Elissavet Sfyri is a young Greek artist who works in numerous mediums, often in a collaborative fashion. She currently resides in New York, where she lives with her husband, an activist from Syria, and in Athens, where she maintains a studio. Attracted to performance, video, and group collaboration, Sfyri is devoted to social actions that turn toward visual experimentation. She considers herself an artist taken with social practice, and investigates and challenges current mores in the hope of progressively changing them. Her visual work, often part of her videos, looks to a stark elaboration of the social fabric. Thus, Sfyri’s art combines media in light of a political stance that embraces difference as a way of negotiating the hidden constraints we regularly face in life.
Jonathan Goodman: Outside of Lucas Samaras, not many Greek artists are well known in New York. Why is this so? Is it because of low numbers, a lack of interest on the part of Americans, or cultural differences too great to bridge?
Elissavet Sfyri: This is a complex question because many Greeks in New York have lived most of their lives in the United States and assimilated into American culture, making it difficult to solely identify them as Greek artists. Are these artists you are referring to truly Greek, or are they better described as Greek-American artists?
Being Greek-American is almost a distinct culture in and of itself, and in most cases, it has very little to do with what the new generation of Greek artists is like. Additionally, New York is far removed from Europe, and many Greek artists in the art world are thriving abroad, not just as artists, but also as architects, curators, directors, filmmakers, musicians, and more.
There is at least one Greek included in most large art institutions worldwide. Many Greeks are making waves in the European art scene. I know a few Greek artists based in the United States whose successful careers take place in Greece and Europe. For some, it is a deliberate choice to return to their roots. What does it mean to be a Greek artist today? Aren't we all citizens of the world?
JG: How does New York compare with Athens in the support of the arts?
ES: There are significant cultural differences between the European and American art worlds. In Europe, people involved in the art world tend to be snobbish toward emerging artists, who have fewer opportunities. There is a considerable gap between these two worlds in Europe.
In New York, I found people are more open to emerging artists about their work, even from influential figures in the field. In New York, if you are an emerging artist in the same space as important people, they are interested in hearing about your work at least a short while. They may even promote you. There are more opportunities in New York, and artists exposed to people from all over the world can create amazing collaborations.
For example, I will be participating as the visual artist in a collaborative project with musicians, neuroscientists, creative programmers, and engineers from Columbia University. The project is called "Rasa," and is based on John Cage's sonatas. The show will take place at the National Sawdust space in Brooklyn at the end of October.
In Athens, support for the arts is lacking. Opportunities exist, but are very limited. Only a few Greek collectors are interested in purchasing works by emerging artists–and only if they already have an name abroad. In contrast, in New York, people support artists at the early stages of their career. But if an artist becomes successful, the art world may want to take them down. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to live between Athens and New York. It seems like the right path.
JG: New York is home to many different artists from many different places. But the result tends to follow an international style, rather than one determined by the culture the artist comes from–for example, you create hybrid works; sculptures, videos, performance art, painting. Is this a good thing, or does similarity in art across cultures become a problem of an international uniformity in style?
ES: It can be difficult to determine whether this is positive or negative. You can't have it all at once. When you win in one area, you may lose in another. The abundance of artists from different locations is inspiring. There is an international style that originates here and spreads throughout the world. So if you live in a smaller city on another continent, you will be affected by it a few years later. It is up to each artist to decide whether to follow the international style or focus on something personal. Clearly, the more people share their culture, the more others become interested.
If my work contains Greek references, a Greek audience will have a different perspective than people unfamiliar with our culture. However, I do not find this a problem. Culture is a valuable tool for education and universal understanding.. But admiring another culture does not necessarily result in appropriation The concept of cultural appropriation may be broad in some cases.
Appropriation has affected politics worldwide and has helped to lead to nationalism. As a Greek artist, should I only create works about Greece? I am interested in hybrid works that involve various mediums, as well as the concepts and conversations I convey through my art.
JG: The Greek art community in New York City is small but accomplished. Do you find yourself gravitating toward other Greek artists, or do you try to work with people from all over the world?
ES: I find myself drawn toward artists whom I admire for their work, values, and shared interests, regardless of their nationality. The need to label nationalities and gender preferences of the people we work with or associate with remains a dilemma. But pushing beyond gender and nationality labels is admirable.
We now justify and disclose our backgrounds and gender identities more than ever before. But previous generations sacrificed their lives to secure human rights that remain part of our agenda. I'd prefer to be surrounded not just by artists, but also, more generally, by creative people.
