coming of age: a conversation with Athena Papadopoulos
/ a discussion with the artist around art & archiving, teenage thrills, Trump, Isabella Rossellini and the figure of the female muse
we’re sat in the office of Emalin, wherein Athena Papadopoulos’ characteristic style percolates through the walls in the form of smaller sculptures Athena has made – mobiles of floating, feminine limbs. Papadopoulos (b.1988, Toronto, CA) completed a MFA in Fine Art Practice at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2013, following a BFA in Contemporary Art Theory and Visual Art at the University of British Columbia. In her solo exhibition The Smurfette, showing at Emalin until June 3rd, paintings are splattered with cosmetic and toxic substances. Sculptures are planted in silver, heeled boots, draped in chains, lace and resin letters. These sculptures – “my ladies,” as Papadopoulos calls them at one point – are anthropomorphic, emaciated figures, standing in conscious tension between fierceness and fragility. ‘Romantic’ isn’t a word I’d have immediately associated with Papadopoulos’ visceral, even macabre work, but in the course of our conversation, it becomes central.
KR: The Smurfette opened on 27 April. Since the exhibition launched, has anything surprised you, in terms of responses and reactions?
Athena Papadopoulos: I have to say, a lot of what’s been written… regurgitates the press release. But then, sometimes it takes people a lot longer to situate what they see. They’re usually shy, reserved - but always congratulatory. It’s maybe a general kind of shyness, whereas the show is the opposite of shy, and everything is on show, and sometimes that makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s like when someone speaks really loudly, and you can’t get a word in. Viewing my work is kind of like that. That might be what’s surpising: the reaction is the opposite of the work, in a way. The work wants to be read, it’s exhibitionist – and it has the opposing effect on the viewer.
KR: On top of that, your work is layered, physically and in terms of meaning. There are so many different, changing ideas that could be read into these pieces; you see one thing at first, then another interpretation comes to mind on revisiting it and seeing something entirely new.
AP: Yes, and you can’t orchestrate interpretation; I wouldn’t want to. My work is really about subjectivity. It takes an autobiographical reference as a point of departure, and the viewer brings their subjectivity to their interpretation, drawn from memory and any number of pop cultural references.
We segue into autobiography and pop cultural references that manifest in Papadopoulos’ current exhibition – most obviously, perhaps, the show’s title. Smurfette is the only female character in The Smurfs (until Season 5, at least). Most of us know her as the blonde Smurf in the white dress and heels, an aesthetic created by Papa Smurf, who magically transforms her originally black hair into blonde as a way to initiate her into Smurf Village.
AP: So now, “Smurfette” has become this degraded Urban Dictionary term, referring to a girl who, basically, sleeps with all the guys. And that’s rooted in the cartoon, in which this singular female character has gotten around so much, by implication, that she’s populated an entire colony - although we never see her pregnant. She’s this saint-like figure. And she’s put there as a distraction by the evil wizard [Gargamel]. And kids aren’t going to read into that kind of super-misogynistic undertone.
Youth and reflection are crucial to Papadopoulos’ work. In making her pieces, she’ll look back on photos from when she grew up – making out with guys, going out dancing - snapshots of teenage curiosity and coming of age. She describes this teen material as an analogy to the process of her art-making today:
AP: I was thinking about that time of being a teenager, and being so excited and inquisitive, as an allegory to how I make art. Making journals and constantly trying to interpret and process your own experience. I guess in making art, you’re trying to manifest an experience, but it’s processed through a very intentional coming of age experience. You’re looking for references, creating your subjectivity and forming yourself. And in the process of making art, you’re intentionally coming of age.
“in the process of making art, you’re intentionally coming of age”
KR: And then that subjectivity itself becomes an integral part of the experience you originally set out to document.
AP: Yes - even though I’m making it, it takes on its own, separate form.
AP: I’ve always been interested in how people look at people, or the question of how we should look at people.
I look at other artists, and wonder if I love to do that because I’m trying to know: how should I be?
