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Mylonas interview (part 2)

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I RECENTLY interviewed one of Greece’s most well-known and definitely most contemporary of artists – Eleni Mylonas – for the Athens Insider Magazine . As is the case with interviews, a lot of material remains unpublished. I felt it was a shame to let this material get lost in time, and to never be shared, because the more we know about artists and how they work, the better understanding we have of their unique creative processes. So, what follows, is the unpublished material, which provides more insight into Mylonas’ multifaceted artistic oeuvre. And what accompanies it, are some more photos of her work, some if which (the stone works created in Aegina), haven’t been exhibited yet.
But first, a little background info: Eleni Mylonas lives between New York, Athens and Aegina. She is the daughter of Alex Mylona, another avant-garde creative spirit of the ‘60s, who passed away this year, and whose work had been praised even by Herbert Read. You can see Alex’s wonderful artistic creations at the Alex Mylona Museum in Psyrri (of which Eleni Mylonas is now President of the Board).

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Eleni Mylonas was born in Greece in 1944, studied journalism in New York, photographic studies in London and later digital imaging back in New York. Her work is on show at the National Museum of Contemporary Art these days, (in the ‘Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp’ show), while in New York, her photographs have become part of the Ellis Island Museum’s permanent collection. Her daring creativity has featured in exhibitions such as the first Athens Biennale, the 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale, and her solo show (‘The Cursed Serpent’), at the Benaki Pireos Museum, also caused a stir. In Germany, Mylonas exhibits at Munich’s Francoise Heitsch Gallery.
On November 24, Eleni Mylonas presented a new book on the work of her mother, written by Claudette Labrosse, at the Alex Mylona Museum. This concise introduction to Alex’s work is in 3 languages (Greek, English, French, available at the museum). The museum also inaugurated in this way its Christmas bazaar well worth visiting, seeing as it includes beautiful multiples of Alex’s work, art books, catalogues and her fabulous jewellery creations. The proceeds go towards supporting the museum’s activities. Whilst there, you will also get a chance to see a video that was recently created on Alex, which pays tribute to her life and work.

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– Your studies in journalism and photography have played an important role in your work. You have kind of taken on the role of the artist-reporter, finding a story, but then taking it into your own artistic realm. Exploring it further in other mediums (eg painting) and making it your own. What do you have to say about this process?
That’s very astute of you. Yes, I do feel like a reporter when I’m working. Reporting from other dimensions, using different methods of communication. Translating a photographic image into oil on canvas invests the image with time. My time. It makes it stand out and last longer. We are so bombarded with images these days, painting an image brings it to the fore.

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– You have explored many other mediums too in your work, from stone, found objects, photography, video, sculpture, painting, installations, geometric abstraction. Each one is dealt with differently, brings out a different side of your character. Do you agree? Is there something at the core however which combines all this? An exploration of humanism or humanity for example?
More like the exploration of human experience. I am naturally curious. I like to know as much as possible about most things. Leave no stone unturned. But I get bored easily. I like a challenge. I like to learn new things, new ways, new tools. Once I have worked out exactly how to do it, it’s over. Sooner or later I will move on. I also like to find new ways to express myself. Song and music for example which touch a different chord and are a universal language. Also performance and dance which have been somewhat outside of my comfort zone, and therefore are a good challenge.

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– There is often something sinister, or shocking in your work: eg the video of the bloated sheep in ‘The Lamb of God’, that was included in the first Athens Biennale (‘Destroy Athens’). Why? Is this a process of catharsis?
It has to do with my belief that you have to see what’s around you even if it’s painful. You need to have the full picture. Life is life. It is not good or bad, it just is what it is. Seeing expands your horizon not visually but mentally. I want you to look at the work and think and feel.
– There’s also something tragi-comic – as was the case in your show at the Benaki Pireos Museum in 2014, (‘The Cursed Serpent’), where you focused on the Arab Spring, by wearing on your head self-made protective head-gear (but turning it into an artistic process), as the journalists and others did during the revolution of 2011 in Tahrir Square.
Humor is very important. It makes life worth living at least for a moment and is also very good for our health!

