Berlin, Apr. 2014: Athens-born, Berlin-based artist Despina Stokou always has several projects going on at any given time. She believes contemporary artists should be active players in the art world and her involvement in Berlin's ever-changing, always-moving art scene goes beyond her studio practice to include writing, editing bpigs.com, and the organization of events to support young artists and curators. By all accounts, her hard work seems to be paying off. Following a flurry of successful showings last year in Berlin, New York, and Vienna, as well as a private view this year in Los Angeles, her new body of work, entitled The royal we, is now up and running at the Eigen + Art Lab here in Berlin. With a little over three days before hauling proverbial ass over to the Eigen to install for opening night, ArtSlant caught up with her putting the finishing touches on the new works in her studio in Wedding…
Despina Stokou, New Year Pie (Louisa), 2014 Oil, Spray Paint, Marker, Oil Crayon, Charcoal, Pastel Chalk, Collage on Canvas; © Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin; Courtesy the artist and Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin
Swax McIver: What was it like for you breaking into the Berlin art scene as an emerging artist?
Despina Stokou: Because I didn’t actually graduate in Berlin, I missed the University context, which is the usual way to make your first steps as an artist. I grew very interested in the rich history of producer-run galleries here, first and second generation: Koch und Kesslau, LIGA, later Diskus, Amerika. I got to meet a lot of the initiators and grilled them with questions about how, when, and HOW?? Later I felt ready to organize something of my own. I faked our way into Preview art fair with an "artist run group"—just a few friends from Athens. We didn’t have a space, so the gallery address was my home. Then I got invited to direct the program for a new artist-run space in Kreuzberg, one we named Grimmuseum. A year and a half later, nine curated shows, a mental and geographical proximity to Peres Projects and Forgotten Bar, a fascination with parties, good friends, crazy ideas, bpigs for example…and things began to make a bit more sense.
SM: The feeling I get with your work is that it’s like an ongoing conversation.
DS: What I really try to create is a dialogue, a monologue, if you will. I’m very interested in communication and the way information passes—which is also a form of communication, in a way, but also what is left over. I don’t delete any messages or emails. Papers, even. I never throw anything away. I guess at some point that I had the lucky coincidence of combining this mania of mine with words, with communication, with information…with color, which is the other big thing I enjoy.
SM: And conversations, communications, if you will, can also have a tone of color to them.
DS: Yeah, exactly. The color red for me...is not so much associated with anger but sex or something warmer. For example, with a text I’m using that is going to be transcribed on either a darker or lighter canvas, depending on the subject—this is always planned.
Despina Stokou, Hannes Gruber, 2014 Oil, Spray Paint, Marker, Oil Crayon, Charcoal, Pastel Chalk, Collage on Canvas; © Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin; Courtesy the artist and Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin
SM: The use of text is key to your work.
DS: I was having a conversation with this guy at a recent opening of mine and he was saying to me, “I don’t understand…why do you use text? Why text?” And I told him at some point that someone could look at a landscape and could say that they wanted to paint that. For me, it’s the same, but with using text. I look at the text and I want to paint it.
SM: And so how did using text within your work come about?
DS: You mean, when did I pull myself together? Haha!! It took me a while to understand, or to bring it together with the painting. I was writing and I was painting, but it never occurred to me the way that the two could go together. I think it was 2009 that I did the first collage. I was doing these quite big paintings and they were getting more and more abstract and at some point I realized that there was this text I had that needed to go with a certain painting. I was like, “Do I write it on the wall? Do I print it out on A4?” That would have been stupid. So I thought that maybe I’d just cut some letters. You never know the exact moment that it actually happens, but then I ended up making that, my first collage. People, as well as myself, actually, thought that it was nice, it was fun, and then I sold it within a month. It was a good idea, that first piece, and it kind of felt like a door had opened, the skies or the floodgates had opened for me, as it was such the right thing to do in terms of the direction that I wanted my work to go in. Since then, in many ways it has seemed a lot easier, knowing where and how I want to go.
