“One form of defense from this snobbism was to create a sort of puritanism within photography – a little village kind of mentality. Our things, our games. Let’s not engage with the outer world as they are mean to us.”
Destroying or enabling myths in society or one’s own thought process leads to an interesting compulsion towards self-truth. Searching for answers through images has less of a stigma attached to it than it does an out and out complicity towards its inevitable opposite-untruth. I had the pleasure to speak with Greek photographer Nikolas Ventourakis about his work, which exists serially, but also in fragments, a confounding parallel of which interpretation is drawn from the referent of self while also interrogating the document itself. Nikolas is a veteran of several scenes, but was kind enough to validate my own views on the photography scene in Athens of which we are or have both been a part of.
BF: So, having known you for a few years and having shared a great late night beer or two in Athens ruminating on the nature of our co-interest in German history, I am going through your work trying to peek in from the outside despite already having spent time speaking directly with the author himself. I am pouring over works new and old and realize now that you are very hard to pin to a photographic category valorized by tropes of genre. That being said your whole body of work is consistent. So, I guess since we decided to consider a general approach to this interview, my first question, and you will likely find it boring or perhaps something that de-merits the myth of your work by answering it…could you shed a bit of light about where, in general terms your work stems from? I see a playful use of document, but also an aversion to the medium that produces it.
NV: This is my hubris. I hold the belief that I am an artist, without needing to give myself a recognizable style. I am focused. The ideas that I try to formulate, change, progress and transform, or better yet my understanding of my idea and the certainties that I used to have about the world, prove to be mostly myths. So I am very interested in modern myths, the ones that we perpetuate. But not the big myths, mostly the ones that are a bit hidden, that we disregard as “always being there”. The words I have used since 2013 to describe what I do is “Misconceptions and Assumptions”. That is the game in my mind. How for example we think we understand the system that we are part of, but in reality we have completely missed the point. Yet, the mythology that we create around that understanding becomes as real for the way we exist in our day-to-day lives as the thing I and of itself. A document is a very interesting tool. It creates the conditions for research and for our better understanding of our systems, but it also adds almost infinite possibilities of myth creation. Therefore I love that capacity, while abhorring any kind of singularity, of truth making.
BF: A number of your works in this “trans-documentary” mode take place on a global fictional plane. Not an airplane, mind you, but a plane of possibility that supersede territorial borders. In the series “The Pledge” for example are what appear to be Greek specific referents, in particular religious and ritual images (which factor in other works of yours such as “Rituals for Our Safety”) but are transplanted to other locations, America in particular. I find your personal lack of cultural or national definition as a person, though in name Greek, is not easy to define or strangle your work with. The German interest, you live in London, you have worked in America etc. All of this points to a certain condition that we face in the day and age in which we live and yet there is some amount of “Greek” material in your work. How specifically do you find your background infers your work methodology?
NV: In a recent discussion I had with a director friend of mine this point was made: Our eyes are bastardized. We see through a multi-lens system that while coherent, is not easy for us to identify its origins. I am Greek, but that means precious little, despite my closeness to that identity. I focus more on my overall class identity, which would be that of a privileged, white, middle class, educated, western, male able to navigate within many of the pathways of the system that surrounds me with minimum hurdle. Therefore I carry that mindset with me when I create work – that is why I believe as you say that it’s not a documentary of the world as it is, or of my given identity but rather a visualization of a mindscape. The reason why, however, I chose to work in Greece or make work about Greece often is the fact that I have had more time in this life to deconstruct that particular environment, make an abstract simulacrum of it, and then visualize it as a new construct. If I went to India I believe I would have a very difficult time coping with my preconceptions of the place, and to make something that would be genuine.
Overall, however, since it’s mostly that abstract mindscape that I seek for my images to habitat, I feel free to use from whatever source I need. You mention The Pledge for example. My idea for that artwork stems from the hypocrisy of the Greek society towards immigration and immigrants – but it’s not unique to Greeks. I am more able to draw and see that in real time when I encounter it as a trope that expresses an idea.
