LIKE HIS beloved material of glass, which he has tirelessly transformed into monumental sculptural forms, Costas Varotsos is sharp, cool and transparent – in the sense that he is unafraid to speak his mind. There are not many contemporary Greek sculptors who are also international names, however Varotsos is one of them. With his public works dotted around the world, and with his awe-inspiring use of tons of layered glass with metal, but also of layered stone, he has carved out a name for himself in one of the most difficult fields of art. I had the honor of interviewing him recently for the Athens Insider Magazine. We said a lot (as one does in interviews), enough in fact to create a second piece. So, for those who want to learn some more about this phenomenal creative spirit, read on:
– How would you describe the career of an artist?
In general, an artist’s career is unjust, because the best one gets everything and the rest suffer. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer!
– Would you describe yourself as a painter or a sculptor?
Well, actually I am a painter, and continue to be one. I went from the canvas to 3-dimensional space. In essence, my work is painting in space. I put a lot of emphasis on space on all levels in my work, that’s why I started using transparent materials. I have always worked with transparent materials.
– You studied art first at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, then architecture at Pescara University as an attempt to get away from art. However, the architectural element is very much part of your work too.
Whilst studying architecture I discovered the social and urban dimension of art – its relation to the city and nature. I started to understand what it means to intervene in the social space. Although I initially studied architecture as an attempt to escape art, I nevertheless studied it in an experimental, artistic manner – via performances and exhibitions. So essentially, I was still working as an artist. But structurally speaking, many of my glass sculptures in particular, are also like buildings: they have an infrastructure, and they are built of many layers of glass.
– You have had a difficult time with the education system in Greece, having been expelled from school.
If I had the ability, organisation and financial ease necessary to not send my daughter to school, I wouldn’t send her. I consider the school environment morbid. The education system has to be reviewed and reorganized, by considering some truths which we all know but deny. The education system kills creativity and creates machines.
– The irony of the situation is that you are also a university professor in Greece (having taught art for 17 years now, at the Architecture Department of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University)!
Well I did tell them that I had been kicked out of school when they proposed me the job, but they said they didn’t care about that.
– Let’s talk about your work. You have intervened in nature and in the city. Have you ever thought of intervening on a historic building or archaeological site?
I have done one very important work in Naples in Cumae, (ancient Kymi), which was near the ancient site of Sybil. It was the most ancient Greek monument in Italy. It existed there before the Romans. But there was also a Roman basilica there. I was invited to create a work there by the Ephorate of Antiquities. The historic layering that occurs in Italy (from mediaeval, to renaissance to baroque etc.) is incredible. It is a smooth transition from one period to the next, without any historical breaks. Italy has 20 centuries of uninterrupted cultural history. And so, the contemporary Italian can understand the coexistence of a contemporary art intervention with an ancient monument. Italian cities are like a jungle of historical styles – with different epochs living together.
– What about in Greece?
Here in Greece a contemporary intervention on an ancient site isn’t so welcome. But we are starting to accept certain ideas that have been ‘imported’ let’s say. I did my first intervention on Byzantine works at the Benaki Museum, where I created a work in dialogue with the exhibits. I have also created a work in Delphi. In Sparta, I intervened on the roof of a small Byzantine tower, but there’s always the feeling here of ‘Oh no! What if the archaeologists find out!’. So far they haven’t said anything…
– Do you have a better bond with Italy? It’s a very special relationship, comprising studies, many works there, and awards (eg. Segno d’Oro award, 2007).
I love Italy a lot. When I go there it’s like I’m going to my grandmother’s village, like I have roots there. I get a warm welcome, they love me, respect me. It’s a more loving relationship than with Greece.
– There is a lovely floating work on the sea in Venice – a creation of yours for the Venice Biennale.
This is part of the ‘Horizons’ series – a moment in the series which culminated later in the work ‘La Morgia’ in central Italy. I was invited to represent Italy for the Venice Biennale of 1995, and so created this work. Curators had suggested that I represent Greece, however the Culture Minister at the time didn’t agree! I did represent Greece later in 1999.
– What was the hardest work you ever made? Was it ‘La Morgia’ in Gessopalena, Italy, (1997), where you filled an entire ravine in a mountain (created by an airplane crash), with tons of glass?
‘La Morgia’ was time-consuming – I lived on that mountain for 12 months, in order to create the work. But ‘The Runner’ (originally in Omonoia, now situated opposite the Hilton), was the hardest – because it had structural issues, a stability problem which was very difficult to solve.
– What do you have to say about the economic crisis in Greece?
What happened to the economy can be compared to what happened in conceptual art. The economy started functioning in a conceptual manner: it wasn’t just a matter of trading and producing goods anymore, but it became an economy which made money out of the economy (eg. via bonds). Now in Greece, apart from these two problems, there was also another – a disconnection from the concept of ethics.
– How did that happen?
It was brought about with Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s government: he imported a kind of American populism to Greece. It was the American Dream (in which even a poor boy can become a rich industrialist), but without the Protestant ethics (and work ethics) attached! And this has caused the present situation in Greece, where anyone can do anything! We are living a condition of centrifugal dissolution, both economically and ethically.
– How about contemporary art?
Art is life, and the transformation of life into art and art into life. If it’s not great art, and it’s just a turd instead, and that is degrading. This has happened because artists have given too much importance to the concept of the object and not the object itself. The concept took over the place of the object. This terrible crisis of today about what is objectively correct (which is crumbling), has led us artists into a kind of panic. So, what artists have done is to diverge into parallel paths – such as sociology. They then create a social analysis of the cultural situation but don’t create art. Others create film instead of art. Others go towards literature – creating kinds of papyruses that you have to read, that have been hung on the wall. They have diverged from the realm of art. And so today, art has a tendency to be absorbed into other realms, thus self-destructing. We have to find once again the balance between space and time in art, and that synthetic, holistic, multifaceted, complex artistic approach to reality, which involves all the senses. And maybe we need to also find some lost senses, those ‘medieval ones’…
Yes! Today in Europe there is a big debate about this, the reevaluation of medieval values.
– Such as?
Such as the way they deal with space. History is always written by the winners. The renaissance writers therefore put down the medieval age in order to project their own values of perspective etc. But they had their masters, especially just before the Renaissance – Giotto, Cimabue. And when you go to a medieval village in Italy for example, and walk its streets, you feel a different energy, which makes you feel good. These places are magical. And you wonder, ‘why were their squares crooked? What is this energy of space?’. When I went abroad for the first time as a child, with my uncle, we visited the Duomo in Milan. That’s where I saw the Gothic rhythm for the first time. My legs shook… I knelt! It’s that spirit of the grandiose that art has to find once again that will be its savior.
– One could say that there’s that spirit of the grandiose in your work too.
I’ve been chasing that energy for years!