and sound artist Matt McCorkle to represent five species as Audio
visualizations drawn directly from organic source material from Hyde Park.


AG: Could you describe what your daily routine has been like while being in confinement?

JKS: I sleep, and then I wake up. I have coffee, and then I go for a walk by the river. It’s really cool because there aren’t a lot of boats, so there are hundreds of these massive salmon and giant catfish that you can see in the river… they swim right up to the side. So I’m walking in the morning in the sun, around 10 or something, down this river, watching the fish, and then I go up to my studio; I have this big, beautiful sunlit room. I turn on my computer, I have some more coffee, then I link up with my collaborators. What they were working on on the East Coast in the states, they check in the evening, then it arrives in my landscape when I wake up, then I start working on it. 

I just passed off the work to the sound artist who’s in Brooklyn right now. We were all supposed to be here together, but we can’t because of COVID. They were supposed to arrive in April through to the middle of May. There’s a sound artist that I work with who was supposed to record these insect and frog sounds in the landscape… we did some first recording with him in December but because he can’t be here now, what’s happened, which I find interesting, is that I have to connect with a lot of people from here and collaborate with them. We are using sounds from some natural history archives in the region, and there is someone that I work with on capturing sky lights, where you capture the light from the sky and you use that to create lights in the virtual landscape to get a texture of feeling – a kind of realism. He used to work on films in Hollywood and then moved back to France to this small town. It’s interesting because I am working with the local landscape and I am collaborating to a greater extent than I did in the past with people from this area. it’s making me think that in the future, I might do a project where the landscapes I work in, I will work with people from that region. They might know or have certain perspectives on an area that I don’t have.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, The Deep Listener, 2019
Courtesy of the artist
Selected as the first Serpentine Augmented Architecture commission, Kudsk Steensen created The Deep Listener, inviting the public on a journey to both see and hear the sights
and sounds of five of London’s species that are part of the park ecosystem that might otherwise be ignored, intangible or simply invisible. Through the innovative use of
Augmented Reality, VR, Spatial audio visual simulations and what he refers to as a Slow Media approach. His installations allow the public to experience the natural world in an
accessible, informative and playful digital format. Drawing on the principles of deep listening, Kudsk Steensen and sound artist Matt McCorkle to represent five species as Audio
visualizations drawn directly from organic source material from Hyde Park.


AG: How did you first become interested in technology, and can you describe what drove your choice in pursuing the arts?

JKS: I was quite fascinated by video games when I was a kid. When I was about 13, I got this video game called Unreal, and it came with a software that you use to create the game, so you can modify it. As a teenager, I started modifying the games that I was fascinated by. The first thing I wanted to do was be an animator for video games, but then I did the test for animation school and I had to draw the same character seventeen times, and I just immediately knew that this was not the direction for me. From then, I wanted to be an artist, to go to an art academy, create art, so I started painting a lot in the beginning. My paintings were inspired by virtual landscapes, but then at some point six years ago, instead of creating virtual worlds and taking pictures of those landscapes and painting them, I decided why not just build them? 

It’s been a lifelong passion for me. What I grew up with first as a kid was more entertainment, gaming was more socially stigmatized than it is today, it wasn’t considered a mature art form, but there were artists making work about the culture of video games, the aesthetics of video games, but not many artists were diving deep into the technology used to create video games and doing something different with it. 

That’s how I really started professionally, doing projects, showing in museums, getting commissions… That’s when I really chose to focus as much as I could in reaching the core of my passion, and that is going to landscapes, digitizing material – kind of like an e-material form of extraction, where you are not taking anything physical, but sounds, pictures, virtual textures from reality – and using video game software to create something that doesn’t really have anything to do with video games but it’s more responsive, it’s alive. It has composition, color, sound, movement; there’s a lot of aesthetic, beautiful elements of that technology. I’ve been fascinated with this since I was a kid, but within the past few years I have become kind of self aware of why it is fascinating to me… making video game worlds without any video game element – no guns, no action – just poetic landscapes.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, The Deep Listener, 2019
Courtesy of the artist
Selected as the first Serpentine Augmented Architecture commission, Kudsk Steensen created The Deep Listener, inviting the public on a journey to both see and hear the sights
and sounds of five of London’s species that are part of the park ecosystem that might otherwise be ignored, intangible or simply invisible. Through the innovative use of
Augmented Reality, VR, Spatial audio visual simulations and what he refers to as a Slow Media approach. His installations allow the public to experience the natural world in an
accessible, informative and playful digital format. Drawing on the principles of deep listening, Kudsk Steensen and sound artist Matt McCorkle to represent five species as Audio
visualizations drawn directly from organic source material from Hyde Park.


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2019
Courtesy of the artist
RE-ANIMATED, Installation at the 2019 Venice Biennial, Future Generations Art Prize nomination – 5 meter monolithic screen, Room-scale VR, 4k Video, Mulch, Wood
RE-ANIMATED is a magnificent reanimation of the bird and its song, inhabiting a distorted digital reconstruction of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō’s original habitat on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. REANIMATED’s
virtual world comes to life with interactive audio that includes algorithmic music composed by Michael Riesman, Musical Director for the Philip Glass Ensemble. Plants, moss, and insects respond to the pulse of music generated in real-time, and the audience’s breath organically impacts the virtual atmosphere. As a result, the VR experience is unique for every user. 

AG: You have spoken about how climate change is a central theme in your work, but human emotions in relation to nature take precedent, and that you refer to yourself more as a romanticist than an activist. I’m interested to know what kinds of emotions you hope to evoke with your pieces, and what they mean to you in relation to nature and the climate crisis.

JKS: More or less, I am very drawn to a sense of immersion – immersion in my craft, immersion in the virtual world, and immersion in actual landscapes – there are these three elements that I work with where, for me, to create an artwork, I need to be very physically present in a landscape, sometimes for over several months. I have a suit that protects me from mud, and I crawl through mud to do photo scans – it’s very physical. There is something emotional in that – a sense of being in your own mind in a very busy time. I feel like, with social media, life today is very busy and you are bombarded with thoughts, so that creates a way of being, emotionally, where you could be constantly distressed… 

When you are in a landscape alone, for months at a time, or with a couple of people, you enter into another emotional state, and that’s the state that I am interested in working with – this sense of depth and focus, and also this sense of solitude or, looking for something that I feel like is lost. What is lost is, because of climate change, a lot of ecosystems, habitats, there is a lot of destruction happening on the planet; a lot of species are being lost. At the same time, I think being in this emotional state with a sense of solitude or focusing on one thing for three months in a specific location, is also being “lost.”

For me, all of these narratives are important, but in the end what drives me as an artist, rather than an activist, for example, is that I am driven by working with these mental states that are provoked through narratives and nature. So each project that I do I start in a specific landscape or with a specific story. I did a project with an extinct bird, and the project kind of revived that bird back to life. That was the last larger project I did, similar to what I am doing in France now. I think more and more about how the stories I work with in nature can also tell us stories about things that don’t have anything to do with nature, but is drawing a parallel. 

The project I am working on now is about bacteria and algaein the wetlands in the South of France, I am making the piece in a way where I am thinking about how that story in this specific landscape can be relevant in general, and how there are these invisible, organic processes that control all of life; this is what COVID is doing right now, too. I’m not making a work about COVID, it’s the same project I had planned to do, but I am thinking more consciously about how the narrative, or final form, can be about seeing all encompassing, otherwise invisible organic processes that shape life, in an entire landscape. This is how I typically work, which is why I think that I am equally or more, working with some kind of intuitive or imaginative approach to a landscape and the emotions that it evokes – some sensations which reach beyond what they are in nature.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2019
Courtesy of the artist
RE-ANIMATED, Installation at the 2019 Venice Biennial, Future Generations Art Prize nomination – 5 meter monolithic screen, Room-scale VR, 4k Video, Mulch, Wood
RE-ANIMATED is a magnificent reanimation of the bird and its song, inhabiting a distorted digital reconstruction of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō’s original habitat on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. REANIMATED’s
virtual world comes to life with interactive audio that includes algorithmic music composed by Michael Riesman, Musical Director for the Philip Glass Ensemble. Plants, moss, and insects respond to the pulse of music generated in real-time, and the audience’s breath organically impacts the virtual atmosphere. As a result, the VR experience is unique for every user. 

AG: In your simulations, you augment different parts of certain plant and animal species, such as enlarging leaves or, as in your recent piece The Deep Listener, slowing the calls of birds in order to alter the viewer’s senses. When I saw your piece RE-ANIMATED during the Venice Biennale, I felt as though I was teleported into the middle of a forest that could have been on another planet. The installation was complete with the floor covered in wood chips which made me feel as though I was walking in nature. I remember the peculiar impression that I had from the angle in which I was viewing the simulation, which was very low, making the forest seem larger than life. What kinds of sensations do you hope to conjure up within your simulations, and how do you hope that these sensations might resonate with the viewer afterwards?

