Application Sunday, Part IV: The value of putting one’s work into words

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted a project for publishing to designboom.

Lesson 4: The value of putting one’s work into words

An artist’s statement (or artist statement) is an artist’s written description of their work. The brief verbal representation is for, and in support of, his or her own work to give the viewer understanding. As such it aims to inform, connect with an art context, and present the basis for the work; it is therefore didactic, descriptive, or reflective in nature.

Artist’s statement – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Once an artist decides to give this applications enterprise a chance and start submitting work to artist calls, one of the first things they are confronted with is composing this brief text, known as an artist statement. For me this proved to be quite a daunting task, but intimidating as it was, it also proved to be quite a revelatory experience.

One would think that every artist should be able to compose such a text off the top of his/her head. After all, if one isn’t in a position to say what one’s work is all about, or at least utter a few words on the subject, then who can? But therein lies the first obstacle; In order for one to be able to define something they must first understand it. Or at least be able to trace some of its basic components. And for that to be remotely possible one has to be free from the utter state of confusion such as the one I described here, one that essentially comes from the inability to discern basic elements of one’s desire, elements of the self.

Naturally, this process that leads to a certain degree of self-coherence is gradual and cannot be forced, but, as explained in the last post, it is a development that can also be determined by our actions. We only have to persevere, to not give up, and trust in the law according to which quantity (of efforts) eventually leads to a change in quality.

Only, as I eventually realized, all these steps, all the battles won, would probably have remained unfulfilled if not for that first artist statement that forced me to put my work into words.

Plato in one of his writings has Socrates arguing that something had only to be named correctly in order for its essence to emerge. Knowing a thing’s true name was therefore enough to offer us an insight into its true nature.

There is something magical in the process of putting things into words. Something coming from the simple fact that this process forces us to make sense of what it is we are trying to describe, to see the connections, and to name them.

The opposite is also true. Failing to lend a thing its proper name leads to losing sight of its nature. Something that is especially evident in an era named and therefore ruled by whoever has control over the mass media. Yet in issues of self-coherence, the importance of a self-audit that would lead to the correct naming, and therefore understanding of things, is usually underrated.

If you are to have any chance of grasping the essence of things that go on inside you, you need to sit down and ask yourself specific questions. 

And this is exactly the service that the seemingly mundane task of writing a paragraph about my work provided me with. It forced me to name things. Connections between works and periods that until then seemed to be randomly succeeding one another started to emerge. I realized that there were indeed recurring preoccupations in my practice, but which, because they were expressed in all sorts of different forms, and because I hadn’t looked for the connections, had remained hidden. I started seeing patterns that were repeating themselves, meanings and processes revisited underneath the “garment” they happened to wear.

From this process a brand new world of me emerged, and I felt like a child with a new toy. Having named my demons I had managed (albeit for a moment) to conquer them, and break the vicious cycle of them dominating over me.

Have you had the experience, of a seemingly “mundane” task surprisingly offering you some kind of insight into your practice? Has putting your work into words at any point helped you to overcome obstacles in the work itself?

 

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm, Trace A, Improvisation VI, detail, 15 x 24 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014

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Application Sunday, Part III: Why to not give up

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I applied for the HORDALAND KUNSTSENTER artist residency.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part III: Why to not give up

Having a clearer view of myself (see part II) was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and everything, my past works, the works of other artists, the skills I had acquired up until then, suddenly appeared in a new light.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact source of this brand new sense of clarity or the precise moment in time when it emerged. Perhaps the best way to describe it’s beginnings is by invoking a word from one of my favorite books, back from the beautiful age of eighteen, when one begins to delve into the wonders of knowledge, after the notoriety school has stained it with starts to wear off: Maturare. This is the word that Mr Test, the main character of A night with Mr Test by Paul Valery, used to describe the necessary process for a syllogism or intellectual problem to come to a resolution. Things have to mature, the stars have to align in a certain way, events have to play out, before something “suddenly” becomes clear.

