Athena Papadopoulos, Burning Swallows, a Well that Wallows, “Red Rail, Red Rail” (left); Do Do Dodo Big Bird (detail, middle); Flit Fibroma Fall (right), all 2018. Images courtesy of the artist and Emalin, London. Photography: Plastiques.
 


𝒮𝓊𝓇𝑔𝒾𝒸𝒶𝓁 𝒟𝓇𝑒𝓈𝓈𝒾𝓃𝑔 -- a conversation with Athena Papadopoulos

 

‘If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body…’

Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, 1843.

  

In artist Athena Papadopoulos’ sculptural assemblages, amorphic bridal gowns are ‘doctored’ with crevasses - nesting places in which taxidermy insects, lace and false eyelashes are suspended in syrupy resin, with gynaecological tools protruding among halcyon pink mesh. Whereas Papadopoulos’ sculptural, skeletal diorama The Smurfette (2017) can be read as exposing the scaffolding that underpins cultural constructions of femininity, her wedding gown wall sculptures (2018) explore exteriority, coverings and gossamer guises. Amidst the artist’s show at Frieze London, and the launch of her novel A Tittle-Tattle-Tell-A-Tale-Heart, Papadopoulos talks to Katrina Russell about identity, memory, cosmetics and Oprah Winfrey.

KR: Do you think there’s a sense in which your work aligns material layers – the netting, lace, paint, thick glue – with the layers that we apply daily to our lives and personae, building up a performed ‘mask’?

Athena Papadopoulos: There’s a kind of layered performance to making the works themselves; you become a surgeon, a Dr. Frankenstein figure, operating on and transplanting body parts, or like a fashion stylist dressing the bodies. I think of the process almost as being like a bird, lovingly building a nest and scavenging her material to construct it. In that sense, there’s a conglomeration of disparate roles performed to make these pieces.

But more importantly, I think of these works as ghosts of souls that live inside me; ghosts that want to get out and be physical, living things again. They resist identification, in that I too don’t know who they are and what they are trying to say. And in that sense I’ll find myself fascinated from an outsider-­like perspective -not as the artist who helped them become realised - asking them: who are you, where did you come from?

KR: That precarious, searching knowledge of another soul has echoes in the marital theme running through your work. Between diaphanous tulle and medical gauze, your use of fabric seems to nod to that sanctified moment of lifting the veil, peering through and beneath - while the dresses sit on a threshold between sumptuous decadence and imminent decay. Why were you drawn to marital iconography?

AP: I find marriage a very complicated idea today. Initially, it was a financial institution premised on owning a woman via her property. That premise has probably led to domestic oppression and violence (from both sides: husband to wife and wife to husband); it’s also led to ‘real’ love marriages, as much as the Western world loves to romanticize. But it’s still fundamentally rooted in property, in bringing families – usually upper class families– together, and in capital. But I don’t know that people should be tied together in such a way unless they are both healthy souls who want to help each other. I think many of us don’t understand what love is: how to be compassionate, how to be empathetic to those closest to us, because of this idea that’s in the song: “you always hurt the ones you love, the ones you shouldn’t hurt at all”...

I feel being able to trust yourself to respect, and take care of someone else’s heart, is a question one must be totally honest about­. And if the answer is no, one must do the work on themselves, to know better how to live by themselves - and then they can be of help to another. Anything else will end in misery. Life and humanity can be a very beautiful thing, but human beings are fragile. As Shakespeare aptly said, “Part, fools - you know not what you do.”

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KR: Walls are spaces often reserved for memories: for picture frames, wallpaper and mirrors. Your placement of these disfigured gowns on walls suggests a cultural desire to ‘fix’ femininity in the home, literally part of the fabric of everyday life, and as a kind of insulation. Did you know from the outset you’d place the dress sculptures on the wall? 

AP: I think what happens when you put the works on the wall - instead of laid down - is that you get this sense of putrefaction as well as petrification. It’s as though it’s scared stiff. And in suspending the nests on the wall, the rotting matter within the resin is more explicitly frozen in time.