JKS: I think I hope to invoke a sense of curiosity that I kind of feel like you had when you saw the work. I hope to not just make a statement or story about something, but evoke a sense of curiosity for different stories, natural histories that might be overlooked or that people don’t think about. Within those, I am playing often with scale. The relationship between, let’s say, a human scale, feeling like you have a horizon, you have controlled space, you have architecture in a virtual landscape that you can very much relate to. And then, slowly over time, you morph into a different scale, where suddenly you are the size of a mushroom or an insect. But I do this transformation so subtlety and gradually over time that you don’t really think about it until maybe all of the sudden, you are like, wait, am I really that small looking up at a tree, when before I was looking at those trees? But I never do it as if it were a cinematic cut where it would be from a canopyto an insect scale. 

Because of these simulations, I can change perspectives, sizes, speed, everything. The speed of water running down a leaf, it could be realistic, but all of the sudden, almost be in slow motion – and that is just one detail in a landscape. The leaf is a real photo scanned leaf, but I might have increased the value of how reflective it is to the sun by about 20 percent, so it becomes a little uncanny, because now it’s reflecting light around it in a little, weird way, but it’s still a photo scanned leaf. I try to play a lot with these different physics that we normally use with our senses to understand where we are in a landscape, like light, humidity, the wetness of an object or if it’s dry, does something dissolve or does it feel hard and solid… These are kinds of material properties that I spend a lot of time morphing in my work, these kinds of real-time game engine simulations where those variables can just slightly change for anybody trying one of the artworks.

AG: I remember from RE-ANIMATED emerging from a cave into a forest where a sharp, seemingly artificial blue light was almost blinding, with some kind of a hovering aircraft in the distance. Nature surrounded me, and was moving in an unnatural rhythmic motion – tree branches swaying, leaves rustling, flowers blowing… but all in-sync. There were these small metal cages resembling mosquito traps hanging from elongated, twisted wood, and in the distance, a plant with branches appeared intertwined with a neon blue light. Though you create realistic simulations of forests, would you agree that there is an element of science fiction in your work?

JKS: Definitely, I do a lot of research for my projects and then I think about how can I convert that research; It’s inspiration for me as an artist. Then I take those literal perspectives and transform them. 

I am very inspired by a lot of science fiction writers. I think that some of the most interesting science fiction has an element of truth, and often for a lot of the writers I like, such as Jeff VenderMeer,he writes this wild ecofiction where everything is kind of morphed together into these muddy constellations, and he lives in Florida. There is a relationship – you kind of need to go out and see the Everglades in order to be able to write that way. I follow the same principle. I think more and more now, with the project that I am doing here, it’s becoming more abstract and emotional, but to create that, everything that I’m working on now here in France, I still need to be in the landscape for a long time to see things I wouldn’t have seen before: textures, sounds, natural elements… so science fiction is a big inspiration.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen Field work in the Camargue, Saline de Giraud 
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Immersing himself in a salt flat and wetland over 5 months, Jakob Kudsk Steensen documents salt crystals, algae, mud and bacteria at macro level. This is done by taking 100-300 macro-photos of single elements like mud, algae and salt, then converted into highly sensory and delicate virtually simulated worlds.  Credit: Jakob Kudsk Steensen, 2020
All visual and audio material is collected within the landscape. Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s work will accumulate as an ultra local engagement with macro-life processes, and how these relate to global patterns in wind, water and salt, in an international lucid virtual medium.

AG: What direction do you envision your work moving towards post-confinement, and have you considered how you might display or diffuse your pieces in a different way?

JKS: Definitely, I’ve shown a lot of VR the past couple of years because I love the kind of attention it can bring to people. You put on a headset – there’s no cell phone, there’s no one around you – you are focused, and I think that’s a state of mind that we are kind of missing with digital mediums today. 

But, in a public space now, it’s going to be impossible to show VR and share headsets. It’s not happening. So that makes me think, since they are virtual landscapes and simulations, they can become many other things too, you can play the work regardless of if you have a headset or not. You can send out those signals to many other things – speakers, screens, projections. I’m gonna start taking my worlds and creating these larger, immersive, physical spaces, and at the same time I’m thinking about how I can fully distribute my work online. Something I would like to do more is to work with institutions, foundations, and platforms to make work fully available for people to download and then also have the larger, immersive installs, but those wouldn’t have VR. For people who have VR headsets, they can download it from home, or on their phone, like The Deep Listener.

COVID is kind of forcing me to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, which is crystallize the relationship between the capabilities of the virtual as something that can be distributed to people, but also as something that can create these pulsating, interactive spaces,so I’m gonna kind of take those two forms to further extremes, and do less in between them.But it is kind of sad because this piece I am working on right now was meant to be for eight people who enter this virtual landscape together as a kind of social or ritual experience in the museum, so that element I have to completely move to make something different.

Something I’ve been doing a lot actually are artist meetups in VR. Yesterday we were 45 artists meeting in a virtual space – you put on a headset and you have a virtual avatar and everything – and I think I’m going to start embracing these fully virtual formats more, and how they can connect to the specific landscapes. 

Jakob Kudsk Steensen Field work in the Camargue, Saline de Giraud 
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Immersing himself in a salt flat and wetland over 5 months, Jakob Kudsk Steensen documents salt crystals, algae, mud and bacteria at macro level. This is done by taking 100-300 macro-photos of single elements like mud, algae and salt, then converted into highly sensory and delicate virtually simulated worlds.  Credit: Jakob Kudsk Steensen, 2020
All visual and audio material is collected within the landscape. Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s work will accumulate as an ultra local engagement with macro-life processes, and how these relate to global patterns in wind, water and salt, in an international lucid virtual medium
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AG: So not necessarily just for people with VR headsets – this could be something that you could also download, say, on your cell phone or laptop?

JKS: Yes, I would like to make it as accessible as possible. But for people who have a headset, they can still enter – this work is made for VR, the first one will be for VR, so people who have the headset can do it. But after that I will begin working on a version for a laptop like a first-person video game, you explore the landscape, it’s a very different design… sitting down in front of a screen, moving physically everything responds to you. So, I have to redo a lot of elements but suffice to say that I’m thinking a lot about how in the future I will go to a landscape, work there, work with the museum to make an installation and as an extension of that installation there are parts of that world and work that is entirely designed for a much wider distribution and usage for people to experience the work. Similar to music or apps, virtual books and so on. I think institutionally it’s bound to happen too, because so many artists are interested in this more and more, and there’s no reason you should only show these ambitious virtual artworks in a museum, when they can be so much more. 

AG: Do you think you’ll continue to make the same type of work post-confinement? By working in nature so much, do you think that your process will be different once this is over?

JKS: Definitely, I will be traveling a lot less which I enjoy, so that part is nice. What the project here has made me think a lot about has been that there are these imaginary, alien worlds everywhere. I’m working now in a super-local landscape, when you first look at it, it looks flat and there’s not a lot happening, but then when you look from a really small scale you see all of these amazing, alien transformations by salt and algae, so it has really made me think that I could be in one town and do the same work in a backyard, or anywhere really, anywhere you can find these stories. They don’t have to be these big stories of extinct birds and exotic islands; you can find this kind of inspiration anywhere.

Also, there is a strong sensory element and a discursive element to my work. What I’m really feeling that is more relevant is the stronger, emotional, sensory experiences, the sense of calm, the sense of being closely connected to the art you are experiencing. In my work, there are textures, sounds, it can be anything… these very basic, essential capabilities of an artwork is more of what I feel for myself, and that is what I am mainly interested in right now. So kind of cutting it to the art of the artwork, more than the politics or the discourse, or the narrative of it, and make it even more basic, sensory, imaginative… That’s how I’m feeling now and looking at doing things.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20
Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning
Courtesy of the artist
Catharsis installation, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 2020. Public welcome, free outdoor installation open 24/7 connected to a global live-stream video.
Catharsis is a large-scale, immersive installation that pulls audiences into a digital simulation of a re-imagined old-growth forest. Jakob Kudsk Steensen and his primary collaborator Matt McCorkle, and its virtual ecosystem and synchronized spatial audio were built from 3D textures and sounds collected from North American Forests. Catharsis draws on Kudsk Steensen’s concept of ‘slow media’, using digital technologies to draw to create new narratives on our ecological futures. 

AG: How long have you been living in New York City, and what is your opinion on it?

JKS: I lived there for six years. I am so happy for having been there, I met so many great artists. But I feel lately, in the past few years – with rent and commercialization and everything – that a lot of the art that I started to be inspired by was rarely in New York, I did all of my projects outside, to create artworks I went somewhere else, to find inspiration I went somewhere else. 

I feel like I am becoming more and more interested in ideas, art, aesthetics, thoughts, way of living, in local areas, and how different local areas can connect globally rather than trying to think that everything global is centered in different cities. This art foundation that I’m working with right now, Luma in the South of France, that’s kind of their mission – to support local design, biology, art in Southern France, but they have a powerful international network, so they are still connecting it to other places. I’m thinking a lot about archipelagos, you have different islands, they all still trade and share things, but they are still relative individual entities. 