But: This process and its fruition, as much as it lies outside of our control, linked as it is with the slow and painful process of maturation, also depends on our being there to see it through. Mr Test, an imaginary creature that had chosen the citadel of the mind, putting it in Markus Aurelius’ words, as his battlefield (or, had the battlefield chosen him?), was as much an object of his thought processes as he was their master, taking the steering wheel of the intellect when he had to and leaving the boat to its devices when the coordinates were right.

So I was aware of that logic. I believed in this law, one that is also rooted in our culture as Greeks: Things do come by the virtue of the gods, or, if one prefers, by the virtue of destiny, or chance, but they also come by virtue of our efforts. And so, as much as I despaired, feeling trapped in this vicious cycle, I never really believed that this cycle was all there was to it. Since the need was there, the question was there, there must have been a well grounded reason for it.

Eventually, another, more material law than the divine one described above made itself apparent. One often invoked by economists but having an extremely broad range of applications. That which refers to the transformation of quantity into quality. According to this dialectical law known from antiquity, small changes, that are incapable of bringing a qualitative change by themselves, reach a point where they do exactly that. They change quantity into quality.

At some point the quantity of our efforts (not disregarding the importance of their quality) is bound to turn into a qualitative change in our condition, whether it be our material condition or that of our consciousness. In other words, our efforts must amount to what in scientific terms is known as critical mass. They must reach the point that will allow for that qualitative leap to happen.

All we have to do is not give up, keep listening to our desire and be attentive to anything that sounds like good advice from our surroundings.

Is this process something you have experienced in your work? Has there been a turning point that seemingly came out of nowhere but in reality was the result of a consistent effort on your part? If the answer is yes, contribute with your version in the comments section below.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Athens, Trace A, Improvisation XV, detail, 28 x 34.5 cm, powdered pigment on handmade paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part II: The value of knowing one’s self

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted my work to an exhibition: The Telfer Gallery Open Call 2016.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part II:
The value of knowing one’s self

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For a long time the word that could best describe my relationship with my work, and my “artist” identity was agony. Fortunately not in the sense of a maniacal crisis, but more like the silent, paralyzing agony that takes over one that is lost in a dense forest, or tied by an undecipherable riddle. That is not to say that love and desire, in the way Plato means it when he uses the word eros (it’s meaning can’t be fully translated in English), weren’t also there. But this desire to give birth within beauty, recalling Plato’s definition of his love, had become too elusive, too vague, and thus too unfulfilled. Typically I would start working on an idea, or an impulse, only to abandon it, feeling no strong commitment, no strong desire to complete it. And despite the fact that I managed to get into the flow of creation several times and complete some series of works over the years, I still didn’t have the feeling, or the understanding of continuity in my work. I didn’t feel I was building something. All these were more or less perceived as fragments, sparagmata (in Greek), failing to form a picture of self.

Either in the form of incomplete works or as what I perceived to be series of works disconnected to each other, the vicious cycle would repeat itself again and again paving a path of unfinished works, fragments of an unfulfilled desire. A desire that was there, but only to torment me and make me feel trapped. It existed, but it was weak, lacking in direction, clarity and focus.

This landscape of torment and despair (as if the myth of the tormented artist needed any further reinforcement!) makes it sometimes hard even for myself to understand how I reached the point (described in part I) where I began to actively take steps towards getting my work outside the confines of the studio. It would seem that I would have had a lot to deal with before any concern about showing my work would be legitimate. And this is exactly where the key out of that vicious circle lied.

I don’t think that things would lead up to that first artist call application in January 2014 that marked the beginning of a drastic shift, if not in my overall position in the art world, at least in my psychology and sense of control, without the necessary work within.

As much as it was several factors that came into play, the basic prerequisite for a change to happen was the untangling of the mess inside. I had to realize what I wanted, where my heart and mind were as an artist, who I was, or, if this seems rather unattainable considered in absolute terms, what certain fragments of myself looked like and how they connected to each other. This may sound dramatic, and I know I have the tendency of being that sometimes (a friend once told me I have a weak spot for the tragic, which of course I took as a compliment) but I believe there is something there.

