Between the Private and the Public, the Intimate and the Political: Kostis Velonis
Kostis Velonis and Daphne Vitali in conversation
Kostis Velonis’s sculptural work often refers to historical events and art historical movements, while his markedly political work has at the same time a very personal aspect. He creates narratives characterized by the linking of personal stories with the reworking of past happenings. His personal experiences and reference points inflect his theoretical pursuits, and historical leaders and literary heroes often play a leading part in his newly invented scenarios. Velonis’s sculptures have a modest character, and they are usually made of wood, cardboard, small objects, and materials from the natural environment, which the artist finds and reuses in a process of bricolage. His works often transmit emotions such us loneliness, failure, melancholy, and uncertainty.
Kostis Velonis’s solo exhibition A Puppet Sun is organized by NEON and curated by Vassilis Oikonomopoulos. It is on view through January 14, 2018. It features twenty-five new works that the artist conceived for 11 Kaplanon Street in central Athens, responding to the history and architecture of the building. This neoclassical residence has a remarkable history. It was constructed in 1891 and first occupied by Pavlos Kountouriotis, the first president of the Second Hellenic Republic (1924–35, the second period in modern Greek history where Greece was not headed by a king). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Zouzoula family acquired the residence, and the ground floor became the office of the politician Apostolos Zouzoulas, one of the founders of the People’s Party. Between the 1910s and the 1920s the building served as party headquarters. Later, during the authoritarian Metaxas Regime (1936–41), it was transformed into a residence for female students.
Daphne Vitali: The history of 11 Kaplanon Street is relevant for reading the works presented throughout the four floors. Tell me something about how you felt creating works for a site that has been a meeting point for politicians, literary figures, poets, artists, and intellectuals of Athenian cultural and political life.
Kostis Velonis: The house has a challenging political history, which encouraged me to think about different yet interlinked meanings of domesticity. I say this because domestic politics is a primary influence on my work and here, in this neoclassical building, I had a literal opportunity to make those subpolitics of everyday life visible outside of the conventional concept of what politics is usually considered to be, identified with the sphere of public authority.
DV: On the ground floor we encounter a room with three sculptural works that have political associations. Turmoil of the Blue (2017), a metal sculpture of spiral form, refers to Apostolos Zouzoulas’s political life and relationship with his own party. The worn-out blue T-shirt on the metal spiral refers to both the national color of Greece and to labor processes. Could you talk about the conception of this work and the “turmoil” to which it refers?
KV: Turmoil is a metaphorical step for the troubled human subject and its condition of confusion or uncertainty. It also provides narratives for the “ship of state,” an idea that has persisted in political rhetoric since the days of the lyric poet Horace. In this situation, where the ship is beset by storms and the fragile vessel of the state faces the possibility of shipwreck, labor, meaning the working people struggling to survive, is not only subject matter. Labor refers to the process of the formation of the artwork, the same history of matter and its craftsmanship, even if that craftsmanship is more a deskilling process. This reference to the working people is clearer with the blue T-shirt, which is included in the composition of the spiral helix (turmoil of the blue) and becomes a necessity, a Faktizität of human existence.
DV: Thinking on Your Feet (Partial Reconstruction of Joaquín Torres-García Toy Figures as an Instrument of Research for Politics) (2017) and The Ability to Keep an Upright Posture While Standing Still (Partial Reconstruction of Joaquín Torres-García Toy Figures as an Instrument of Research for Politics) (2017) are two works that could be seen in relation to each other. Taking as your starting point the toys created by the Latin American artist, as suggested by the titles, the works explore the construction of political identity. Thinking on Your Feet alludes to the revolutionary person in the streets, whereas the other work implies the solid, stiff person. Their formal aspect refers to the ancient Greek kouros and to Constantin Brancusi’s sculptures, with their deceptively simple and reduced forms aiming to reveal hidden truths. What is your hidden truth? What are for you those enlarged children’s toys? Do their postures relate to ideology?
KV: I would say that they are rather performative sculptures, but their primary source is based on the craftsmanship of figure toys. These wooden bodies can express, in a stylistic and immediate way, dominant cultural patterns that are linked to the political context of the human body, and because of their almost archaic quality, this wooden stuff has a Brancusian effect.