I think with COVID, this is a system that many people have been talking about supporting and moving towards in our culture, and I am thinking that we will see more action behind these words now because of it. I think most likely, in the immediate future, you will have a better life if you live outside a major city. The situation that produces a virus and viral activity like that, is created by this global system where people need to travel a lot, really fast, to clustered places. It’s a bit symbolic I think; it’s such a sad, hard situation but it’s also a biological fact that this is not a sustainable way of life for our planet, and we are seeing the repercussions of our own behavior as humans through a virus. I love New York, I love all my friends, I love all that it has given me as an artist, but more and more I am looking towards local places and how they can be connected internationally.

AG: Has your residency been extended because of the virus, and for how long?

JKS: It has been extended, we’ll see for how long…

AG: What five things have been the most therapeutic or inspirational for you during confinement? This can be music, films, podcast, television shows, food, drinks, etc?

JKS: Fortunately in France here, we’ve been able to walk outside so, looking at the salmon in the river everyday.

The VR meetups I have been doing regularly – I know a lot of artists that work in VR but I have never been with that many people with headsets on in online spaces. That has been really fun.

I sleep really long, that has been really nice. Lots of sleep.

Wine. Good, French wine.

I haven’t really played a lot of video games for many years, but I have been playing with friends – old friends, from high school – online a couple of times a week and that’s been really been really fun. Because of those games, because they are social landscapes, I have been connecting with friends that I used to be close to before I moved to New York and became an artist, and we’ve reconnected over that. 

Vincent Fournier: a time traveler taking the past into the future

Vincent Fournier: a time traveler taking the past into the future / In conversation with Alice Zucca

Vincent Fournier is interviewed by our Editor in Chief Alice Zucca

It is easy to cross the border between fiction and reality, while diving in the imagery of Vincent Fournier, and this is not only because of the suspended atmosphere and the unusual representation of spaces and human figures. He explores the conceptual frontier between concreteness and imagination, between past and future, and in this intermediate parallel reality he identifies a non-space, the ideal scenario to document the possible forms of a possible future. Like a tireless narrator, he builds his stories through elements that are based on a tangible and familiar ground, which at the same time is also ethereal and impalpable, proposing a solemn and cinematographic staging, which with enchantment extends to what is and what’s not perceptible, made of imaginary universes, epic stories and futuristic utopias that cause a feeling of bewilderment and estrangement but simultaneously a sense of familiarity that lengthens the dream, making it in some way possible and including it in the sphere of things that, although they never happened, they echo in our memory like a deja vù.

Space Project, Mars Desert Research Station #9 [MDRS], Mars Society, San Rafael Swell, Utah, USA, 2008

Fournier’s world is, in fact, made of intuitions, a world in which one can remember what has not yet happened, and what’s possibly about to happen in a near future which, however, already echoes in the present moment. The artist ranges between the most captivating themes and the most significant utopias of the twentieth and twenty-first century: between anthropomorphic robots, futuristic architecture, space exploration, artificial intelligence, ambiguously oscillating between documentary and fiction, nature and artifice, thus triggering a reflection on our way of living, our perception of time and space and their evolution. Fournier seems to recall film sets capable of bringing to memory an novel temporal dimension, a sort of future that is dissolved in the maze of a past-present. What is going to happen? What are the variables of the possible future? An imagery that shows the nostalgia of a fictional time that does not belong exaclty to this era but, at times, becomes frozen in a utopian limbo that has not yet taken place, echoing as trace in the present.

Space Project, Mars Desert Research Station #11 [MDRS], Mars Society, San Rafael S 64 well, Utah, USA, 2008

Photography thus provides new interpretations and alternative ways of describing reality, albeit unreal, contributing to the generation of a simulated space within the already “built” contemporary space. Moreover there is no present that cannot be established without referring to another time, to another “present”, the present is a trace as theorized by Derrida. It indicates that time gap with the present element of non-contemporaneity, which is in all aspects a space of freedom, since it is interpretable. The matter is all about understanding whether the human being is able to stop in this space of “uneasiness”, if he is up to conveying the trace. In my opinion Vincent Fournier is able to achieve this.

Space Project, Robonaut 2, NASA’s Johnson Space Center [JSC], 

Alice Zucca: What is the path that led you to this type of deconstructive / reconstructive reflection of reality? Where does the idea for the development of the narrative come from?

Vincent Fournier: My photographs and other works are allegories of childhood dreams where reality is mixing with fiction. They are stories where the meaning is floating from opposite themes : serious and playful, sense and non sense, reality and fiction, organic and artificial… like an encounter with Jules Verne and Jacques Tati. I think this feeling is linked to the world of childhood, when the meaning of things is blurred, when things can have a different meaning. My stories are fed from several mythologies of the future – space exploration, humanoid robots, the transformation of living things through technology or utopian architecture. It can be the past future or the future we imagine for tomorrow. How we see the Future is my main playground. Then the starting point is often a familiar, comfortable and aesthetic situation in which I introduce a disruptive agent… At the end I like my images to be somehow like UFOs!  I’m looking for tension between support points and break points in between a documentary and fiction. 

I believe this “obsession” comes from my childhood and many visits to the Palais de la Découverte in Paris with my grandmother. All these evocations of the “wonder of science” and the mysteries of the Universe have nourished my imagination and stimulated my curiosity for utopias and the field of possibilities. I also grew up in the 70s and 80s with many representations of the future, both in fiction but also in the development of technology, space exploration, internet, robotics, architecture… I still have a romantic vision of this future and maybe I am quite nostalgic about it! I know that it sounds completely out of date, but I think we need to feed our imagination with images of the future that are both credible and somehow attractive. It gives a perspective and a goal especially at a time when it is only a question of an eternal present, as if urgency had everywhere repudiated the future as a promise. For instance the space adventure proposes a perspective and a new angle to better see and understand our Earth from a distance.

I think my main inspiration comes again from the memories of my childhood: the first image that really struck me when I was ten was a reproduction of the «The Hunters in the Snow» by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a funny coincidence because you can see this painting in the movie «Solaris» by Andreï Tarkovski that was also an important reference for me. As a kid I was very fond of science fiction, from comics, to series and novels…  I remembered as well that with some friends we rented the movie «2001: A Space Odyssey» by S. Kubrick. It was a revelation: the aesthetics, the ideas, the narration… but not with my friends who all left before the end… I also listen to many podcasts about science, history, philosophy, art… and TV series as we all do!  I have also been deeply influenced by “rationalist” compositions, such as the grids used by architects or graphic designers.

Self Portrait Vincent Fournier ©

Space project” is a collection of strange terrestrial landscapes with which Vincent Fournier stimulates our imagination between reality and dream. They are visionary photographs on space exploration, which offer science fiction-like visions of missiles, astronauts, research stations and spectral scenarios. Fournier was able to create such stunning images through his collaboration with major space organizations such as NASA, ESA and the Russian space agency, as well as the world’s largest astronomical observatories. Therefore he had access to information on the first Sputnik and Apollo programs, on the future missions to Mars and on confidential projects such as NASA’s SLA rocket, which he transfigured and sublimated through his peculiar artistic vision of space exploration. Fournier’s intent is to induce us to question our perceptions of space and time and he suggests a reinterpretation of our past and future utopias, revisiting them with evocative images that recall myths and fantasies of mankind about the future. To achieve this, Vincent Fournier brings together innumerable subjects: from the clothing of Captain Boris, a Russian astronomer, in his daily space, to the Norwegian astronomical observatories and the Atacama desert, in Chile. From the multitude of antennas scattered in a field to the collaboration/interation between robots and men.

AZ: Can you tell me about this project and how do you perceive the relationship between man and machine? And what about technological progress?

VF: Space Project is my founding project, started in 2007 and is still going on. It tells the story of space exploration, from the memories of the space age to the new futuristic projects such as the NASA SLS launch vehicle which is expected to go to Mars. The strong relationship that I have created with the most representative space organizations around the world led me to see behind the doors that are normally kept tremendously secret. My latest images are from last December show the Artemis project, at the NASA Glenn Research Center, whose objective is to return to the Moon in order to develop a base (orbital station) that will serve as a starting point to go to Mars. The plane that looks like a “big whale” is the NASA Super Guppy, which carries the famous ORION capsule that will go to the Moon next year. 

I love machines, the ones that fly, talk, count, observe… I am fascinated by the magic of science where the universe and the complexity of the world seem to be summed up in a few mathematical formulas. There is a certain irony in giving a visible and understandable picture of the mysteries of the universe. Waves, time, space, stars, light, all make sense. Observing, indexing, measuring, treating… the universe is not as perfectly organized as our machines. It acts irrationally, in a chaotic, violent and mysterious way.