When this transition started to happen, from my confused state to a sense of self-coherence, things started falling into place. A newly acquired confidence set in, hesitation and fear started to recede, the paralyzing self-doubting started to dissolve. This allowed for me to act more readily on my impulses in the studio and defend my work more naturally outside of it. The connections between my past works started to become obvious and my desire could at last be traced. I could eventually make out a picture of myself, or rather a rough design (how could it be compete since a proper picture of one’s self can only emerge through a life’s work?). It seems that a rough design was all I needed to begin.

What about you? Was there a point where confusion had taken over your practice and your desire to create failed to liberate you (in fact, it did exactly the opposite)? Does any part of my experience resonates with you and what you might have been through or facing right now? In what ways it is the same and how is it different?

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Belgrade, Trace A, Improvisation IX, detail, drawing, 33 x 23 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014

The death of mentors

The story is all too familiar: Whenever there is scarcity in something, whenever a need once met through the crafting of genuine relationships can no longer be satisfied, its satisfaction is catered to a product.

This is so evident, and has come to be so much our civilization’s reflex, one can argue that when the sirens of the market begin to sound, this is the lament for something that is dead.

Only that here, the dead are not buried and lamented properly, in the way all passing people and ideas should: By putting them underground, remembering them for what they were, keeping the good they gave to us, using it to create something new. The sirens’ song is a false lament, one seeking to mask the sad, disheartening reality of the event with noise, confusion, and by stirring up a longing that can no longer be satisfied. There is no catharsis, the loss cannot be fully realized, understood and overcome. Instead, it turns into profit.

Among our unburied dead there lies the corpse of the mentor. Fortunately, not the Mentor per se, as meaning and possibility. I was lucky enough to find this in my father and know that Mentors do exist. The mentors in question are the ones traditionally found in establishments meant to perpetuate the practice and ways of a craft or profession. And what signals among other symptoms their death is the sudden surge of “mentors” we see recently, in art, as well as in other professions, usually offered for a price.

The mentor-apprentice relationship, no longer emerging naturally, as a social phenomenon engendered within institutions related to a profession, exists only as an anomaly, or as the vampire version of the mentor-protege framework that is force-fed (in lack of the real thing) to potential clients.

The end of mentors_linkedin

The death of mentors started dawning on me early on, but, I am afraid, not soon enough. The joy I experienced, about fifteen years ago, when I succeeded in entering the Athens School of Fine Arts, that was, entering the school of my dreams, offered a first row seat to that reality. This success, that came after years of longing and trying, after a series of rejections, led to my encounter with this object of desire having the taste of rejection as well: This time served cold, by the School of Fine Arts priesthood, the artists/professors I wished to be a pupil of.

An anatomy (or should I say post postmortem?) of that first encounter could be this: In theory, each “successful applicant” was to choose the workshop they wished to attend during their years of study, choose, in essence, their teacher. Only, in reality, it was the other way around. The professor chose the student, and in a way that was quite humiliating and disheartening, for the aspiring artist. After years of apprenticeship, most of them spent within institutions where one was taught “the right way to draw” (a process that came with a price tag and a hefty time and temporal investment), now the “successful applicant” had to line up his/her drawings before the School’s professors in order for them to determine (once more) whether he/she was worthy of being their apprentice.

One was either chosen or rejected on the basis of a handful of more or less institutional drawings, during a procedure that resembled a parody of the initial, already insufficient, method of determining the applicant’s value. But, more importantly, this ritual was performing, a second, informal and essentially illegitimate judgment. In one of these five minute judgments -there I was, having spread what it felt to be some kind of merchandise in front of the master’s feet- the professor, after glancing at my drawings hastily, uttered “there are weaknesses”, to which I answered, “but this is why I am here”. Note that one was not always lucky enough to get to this informal showing, instead was rejected from first glance.

This first encounter confused me but my gut saw this exactly for what it was, an injustice. I didn’t let this initial bad taste get to me though, instead I kept on hoping that somehow I could be part of a workshop as I imagined it, a structure where I could learn, be challenged and grow.

The experience of the subsequent five years failed to justify the hope. In hindsight I realized that everything was structured in order to make the experience as painless as possible. Painless for the teachers as well as the students. One thus could easily reach graduation without really having been challenged, at least not due to a rigid and structured academic regimen. One would reach the end, the purpose, without really having been tested. Whatever gain one would obtain over these years would come in principle as a result of some kind of structure the “pupil” would succeed in imposing on him/herself, or merely as a result of more or less chance events of self discovery.