BF: Your work has a serial flow between projects “Borderlands I”, “Borderlands II”, “Athens II”, “Rituals for Safety” etc. This suggests a couple of different approaches to a working method or the reading of the work in its totality. On one hand, it suggests that you return often to places and form a serial bond with the work. On the other hand, it also seems to suggest that this could be a typological guise in the sense that in metonymically ordering the work to this word game, you could actually be drawing the viewer into leading categorization or conceptual state of reading the work within the bodies of work. It’s a fine line. It either inoculates your work or the viewer. Which is it? Is it both and to what extent does the contextualization of seriality within the sum total of your work matter to you personally? I get the sense, the titles could also be stand-ins for separation of works and yet, they could all be set without these titles in their consistency…
NV: There is truth in what you imply there, that sometimes I feel as if I am really working on one overall idea and that each project is simply a reiteration of it. I could perhaps simply let the works be, and let someone else categorize them. That might be an option. I do tend to return to subjects and themes. And this serialization of the presentation helps demonstrate the fact that despite the numbered projects being alternate takes or motifs of a concept, and could therefore co-exist under a universal title, they have nevertheless been constructed at slightly different time points and have been either re-informed by my editing, or my focus has shifted from the other parts. The numbering itself, informs the viewer of that changing perspective.
I have attempted to experiment with that concept in “Unlikely Outcomes I+II”. There are a chapters one and a chapter two in the project that exists only because the Roman numbers are there to invoke that separation. I wanted to see how the image sequencing would transform if the project had an intermission, and then continued as if there was no break.
“First of all it’s important to say it: Athens is not the New Berlin. The simple reason is the fact that unlike the phantom of that arty and anarchic Berlin of old, nihilism does not penetrate everything and it’s not negation that is the driving force.”
BF:I would be curious to vainly ask who has informed your practice? Would that be a possible question to answer? I find some artists take this to mean that I am grandstanding an accusation against them, but it is genuine. I am curious as to influence with people, whether it is geography or artistic, perhaps even musical. Did you go to art school? Was there a particular and defining moment in which your practice shifted to the way you work presently?
NV: Despite the fact that it might seem like I am contradicting myself, I believe the most important aspect of my thinking has been my experience of growing up in Greece in the 80’s until the mid 00’s. This place where I come from, was back then part of the mental space of the “West” while being in the “East”, part of the EU, surrounded by communist countries, part of something and in direct physical attachment to something else. A real bastard. With a complete mental history that was presented in so many different contexts. So that feeling of being part of things without really being part of them is at the heart of everything I think.
On a secondary level it is my good fortune of being able to travel from a very young age which has allowed me to be able to see the reversal of that reality. Looking in from the outside. Making everything even more unbalanced! And definitely art school. First when I did my Erasmus in Essen back in 2003 and saw the German way of art making with photography – that was an eye opener. Then when I moved to London. I could say that, despite being active for a decade, I truly started making Art in 2013, after my second MA at Central Saint Martins. It was the first time that I forced myself to deconstruct Athens not as a place but rather as a setting upon which a contemporary mythology is constructed- as a state of things.
BF: I promise to be less boring when possible going forward. I run at stream of thought often and questions jump in and out. One of your bodies of work has a great title “The Banality of the Avant Garde”. I wondered if this was a riff on Rosalind Krauss’ disassembly of the modernists and surrealists in her book “The Myth of the Avant Garde”?
NV: I am very glad that you bring that up. Before anything I have to make sure to give credit to Fotis Milionis, a good friend and artist, as the title was developed in a discussion we had years ago. There are elements of Rosalind Krauss’ essay in the title – but I became aware of them after the fact as I read her essays, because I had given the title already. So it is the other way around. The inspiration of the title comes from “Eichmann in Jerusalem” by Hannah Arendt, and its subtitle, “A Report on the Banality of Evil”. My points of reference are bureaucracy, development, society and the creation of meaning as in the question “What is a road if it does not lead anywhere?” How does that transformation of function but not form translate into a communication system as artwork.
BF: On Speaking of exhibition design and size of images… Its really hard to see from a website how your work interacts in exhibition format. One person whose exhibition I saw at Le Bal in Paris was Paul Graham’s “Beyond Caring/The Present” in 2012, which in terms of strategic display was pretty phenomenal the first time I laid eyes on it. I get the sense that your work exists differently between output medium such as book, wall and on-line and it can be hard to gauge, like Paul Graham’s work the efficiency and power of the exhibition format….