Space Project, Ergol #11, S1B clean room, Arianespace, Guiana Space Center [CGS], Kaurou, French Guiana, 2011
Space Project, Ergol #12, S1B clean room, Arianespace, Guiana Space Center [CGS], Kaurou, French Guiana, 2011
Space Project, EISCAT Svalbard Radat [ESR],
 Spitsbergen Island, Norway, 2010

The cinematographic reference constitutes a fundamental element that has influenced the conceptual matrix from which his creativity is inspired. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as stated by Fournier himself, was a source of inspiration for his imagery and in a certain sense is able to vividly describe the fundamental assumption of his creative process. The film, made in 1968, describes facts that refer to the year 2001. Inevitably it describes more the world of 1968 than that of 2001 but it continuously intertwines the past with the future, and places with non-places. The initial scene “the dawn of man”, as Fournier points out, shows an ancient past in which monkeys, in an atmosphere that feels permeated with sacredness, from harmless animals begin to transform into dangerous and violent beings, that is to say, into human beings. This ancestral scene is connected with the future shown in the next scene, full of technology, space stations and spaceships flying to the rhythm of the waltz “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss. The realistic narration of the life of the astronauts on board a concrete place such as the spaceship DiscoveryOne and the final journey of astronaut David Bowman through a hallucinatory non-place, a psychedelic tunnel made of stars, nebulae, geometric figures and unknown worlds, which will take him to a surreal and white mansion furnished in a neoclassical style.

Brasilia, The Itamaraty Palace – Foreign Relations Ministry, stairs, Brasilia, 2012

The architectural formalisms of the architect Niemeyer appear in Fournier’s photographs in “Brasilia”, they are almost like abandoned movie sets that recall the flavor of those by Jacques Tati. Built in the late 1950s according to the plans of the urban planner Lucío Costa, the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and the architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia is an example of speculative architectural hypotheses for the future, which today, about sixty years after its creation, are still unspoken utopias, crystallized between past and present. The contrast between the austere urban fabric of Brasilia made up of bureaucratic and governmental locations and the irrepressible liveliness of the streets of the Brazilian metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo appears extremely striking, as an interesting spark that points out the transitions of the human element that is well distributed in Fournier’s work . In his landscapes, the French photographer, hovering between the dreamlike and reality, also shows normally unpublished spaces, such as engine rooms or training rooms for astronauts, places that, although concrete and real, appear at the same time as almost virtual, elusive and inaccessible.

Brasilia, Chamber of Deputies [Annex IV] #3, Brasilia, 2012

AZ: Can you tell me about your relationship with cinema, from Kubrik to Tarkovskij? And the relationship between staging space and architectural space? The one between space and the human figure (which in your representations is often “evident” for its lack rather than its excess)?

 VF: I have made numerous film references along my work. David Cronenberg or Stanley Kubrick are amongst those directors who had such an influence on me because of their technological approach and the forward-thinking aspect of their work. Indeed, “Solaris” by Andrei Tarkovsky  fascinated me and one can easily see this movie together with “2001, Space Odyssey” as heads and tails of the same coin. Both movies show the cosmic sphere as the reflection of intimacy and both directors actually question our perception of reality with unexpected spaces – always imaginary rather than real – or time inconsistencies, such as the final of “2001, Space Odyssey”, where you can see an astronaut evolving in a Louis XVI decor. 

I also like Jacques Tati’s movies because his sense of humor has always been very close to the absurd. His vision of utopias was far ahead of his time even though it was also often satirical and of course I like him because of his aesthetic approach, very sharp, architectural and with several layers of meaning. It has certainly influenced my work about Brasilia that explores the utopian Future of this city which was born at the same time as the beginning of the space age. Indeed, the date of the “pilot plan”, conceived in 1957, coincides with the launch of the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth. Brasilia was born at the beginning of the space age and the whole aesthetics of the city is largely inspired by it. It is the dream of space and the race towards the future that is embodied in a metaphorical and anticipatory way in the city’s architecture. The portholes are reminiscent of those in Gagarin’s space capsule, the passageways connecting the various buildings evoke the long corridors of orbital stations and the architecture on stilts anticipates the “chicken legs” of future moon landing modules. The metaphor is even more obvious as with the National Museum surrounded by a ring of Saturn. Moreover, this city which has fantasized space and invented its own future, has remained frozen in time. Indeed, the city plan, identical since its origin, is registered since 1985 in the Unesco Heritage, which preserves it definitively from any change. Brasilia is therefore a bubble out of time, a time capsule where the dream of the future of the 60s is nostalgically offered.  The book «Brasilia – a Time capsule» will be released in November with a text by the MET curator. Several images from the Brasilia series are part of the MET permanent collection.

Brasilia, The Claudio Santoro National Theater, Spiral Staircase, Brasilia, 2019
Brasilia, General Army Headquarters #1, Brasilia, 2019
Brasilia, The National Museum #3, Brasilia, 2019

The documentary element confirms itself as another distinctive element of Fournier’s approach to the variables of what exists. In the Post Natural History project, Fournier imagines an extraordinary collection of upcoming living species, that mutated to adapt to changing environments and events. Are they the result of the adventures of a reckless space traveler committed to visiting unknown worlds and cataloging new forms of life? The combination of the traveler/collector figure strikes me as spontaneous and evocative. Fournier like Captain James T. Kirk of the famous TV series Star Trek, set in the future, which tells the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise of the United Federation of Planets, “dedicated to the exploration of new worlds, in search of other forms of life and civilization, to get where no man has gone before”.
AZ: Can you tell me something more about this project?

The Bestiary [Post Natural History – Cycle II] Monitor Lizard [Varanus imitabilis] Mimetic Lizard, 2012
The Bestiary [Post Natural History – Cycle II] High Speed Shark [Squalus moleculo]
Autonomus shark with the ability to control the speed of which molecules travel, 2018

VF: With my last body of work, «Post Natural History» I am telling the story of the transformation of life using technology. I think for the first time in History man has the tools to transform, create, reprogram the living and merge it with the non-living. This future is much further away so we don’t have images yet, that is why this body of work is based more on our imagination. It is inspired by synthetic biology and also by Surrealism. I think biotechnology and Surrealism both share a fascination with mixing things that have nothing in common. They both create strange, hybrid and uncanny species, composed, cut and pasted, of different parts just like a chimera or an “exquisite” corpse. 

The Post Natural History is composed of 3 cycles. The first cycle is called the Flesh flowers. It shows the result of tissue engineering techniques that create artificial flesh using edible plants. And what I am presenting are the remains of those flesh flowers, their skeletons. This work is made with 3D printing. The second cycle is a bestiary of upcoming species inspired by medieval bestiaries. Those strange and hybrid creatures are the mirror of our wishes, hopes and fears. The bestiary is presented just like a curiosity cabinet. Each image of the species is like a taxonomic illustration with a plate describing their particular features. Those creatures are engineered species with special features designed by man. For instance if you take a closer look at the scorpion, you will realize that this is not just a scorpion but also a remote controlled robot which is able to perform surgical operations. A closer look at the body of the dragonfly makes you realize that it contains sensors that measure the quality of air, or the Fennec is able of mind-reading. 

The last cycle is called the Unbreakable Heart. After being created outside the body, the technology is going inside the body. And what organ is more symbolic than the heart? So I have created the first advanced unbreakable heart made of gold and lead, and designed to live forever. As in my other works I forged a link between the past and the future. This unbreakable heart is inspired by alchemy, which sought to turn lead into gold in order to create the elixir of life, but it also echoes the desires to live forever of the transhumanists and the Silicon Valley. And since living forever is quite expensive, this advanced organ is made of pure gold and set with precious stones.

Alice Zucca

SAVE THE DATE ▼

Paris Photo – November 12/15 2020 – event + book signing > Vincent Fournier will present Space project and Brasilia and will also do two book signing – Space Utopia and Brasilia (Noeve, Rizzoli)

Vincent Fournier / BRASILIA – coming soon – solo show at Paris Photo with MOMENTUM gallery (Miami).

Diet Sayler: being an artist in the Romania of Ceausescu

Diet Sayler: being an artist in the Romania of Ceausescu

Diet Sayler is interviewed by Catalina Enciu

Diet Sayler (b.1939), one of the greatest European representatives of Abstract Art, tells us about the daily life of artists in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Sayler was the first Romanian artist to experiment in his artworks with the spatial aspect as perceived by visitors in motion. These were the cultural years (1956-1973) characterized by cunning political escamotages by Ceauşescu in order to improve his position leading him to take charge as General Secretary in 1965. One example of these political means was the exhibition at the Kalinderu Art Gallery (1968), which was only a chance to show the emancipation and the destalinization of the country to the entire world. It was a brilliant mise-en-scène specifically planned. Indeed, as soon as the French president Charles de Gaulle left the country the exhibition was closed. Inevitably, these political games left a mark which materialized in a new flourishing of creativity and the purchase of one of Sayler’s artworks by MoMA.

Diet Sayler © portrait 2007, Courtesy of the Artist

Cătălina Enciu: In 1968 you took part in an exhibition with Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan and Molnár Zoltán at the Kalinderu Art Gallery. Can you talk about it?

Diet Sayler: The Exhibition was inaugurated in May 1968 in Bucharest during the occasion of the Official State Visit of the President of France Charles de Gaulle. Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan, Molnár Zoltán and I were invited to display our artworks, but not as a group. It was not a collective exhibition. We all displayed our personal works as a heterogenous mix even though we all had something in common. Bertalan, Molnár and Flondor, studied Art, while Cotoşman studied Philosophy and Theology. They all had a Humanistic education, except me, I studied Math and Engineering. I can say this Exhibition was the result of intense research we started after Cotoşman’s trip to France.

