Prior to Young Arnolfini’s collaboration with Greek artist and performer Yorgos Sapountzis, Maz Shar spoke to him about his work. You can find a pullout of some of our work together in the YA zine, launching this Friday. (Click for info)
It started really early – since I was a child. When they asked me what I wanted to be, I would say I wanted to be a painter. I was from a family that didn’t have anything to do with art, so it was a very funny answer to say that to my family. When I was young, I was drawing and painting a lot and it seems to be that this has never stopped. It was a world that I had always paralleled with school and everything that I was doing. And it was also about expressing myself more clearly because I couldn’t read and write very well because I have dyslexia. So trying to put everything on paper with drawings and paintings was always a way to express myself.
There was a moment when I was afraid to continue it. I was afraid because everybody was saying: ‘This is not a job; this is not a real thing; you cannot do that, you have to find a real job.’ I finished school and went to study art restoration. I said ‘Okay, I cannot be an artist because it is nothing to be an artist: I’ll do something next to art.’ The time I was there, I was feeling really sad and I said ‘I don’t want to be next to art, I want to make art.’ I quit and went to art school.
What did you take from art school? Where did you go from there?
I started art school in Athens. Then I took the chance to be a part of the Erasmus programme [Student exchange programme.] I came to Berlin for six months and my teacher liked my work and asked me to stay. I stayed here [Berlin] and I finished the school here, but during the time that I was doing art school, I was also exhibiting, so it came very naturally. It’s not that I stopped school, and then I tried to find my way, or something – it was parallel. For example, when I was at school here, I had an exhibition in London.
And with your work, how would you say your approach to the piece you’re making adjusts in an exposed public place as opposed to inside an art gallery?
I really loved to go to exhibitions and so when I started producing, I had to start from zero and do something. I said: ‘I don’t want to start from zero. I want to have something already there and then do something on top of it.’ It didn’t start from the sculptures, but it started from the public spaces. I said: ‘Ok, I don’t want it to be in white walls, but I want it to be in the city and work there.’
For example, the first work was called ‘Night Life’. I went out in Athens in the night. I foundparked cars that had alarms and I was knocking the wheel of the car. The alarm was going off and I was trying to dance to the rhythm of the alarm. This was one of the first videos in public. I was trying to find points where I could do things in the city…this was the monuments or public sculptures, or something like that) and do something in relation to them. The word ‘relation’ is exactly right: I’m trying to build a relationship so at the end the work is not what I produced, or what’s already there, but it’s the relation between these two different worlds.
This common space we have is very interesting because, for example, in your room you put up whatever posters you want, or you do whatever you want. But the cities are already designed by other people, from other people’s histories or politics or whatever is out there. So when you speak or when you put in your work something common that we have from the city you’re living in, it suddenly becomes something that you already know. I like to make small stories on top of things you already know because for me it’s very nice if you pass through this space again. You just remember this work that you have already seen inside the museum. So you have all the time this re-thinking about what is out there.
Following on from that, have you come back to a place where you’ve made one of your works and tried to repeat it or invent something different?
Not repeat it, but it’s very touching. It’s like if you meet somebody, whenever you pass again through that place you say: ‘Ah! I met that person there.’ It’s the same thing with these kinds of works. The next time I pass that monument or that sculpture I remember what I did there, and I have this personal connection. Normally, with these kinds of things, it’s totally the opposite; you don’t have a personal connection. The things that you pass by, you never notice.
In terms of your work, do you have any big inspirations? For instance, from just looking at things while walking around, do you see something and say ‘I want to make something like this’, or ‘I want to do something to that.’ What inspires you to make your sculptures?
It’s not about inspiration, it’s about necessity. I feel a necessity. I always let myself be surprised from things somehow. All the time, I have to invest a lot of things for my work and for my person. It’s many different aspects: the things that I develop in my studio – my thoughts, and my drawings – and at the same time I go there and what I thought before doesn’t work. Then another idea comes that I never thought was there. So it’s a little bit like a nice surprise about what to build. Also, it depends a lot on the group of people that I’m working with. All the time I try to see the monument, to see the sculpture and try to get out from them what I could do, and what could be my reaction to them.
When you’re working with a group of people, do you have a preference? You said earlier you don’t usually go for professionals when you’re working and doing workshops.