SM: When you’re setting out on making a new piece, and you know that you have a certain text you want to use in particular, would that dictate what you would paint on the canvas beforehand?
DS: A little. For example, the Un petit navire piece I did is pretty straightforward in that what’s painted relates to the words themselves. The text is this song—a children’s song, actually—about a little ship that goes out to sea and they don’t have food anymore, so then they kill the youngest and eat him. We have it in Greece and here in Germany also; it’s a French song originally. I knew before I started that it was going to be painted in a particular way. Another one that I have for the exhibition is The Yellow Mole. I was just in Mexico for three weeks, so this was me trying to get some sort of impression of the colors that I saw there. I knew that would probably end up to be used for a recipe, one of the recipes from Frida Kahlo actually.
SM: And didn’t you use an old family recipe for one of your new pieces New Year Pie (Louisa)?
DS: Yeah, it’s another recipe, from my sister this time, and it’s the New Year’s Eve cake we do in Greece. You put a little coin in it, cut it, and whoever gets the coin has luck for the whole year. My sister tries to make it every year, and every year she fails miserably [laughs], which is actually following the tradition of our mother as she always failed too. It was a big thing that we don’t have luck in making the cake in our family. Anyway, I knew that this piece would be on a red background, because for me red has to do with food, pleasure, sex, passion, and love, of course. On the left in the blue text are the notes my sister made in Greek Cyrillic.
Despina Stokou, Un petit navire, 2014 Oil, Spray Paint, Marker, Oil Crayon, Charcoal, Pastel Chalk, Collage on Canvas; © Photo: Uwe Walter, Berlin; Courtesy the artist and Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin
SM: Have you yourself tried making the cake yet?
DS: Actually no. I think I’m going to pass [laughs].
SM: What were/are your impressions of America?
DS: What I like about it is that it’s very “out there.” I love the American-ness of it all; “We like big boobs” [laughs], and it’s very in-your-face. No guilt. In Europe, we have this kind of more reserved way, complexes and so on, but not there.
SM: What actually made you move to Berlin?
DS: I had been at University in Greece, then I stayed for four months in Berlin, went back and then came back about three months later after I graduated in 2002. What attracted me to the city was this whole open space. I mean that in the spiritual sense also, not only the city itself. It seemed to me that I could do so many things here, so many possibilities. I knew that it was always going to be a B-list city; it was never going to be an A-list city like London or New York, it’s just too fucked up. It has changed and tidied up a lot since then, and that’s a good thing as I kind of grew together with the city as it did. I felt the freedom that Berlin offered.
SM: With the ten pieces you’ve done for the current exhibition, how long did you spend working on the entire collection?
DS: I need to work quickly with anything I do. It’s hard to be exact, but I’d say I spent around three days per piece, from start to finish, as they needed to dry and so on. I came back from LA on the 3rd of March and I already had two pieces done, so between then and the 29th, the rest was finished. It needs to be like that: quick. The best thing you can give the viewer—why they’d want to buy or even just look at the piece to begin with—is this feeling of lightness, but containing complicated things. And if we’re talking about information as well it becomes very tiring to absorb all these things, taking that and filtering it through technical skills, but always with this overall feeling of lightness. Someone told me that I made it look so easy, and I think that to achieve that, it needs to be produced quickly. My favorite pieces, or at least my most successful ones, in my opinion, were pieces that were made in one go, no second take.
SM: Outside of the art, you have your fingers in so many pies with other things going on. Is it easy to separate these things?
DS: Oh yeah, that’s no problem. I think the second revolutionary thing in my world was me not having time to do it, or just me distracting myself with other things—curating or writing. It’s also super educational, like you get to see things from the other side, a different perspective, but then you take the whole thing, or at least I take the whole thing way less seriously also. It’s an inspiration for me to be doing all the other things at the same time, and of course it does get tiring, but then I need to find some other solutions, as the shows can sometimes be too many. It was a good balance for a while though [laughs]. People ask me often: "Why do you do all this?" I think the more important question would be "Why don't you?”
ArtSlant would like to thank Despina Stokou for her assistance in making this interview possible.