Where were the teachers, you might ask? Where were the mentors? Those that know how to respect and receive respect in return and give for the sake of giving.

It was a truth everyone seemed to avert their eyes from that our teachers had given up on their apprentices, before even trying. Looking back, it seems like they had decided early on not to engage. The students were left more or less to their own devices (there must have been some anomalies, some rare professor-specimens I wasn’t lucky enough to come across).

And even when I came close to believing I had found one who seemed to be present, eventually, when the need of a deeper understanding emerged, the relationship crumbled; it wasn’t based on mutual respect and understanding, but on feeding the “mentor’s” need for power and establishing her undisputed authority. The mentor-apprentice relationship was but a bubble meant to be popped.

Why, is the natural question that comes to the inquisitive mind. Why are mentors dead? How and when did this happen? As important as this is to resolve, it is necessarily part of a different discussion. Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet, once stated: “All that is fragile must be broken”. And as much as I don’t see this dictum as being legitimate in every single case, I do see the point here. Given the urgency of shattering our illusions and whatever feeds on them, what we are called upon to do now is to bury our dead.

Image: Screenshot from the website of the brand “Rolex”, on the page of their “Mentors & Protégés” program.

Application Sunday, Part I: The angel I was waiting for was me

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Every Sunday I will be sharing with you the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: Art in General Open Call

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part I:
The angel I was waiting for was me

Last year, for the first time in my life I started applying to artist open calls and doing it in a systematic way. The night of December 31, 2013 found me on my computer making the final adjustments to my first application for 2014. That is how I chose to welcome the new year -I didn’t even allow myself a break for a glass of champagne!

All through 2014 I strived to stick to the year’s resolution: Submitting to four artist open calls per month. As an artist open call would count any of the following: A call for participation in an exhibition, for an interview published by an online or printed review, a call for a contest/competition, for an artist residency, for a grant, etc.

And even though strictly speaking I didn’t reach my goal, I managed to roll in over 28 applications. Which, for someone who until that time may (or may not) have had applied to any of the above two or three times in total, was a real breakthrough.

These things always overwhelmed me. I felt that the list of the application material requested was too long, too demanding, often irrelevant, and even when I started the procedure with enthusiasm it wasn’t long before black clouds would appear over my head and defeatism would set in. Not to mention the discouragement because of all the paperwork that needed to be done, something that -surprise!- in the digital age I woke up to find myself into, was at last a thing of the past (with the occasional exceptions).

My commitment to this practice, applying and applying with a system, guided by the determination and single-mindedness to push what I was currently doing in the workshop out into the world (living in Greece, I realized after a while that it was either that or total obscurity) indeed bore some fruit. As a result I was invited to participate in a couple of exhibitions abroad, was featured in some online publications, became a member of a curated artists’ network in Berlin, and even got to reject a feature by a printed publication when my awareness about what is good publicity for an artist and what one would rather avoid started rising (something that happens only if one applies and applies a lot).

The aforementioned results/accomplishments are far from impressive but they were something. And something compared to an endless desert of nothing amounts to a lot, even solely on a psychological level, of which, every artist knows the value. These few steps forward as far as getting my work noticed were enough to convince me that whatever was to come, wouldn’t just come to me in the form of an angel landing in my studio, but would most likely occur as a result of certain targeted actions. I finally grasped in a real, three dimensional way, and not in vague hypotheses, that, to the degree I was doing work I believed in and could back passionately, it would get through or remain in the workshop depending considerably on the amount and quality of actions I would succeed in taking after the work in the studio was done.

This strategy, that I continue in 2015, with some discrepancies due to a few personal difficulties, was also my antidote to despair. On the day I would have completed and sent out a strong application I would fall asleep like a baby, content with the fact that through my persistence a bird was set free, a messenger-bird taking my work out into the world (as mushy as it may seem this is the metaphor that would come to mind!) and giving it a chance.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm, Trace A, Improvisation I, detail, 32.5 x 23 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014