CE: Why did Cotoşman go to France?

DS: Cotoşman at that time was very sick. In 1963, thanks to the Romanian patriarch he managed to obtain a passport to go to France and receive medical treatment. It was a miracle that he got a passport to travel outside the former Soviet Bloc. These 6 months staying abroad allowed him to approach and immerse himself in cultural Western Art History. When he came back, he brought a new vigor to the local artistic atmosphere like a breath of fresh air that immediately influenced all of us. In my opinion he was the most intellectual of the group, he was a pictor doctus.

CE: Did you know each other?

DS: I met Cotoşman for the first time in Podlipny’s atelier while I got to know Flondor, Bertalan and Molnár 5 years later.

CE: What was the cultural artistic influence in the year 1968?

DS: To understand the relevance of ’68 it is necessary to know how people used to live in the two decades before. The 50s were a very dark period as they were marked by strict Stalinist policies. It was impossible to find any kind of publication coming from the western world. At the beginning of the 60s, as in the year 1968, we witnessed a kind of unfrozen period. In Bucharest we had a kind of Spring very much like what happened in Prague. It was a time that offered more openings to the artistic environment. In the 70s the home policies underwent a sudden change characterized by very strong oppression that caused dramatic suffering to the citizens of the country. Those were the hardest years when the people had to face the rationing of hot water, heating, electricity and food. We could say 1968 has been a year of light in the dark communist period.

Diet Sayler. A.K. 59 1969, oil on paper, 100×70 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Untitled  # 1 – 1970, oil on paper, 100 x 70 cm, TATE MODERN, London, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: In 1969 MoMA bought your artwork A. K. 59. Can you tell us how they contacted you to buy it?

DS: During his State Visit, the French President Charles de Gaulle was joined by the Minister of Culture Andre Malraux and a lot of French journalists who took pictures and wrote about our works displayed for the occasion. That’s why one day, Andrew Stevick, a gentleman from New York, came to see me. It was very hard for journalists and critics to be allowed to meet a local artist to interview him or buy his works. The state maintained the control on everything and everyone. They had to have special permission from the minister which was almost impossible to get. It is still unknown to me how this exactly happened. We were not allowed to know this kind of backstage. I didn’t know this man or what expedient was used to get him permission. I never heard from him again. Shortly my work arrived at the MoMA and I got a ridiculous payment of 50 dollars. When Ceauşescu’s police found that I had sold one of my works it was really dramatic, as according to the Dictator’s law I had committed 2 offences: firstly I received dollars as payment which was forbidden, secondly I had commercial interaction with duşmanul de clasă.

CE: Where did you use to meet the journalists?

DS: In Bucharest I lived in a space 2 by 4 meters large with no windows and toilet facilities. This was my house and at the same time my atelier. I wasn’t the only one living is such conditions. There I met most of my visitors.

CE: Were all these meetings official or were you secretly meeting them?

DS: Obviously some of them were official meetings and others were not. For example, when Cornelia Olivier came to Romania to interview me, at first she wasn’t allowed to talk to me. She didn’t give up and, I don’t know how, in the end our meeting was approved. She was escorted to my atelier by a Securitate member in charge of controlling everything we were talking about. Ironically, I was asked to answer in Romanian even though we could have been speaking English. I knew the language, but I wasn’t allowed to speak it.

CE: From 1969 to 1972 you took part in several international exhibitions, but you were not allowed to leave the country to participate in the setups and see your works displayed. What is the reason why you were not issued a passport?

DS: In that period, it wasn’t easy to get passport especially for people like me, since I was considered a suspicious person from a political point of view.

CE: What was your feeling about this?

DS: Well, is was not easy. It was painful to see other artists being able to go because they were close to the Regime or even members of it.

CE: How were these Exhibitions organised?

DS: Most of the times, everything was organised by the UAP. We were not allowed to travel with our art works. Gallerists had to plan arrangements with the UAP. We, as artists, were not involved in this.

Diet Sayler. Spazio Cinetico 1971, strutture di alluminio, specchi murali, Technic Club, Pitesti, Romania, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: Can you talk about your work Kinetic Space at Tehnic Club in Piteşti?

DS: It was a commissioned work. Even if between 1971 and 1972 the government started to lean towards a closed-political model, it was still possible to realise this type of works. I realised two kinetic rooms. They were 3 by 3 by 3 meters and it was possible to go inside them. The work Kinetic Space at Piteşti Tehnic Club may be considered the first Kinetic installation ever realized in Romania. No one was aware of these type of works. I was the first one doing that in the country. This work had a huge impact, like what we did at the Kalinderu Art Gallery in Bucharest. It was something new, never done before. The installation remained there for several years and it was even shown on television. But as soon as I left the country, even if they kept promoting my work, they removed my name from it. After some time, when I was living in Germany, I heard the installation had been destroyed. I don’t know what happened exactly, I just can’t stop thinking that it was a huge loss for the Romanian art scene.

Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: What was your impact with the new artistic scene in Germany?

DS: It was a huge change! When I left my country I couldn’t bring with me any of my works. I arrived in Germany with nothing in my hands, not even my birth certificate. I had to start everything again. Obviously, it was very hard because everything was different in Germany. It was a cultural shock. This great change affected my art because all the time while I was in Romania I used to work only through my imagination using only black and white. I worked using colour at beginning of my career, between the ’50s and the ’60s and then from the 60s till the 80s I didn’t use it anymore. Immigration is an act of violence because it leaves a mark. I remember that in my first period as an immigrant I started a cathartic phase, my artistic production started to be become whiter and whiter.

CE: What about the artworks you left in Romania?

DS: Nearly all the them disappeared. The works of mine which were in the museums or at the UAP are not there anymore. That is because when I left the country they deleted me. It was like that. The other works remained with my friends.

CE: Have you found them?

DS: I managed to have some works located back in 1985. Thanks to some friends who risked great trouble to save something, a few works remain that I produced at the beginning of my career. We must realize it was very hard to hide these kind of art works. People were terrified of the Securitate. However, some of my friends tried to save them, also hiding them even in places not suitable for the conservation of artworks, like garages, cellars and attics. Of course, they got damaged with time, inevitably. Nevertheless, some works which survived have had even a more mocking fate. Some of my colleagues decided to keep my works instead of giving them back to me for a matter of money, they were convinced my work had a significant value in the western market.

Catalina Enciu

Saad Qureshi: Something About Paradise

Saad Qureshi: Something About Paradise / In conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Saad Qureshi is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

British artist Saad Qureshi(b. 1986) graduated from The Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2012. His work engages with notions of space and time filtered through the prism of his diverse visual lexicon. With a keen interest in the process of experimentation with a vast range of materials, his installations embrace mysterious landscapes and surreal environments. Qureshi’s recent solo shows include Aicon Gallery, New York and Gazelli Art House, London. Group exhibitions include Bo.Lee Gallery, London; the Saatchi Gallery, London; and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London.

His work can be found in public collections such as the Leeds City Art Gallery; Dipti Mathur Collection, California; The Farjam Foundation Collection, Dubai; the Creative Cities Collection, Beijing; the Al Markhiya Gallery, Qatar; the Bagri Foundation, London and the Boston Consulting Group.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Kostas Prapoglou: How do you choose the narrative of each of your installations? How important is site-specificity to you?

Saad Qureshi: Site is absolutely central to my installations. It is the starting point for the work, and the first thing I focus on when I am invited to make a new piece for a venue is “where am I making this for?” The work has to be relevant and rooted in the location, and it’s only once I feel I’ve really taken that in properly that I begin to think of what would be right for it. I’m lucky in that I’m always thinking about new works I would like to make, so I’ve ‘banked’ away a lot of ideas, ready to revisit when the time and circumstances come together. So the two go hand in hand from the start: the place and the story I set out to explore through the work.

Once I have made the installation, and it has this very direct connection to its place of origin, then I feel it is conceptually strong enough to travel, and to activate new reactions and associations. It has an inner structure and unity that means it can stand its ground wherever it goes.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Ruins and debris seem to have a particular place in your visual vocabulary. In what ways does architecture and its constituents inspire you?

SQ: It’s funny, because I never set out to refer to ruins and debris, but they have arisen as a common element in a lot of the work. I would go as far as to say that it’s actually the viewers who have brought them in, because as part of my working process, I often ask people to contribute memories of places –be they real or imagined– and these places are by their nature quite fragmentary. Mindscapes function like memory: there are the sharp bits you can describe in great detail –the bits that mean most to you– and as the contours of those soften, so do the edges begin to fray and fade away. This naturally leads people to think of ruins, which to me, makes the work more interesting and multi-layered.

I believe in the significance of place in the stories we tell to and about ourselves. And sometimes place is a landscape, but more often than not, it is a built environment, and that brings with it architecture. The thing about buildings throughout the world, until relatively recently in human history, is that they also have a very distinct vernacular: so a building immediately places you within a culture, a region and a time. I find this fascinating, and the source of so much imaginative as well as aesthetic pleasure.