KR: In a literal sense, frozen is a threatening state for macabre matter - numb, but transient, liable to thaw and reveal crimes. You titled your group exhibition at Castiglioni Fine Arts Milan (2018) To Die For - a name shared with Gus van Sant’s 1995 film, which ends with Illeana Douglas ice-skating on a frosted lake. The scene conjures a classic visual trope of an idyllic all-American winter, made sinister by the presence of a woman’s body underneath. There’s a parallel to that in your wedding dress sculptures, which - faceless and discarnate - glide between the semiotics of absence and presence.

 

AP: Like animals at the zoo, they are propped up and put on display -­ or floating ghosts. In a cinematic sense, they could be like characters who died; and in a detective story sense, we can perhaps deduce what happened to them through the different objects within their nests, cavities, or frozen ice rinks.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, corpses penetrate the walls and floorboards. Papadopoulos revives Poe’s ‘A Tell-Tale Heart’ with the title of her first novel, A Tittle-Tattle-Tell-A-Tale-Heart (2018). Here, as in her sculptures, the investigative figure is present:

AP: The novel is like a detective story set-up, inspired by Sunset Boulevard. We begin at the funeral of Bunny, the protagonist and middle child of three sisters. From there, over the course of 30 chapters representing temporal jumps and fragmented narrative, vignettes in different styles (doctor’s notes, haiku, limericks musical song scripts, restaurant reviews diary entries, letters and emails) we unfold the moments and thoughts contributing to her downfall - until, at the end, we discover how and why she has died. 

While the book cover depicts a close-up of the author’s eye – a glance at George Bataille’s The Story of the Eye – the book is about having, and using, a voice.

AP: I see it as a new artwork that takes the form of a novel in two parts. One is handwritten in liquid eyeliner, each page with its make ­up ‘done’ and holding drawings of girl characters who act as the internal audience, when the book is closed and not being read by a real human. So the stories always have company when we go to sleep. The second book is the frantic text transcription of the written version, printed in the style of a manuscript: black and white and with mistakes all over.

The two copies are bound together with string tied in a bow. Like a literary doppelgänger, even the changing cases and arrangement of letters across the page in the monochromatic edition is meticulously faithful to the handwritten one.

 Athena Papadopoulos,  A Tittle-Tattle-Tell-A-Tale-Heart,  2018.

Athena Papadopoulos, A Tittle-Tattle-Tell-A-Tale-Heart, 2018.

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It’s precisely that blend of clinical sterility, met with knotted, viscerous and violent foliate that crystallises in Papadopoulos’ installations. The cosmetic materials used to scribe and colour the book’s pages are the same as those in her sculptures. She describes the book as “fragmented stories, which all intertwine”, not unlike the materials in her composite artwork.

AP: Each work, and subject matter, often evolves in a way beyond my control or conscious knowledge. One of the earliest works I made in my undergrad was a collage series, drawn from Missing posters of prostitutes in Vancouver, overlaid with an appropriated meat­locker image and cartoon prostitute (2006).

 
 
Athena Papadopoulos, Untitled, 2006. Image courtesy of the artist.

Someone quoted Banksy to me recently: "Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable." I’m not such a huge Banksy lover, but I think there is something in that statement that I identify with. A lot of people think my work is dark, or disturbing. And that’s fine, because if there’s someone who already feels disturbed, or down, and they find comfort or inspiration in my work? That’s the point: the ability to make a connection to another human being, through work that makes them feel a little bit more ‘okay’ and able to exist in this crazy world. I know it’s a possibility for art to do so, because it happened to me before, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through certain hardships without it. I am grateful for this gift that has been bestowed upon us -­ art. One of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations quotes something like: not allowing oneself to articulate the need for a creative outlet, like painting or scrapbooking, when one feels the need­ is not benign - it metastasises, leading to anger, depression, and so on. It’s a poison, along with egoism and social hierarchy, which causes people to hurt other people.

