Education, practice and collage

2 June 2011: Presentation by artist Lena Athansopoulou on her series of workshops “Syllegontas // Synthetontas” at Cocktail Bar

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly common practice for museums and art institutions to invite artists to realize a project as part of their educational programme – not just the perennial artist talk but an actual workshop, performance, activity, tour, etc. that might lead to some form of collaborative creative output in relation to the museum’s collection or series of exhibitions. To my knowledge this practice is still far from commonplace in Greece, so I was quite intrigued when I heard that the Folklife and Ethnological Museum of Macedonia-Thrace in Thessaloniki had invited artist Lena Athanasopoulou to develop an educational project that would somehow bridge the museum’s collection with contemporary art.

Given her ongoing interest in collage, Lena chose to focus her attention on the museum’s extensive photographic archive, including 19th and 20th century family portraits, and documentation of the museum’s collection of objects and heirlooms. In response to this archive, she devised a series of workshops on collage, addressed to both artists and the public alike, using material from the collection. For a number of different reasons, the workshops were indefinitely postponed. So we decided to invite Lena to come and discuss how and why she developed the workshops, as a means of opening up a conversation on both collage and the ways in which contemporary artists might develop educational projects as part of their practice in response to a given institution’s collection or programme. By inviting her to speak as part of Société Anonyme, it was also our intention to keep a record of her compelling research should the project not be realized in the end.

Lena Athanasopoulou. Untitled, 2011. Collage, inkjet print, variable dimensions.

Lena began by describing how she conceived of four 3h-long practice-based workshops structured around a series of inter-related themes. These workshops aimed to create greater awareness around images’ formal, metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical dimensions, while circumventing the folkloric aspect of the source material.The first workshop focused on what is hidden and what is revealed in relation to the house. It began with a historical introduction to collage – from handmade cut & paste techniques to Photoshop – examining how different layers can be superimposed one on top of the other. While looking at critical theory as well as specific practices, including the work of Sophie Calle and Nan Golding, the workshop aimed to examine what is hidden and what is revealed within the private space of the home in relation to different users: individuals, family members, guests, etc., as well as what is remembered versus what is meant to be forgotten. Lena intended to make use of 19th century plans of the traditional Macedonian house to illustrate how this concept of the hidden and the revealed is built into architecture. This was meant to be the jumping point to ask participants to articulate this notion through collage using personal images as well as images drawn from the museum’s archive, with a specific focus on openings and enclosures: doors, windows, drawers, cupboards, boxes, etc.

The second workshop was dedicated to specific rooms and the functions associated with these spaces. By mining the character of individual rooms, Lena examined the notion of the private versus the public and how the latter manifests itself through the museum’s archive. The workshop also delved into semiology, looking at how images gain a measure of legibility through symbolic and narrative investment. In response to these notions, Lena aimed to ask participants to photograph themselves in their homes and to keep a diary of the forbidden, as symbolized by the architectural feature of the wall.

Lena’s discussion of the house as a refuge, and the movements of different peoples within and around their house, reminded one person of her very recent Sarakatsani ancestry. She explained how her father was born and raised in the traditional nomadic Sarakatsani way of life, but later moved to the city to become a lawyer. We discussed how, in many ways, the museum fails to present this traditional yet still very recent way of life in a compelling manner. This raised a number of questions as to how we might conceive of tradition and what formats the museum might employ to represent it?

The third workshop centered around the notion of identity, examining the ways in which objects in one’s house might constitute a unique archive that articulates a personal narrative. By looking at documentary photography, this workshop aimed to explore the idea of memory and how an object can bare testimony.

Lastly, the fourth and final workshop focused on exiting the house, investigating how private objects leave the home and become integrated into the museum’s public collection. It meant to engage with a number of questions, namely: Why a museum might decide to collect certain objects as opposed to others? How an object might acquire a new identity and new value within the museum? And how its history, use and emotional currency might be expressed through museological display?

After presenting the individual workshops, Lena discussed how the project relates to her practice. She described how her collages are born out of a process of elimination, which abstract or obscure the identity of the subjects and objects that she appropriates. One SA member suggested that such a process is very different from that of artists like Haris Epaminonda who also works with collage but confuses the identity of her subjects not through a process of elimination and abstraction, but instead through accumulation, distorting reality and creating a sense of the uncanny through excess. The comparison was an interesting example in considering how Lena’s practice relates the workshops; for as one person proposed, while Epaminonda’s work remains faithful to the places that they introduce, Lena’s works expose the narrative associated with the places in her collages to the mystery and unpredictability of fantasy and imagination.

Stephanie

A special thanks to Lena for her compelling presentation and to Theodoris Markoglou (curator, State Museum of Contemporary Art) for suggesting 3 texts drawn from the catalogue of the exhibition “Collage. The unmonumental Image” at the New Museum in New York to accompany our discussion.

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