Gates of Paradise. Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Are the materials you choose related to the conceptual parameters of each work?

SQ: Absolutely. The work has to originate from an idea I want to realise, but as soon as I’ve settled on that, I take great joy in selecting the materials with which I will work. The idea needs to go hand in hand with a sense of excitement around making. I like to get physically stuck in, and enjoy being immersed in the process, so materiality is key. It’s the language through which concept is translated into an object in the real world, and whether that be sculpture or drawing, I can’t wait to get into the studio and get my hands dirty.

For example, with Places for Nova, my commission for the LandSec development in Central London, I asked people who were passing by or living in the area to give me a memory of a place that was important to them, but which they no longer had access to –either because it no longer existed, or they hadn’t been back. So I was looking to create a middle ground, between real and imagined places, and I was looking for a material that would visually articulate this. That’s when I came across brick dust. The idea of taking a building block out of which so much of our environment is constructed, grinding it into dust and using it as a pigment, added an otherworldly dimension to the works. It bridged the space between the memory and its representation.

Night Jewel, 2019, Mixed media including fibreglass, resin, Idenden and paintDimensions approximately 55 x 67 cm 
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your works seem to reflect on human absence. Are humans really absent in your narratives?

SQ: Not at all. I’d go as far as to say that –even though it may not look like it at first glance– on a personal level, the works function almost like portraits. Again, this goes back to how I start these works: speaking with people, asking them a question and spending time with them as they share their memories with me. When I go to translate these memories into places, it’s a very intuitive process, where I’ve taken in what they’ve said, how they’ve described what was important to them, and in bringing these places into the mindscapes, I am thinking about what best evokes the emotion as well as the location they’ve shared. So conceptually, I see these works as portraits of all of these people. This is why they are mindscapes: the landscapes, buildings, in the works don’t exist without that very specific connection to someone existing in the world at the time of their making.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your solo exhibition Something About Paradise at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park embraces an amalgamation of surreal scenes imbued with a sense of otherworldliness. To what extent do spiritualism and allegorical meanings are embedded in your repertoire and how do you balance them with elements of the world we live in?

SQ: I am interested in stories, and I was born into a religious household, where the Quranic allegories formed part of the backdrop to family life. I think the way we make sense of the world is by telling stories: for many cultures, their holy scriptures lay the groundwork for this; but there are also parables, fables, a wealth of archetypes and symbolic languages which consciously or unconsciously give us the frames of reference we use to describe and measure our own life experiences against. This is what psychoanalysis is too, after all.

Some of my works have their origin in spiritual themes, but what really makes them take off in my imagination is when I see a connection between what first caught my interest, and the wider human imagination. For example, When The Moon Split takes as its starting point the Quranic story of a miracle performed by Mohammed. But from the very earliest civilisations, human beings have stood on the earth and looked upward at the night sky to see the moon lit up by the sun, speculating and weaving mythologies around it. So the work evokes this original story, whilst also confronting us with the purely secular frissons more commonly associated with fairy stories, science fiction and Hollywood films.

Similarly, with Something About Paradise, it was realising that although I had been brought up with the one very specific conception of paradise, drawn from the Quranic allegories of the Seven Heavens, there were hundreds of different definitions and ideas about what paradise might look like. That paradise is a very personal universal place, that we all imbue with meaning. I am an optimist by nature, and it’s this common ground of the imagination that unites us.

Kostas Prapoglou

Silent General / A conversation with An-My Lê

Silent General / A conversation with An-My Lê

An-My Lê is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

The practice of Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê engages documentary reportage exploring the ways warfare and human conflict have an impact on natural landscapes. Her work surveys how collective memory, national identity and geopolitics are filtered through media interpretations of war and the emergence of newly shaped realities. An-My Lê is a professor of photography at Bard College in New York and has presented her work in various solo exhibitions at the MK Gallery, Milton Keyes (UK) and Museum Aan de Stoom (Belgium) in 2014; Baltimore Museum of Art (USA) in 2013; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA) in 2008; Dia: Beacon in 2006-07 and MoMA PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York in 2002. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (USA) will feature a major solo show of her work in March 2020. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2012); the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2010); the National Science Foundation, Antarctic Artists and Writers Programme Award (2007); the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship (2004) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship (1997). 

An-My Lê, Fragment IV: The Monumental Task Committee press conference with Demonstration by Descendants of General
P.G.T Beauregard, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017 PIgment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

Kostas Prapoglou: Your solo show at Marian Goodman gallery in London presents the ongoing project Silent General (2015– ) along with selected works from 29 Palms (2003-04). What was the source of your inspiration for both series?

An-My Lê: By the time 29 Palms came about, the phrase “another Vietnam” had become a universal phrase invoking the idea that America had a past it should and could learn from. So, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it seems that we were willing to risk another Vietnam. For the first time, I felt that I was finally participating in American life as an American. My past was now part of the American present; not as a refugee but as an American among Americans wondering what “another Vietnam” could possibly mean. I was feverish and photographing at the Marine Corps Base in Twentynine Palms allowed me to share space and place with the young men and women who were going to be in harm’s way. We were all standing at this precipice, them training for the unforeseeable, me contemplating and trying to preserve the moment before the losses. Silent General is about what it might mean to respond to dramatic events at home and their intimate relationship to landscape and conflict. The fever-pitch level of rhetoric talks of civil war, and of breaches of the constitution gave me a sense of purpose and challenged me to photograph the American landscape. Elements of chance such as an invitation to photograph on the set of a period film taking place during the Civil War, the break-out of the controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments also came into play. They increased my sense of possibilities for finding meaningful contradictions in an American landscape characterised by competing realities. 

An-My Lê, Fragment II: Lutheran Church Melville, Montana, from The Silent General, 2019 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm)
An-My Lê, Fragment VII: Swamp, Film Set (Free State of Jones), Chicot State Park, Louisiana, 2015 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

KP: You were born and raised in Vietnam and fled with your family to the US as political refugees in 1975. To what extent does memory and identity influence your work?

AML: I hear people talk about memory as inspiration for their work especially in photography. The problem I have with memory as being raw material is similar to issues people have with photography itself. For me, the literal is less interesting than the formal. I realise that my work generates questions about my story. Memory is only valuable to my process because it has provided me with a series of curiosities. Trauma is not a gift. I don’t see my work as a confession or an act of healing. Memories about abrupt shifts, insecurities, being an outsider, fear, chaos, trauma and a refugee’s experience of a dramatic culture shock influenced my work, they are not things I am trying to describe or use to give somebody a vicarious experience. Most importantly, I have learnt about the urgency of adaptation, being taught new rules, the significance of grasping new context as quickly as possible. Making work that is a direct political or institutional critique, the need to dig and unveil, would not make sense for me. Growing up, I always knew there were hostile forces and good intentioned people with influence. Power and authority were always at play. I saw it with the catholic nuns, at the French cultural centre, in the refugee camps. I have always been aware of multiple agendas being promoted in these different institutions even in the microcosm of my family. Ultimately, the ways you maintain connectedness to a landscape of authenticity when you have no control, no roots. This may explain why I have gravitated towards the notion of skilled labour as transportable commodity, something tangible you can take with you when everything falls apart, when the world is pulled under you and you must run. My experience is mirrored by what I choose to photograph. Skills, knowledge and confidence (or lack of) are all important subjects I have been interested in depicting over the years. Looking back, it seems that I am testing myself over and over again by placing myself in high-stake work situations that require urgent adaption whether we are talking about spending time with Vietnam war re-enactors in the woods of North Carolina, berthing on an ice breaker in the Bering Sea or a nuclear aircraft carrier in the North Arabian gulf, living at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. Over the years, I came to appreciate the individuals. I also learnt to value landscape; it resists no matter how fierce the military.

An-My Lê
Infantry Officers’ Brief, 2003-2004
Silver gelatin print
Image: 37 1/2 x 26 in. (95.3 x 66 cm) Frame: 38 1/4 x 26 3/4 in. (97.2 x 67.9 cm)
An-My Lê, Marine Palms, 2003-2004, Silver gelatin print26 1/2 x 38 in. (67.3 x 96.5 cm)

KP: Your practice embraces –amongst others– elements of conflict journalism, documentary reportage and media representations of war. How do you see such elements influencing or interfering with collective consciousness and the way viewers understand contemporary realities?

AML: Collective consciousness is interesting. When you commit to a medium, you learn about what character that medium has in the popular imagination. As you learn about a medium, you learn what people think about that medium. Photography seems to be capable of regularly scandalising people. Photography wears so many hats and serves so many needs in our visual culture. The moving image seems to have done nothing to undermine photography’s grip on people’s imagination. Photography always appears to be evidence (in art or journalism) of something and therefore it often raises issues of ethics and privileges in a way that makes these issues inseparable from the medium. People ask more questions about formal approaches in relation to content when talking about photography than they do with either documentary or narrative films. Sometimes it seems like photography becomes a social contract in people’s mind and while very few art photographers would ever use the word truth, in describing their photographs, I believe we all, as artists using photography, benefit from the existence of this idea of photography’s paradoxical relationship to truth.

