A questioning of the relationship between the work of art and its photographic depiction was the starting point of Zoe Giabouldaki’s most recent body of work, presented at Elika Gallery in Athens as an exhibition titled So where does all this sweat end up. Aware of the photographic medium’s inability to fully convey —let alone, to capture— the experience and essence of a work of art, Giabouldaki set out to create a series of works that would be impossible to photograph: “Materiality and gesture are lost in a photo,” she says, only to add that “photography is deceiving. That’s why I wanted to create works that would be as little photogenic as possible.” Her exploration into what a non-photogenic object could be led her to transparency and a whole set of experiments with transparent materials such as glass, plastic, different kinds of chemicals, and of course, water. What is interesting in Giabouldaki’s experiment is that she remains faithful to the materiality and the physicality of her work, even when she knows the whole project is doomed to fail: she set out to complete an impossible task but remained consistent throughout —arriving as a result at a certain minimalism and delicate equilibrium that is very much her own.
Like an alchemist, Giabouldaki experimented with different combinations of chemicals, but most of them failed spectacularly.
Originally a student of chemistry, Giabouldaki is fascinated by the properties of different materials and the way they behave. For So where does all this sweat end up, she decided to try and create her transparent works without buying any commercially available resins, but to make her own instead. Like an alchemist, she experimented with different combinations of chemicals, but most of them failed spectacularly. The results of her failed chemistry experiments then became part of the exhibition as solidified blobs that are either too yellow, or too foamy to qualify as transparent (A title as a guide, 2016). Other attempts to achieve invisibility also failed, like for example using rabbit-skin glue on fabric (One last digestif, 2016) and filling hand-sealed plastic containers with water (Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom, 2016). The only point where her experiments seemed to work was in One last digestif, where a cluster of mouth-blown glass baubles (made to order by a Christmas decoration factory in Thessaloniki) were put on top of a pile of transparent plastic sheets, and which were indeed pretty much impossible to photograph.
The sweat mentioned in the exhibition’s title is connected to labour, and more precisely, the invisible labour that makes Western civilisation possible: “We know very little about the materials we use everyday,” Giabouldaki told me. “For example, in the Palaeolithic era one would use a sharpened stone to cut things and would know what the tool was made of. Today we’re using our iPhones and we have no idea how they work inside, not to mention the materials used to make them or the kind of labour that went into them.” This invisible labour is in fact behind all the things that we take for granted in Western societies, from our coffee mugs to our laptops. We buy so many things daily but we never wonder where they came from or how they were made. This relationship between us and things Giabouldaki calls “critical complicity,” a state of vaguely knowing that the things we consume have an impact on people and resources somewhere else, but we choose to ignore that fact.
Giabouldaki makes her presence as a maker visible through imperfections or traces on the works and by focusing on highly tactile and manual techniques.
For Giabouldaki, invisible labour is also part of contemporary art practice, since an artist can simply email the dimensions and properties of a sculpture to her workshop, and have a new work made without her getting her hands dirty. Giabouldaki has certainly gotten her hands dirty for this exhibition, since she’s interested not only in making things herself but also leaving traces that betray how these things were made. She makes her presence as a maker visible through imperfections or traces on the works and by focusing on highly tactile and manual techniques like casting, painting and cooking up her homemade resins. She even devised a process for sealing the water-filled plastic bags (for the installation Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom) herself, a process which often led to leaks and other accidents. However, despite all the effort and thought that’s been invested in making these assemblages, the overall impression one has from the exhibition is one of, indeed, failure and decomposition. There’s nothing pristine or perfect in these works —in fact, most of them will be thrown away after the exhibition is over. The show’s largest installation, Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom, is like an exercise in futility: it is set up to look like a photographic studio with tripods for lights and cameras, but the objects on the tripods are slowly collapsing, and a transparent sheet of plastic has been deployed as a rather useless backdrop.
The invisibility of the apparatus that conveys the image is necessary for the image to have an impact.
This sense of failure is for Giabouldaki the exhibition’s success, since on the one hand, she’s not creating timeless works of art, but more like choreographing an experience in space by use of materials for the sake of their own materiality; and on the other, she makes a point that images are possible only because there are the media and devises to display them. Part of the exhibition is an Instagram snapshot printed on fabric, solidified in a crumbled shape with transparent glue and hung from a tripod (as part of Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom). This brings us back to the iPhone example above: we enjoy consuming images on our phones only insofar as the materiality of the devise isn’t getting in the way. The invisibility of the apparatus that conveys the image is necessary for the image to have an impact: screens are becoming ever more mobile, slender and light, and if possible they would be transparent themselves, in order for the image, and just the image, to exist. The same applies for other uncomfortable truths of consumerist societies of course, from Chinese sweatshops to the ever-expanding Great Pacific garbage patch.
What kind of apparatuses and systems are required in order to make labour visible?
One of the works that stand out in the exhibition is Better in image 02 (2016), where a piece of marble covered with a piece of melted plastic bag is placed inside an episcope —a device from the 1960’s that allows the image of any object that is placed inside it to be projected on any surface. As a projecting surface Giabouldaki used a piece of plastic from her workshop, which she would lay down to cover her worktable while she was gluing other objects. This heavily used surface is now the screen on which an image is being projected: the hot air circulating inside the episcope makes the thin plastic on the marble quiver, giving the impression that we’re watching a video where in fact it’s just an inanimate object sitting inside this whizzing vintage device in front of us. This combination of illusion, hard materiality and indirect yet very present reference to labour drives the theme of the exhibition home: what kind of apparatuses and systems are required in order to make labour visible, and is it ever possible that these visualisations of labour will ever become anything but a projection, an illusion that has nothing to do with the act itself?
The exhibition So where does all this sweat end up by Zoe Giabouldaki at Elika Gallery (Omirou 27, 10672, Athens) continues through October 29, 2016.
1. Zoe Giabouldaki, Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom, 2016 (detail). Installation view at Elika Gallery.
2. Zoe Giabouldaki, Double tap to ♥. Double tap to zoom, 2016. Installation view at Elika Gallery.
3. Zoe Giabouldaki, One last digestif, 2016. Installation view at Elika Gallery.
All images published with permission.