Nicolas Vamvouklis (NV): Foteini, it’s great meeting you at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, where your solo show is currently on view. This is actually the first time I get to see your work up close. Could you briefly introduce me to your art practice?
Foteini Palpana (FP): It is great meeting you too, Nicolas, and thank you for this interview. As is the case in this show, my work develops in installations combining different mediums, which tend to become more sculptural over the years. My practice is linked to an interest in categories of the natural environment, such as the ground and the landscape. In the past, my works have adopted the characteristics of the map, the model, the index, or the archive, gradually giving way to artificial environments of geological or even bodily formations.
NV: A couple of years ago, you created “View of Me,” a performance for the camera, and now this exhibition is entitled “View of Us.” There seems to be a shift to collectivity. How do these two cases relate to each other?
FP: Performance for the camera is recurrent in my practice. So far, I am the performer of minimal actions that either put me in some kind of contact with the natural element (e.g., “Stand” 2015) or others that focus on the interaction with my works, which is the case in “View of Me.” I regard this video as a key piece not only to the present exhibition but to my overall focus. When I explore and portray my own response to the natural surroundings, I am hoping to recreate a relatable human experience. So, this shift between Me and Us, far from revealing a change in thinking, it rather indicates that they may be used interchangeably, especially when it comes to (what I consider to be) our universal, fundamental right to experience nature in an unlimited, uninhibited way and access it with our senses.
NV: I’m naturally contrasting at the moment your physical characteristics being petite and fragile to the sculptures here, which are pretty heavy and rough. In a previous conversation with Constantinos Hadzinikolaou, you mentioned that the “scale and weight [of the works] indicate the limits of my abilities.” Could you elaborate on this?
FP: This means that I try to create things I can carry or at least move them around and work on them myself. Inevitably, I often need help with their transportation. However, whether a sculpture is big enough for me to walk on or such that I can lay it on me, their size is always in some rapport with my own. There is this sense of a one-to-one relationship, some kind of respectful confrontation, where I am often surprised to discover my limitations.
NV: I find it quite touching how you move around the exhibits. Your gestures reveal a caregiving relationship. What is your idea of care?
FP: This relationship begins in the making, where instead of bringing a sculpture to match a preconceived image, I set the guidelines for it to develop while I work and observe. Then, there is the handling of the works: no matter how big and rough they are, fragility is also one of their characteristics. At times it resembles a choreography, a slow one, where I have to hug and place them, also being careful not to overwork myself. I am not the most patient person, but I understand that caring means giving time in this instance.
NV: My favourite piece in this show is “View of Us — Soft Sculpture I.” The way you have sewn up the fabric reflects the perpetual shaping of the landscape. But, at the same time, it gives me sartorial vibes, so we return to the body. Could clothing bring a new direction to your research?
FP: I have been making these soft sculptures for some time now, and I enjoy exploring the properties of the fabric and its several possibilities as sculpture material. It is a compensation for the limits set by the hard materials I usually use. Softness is always relatable to the body and the pleasure of touch. Although I like to encounter a corporeal element in the volumes and the surfaces I create, I am not (yet) drawn to building directly on the human body.
NV: I’m trying to imagine your working space. Could you give me a glimpse of your studio?
FP: I share a studio with my partner and fellow artist, Giannis Cheimonakis. Although I enjoy my studio space very much, it may remain unused for large periods of time, while there are times when it resembles a construction site. There was this period while working for the show when the space had to be strictly divided into two zones: the messy, muddy, and dusty one and one impeccably clean, where I could work on the fabric pieces.
NV: Last summer, you spent some time on a residency program in Ios. It is exciting that there are more and more cultural initiatives in the Greek periphery. How was your experience of the local community accessing contemporary art?
FP: The residency in Ios was an initiative by Dimitris Foutris (also the curator of this show) and the association Save Ios. The objective was to foreground the natural environment of the island and raise awareness of the human intervention. In this first edition, I participated together with Dimitra Kondylatou and Orestis Mavroudis. Right before an intense tourist period, people were keen on meeting and assisting us, discovering our approaches to their own familiar place. Dimitra worked on a video based on her interaction with people that live and work in Ios, while Orestis’ work in the public space meant that the community, including the authorities, were involved in order to enable him.
What we gathered from this endeavour was the demand for continuity. People in peripheral communities are interested in strengthening the presence of contemporary art on a continuous basis rather than one-off events — and this is also the intention of Ios Art Residency. We met people preoccupied with the cultural profile of their community and fully aware of the importance of such initiatives for the cultivation of environmental and social sensitivity.
NV: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are also originally from a Cycladic island. What’s your connection with your homeland? Would you consider launching an art project there?
FP: That would be Syros. I am not from there originally, but I spent there my whole adolescence and go back to my family and friends as often as possible. On the other hand, many of my works do originate there. Interestingly enough, Syros is an important geological site, and of course, apart from that, it carries a rich history from the first prehistoric settlements to today. With Campus Novel artist group (I was a member until 2020), we worked on a site-specific workshop and group show that took place there, focusing on the lighthouse of 1834 on the islet facing the port of Hermoupolis.
Recently, environmental issues have arisen that have people, friends actively involved. As we can see, there are wider concerns across the Cyclades about the welfare of the unique ecosystem and the conservation of the landscape, along with worries about the rapid turn to a tourist-dependent economy and the societal change this inevitably brings about. To return to your question, I am personally preoccupied with all this, and naturally, it has been finding its way into my work. I am not settled yet on launching another project in Syros, but I would very much like among my next steps to be a show there, as a response to the place and the people I love and with whom I share such a common background.
Foteini Palpana (1984) is a visual artist and art educator living in Athens. She holds a BFA and MFA from the Athens School of Fine Arts with a scholarship by the Onassis Foundation, as well as a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens. She is a recipient of the 1st ARTWORKS SNF Artist Fellowship Program 2018–2019. Between 2011 and 2020, she was a member of the group Campus Novel, with artistic and curatorial activity. She has participated in artist-in-residence programs, and her work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, and project spaces in Greece and abroad. “View of Us” curated by Dimitris Foutris at Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, is her first solo show in an art gallery.
Nicolas Vamvouklis is a curator and arts writer. He is the artistic director of K-Gold Temporary Gallery and has curated exhibitions at Mediterranea 19 Biennale, 7th Thessaloniki Biennale, and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Since 2016, he has served as senior curator at the Benetton cultural panorama. He has also collaborated with Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Marina Abramovic Institute, Prague Quadrennial, and Triennale Milano. Vamvouklis contributes to art magazines and publications, including The Art Newspaper and MIT Press. In 2021, he was awarded the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Artist Fellowship by ARTWORKS.