JG: What themes does your work concern? Do they address issues of community in a culture that values individualization above all else? Isn't it true that your concerns are more socially driven than formalistically developed? How important is it for visual art to be socially aware today?Has social practice become too important?
ES: I work across (clashing) genres: sculpture, performance, film, painting, and costume set design and sound. Yet the site of my practice cannot be pinpointed. I “denude” my audience of “human layers,” and push other people’s limits, and my own, through vulnerability and games of authority. I use sound to “ravage” time and space.
My work is not sculptural in the conventional sense. But many of my artworks can be seen as sculptures because I create interactions between living bodies and inanimate objects.
My practice is hybrid, including space and time. My artworks are social experiments that include sound. They become the meeting point of conflicted psychological economies. I also investigate culture, migration, folklore, identity, mythology, and femininity to unearth and merge cultures. The charge is conveyed in forms important for broad consideration.
A false platform, a costume made of plates, a troop of instrumentalists in masks, an exaggeratedly large drum– these objects are living instruments and environments,even should they consist of manipulated metal, wood, bone and sinew.
It is natural for my art to address societal issues and for me to be socially aware. My work deals with a broad range of issues. I see my artworks as a platform to explore conflicts.
Has social practice become too important? This is not the case. While social practice has become more prevalent in recent years, it is up to each person to decide which themes need to be considered. But networking oriented toward social issues alone can restrict artistic expression. Artists often play social roles in order to succeed within society, and these roles can weaken the art being made.
JG: Right now, you are traveling between Athens and New York City on a fairly regular basis. Do the differences in the cultures of the two countries inspire you? How? Has the art world in Athens, much smaller than New York City, nonetheless become an important art center?
ES: I've always lived between cities. I'm exploring the micro-microcosm through my journeys. It began when I was young, living with my family in a village in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece. My parents decided to move to Athens for better educational opportunities. But my father's work was still in our village, so I spent a lot of time going back and forth between Athens and Porto Heli. Later, I moved to London for studies, which meant I was constantly traveling between two European cities. Now I find myself living on two different continents.
All of this moving around has impacted my artistic practice. I wouldn't be the person I am now if I had stayed in Greece. My interest has always been in the intersection of cultures. Our thoughts, identities, and even emotional attachments are easily distorted by the multiplication and repetition of stereotypes.
Athens has emerged as a top destination for contemporary art. It has a rich cultural history and a number of talented emerging artists. While it may not be as globally recognized as other major cities, Athens has seen a surge of interest in recent years. New galleries, museums, and cultural institutions have opened up. The city has hosted a variety of international art events and exhibitions.
This growth in Athens' art scene can be attributed, in part, to the city's unique position as a European capital that has not been fully gentrified. Following the economic and refugee crises, as well as the low rents for apartments and studio spaces, Athens has become an attractive destination for international artists. While this has brought many benefits, including greater diversity and international attention, it has also made it extremely difficult for local artists to remain in Athens or Greece.
Rising rents and low salaries are causing the city’s center to lose its authenticity. Nevertheless, Athens is still a fascinating and compelling place to explore.
JG: New York City abounds with culture–museums, galleries, concert halls, libraries, major schools. Do you make use of these resources? Is it necessary for an artist to do so? Or can fine art be achieved by intuition and skill alone?
ES: I've been incredibly fortunate since arriving in New York. My husband is an Obama Scholar at Columbia University, and we've had the privilege of staying at the school’s International House. The community there is incredibly diverse, with students, scholars, and professionals from all over the world. So I am able to engage with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives.
The International House hosts a wide range of events, seminars, and conferences throughout the year. These gatherings are frequently led by accomplished scholars, business leaders, and social innovators. I've made friends with artists, activists, leaders, musicians, programmers, engineers, and I am already collaborating with them.
Thanks to the International House, I can explore more than standard cultural offerings, which would include museums, galleries, concert halls, and libraries. I can witness emerging changemakers at the height of their productivity. I also attend smaller events known through word of mouth. These experiences have been inspirational.
Strong fine art combines intuition and skill. But it also requires critical thinking, knowledge, coincidence, devotion, and patience.
JG: Please name a couple of younger Greek artists, here or in Greece, whom you admire. Describe their work briefly, and say why they are successful.
ES: I admire my sister, Sofia Sfyri. We both studied in London. I studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths while my sister was completing her MA in Performance and Set Design Practice at Central St. Martins. After finishing her studies in film, Sofia and I collaborated on various projects during our time in London, before she left the city.