An-My Lê
Fragment VIII: US Customs and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, Presido TX, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: Landscape photography plays a pivotal role in your visual vocabulary. Why have you chosen to capture through your lens the relationship between natural environment and human intervention, especially during conditions of war and conflict?

AML: Regardless of your training and the context in which your work evolves, there is a point in time when you are going to ask what is going to be most challenging for you as you forge ahead. I know that there is a wide belief that photography is easy. Production value, lighting, sophisticated cameras contribute to some of the ideas about what makes anybody’s photography art. At a certain point, regardless of their medium, a certain kind of author is going to want to challenge themselves. I wanted to take on a subject that is larger than me in every way, a subject conceptually and formally larger than my experiences. I wanted to make in a single image something coherent and visually challenging. It was important to find out what is in my control and what I have to contend with in terms of lighting and other opportunities. I developed an intuition. I learnt to make pictures where I haven’t completely resolved the relationship but found an object balance between my imagination and multiple influences that are competing in my frame. 

An-My Lê
Fragment IV: Family under the Presidio-Ojinaga- International Bridge, Texas/Mexico border, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: You have presented your work in many countries around the world. What are the reactions of audiences in different countries, especially with regards to issues involving displacement and war ethics?

AML: This is an interesting question; ignorance reigns. I am not an expert on everything I photograph – even if I never show my work outside the US, I would still expect all sorts of responses from culture to culture. But this can be exhausting to catalogue. I think about the time I gave a talk about my work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Almost everyone in the Japanese audience was terrified of militarisation. They were still haunted by their own past. They didn’t respond to my work as rhetorical or position taking but through it they were reminded of their deep wound. I related to that. I felt a real affinity. But no one was going to tell them about the reality of war, the grim reality not being a subject to start rhetorical nonsense. Usually, I would be asked: “so, are you for or against war?” It is troubling; who is to say whether I get questioned for not taking a clear stand because I am a woman. I have learnt about people’s deep-seated fear that an artist might be, in addressing a subject with ambiguity, complicit in glamorising, simplifying or justifying war.

An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Colonel Greenwood, 2003-4

KP: How do you see your ongoing projects developing? What are your future plans?

AML: I have been very excited about working in a heterogenous way and allowing my intuition to be more front and centre. I am engaged in what is the classic American road trip, tapping into the zeitgeist. For a long time, I never thought this was something I could participate in. Then I was looking at Robert Frank’s the Americans again after reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and thinking about big ideas about the American landscape. I was reminiscing about how studying the works of Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Robert Adams was a big part of my education on the American landscape. Even though my subject lied elsewhere then, I had great interest in their formal problem solving, the potential of their visual language. In retrospect, I now completely understand the way they embraced a combination of chance and a set of convictions about what was going on in the country. Their work contrasted the state of American culture and the impossibilities of separating the American myths from the American landscape. Now that I am engaging in this tradition, I have learnt that, whatever that tradition is, it is not about being authoritative or diagnostic. It is all about intuition, signs and one’s sense of where tensions can be seen and depicted. Right now, there are two Americas, left and right – we are looking at the same place from radically different perspectives. Conflict has come home to roost. This is the home front. But I am not interested in rhetoric or position taking. I believe in spontaneous visual expression. This is a moment in time when the world will display the things that the news is hinting at. Like the song goes: “There is something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…” 

An-My Lê, Silent General, Fragment II, Fourth of July, Party Boat, Bayou St John, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017

Diohandi in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Diohandi in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Diohandi (b.1945, Athens) studied painting and engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti, costume design, graphic design in Rome. She also attended architecture at the Polytechnic of Central London. She has presented her work in 16 solo exhibitions in Italy, Scotland, Greece and Cyprus. She has participated in more than 135 group exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has represented Greece in the VII Biennale de Paris, XII Bienal de São Paulo, X Quadriennale Nazionale d’Arte di Roma, I International Sculpture Symposium / Olympiad of Art, Seoul and 54th Venice Biennale. She was awarded in four international exhibitions of engraving and was also awarded for her artistic excellence during 2009-2010 by the Association of art critics, Hellenic department (AICA Hellas). Diohandi’s research is based on the re-creation of the environment through its relationship with space-time. Her large-scale installations, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time, complete the environment and act in synergy with it, thus embracing a narrative and creating a certain course via successive alterations of mediums, materials, sound and light. She lives and works in Athens.

I invited Diohandi to discuss with me her visual vocabulary and the way she has been working with space throughout her career.


Without 
title
(1985), installation view
(detail), Dracos Art Centre
, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohandi

Kostas Prapoglou: Your practice involves large-scale installations that take into consideration the way architecture and its elements define space and vice versa. How does your visual language adapt to each spatial condition?

Diohandi: Since the time of my studies, I felt the need to break free from the limits of a single canvas frame as a given space. By using several such frames and placing them one next to the other, I created a unified composition, which functioned as a narrative unfolding in space. Since that time and up until today, what interests me is this continuity of narrative, be it painting on canvas, drawing on paper, or a course in space with painterly and sculptural elements. As early as my first works, my intention was to adopt a vocabulary that was plain and strict. In my first black monochrome works of abstract paintings, I started using –at some point– geometrical shapes as well. In the following years, I worked on the relationship between geometry and space. In 1974, I decided to study further the relationship of architecture and art. For one year, I attended architecture classes at the Polytechnic of Central London. My aim is the feeling that will be experienced by the viewers and the message they will receive when they actually find themselves within a large-scale installation, always embracing a narrative that evolves within space-time. 

Without title
(2004), installation 
view
(detail), Pnyka Hill, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohand

KP: To what extent did your earlier interventions respond to the chosen surrounding environment? Can you describe this practice based on past projects? 

D: In 1983, on the occasion of the group exhibition 7 Greek Artists: A New Journey, at the Gate of Famagusta in Nicosia (Cyprus), I worked in public space for the first time. The Gate of Famagusta is the biggest of the three gates of the Venetian walls surrounding old Nicosia. It opened the way leading to the most important port of the island. On the outer side of the walls and over a large area, I constructed in situ four pillars, up to 7.50m high and large elements of expanded polystyrene sculptured and painted with different colours. Ruins and stones from the place engaged with the existing mass of the old city walls. The real space became one with the visual art space. This was a visual representation of the historical development of the place by composing architectural, sculptural, painterly features and the environment.         

Since then, my work is concerned with this dialogue that led me in 1985 to the construction of an environment with sculptured elements at Dracos Art Centre in Athens. This installation was materialised on the occasion of the international group exhibition Athènes – site de la création / création d’un site with the participation of eleven artists. I chose the external terrace and local white marble. An environment was created with white “marble”, which was in fact made of expanded polystyrene. It resembled the real marble extracted from the Dionysos quarries, Attica. As viewers walked through the installation, they were able to see parts of the city of Athens in between the mass of the material as well as an entrance leading to absolute darkness. During daytime, one could see the blue background of the sky, the white of the material used as well as the Greek light. At night-time, the black sky, the city lights and the threatening volumes of up to 8.70m high created a mysterious environment while the endless darkness of the entrance enhanced the impression, an entrance that you could neither enter nor decipher where it actually led.

In 1986, in my solo exhibition at Dracos Art Centre in Athens, I developed an ascending course through continuous alterations of numerous elements. Compositions joined each other into a unified work, titled Anelixis, which continued in both floors of the building with the gradual transition from darkness to light. I incorporated ideas, thoughts and techniques that deeply concerned me in the previous twenty years combined with new elements and materials. Emphasis was also placed on the concept of succession. On the first floor, all the elements of expanded polystyrene, fabric, wood, olive branches were painted in black. The lighting was very dim. On the staircase wall, brush strokes of black colour led to a structure of wood and boards of same colour. The structure continued to ascend with frames in red up to the second floor. There, a large corner structure with floor to ceiling curved alfa bloc, pieces of wood and boards occupied the space in a progressively simplified synthesis; all in red colour and more lighting. Moving on to the next space, a series of broken pieces of Pendeli marble mounted on the walls, and at the end one column-like structure, up to 3m high –all in white and intense bright lighting– created a transmission from darkness to light and vice versa.

In 1987, I participated in the group exhibition Erratici Percorsi / XIX Rassegna Internazionale d’Arte Contemporanea di Acireale, with six other international artists. Each artist was given a separate space at Castello Colonna in Genazzano, near Rome, in Italy. I created an in situ installation with black wooden planks. The viewers walked among them and found themselves opposite a red wall-obstacle made from local stones and expanded polystyrene. Behind the wall there was bright light. Through the sides of the wall, the viewer could overcome the obstacle and reach a white column-like form emerged in ample light.