NV: I am very conscious about exhibition strategies. I work very slowly with my projects. It might take me two years from the day I stop shooting to the day that I can say it’s done. During that time I work on creating the actual “artwork”, which for me is the installation or presentation format. So for example, “Defining Lines” does not exist anymore in any other format, but in 4 installation panels that are almost 7m x 3m each. That is the actual artwork in my mind. It’s not translatable in book format. Of course I am happy to show individual pictures in articles, or in catalogs etc, but somehow they are different to the artwork itself. Those are self-contained images that lack that extra aspect that the artwork has. It takes a lot of trial and error to reach the point of exhibition. When I first showed this work the way I imagined it, in a fine art group show in Belfast I was so happy to hear from many visitors that it worked for them and that although they might not be able to completely decipher my logic behind the set up, that it nevertheless made them spend the time to better understand my idea.
When I do books – which is not my specialty – I try to make it so that he artwork is the book itself. That it’s not an aspect of the project, but rather the project is the book. I haven’t found the right way to do it yet. My most recent publication, DAY X – Single, was a collaboration between a publisher, Paper Tiger Books, a curator, Eva Eicker, a poet, Thodoris Chiotis and myself and is a part of a series, so it’s mostly a one off experimental thing. The rules had already been set and we had to play by their form. It was a great experience overall.
BF: I want to speak with you a bit about the Athens scene…having spent some time there and having had some small part of opening a gallery there (and then pulling back)…I feel as though photography in particular is not in its most developed state on commercial grounds. I can’t place it, but I feel there is a resistance there. Athens seems to be about Greek artists at best and generally not from the position of photography. Actually, its not Athens-specific my sentiment, I find a resistance in many European countries. Apart from Germany and maybe France, it still feels like the poor little bastard child of the art scene. I guess coming from an American perspective where we haven’t been mired in a long continuity of painting, sculpture and so on, and having legitimately developed the market, most places in Europe still see its repetition in terms of plasticity. Can you elaborate a bit about how you see it functioning within the institutional and commercial spaces from your perspective?
NV:First of all it’s important to say it: Athens is not the New Berlin. The simple reason is the fact that unlike the phantom of that arty and anarchic Berlin of old, nihilism does not penetrate everything and it’s not negation that is the driving force. In that capitalist punk version of Berlin people were not trying to have careers and were in opposition mainly to what existed outside the walls whatever that was (Communism or Imperialism/Capitalism). The citizens of that city existed in that state and there were no universal visions regarding the future. In Athens, the majority of art practitioners are “trying to make it happen”. They want to build international careers, to be recognized and found by the institutions and curators. We want to be part of the art market – even if we present ourselves us outsiders. This influx of the international art market mentality has created an environment where the former traditional gatekeepers have lost some of their power to disqualify some of the younger practitioners. I would say that there is even a cult of youth that is going on. Photography, however, for the most part is still trying to get on board. Until fairly recently it was considered a medium of secondary value by the institutions (the museums, the galleries, the fine art schools). Photography was associated mostly with archival, classical material and practices and the few “contemporary fine art” Greek photographers were truly no exception. This exclusion led young artists to avoid creating in photography, because it would make an already precarious career almost impossible to sustain. Therefore the few artists came not from the School of Fine Arts, but from secondary schools that despite the fine art aspects were mostly focused in the practicalities of the photographic profession. But due to their lower pedigree of studies they were not really accepted in the contemporary arts bibliography. There was – and still is – very little pollination between contemporary art practitioners and photography practitioners. This culture is slowly changing, but has not changed yet. There are galleries that represent and show photography in a fine art context, there are more artist run spaces, the institutions are more willing to show and curate photography, but we don’t have a tradition of building collections within a photographic framework. Without museum collections, collectors do not follow. And the market becomes stale.
Of course there is the collection of the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, but that museum does not function as a contemporary arts space. For many years, and especially while the previous director was there, it has been more part of the problem, rather than an institution that would promote and support the medium.
The mentality still exists that if you are an artist working with photography, people will ask you to take pictures in an event and will be really confused if you tell them that your next project is a performance or a radio play, while if you are any other kind of artist these hurdles do not exist. One form of defense from this snobbism was to create a sort of puritanism within photography – a little village kind of mentality. Our things, our games. Let’s not engage with the outer world as they are mean to us. And we must never forget that buying art is a game for the super rich, first and foremost. When the most expensive artist working with photography is worth 4 mil in the international art market and when someone like Thomas Ruff sells for 100K for one of his editions, while a painter in his 40s can go for 4-5 million, you can get a pretty good idea of where one stands in this game. Therefore, in small markets in particular the rich will focus on the most prestigious things first, which do not include curiosities like editioned photographs.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Nikolas Ventourakis.)