How Paky Vlassopoulou Puts Love, Care, and Community Back into Her Art
By Alexander Strecker
Marble columns; soaring arches; celebrated monuments that have stood for millennia. So often, it is these structures that stand in for “culture,” the proud embodiments that we mentally refer to as emblems of our civilizations. But in reality, they are the exception, the ostentatious outliers. So much more has been built over the span of human history using softer, mutable, ephemeral materials, such as wood, clay, and straw. And even more invisibly, there are those structures that underlie all of society, never taking a physical form at all: feeding, cleaning, caretaking, loving.
When we talk about shaping society, it is the imposing institutions that we are likely to think about first: parliaments, courts, and banks. But these towering peaks of stone and steel rarely take the time to acknowledge the interstitial materials they are built upon. It takes the prodding of an artist to remind us that we can lower our gaze from those that strive to reach the heavens, and find great beauty in our overlooked earthly underpinnings. Not only that, but if we truly want to shape society, it is in these unspoken spaces where we must focus our efforts.
This is the field which Paky Vlassopoulou explores in her work. Trained as a sculptor, Paky has confidence in her talents for formal and artistic production. But lately, her interests have expanded to examine how physical objects and shared spaces are interwoven within vast, underappreciated webs of invisible work. She continues to sculpt, but the materials she utilizes have evolved to include social ties, emotional bonds, and intimate relationships.
From early on, the social element of art was on Paky’s mind. Indeed, when she first began her education, she didn’t even think she would become an artist. Rather, she imagined she would organize concerts, exhibitions, and other gatherings to bring people together. But she quickly realized that she couldn’t live on the phone and behind a keyboard, only arranging events and programming for others. She re-committed to the idea of making art itself and started exploring the broad range of themes that art can address. She focused on tactile relationships, always through three-dimensional objects, putting special emphasis on the process of making, rather than the outcome. Reflecting on this perspective, she explains, “Sculpture is my first vocabulary. What I learned most about my work in school is that I always start with my hands, not my eyes. I am always thinking sensually, and about how we experience our environments spatially. My focus is on touch, not sight.”
Even during the time when Paky was making objects, the notion of mutability was key. She says, “My artworks were always ephemeral, including my built sculptures. Look at the fact that I’ve been working with clay and straw for ten years. I consider my clay to be a product of the earth, rather than as ceramic, a human technology. I sculpt in a way that is fragile, but also re-arrangeable. No matter what I build, it can always change. I don’t believe in the concrete.”
As Paky’s work developed, she realized that she was not just interested in the objects themselves, but what these objects reflected about the social structures they existed in. Her larger question became, “How can I make art in a way that can be decomposed and reconfigured in another assembly?” For example, counterintuitively, the first time Paky baked one of her clay pieces was just two years ago. But even then, this fixity was not for the sake of the object, but for the purpose of creating a social environment: the hardened piece was a carafe, which she used to serve wine at a performance. She says, “It was only when I thought to make a tool that my sculptures took on any permanence.” More recently, objects have receded further in Paky’s practice, used only as a means of bringing people together to share a space. Ultimately, she is still producing ephemeral sculptures, but these are now ones that each person can take home with them — that is, their shared memories of a group experience.
Paky’s increased flexibility has also opened her work in other directions, especially in terms of reaching broader audiences. She admits, “An important aspect for me is my social life outside art. This has led me to question how more people can engage with art, starting with my partner but extending to my friends, neighbors, and more. I believe that art can address issues such as freedom, identity, and social relations, and I cannot imagine myself questioning such universal issues solely within a narrow professional sphere.” As she pushes herself more in this direction, she signals at least one clear influence from within the art world, albeit a figure who reveals a path for breaking out of it: the Polish artist Paweł Althamer.
Like Paky, Althamer makes sculptural works with the goal of using his art as a means of “community building.” Drawing inspiration from such an example, Paky goes on to assert, “If you stay in a structure that is too narrow and hierarchical — such as the academy or the fine art world — it can only hurt your ability to communicate. Some years ago, I did an exhibition that was very pessimistic and that was addressed only to the art world. When it was over, I asked myself: Why? Whom am I talking to? Who is going to value my work? Only we, as individuals, can value our own work. Even if the best museums acquire it, nobody can tell you that what you have made, or done, or written is meaningful. The belief that you are somehow adding to the world has to come from yourself.”
Still, Paky is no solitary individualist. Although she might chafe against the weight of larger structures, she passionately believes in more agile forms of collective action. Take the artist-run space called 3 137 (three artists, located at 137 Mavromichali St in Athens), of which Paky constitutes an essential third. As she describes it, “3 137 began in 2012. It came out of an encounter, a debate about the agency that was possible in art. There was never a grand plan; it wasn’t a conscious response to the financial crisis. Rather, we realized from the beginning that there was a collective need for a place to gather, collaborate, and make exhibitions outside of the gallery system. Our initial interest was to map the city and its art scene, and question how things worked. We quickly became a small family, and then slowly began to expand outward. We invited various groups to our space, especially those from outside of the Fine Arts School. We mixed social networks, different social classes, all kinds of people. We used the radio to invite people from the neighborhood; we addressed the possibility of auto-didactism; we invited individuals who were in rehab. A friend of mine even did a show about how football could be used as a tool to fight fascism.”