In 1988, thirty artists from all over the world created one permanent work each at the Olympic Park of Seoul for the Olympic Games. From the first moment I received the invitation, I felt the need to visit ancient Olympia in Greece. My work titled Seoul – XXIV Olympiad is based on visualising the notion of the ancient Olympic idea. The work appears on top of a hill in the vast Olympic Park. On the outer side, lay local granite volumes and lava stones randomly placed. Two different entrances to the interior of the work are available to visitors. On the inner side, built granite volumes create a space within the work itself encircling five cement columns 12m high. They symbolise the five rings of the Olympic games sign. The five columns are placed in the same order as the rings of the Olympic symbols. From a greater distance, the viewers see five columns which emerge from an enormous base of lava and granite volumes. However, as they approach, they soon realise that there is an actual entrance to the interior of the base. In there, they find themselves circulated by the built granite volumes, isolated from the environment of the park, and when raising their eyes, they see the five columns joining against the sky. The ascending and never-ending perspective, through transforming the essence of the environment, becomes the deeper meaning of this work. 

For the group exhibition Athina by Art – 84 Contemporary Greek Artists, I searched for a place suitable for creating a work responding to the specific moment of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. I chose the Pnyka hill, a space loaded with history and memories. It is situated on the west side of the Athenian acropolis. The work developed linearly. I designed and built one part of the city wall. Through an opening, eight white marble stelae were inscribed with the names of the Greek Olympic champions between 1986 and 2004. Visitors were able to move freely between them. The city of Athens was visible in the background. There was an interaction between natural light and proportion, the shapes and the environment. Essentially, the idea of the installation was based on the ancient Greek tradition of welcoming the Olympic champions in their hometowns, particularly with the symbolic pulling down of a small part of their city walls. This embraced a metaphor for universal peace transmitted into our age.

Without title
(1985), installation 
view, Dracos Art Centre
, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohandi
Without title
(1983), installation view
(detail), Gate of Famagusta, Nicosia, 
Cyprus,
© Diohandi
Anelixis 
(1986), installation view
(detail), Dracos Art 
Without title
(1987),
installation view
(detail), Castello Colonna, 
Genazzano, Italy, 
© Diohandi
Seoul 

XXIV 
Olympiad 
(1987),
installation view, 
Olympic Park, Seoul, 
S. Korea,
© Diohandi
Seoul 

XXIV 
Olympiad 
(1987),
installation view, 
Olympic Park, Seoul, 
S. Korea,
© Diohandi

KP: in 2010, you transformed the 25,000 sq.m. site of the Old Oil Mill in Eleusis (Athens) into a vast installation. Tell us more about this project and the challenges that you had to face dealing with such a unique location.

D: Eleusis was one of the best-known cities in antiquity for its sanctuary of goddess Demeter and the sacred mysteries performed there. Initiation aimed at making peace with death and the expectancy of life after death. The Old Oil Mill was built in Eleusis in 1872 on the west side of the coastal line, next to the archaeological site. Today’s ruined shell of 17,705 sq.m. used to be a lively and thriving industrial space. My solo exhibition Eleusis 2010 was presented in September 2010. I constructed in situ installations in seven buildings of the oil press factory, each of which had one, two or more areas. These installations referred to the deeper meaning of the Great Eleusinian Mysteries. The interventions were absolutely synchronised with the environment of the buildings. Their plan made me design and define a trajectory which was necessary for the visitor to follow through the successive alterations of elements, materials, sound and lighting. The materials were rubble, wood, bricks, stones, concrete, concrete blocks, soil, water etc. that I found scattered in the area around the factory. For the first time, I used sound, locally composed, as well as lighting. There was a different sound and different lighting in each space. 

In Building 1, I constructed an altar right at the centre of the first space made of wooden palettes and old sacks. In the second space, there were six concrete columns. Among these, I constructed six more, the result being twelve identical columns 8.70m high, all standing in the middle of the space. Building 2 comprised of one single space with its roof partially fallen. I created a structure made of pieces of wood from the roof, boards, planks and poles. They all looked like as if they supported each other but at the same time were falling apart. Building 3 had two spaces. A wall was built in the first space that led to the next one, where the floor was covered by shallow water. The water reflected all the elements of the space as well as the windows with the red light coming from the external corridor. The visitor could walk above the water along a ramp made of boards. The two enormous spaces of Building 4 were amply lit from up above; from the external part of the destroyed roof, which had many gaps. The light created various irregular bright shapes on the walls and on the floor. Building 5 was a narrow building, 50m long, with ten columns spread along the middle. The right side was altered giving the impression of a series of graves. On the left, ten torches aligned with the columns led visitors further inside towards a room with light. The next space was dark and deliberately inaccessible. Βuilding 6 (the most ruined building with large quantities of rubble, stone and debris) had six compartments on the same level. It was dark, making it difficult for visitors to find their way through. Suddenly, at a long distance, the visitor would face vibrant white light coming from high above (Building 7). Total silence reigned. This experience would mark the end of the whole course.

The myth of this town is so vivid that you can’t escape from it. For months, I wandered around the archaeological site, studying its history and the Mysteries and used to walk all the way down to the ruined Oil Mill. I was removing rubble, cleaning, putting aside various materials that I found scattered, digging, building, demolishing, illuminating, listening to and experimenting with the sounds of the environment. Facing and competing with this space was a great challenge; it is a work of art on its own. You need to accept and acknowledge its immense power. So I dared to take up the challenge and, no matter how crucial my interventions were, in the end the viewer was not able to tell what pre-existed and what was part of my work.


Eleusis 2010
(2010), installation 
view
(detail), Old Oil Mill, Eleusis

Attica,
Greece, 
© Diohandi

Eleusis 2010
(2010), installation 
view
(detail), Old Oil Mill, Eleusis

Attica,
Greece, 
© Diohandi

KP: You represented Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. How did the spatial parameters of the Greek pavilion determine your intervention and what was the process that made you decide on each requirement? 

D: Beyond Reform was my installation representing Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. Starting with the city of Venice, as well as the history and the architecture of the Greek pavilion featuring a façade in Neo-Byzantine style, I constructed both the outside and the inside of the building so that my installation and the pavilion became one. The materials were transported from Greece and the whole construction was made in situ. Deploying, adding other elements or even eliminating some of the already existing ones, Iun-did” the given strict rational space. With my interventions, I transformed it to a new space with a different structure and emotional load, establishing an intense dialogue between the artwork-space and the viewer. The façade was transformed. The dimensions varied and a trajectory was created, designed and defined by me, through successive interchanges of elements. An integrated work was created solely from architectural constituents, water, sound and light. The entire building of the Greek pavilion was covered by wooden planks, placed vertically. This special construction, 10m high, was supported by scaffolding and metal frames. The existing building could be seen through some gaps in between the planks. There was an opening, right in the middle of the new façade, creating a new entrance to the building. A new external corridor, 7m long, was added; its floor and stairs were made of wood, the walls and the ceiling of plasterboards were all white. The corridor continued in the inner space, it was elevated by 15cm, while the entire floor was covered by water 10cm deep. The water had a continuous and slight movement and it reflected the light. Right at the centre of the space there was a vertical floor-to-ceiling opening 60cm wide, which functioned as a source of light dominating the interior. The sound also came from the same place. Visitors followed a pathway within the artwork leaving the daylight behind. They were entering a secluded space facing a different light, which nonetheless was impossible to approach. For me, it was essential to work on the outer and the inner space, generating a dynamic bridge that unites and balances the two.

Beyond Reform
(2011),
installation 
(interior detail), 
54 th Venice Biennale, 
Greek Pavilion, Giardini, Venice, Italy,
© Diohandi
Beyond Reform
(2011),
installation 
(exterior detail), 
54 th Venice Biennale, 
Greek Pavilion, Giardini, Venice, Italy,
© 
Diohandi
Without title
(1978), installation view
(detail), 
Magazzini del Sale, Venice, 
Italy, © Diohandi

KP: How important to your visual lexicon is site specificity and context responsiveness?

D: My work is a continuous quest. On completing the presentation of a project, guided by the experience I gained from it, I create the next one, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time. I am interested in the direct reference to the cultural history of a place. The work acts along with the space in all historical, social and physical situations. Approaching it at a deeper level acquires a great importance for my work. I always begin by assessing the given space-time. I isolate the characteristics of the domain, its individual features and I measure meticulously its dimensions. I then reproduce the space in scale in a three-dimensional model. I approach the idea deeper and gradually prepare the draft of the work up to the final phase of its construction. Light is always a dominant feature in my composition and my work. I use it in many different ways each time, depending on the needs of the work. For me, the past and present coexist through a reclassification that combines anew the real and the imaginary. There is always a synergy between work and space in all historical, social and physical conditions. Working over and over again, these issues ascribe a growing significance for my visual language. Visitors cannot comprehend such large-scale installations from a description or from photographs only. It is essential that they find themselves within them so that they can experience the relationship of space-time and the artwork per se, the environment, the scale, the materials, the sound, the light so that they are able to understand, feel them and give their own interpretations.

Kostas Prapoglou


PUBLICATION LISTED IN THE ITALIAN PRESS REGISTER BY THE SASSARI COURT OF LAW WITH REGISTRATION NUMBER 447/2017.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: ALICE ZUCCA

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