DV: Eleni Zouzoula-Kanellopoulos, the wife of Apostolos Zouzoulas, was the first female author of children’s books in Greece. For this exhibition you have been inspired by this person who lived in this residence and established a literary salon here. The domestic and more private aspect of the residence is represented in works such as Days Left (2017), a sculpture that resembles a bed and a table, or As if Only Through the Stage I Could Resist My Desire to Live (2017), which resembles a puppet theater for children. Could you talk about the works that refer to Eleni Zouzoula and/or to the female students?
KV: Days Left is the result of the recomposition of more than two objects intended to support seating, eating, and sleeping, a do-it-yourself piece of furniture related to the use of the site as a dormitory for female students. From my point of view, they express a certain plastizitat der libido, a term used by Sigmund Freud to explain the tendency of the libido to seek indirect satisfaction when direct routes are blocked. Ideas of privacy and imprisonment are visible in the structure, as emphasized by the slashes and tally marks on the surface. Although the structure As if Only Through the Stage I Could Resist My Desire to Live is simple—it’s a little puppet theater—it deals with ambivalent issues such as the notion of free will, and the extent to which in its popular dimension it offers happiness to human beings. Puppets seem to enjoy a kind of freedom, liberated from the tyranny of choice, a thought that was first enunciated by Heinrich von Kleist in his famous “On the Marionette Theater” (1810). Certainly, the freedom of not having a choice, as with a marionette, was not exactly what Eleni Zouzoula was thinking about when she planned a theater exclusively for children in the beginning of the twentieth century in Athens. She was influenced by the modernist credo that the cultivation of knowledge is a prerequisite to personal freedom, and this perception remains active today, with the difference that nowadays knowledge is more identified with power. A crucial issue facing authoritarian regimes is maintaining control over the impact of technological knowledge.
DV: You have always dealt in your work with the relationship between domesticity and politics, associating personal pathologies with social ones. There is one exhibition room on the first floor in which the three works presented seem to take on different aspects of the household and the private sphere. Looking at these works, contradictory concepts such as security and insecurity, the familiar and the unfamiliar, balance and imbalance come to my mind. Could you talk about how this body of works—Wind at My Back (2017), We Keep This Flame (2017), and Debate on Chimneys (2017)—came about, and how these themes manifest in them?
KV: It is a trilogy that reflects our relationship to the hestia, an imaginary place where we would love to stay or where we already reside. Even though I insist on the politics of privacy, what does this parallel and relatively autonomous sphere mean in relation to the official politics of the state? In these artworks there is an effort to challenge the traditional permanent ancestral residence and open it up in the context of a cosmological discourse. There is always a need to belong somewhere, and if home cannot be restricted anymore to a precise geographical zone, the work Wind at My Back reveals a need for a roving stability, the transition from a fixed position to a detached exterior, while the two other works center on the idea of fireplace, the necessity of a permanent place, either in a dialogue with the public, as suggested in Debate on Chimneys, or in a condition of autarky, as in We Keep This Flame.
DV: I know you are particularly interested in collective utopian moments and historical political failures. In a discussion we had seven years ago, at the beginning of the crisis in Greece, you mentioned that Western societies cannot survive under the current political model. What would you say today in regard to where we are now?
KV: What is even more urgent today is to understand that modernist orthodoxies, both right and left, are out of date. They simply do not correspond to the complexity of the issues we face today, and Greece is one victim of this polarization. The political parties are responsible for it; their role is to fabricate a passion for social reforms that belongs exclusively to the party machines associated with a religious conception of truth.
DV: The work Puppet Sun (2017), which shares its title with the show overall, is a small-scale sculpture of a wooden sun resting on a marble base. If the sun is the king, here his sovereignty is in question, as he is almost a puppet, a marionette. Is this a political comment?
KV: The sun—not only in ancient belief systems but also in modernity’s self-confident manifestos—is a common sign, providing indisputable power that extends universally to all individual entities and things. My own sun, which has small dimensions and is like a puppet, is an approachable object rather than a distant force with an all-seeing eye watching over humanity’s actions. It is not an exaggeration to say that for many ideologies today, “sun” is used abusively as a tool to project credibility and psychologically manipulate voters. In my case, the sun follows what the Belgian Surrealist Paul Nougé once said: “Pousser la porte, le soleil est l’interieur” (Open the door, the sun is indoors). We need some light in the interior, which is as unknown to us as the reality that exists in the external world, independently of our minds.
At Neon City Projects
Until January 14