It’s similar to how we, as a society, look at women. Women are these undulating forms, chameleon-like figures. So with the figurative sculptures in The Smurfette, they’re redolent of what we so often deem “slutty” in women – in that they can be, or be with, anyone. They can be so many different things, so many different people in their constantly shifting way. They’re still, but moving – dead, but alive, at the same time.
KR: They’re also faceless, yet fiercefully ‘present,’ demanding to be seen.
AP: That tension is also interesting in terms of the words that are spelled out in the work; abusive terms like ‘chewed up,’ ‘spit out.’ So the sculptures represent these powerful, exhibitionist figures, but they adorn themselves in language that has certain sexual, even abusive connotations, which invariably form a certain kind of experience.
This vernacular holds a multi-layered meaning. The words that appear in the work - “battered,” “bruised” refer to the production process, as well as to the experience of women. Literally, Papadopoulos “batters” her work, hammering materials together. She stitches, paints, spits out stains, hangs chains, creates collages of family photos, magazine cuttings and fabrics - her search for materials can take as much as three years. They’re intentionally, meticulously made up – “Stepford Wives”, as Papadopoulos proposes – but they’re also “hit up”, tapped out.
AP: One of the materials I use to cover the sculptures and create colour is Sally Hansen’s airbrush leg spray. And if you read the back of the pack, it promises to cover veins, bruises, and even freckles - an entirely natural signifier of individuality. I mean, that’s pretty bizarre. Is this a product for someone who’s been falling around in a drunken stupor, who doesn’t want people to see her bruises? Look at how the press reacts to a woman with bruised legs - Kristin Stewart for example – with so much critical speculation around what she might have been doing.
KR: That response relies on a sense that women should be preserved and untouched, like a showcase, too.
AP: Yes, and then the resin, and the bugs in the work, refer to that preservation. A good cultural reference to that preservation is the movie Death Becomes Her.
KR: Yes! Especially [Lisle von Rhomane], with her eternal youth elixir.
AP: Of course – Isabella Rossellini! Have you seen her Green Porno? So cute. She’s so funny. And once I’ve discovered someone I like, I want to find out all about them. So with Isabella Rossellini, I had no idea she was married to David Lynch – and Martin Scorsese?! There’s something so satisfying and mystifying about finding that stuff out, and piecing together the stories. I’ll get into a black hole, trying to piece together all the information I can.
KR: Do you think digital culture is integral to that, driving this virtual voyeurism forward?
AP: In terms of how we look at others, the Internet is definitely contributing to objectification, but it’s also… subjectifying. The act of typing a woman’s name into a search engine turns them into a subject. And now we’ll have perfectly intelligent people spending 6 hours scrolling through Kylie Jenner photos online.
…On the other hand, I make art by hand, in an archaic way, a romantic way, given that now people make art with 3D printers and fabricators. I want to touch everything, and shape everything. That’s not to say I’m opposed to the internet, by any means. I’ll search and scroll through google to find a very, very specific image of a worm, for example - I use the Internet, but only in so far as you would need to use a fork to pick up your food.
KR: Consumer culture is a subject raised by your work and use of materials, but you don't make an explicit critique of it.
AP: I grew up around fashion, and around people who had money – but not with taste, which is such a key difference. And with my sculptures, my ladies are put together with a keen sense of composition and taste - they might be tacky, but they're knowing. They acknowledge that you become part of a wider group through wearing what you wear… that what you consume makes you who you are.
AP: It'll take ten hours for me to put one sculpture together, figuring out all its possible configurations until I find the right one. It's a form of styling, which is on the one hand about celebration and adornment - but the process and result is also, in a way, grotesque.
KR: Some of that calls Baudrillard to mind, with that fine line between impassioned celebration and denigration.
AP: Yes, and I think it’s definitely worth revisiting critical theory. Lately I’ve been reading Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch, which draws on theory and history to look at constructions of female domesticity. And Chris Kraus is someone I love to read. She has a great way of drawing on personal experience as well as other artist's biographies. Take Hannah Wilke, for instance, the artist who was married to Claes Oldenburg. Kraus tells the - true - story of how Wilke went out to get milk one day, and when she'd come back, the locks had changed and he'd moved in a new woman. Later in life Wilke got cancer; she died. And there was a retrospective of work she'd done together with Oldenburg. The museum was asking him to sign off on details, and he said no. So this whole portion of her life and work got written out of history because of a man who said "no". I guess he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. No pun intended.