Yeah, I’m really open. I really love to work with people like that. To be an artist is a very lonely process. You spend so many hours in the studio working and thinking, so it’s very nice to spend time with other people and try to build something together. I’m pretty open with art and pretty happy whenever I work with other people. I didn’t do it a lot in the beginning. It was that I worked in the theatre for 5 years. With Aristotle there is a group feeling. When I came to Berlin, I started to work alone.
Then there was a moment: I really had this need to work again with people. What was very interesting to put into my art again was the plural, to not have the artist doing something and then the audience, but to have the audience and them [I.E. Not simply the audience and him]. Suddenly, it’s a plural. It’s not ‘he’, but it’s ‘they’. This was very interesting in order to find OUT how you can build a community, how you can build a relationship and how you can make moments of happiness and moments of empathy.
So they feel quite touched by the work?
No, I mean this moment of building relationships, and solving relationships in a way.
So when you work with a group of people, do you often find it’s useful because they bring in new ideas to the piece?
Yes. The nice thing is that I can reflect my ideas and then get back reflections. For me, it’s a very important and leading aspect, to get this dialogue in a way.
Where would you like to go from here, and what’s your vision with the art and work you do?
What, specifically? Or generally speaking?
Yeah, in general, and what’s the message, if any message, what’s the message you’re trying to send out to people?
I don’t try to- ‘Message’ is a big word. In my work, and in the place that I am in now as a young person – not young like you! – I am still searching. I don’t feel that I have to give a message, but what is important is this wondering, and this anxiety of wondering at the same time. This creates a vocabulary or it creates a language that is being composed. Through the years, I’m getting more letters, or more colours or more ways to speak. This gives me, sometimes, glimpses of messages.
To myself as a person and as an artist, I think this can then be transferred. I think this is the important thing of every living artist, that you have this searching of things inside your work that can then be very useful to you, but then it could be very useful for other people because they can see not only the message, but the language that creates this message.
Are you aware of any other artists who do similar work to you?
Yes. Sometimes I’m surprised, actually. It’s not a nice question! (laughs) A good example that I really like was a phase by Franz West, who died last year. All his work he was trying to find exactly what is the combination of energy, of body, and how you can transform that. It’s a nice example for this searching, as I was telling you before, because in the later years, he made big metallic sculptures but this came out of research and a wondering of many, many years until he finds somewhere. This is very important: to not try to close the form very fast. Don’t try to formulate things very young, but leave them open and research. Many times, this is very hard and very difficult because you can never be secure if you don’t close things. But this is also what creates a big anxiety and it also helps me a lot to see things and put them together, and re-patch them.
Finally, because, as you said before, you had quite a few people who were saying to you that art isn’t a job…
Yeah, no, my parents were saying that! (laughs)
Oh! Okay, so what would you say to young people right now? I know I faced quite a lot of that talk, ‘if you want a good living and a good job then you should do maths.’
What would you say to young people who are interested pursuing a career in art and becoming an artist?
First, I never thought I wanted be an artist. I never thought I wanted to have a career as an artist. So I don’t know, I don’t have anything to say about that because I think if it’s important for them, they’re going to do it. It’s a matter of living your life like that, because being in art’s a big devotion. It’s your life. It’s really difficult to separate my life from what I’m doing, but I couldn’t do something else. I tried to do something else, as I told you before. I was very fascinated by the ability of the artist to create another world, another reality. This other reality was, for me, so important because it took me out from my reality, in a way. I was fascinated that somebody could create another world with its own language, its own materials, and it’s materials that we see in our normal world, in our normal lifetime. You see them transform into something else. Even if you don’t like that, or you like that a lot, you can see that it’s another way. I was always fascinated and I wanted to do it myself. So if somebody gets fascinated from that, I think he has to go on and do it. The other thing, the career, that, I don’t know…I cannot comment on that.
I understand. You just had something you loved to do and you wanted to do it anyway. It wasn’t ‘This is going to be my job or anything,’ it was just something you loved to do. And I guess because you put so much into it a lot came back.
Yeah. It’s also that there wasn’t something that I could do otherwise. I think I would be very unhappy if I wasn’t doing what I wanted.
Yorgos Sapountzis will be exhibiting new work at the Arnolfini from 20th July – 15th September. You can find more information on the Arnolfini website here.
Find the YA zine launch info on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/events/188846037943305/