Yet this effort of reaching out to others is never finished. Reflecting on the development of 3 137, as well as her own work, Paky confidently says, “Looking back, I can see how each one of my projects answers a question that I posed in the past.” But then she pushes herself to discover how her questions can become “more inviting for others (and accessible for more kinds of others).” She goes on, “I want to continue to invite as many different kinds of people to experience these questions with me — not just intellectually, but physically, by bringing them into the spaces I inhabit.”
While Paky tirelessly questions the structures in which she operates, she also recognizes that beyond her own work, or even the walls of 3 137, the city of Athens has changed dramatically since 2012. “Today,” she continues, “Athens is very different. Young people who are just starting out already know how to self-organize. There are artist-run initiatives all over the city. This means we now face a new set of questions: What are the gaps we still see in Athens? What role do we play to address them? For one thing, Athens is still missing state-run institutions supporting contemporary art. For another, it lacks sustainable means of discourse-production. In the former category, EMST, the city’s contemporary art museum, has been struggling for years, opening briefly and then closing its doors for long stretches. Paky explains, “When the institution put out a call for a new director, 3 137 sent in an application for the position, where we seriously suggested alternative governance models and tried to imagine how this institution could be sustainable. Our goal was to make this discussion public — so we then published our application. The lack of a functioning contemporary art museum in Athens is a major structural gap and we want to address it.”
But Paky, fresh from spending several months at WHW Akademija, a new arts study program in Croatia, wants to broaden her view beyond Greece. For her, two words are central not only to Greece, but the whole world right now: flexibility and precarity. On the side of flexibility, Paky is optimistic. Not only has this idea been present in her sculptures from the start, but she sees it extending to many other areas as well. “What is exciting about the moment we live in is the opportunity to see different civilizations and understand what they are doing,” she says. “We can begin to look past the hegemony of the West — recognizing the extent to which the US and Europeans have done really, really terrible things. I don’t mean to exoticize other civilizations but rather to acknowledge that we have been taught a constrained narrative that has nothing to do with the full possibilities of being human. The framework, from my point of view, has been super exclusive, extremely arrogant, and overly ‘productive,’ but in a very limited definition of production. Since the mid-20th century, the United States took over the paradigm of work, productivity, and usefulness. Fortunately, I think this is all starting to change. It’s an amazing moment to understand these structures, and thus ourselves, more clearly.”
On the other hand, flexibility also comes with a great deal of precarity. This has been sharply evident in Greece but can be seen in all parts of our late-capitalist world. “Beginning most visibly in 2008, many people in the middle class started to find themselves in situations of precarity,” Paky explains. “While this is sad in many ways, the positive aspect for me is that people who once had a safe position have been shaken, which creates space for connection between different layers of society. If precarity affects us all, that can force us to explore new structures and different ways of organizing ourselves. Amidst this crisis, my hope is that we will start to look around and see others who are more similar to us than we thought.”
Paky also appreciates the difficulty and uncertainty of embracing such precarity: “It’s more challenging to sustain flexible things. It’s very tiring. It’s easier to create clear laws, strict norms. If you follow a more open-ended approach, you have to work a lot.” At the same time, as with the marble temples cited at the beginning of this essay, our society cannot only be built on the hard and fast. For example, Paky pushes us to look at the domestic sphere: “While the public sphere is governed by explicit rules and codes of law, the space inside the home has many unspoken norms. Indeed, our entire society is held together by fragile, socially-determined, unstable relations — in the home, amongst families, between friends. Ultimately, I don’t believe we need to clarify every single rule, but rather, we need care and we need to perceive with care. We must recognize that providing care takes energy and time, and we need to value such efforts.”
“Provoke. What is close to you, in every moment, is the most important thing.’’
To conclude our conversation, Paky moves from broad, speculative strokes to something more specific: the role of the artist. On this subject, Paky’s final words are exceedingly clear: “Provoke,” she urges. “What is close to you, in every moment, is the most important thing. As an artist, you must expose yourself to what’s really meaningful to you. You will have a reaction, and eventually these feelings will come back to you in a different form. This process always comes with difficulties — but in my mind, it is the only interesting way to live and create.”
Paky Vlassopoulou is a 2018 ARTWORKS Fellow. ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization that aims to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
With the support of ARTWORKS, Paky is currently an artist-in residence at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York.
Alexander Strecker is pursuing a PhD in Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. His research explores how artistic practices register the contradictions inherent in ideas of crisis, periphery, and technology, with a focus on how these tensions are felt acutely in contemporary Greece while also resonating worldwide. Working in close collaboration with the Artworks team, Alexander conducted a series of interviews with a group of the 2018 Fellows, hoping to understand how their artistic practices register and reflect some of the contradictions inherent in Greece today.