We discuss the importance of disturbing complacency in everyday conversation, too.  

AP: You have to be surrounded by people who inspire you to be a better person and therefore a better artist. I don’t know how some people seem to be able to live without that. I was watching Annie Hall again the other night - you know that moment when Woody Allen stops the ‘happy couple’ on the street, and turns out they make it work because neither has anything of any substance to say? I believe if we’re lucky enough to wake up every morning­ to be alive, then why not have deep and meaningful, intense conversations, and­ help each other learn from our difficulties and successes.

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Pages from Athena Papadopoulos, A Tittle-Tattle-Tell-A-Tale-Heart, 2018.

AP: That’s probably why I love David Lynch so much; I want to uncover something deeper and darker going on beneath the surface. Sure, a lot of the time there isn’t. But I’ve always found that I’ll imagine something more morose behind the veneer of perfection.

Especially now that we’re living in a culture in which everything has to look Instagram-perfect on the outside. It’s even more important to be a voice that says: “not everything is perfect all the time; we all struggle, and that’s okay too.”

KR: Like perfection, struggle itself has become aestheticized and commoditised. When culturally manifest, struggle is so often a political-capitalist bargaining chip; it becomes advertising, it’s a way to get votes, it’s the product of ulterior motives.  

AP: It’s the same with capitalising on other people’s struggle, and the co­-opting of an idea of victimhood. In a sense we are all victims of something, but I think taking responsibility for our own part in conflict is the only way forward - otherwise we’ll never get off the merry­-go-­round. It’ll become a constant stalemate. Human beings continue to make the same mistakes, and we need to reflect on our actions and take responsibility for them, in order to do away with greed, vanity, self-­seeking and self-­centredness. My artist friend said recently, “there is enough room for all of us”. And I was so grateful for him saying so.

KR: Apart from Oprah SuperSoul, what do you listen to while you create?

AP: This time, in the mornings I started with ‘Walking in Memphis’ on 3x repeat. When I wrote my book and scanned pages for hours I danced to ‘There Must Be An Angel’, Eurhythmics, on repeat wearing all the makeup of the pages of the book. I’d play Whitney Houston’s ‘So Emotional’ to put a pep in my step when I needed to work into the night.

‘Slave to Love’ when walking home from the studio. Also, I love ‘Sara’ by Fleetwood Mac, because my Aunt’s name was Sarah. She was an artist - she passed when she was 40 from a variety of lady cancers. That song helps keep her close, when I’m feeling alone and up against the impossible. Her spirit, I believe, might live somewhere in those ghostly garments.

 

A corner of Papaopoulos' studio.

 A corner of Papadopoulos’ studio.

Last year, Papadopoulos talked to content journal about the ways her work intentionally taps cultural and personal memory {childhood TV shows; teenage cosmetics}, likening the process of making art to that of coming of age. If those works were about digesting the past, Papadopoulos’ phantasmagorical work now dissects it - literally and figuratively - in a process of self-examination and liberation.

AP: When I made this last body of work, and wrote this book, things about my life the past few years started to make sense. Through creating work and - irrepressibly - coming up with new ideas, you intuit what motivates you. Each time, I’m discovering more through making work, and writing about it - and, as I learn more, realising what I don’t know yet. That’s empowerment. It’s an ongoing process of experiences that I can reflect on, from one piece that helps guide me to the next.

Although, I’m just trying to enjoy the actual making of each work, instead of thinking about the next thing - since the future doesn’t exist yet. It’s about right now; this minute.

Watch Papapopoulos discuss her work at Frieze here. Read and experience more from Athena Papadopoulos at Emalin, London; see her work as part of Drawing Room’s exhibition ‘From the Inside Out‘ until 11 November 2018.

 
 
 
Both images: detail of Athena Papadopoulos, A Cuckoo Sidepain that gets Worse Knot Better, 2018. Images courtesy of the artist and Emalin, London. Photography: Plastiques.