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– You have a soft spot for the character of the Karagyozis, also evident in your work (eg in ‘The Cursed Serpent’ show). Does this kind of Greek still exist today? And is it maybe the only way to survive in Greece? How would he do in New York?
Karagyozis is audacious, nothing fazes him. He makes fun of everything especially self-importance. He is crafty. But is he enterprising? In New York you have to work hard. For real. No fooling around. He’s a Turk so he does better in Istanbul or Athens where he can get away with it. Work the system.
– ‘The Cursed Serpent’ was also dedicated to the artist Chryssa. Was she an inspiration in your work?
She was a close friend. I loved her. She inspired me as a person and as an artist. We lived very close by in NY so we spent down time together. She was very raw, primitive. She was intelligent, courageous, isolated. Quite unhappy I think. She died in Greece a few months before my show at the Benaki, around Christmas. I was in NY. It was very unexpected. I regretted not having seen her the last couple of years. Dedicating my show to her was a tribute to her spirit. She was undervalued.
– Travelling is another passion of yours – Europe, Africa, driving from London to Afghanistan and back (in 1972, photo below). Tell us about how travelling has inspired your work – and some of the most amazing things you have seen, that have inspired you artistically.
Travelling is an important part of my overall exploration as a person and as an artist. Travelling in Afghanistan was tantamount to going back in time and experiencing a different century. It felt like I had certainly been there, I had lived in a similar culture under similar conditions at some abstract time. It was all somehow part of my DNA. I felt the same in India. The most astounding experience was when I came face to face with the life of the various tribes in southern Ethiopia near the Kenyan border. These people lived in complete harmony with their environment and had total respect for it. They leave zero footprint on the planet. I felt a lot of grief because their way of life, their habitat was being taken away from them. Very much like an endangered species dying out. I was experiencing the end of a big chunk of life on earth.

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– At Art Athina (2016), you presented a pop art influenced self-portrait, with you holding up a smart phone, which has a cover with the words : ‘Keep calm and Carry On’. Is this your message to the Greeks in the crisis?
No, not really. Greeks can carry on but they cannot keep calm, nor should they. We are too calm. We are puzzled and almost catatonic. When you see something is white and they tell you it is black over and over, you become like a frog which is being slowly boiled while it is dazed in the warm water. This work was a lark; I was just enjoying myself but it got a lot of attention in Germany via the Francoise Heitsch Gallery that I work with. I had another work at the Francoise Heitch booth in Art Athina, a big drawing /painting on the outside wall which was more in line with what I do. It’s a Pieta. A Father holding the body of his fallen son. Graphite and oil on canvas, the source was a well-known photo from Syria.

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– The Alex Mylona Museum in Plaka is a wonderful haven for your mother’s art. It’s been through some tough times, but it has finally managed to stay open. Tell us a bit about it.
It’s in Thissio, at the entrance to Psyrri, opposite the Church of the ‘Bodyless’ Saints (Asomaton). The Museum has a very long story. To put it briefly, it is a private foundation housed in a beautiful building bought and renovated with my mother’s own funds; works by Alex Mylona are always on show in part of the museum. For the last 10 years it was operating successfully under the auspices of the Macedonian Museum of Art, also a private foundation. Denys Zaharopoulos was artistic director and he curated a variety of important contemporary exhibitions there, thus creating a track record for the Museum. At this juncture there are serious financial difficulties necessitating all sorts of readjustments. There are several options, all very difficult and complicated. As the new president of the board I am doing all I can to keep it alive and active, with the invaluable help of some friends! The future will tell.
– Greece has its problems, that’s for sure, but through your work, one also sees that it is also deeply inspiring, especially Aegina, where you have your summer house and studio.
Aegina was always favoured by artists and writers. For me its proximity to Athens and the presence of a handful of close friends was important. I was also very lucky to find a beautiful spot to build on. I lived on the land in a trailer for 3 years before I started building. It has a spectacular view on the sea. I did a big body of work here with the stones and the earth that I have yet to show. It is work I would never have done in New York.

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  •  ‘Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp’, runs till Jan 29 at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (or EMST): Corner of Kallirois Ave and Amvr. Frantzi St. Tel 211-101-9000. http://www.emst.gr
  •  The Alex Mylona Museum is on 5 Agion Asomaton Square, Thisio. Tel: 210-321-5717. Open Thursday 4-9. Friday-Saturday 11-7. http://www.mmca-mam.gr
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