AP: So Kraus really takes you on that journey through someone's experience, and you feel like you're there. It's very moving. In reading her, I feel like want to make art in a similar kind of way, integrating people's different stories, even their fictional stories, in a collective work that takes personal experience as its point of departure. That comes back to what we were saying around wanting to find out everything you can about a certain artist or famous figure – like, reading everything you can find on David Lynch.
KR: That search itself is made even more fascinating by the fact it's not given away by such cryptic figures - you have to dig deeper, and it becomes this secret, privileged knowledge you figured out.
AP: Right, especially since Lynch's films, for example, are loaded with so many references to his own autobiographical experience.
On asking Athena what she listens to; she emphasises her enjoyment of Rihanna’s new album and Ariel Pink, then takes her phone out and shows me NTS, and Henry Rollins’ podcast, stating: “I just love doo-wop. There’s something so romantic and nostalgic about it.” There’s also The Opera Show, run by her friend Hannah Catherine Jones, which offers a juxtaposition of genres and styles from different points on the musical spectrum; “like, Freddie Mercury mixed with Stravinsky.” This is in line with the curated collision of materials and references in Papadopoulos’ work.
Some of those references come directly from her immediate family. Athena’s father is in the fur business, and she grew up with every issue of Vogue and W at her fingertips, along with a host of eccentric characters – including his “Lothario friends.”
KR: you’ve spoken before about the role your family, and your father, plays in your work. Does that ever constrain your work, as much as aiding it?
AP: The imagery and references to my family are inspired, not direct. Certainly, my father is a unique character. There are a lot of stories to tell. At his 60th birthday party, he fell on some glass, and he has diabetes, so bled profusely. Totally drunk, he and his friends went to the hospital, where they ripped his jeans open and stitched him up, with butterfly stitches. He gave me the ripped, bloodied jeans for Christmas, and suggested I could use them in my art. So, he’s very knowing.
Papadopoulos is enthralled by the process and meanings of archiving, and revisiting old photos, diary entries and personal inscriptions of identity and experience, both outwardly directed, and on the body (e.g. dying one’s hair). She speaks of archiving and art-making as a kind of purifying, if poignant, way to create work.
AP: That comes back to an obsession with constantly organising and re-organising experience in order to get rid of it, in some way. Art is my new style of diary – art as a way to ‘get it out.’ And some people say art is like therapy, which I don’t agree with – I think if you make art, you need therapy [laughs].
Louise Bourgeois, similarly, made her work to rid herself of burden – she also treads that line between celebratory and darkly critical. The result of that mentality is a dark humour that acts as a coping mechanism. Outside of art, look at how people are turning Trump into a pantomime by focusing on his appearance, as a way to deal with the cold hard reality that he’s screwing everything up.
… It’s funny, my Dad isn’t that much younger than Trump, and I watched his generation go from this hippy, Vietnam-era counter culture to the very corporate one embodied by Trump; it's such a fundamental difference. As well as watching people getting divorced; my friend’s parents, people on TV, and then my parents, getting divorced.
KR: In growing up with those early experiences of watching people change, perhaps you become aware early on of the transience of identity - something that’s vital to your work today.
AP: Sure, and it’s interesting that now liquidity is much more important to our generation than assets. People’s values have changed so much, compared to our parents’ generation. Ownership and assets don’t mean what they used to; they don’t represent freedom in the same way.
It sounds like Papadopoulos, in her self-reliance, has always been ahead of the freedom and changeability taking hold in contemporary culture today. Discussing her adolescence, she states:
AP: In some ways, I was the Smurfette, as a rambunctious teenager. And my life is so different now, I don’t think I could ever be that person again… but I can be the Smurfette of making art.