»It was a good day and I was about to do something important and good, but then I unscrewed the pen I was using to see the ink. Precision German craftsmanship.«Matthew Rohrer
These are the first lines of the poem Precision German Craftsmanship by American poet Matthew Rohrer that inspired Greek artist Kostis Velonis for his current show at Akademie Schloss Solitude. But, contrary to an obsession with the perfection in craftsmanship, the objects shown in his exhibition make a statement in favor of inoperativity and a certain unskilled-ness as an argument against a Western world of idealized systems and standardization, that also has effects in the social sphere. – A talk about the stressful management of perfectionism, the complex German-Greek relation, and the upcoming Documenta
Clara Herrmann: The title of your upcoming show was borrowed from a poem by American poet Matthew Rohrer, in which he describes his ideas of German craftsmanship. What role does poetry play in your artistic work?
Kostis Velonis: The poetry is almost a way of cultivating a sense of self. If our daily correspondence to life no longer astonishes us, it is because habit has made it banal – that is why poetry is important. If I seem insistent with the titles of my works, it is rather a symptom of someone that was very unsuccessful and untalented in poetry when he was a young person.
CH: What sparked your interest in this particular poem?
KS: I was particularly attracted to the title of Matthew Rohrers poem even more than the poem itself, which of course I enjoyed as it reaffirms a certain experience of neurosis within persnickety activities.
CH: Where does your interest in »German Craftsmanship« come from?
KS: Regarding my relationship to craftsmanship I would say that one of the main imaginations of fine arts students has always been to become great practitioners of their medium, to obtain miraculous technical skills, and to be appreciated for that. Discussing with colleague technicians during those years showed how this kind of fantasy has a double missing effect – as they would also love to become artists. My explanation is that there is a level of expectation between the two sides that unconsciously boosts the production of stuff. So I have to reaffirm a kind of a wannabe identity of why I cannot become a good technician – which is really just another step to reward my narcissism with my artistic persona.
Another influence is based on the concept of clinamen – swerve – as originally analyzed by Lucretius, the Roman descendant of Epicurus, in his philosophical poem – De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Lucretius examines the issue of the swerve of atoms. He considers that without this slight deviation of atoms from the usual movement, »all would fall downward through the unfathomable void like drops of rain«, and no contact would be possible, no collision among the original elements, and thus nature would never create anything at all. This show could be a study on the formal features of swerve through a conscious sculptural production. I use the term swerve in the meaning of an exception from the repetition of the same movement, that leads to perfection, standardization. With my sculptures I try to show a certain unskilled-ness in order to argue against the world of idealized systems.
CH: Contrary to an obsession with the perfection in workmanship, the purpose of function, organization, quality, the objects in your exhibition show a kind of weakness or inoperativity – what statement are you making through this and how is it mirrored in the objects?
KV: It is perceived in the manner that I trace some patterns on the surfaces on raw surfaces, remnants from the carpentry of wood shop or unidentified objects that I found in the attic. Trying to imitate the guttae line – a cone shape design aligned under each triglyph of the doric frieze in Greek architecture – in an unskilled manner, I repeat symmetry in a asymmetrical way – the result is unexpectedly worse, a kind of decorative disaster that i really enjoy.
»Empirical functions – such as the effect of disturbance, a sudden collapse, a violent breakup, or even the paradoxical condition of romance – help us to understand how we should naturally accept a kind of social deviation.«Kostis Velonis
It is captivating to perceive this deviant freedom in terms of the theory and practice of design. Empirical functions – such as the effect of disturbance, a sudden collapse, a violent breakup, or even the paradoxical condition of romance – help us to understand how we should naturally accept a kind of social deviation. Practically speaking, this means unrest and social disobedience, and to be more skeptical about the stressful management of perfectionism in the social sphere and behavior.
CH: Where do you draw a line between arts and craft in general and in your work itself?
KV: If your work deals with objects, models, and found stuff, you are always aware of the endless repetition of mass production. So you have to invent a new way to draw the line – this time not between arts and crafts, but rather – between things that are consumed with passivity and things that can provide meaning different from the way they have been industrially ordered. The clumsy part of my work that can be seen in the show can be understood as the unconscious part of a repressed modernity, that brings in question the dominant capitalistic environment and for some reasons today it seems to be more relevant than ever.
CH: The notion »Made in Germany« on products has for quite some time been a seal of quality. Do you see and experience the eagerness to produce something of high quality or to organize stuff as something that is built into the German psyche? What were your observations?
KV: I think the »made in Germany« concept helps me to understand my east-south identity, and to work through things and ideas that I would like to negotiate such as Western certainties about the homogenization of production, and the issue of mastery and skillfulness for which reasons. »German psyche«, however, is another thing –, totally much more complex and fascinating.
CH: You are fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude within a cooperation with Kunsthalle Athena run by Marina Fokidis, who was a Solitude fellow in 2014. Her magazine South as a State of Mind, which is now the official magazine of Documenta, also deals with the Southern identity or concept of the South and its stereotypes such as easy living, chaos, corruption with the aim to renegotiate it. Now the Documenta has the subtitle »Learning from Athens«. In your opinion, what can we learn?
KV: We seek to be associated with Europeans because we fear that we will be categorized as Orientals. But, the reality is that Greece’s location reflects the crossing point of West and East. So it cannot be connected and compared along the same criteria as other European countries that made important contributions to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, industrial revolution, etc.
Unfortunately, the success of Germany evokes a collective death anxiety in us – how can we manage that well as a nation? But most of the time we forget that the relationship between Germans and Greeks cannot be a »frere ennemi« condition, as it has a very deep common ground. The Bavarian state, for example, contributed to Greece’s geographic reality, with the ambition of an hegemonic power that sees itself as a continuation of the Golden age of Athens. Germans were, at least in their own imagination, if not the successors then the middlemen from the ancient Greek regime to the modern state of Greece.
From the days of Winkelmann until now – in the Documenta events curated by Paul Preciado and Adam Szymczyk, as well as in Wolfgang Schäuble’s policy – Greece remains a paradigm from the ideal notion of the glorious past to a contemporary state that functions as a scapegoat to the rest of Europe. »Learning from Athens« is, for this German-Polish team, a way to cope with this rough reality of a modernity in a condition of emergency. Apart from this, I cannot imagine that an ordinary Greek citizen has something to learn from Documenta’s activities. Also part of the local milieu of the art scene in Athens, with narrow mindedness, see themselves in a conflict with Documenta for a variety of reasons. And one could assume maybe that the title could be understood in its literal sense. Documenta is an affair for German curators and the international art milieu of professionals, reenforcing the exotic image of a city in crisis.