I continued my studies and pursued an MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. When I returned to Greece, Sofia and I collaborated on our first official project–a short documentary called ZABETA, which was about our grandmother. The film was later recognized internationally, screened at the 23rd Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, the Athens International Film Festival, and the Chania Film Festival. It was awarded the International Film for films under 50 minutes (Fischer 1st Prize).
I can name other young artists and art professionals I admire: Malak Alsayyad, Hadeel Salok, Ioanna Limniou, Kyveli Zoi, Dinos Bakounakis, Annie Riga. They are all passionate about their work. They have an innate drive to create and are committed to their art.
JG: Is feminism a major force in Greek art? Does feminism play a role in your work? How do you feel about the influence of ideologies on art–feminism, marxism, capitalism? Are these concepts a strength for art, or do they complicate image-making too much?
ES: Feminism is a major force in Greek art. Many artists now explore the role of gender and identity. I myself am interested in the intersections of culture, identity, and trauma. So feminism plays a big role in my work, too.
Ideologies such as feminism, marxism, and capitalism can all have a significant influence on art. The exploration of feminist themes is a strength that allows me to delve deeper into issues of identity and power. However, these concepts can complicate image-making too much. Surely, other ideologies might be equally effective.
Due to my multi-disciplinary approach to art, I have a deep interest in the ways in which the body interacts with the environment and with other bodies. It’s clear that feminism and other ideologies play an important role in the work of all female artists. I am interested in exploring the boundaries of these concepts and pushing beyond them. By incorporating performance, sculpture, sound, I am trying to create living environments that challenge the audience.
JG: New York City has become terribly expensive. How do you propose to remain in the city? Is it possible to do so anymore?
ES: I am fortunate to have an art studio in Athens, which lets me travel back and forth. So I can maintain some balance with expenses. However, it's not just New York City that's becoming increasingly expensive. The entire global economy has been impacted; the middle class has been eroded all over. I'm baffled as to how people make ends meet in New York. New York is expensive, but consider the average annual salary in Greece: 16,000 Euros. Life in Greece is not much less expensive than in New York.
JG: Please describe the other types of work you make, for example, the paintings. How do you make this art? What does it mean? What are your primary themes?
ES: I began with paintings that were more like painting constructions or installations, rather than traditional paintings. I grew tired of painting and stopped for a long time. At that time, I received harsh criticism concerning my paintings from classmates at Goldsmiths. I felt inadequate. In response, I created more installation work, as well as performance art and, later on, film.
Now, in the last two years, I found myself painting again--but with a different approach. I began creating performative characters and ended up using these paintings as “actors”in my shows. My practice has turned toward research. It now dominates my work. Painting can create a performance by simply existing in space. This is where curation comes into my practice.
Curating also interests me. In my last year at Goldsmith’s in London, I curated a group show. The event motivated me to explore curation on a wider scale. In 2018, I organized, produced and curated Saline, my own permanent contemporary public sculpture residency, in Ermioni and Porto Cheli, Greece. During one residency, I organized a workshop with the artists in residence in collaboration with the children from the special needs school of Ermionida (founded by my father in 2017).
JG: Do you feel this is a good time for art, for women especially? Are we being overwhelmed by the extraordinary numbers of artists today? Do you find today’s imagery unskilled or original?
ES: It's already challenging enough to be an artist in this world, but being a woman artist is a different story. You can see just how difficult it is by looking at the amount of money that actually goes to women artists every year in auctions. The percentage rate is shockingly small, less than 3 percent. I'm tired of hearing about supposed inclusivity in society. We need to see actual numbers of women artists, directors, and curators getting equal opportunities compared to culturally active persons of other genders.
A woman artist myself, I don't want it to swing to the other extreme and see only female artists. I want to be surrounded by artists of all genders selected for the quality of their work. Historically, everything else seems to have taken place:, so I guess the next trend will be us, women artists.
Sadly, big foundations and institutions are already using female artists as an incentive market to make more money. We are not a minority, and we don't want to be. We don't want to become just another sexy marketing tactic, as has happened to many non-binary artists who are invited to talk about feminism-without having invited actual female artists.
The worst part is seeing that my own gender is as responsible, if not more so, as other genders for the existence of sexism. As a friend, a documentarist, said to me: “It's as if the previous generations of women want us, the next generation, to suffer as much as they did because life was unfair to them”.
"Agreekulture" will be shown in Athens at Flux Laboratory between the 4-16th of May