The Matter of Viewing — Georgia Kotretsos

Introduction

Georgia Kotretsos is an Athens-based artist, researcher and self-proclaimed professional spectator whose work transcends mediums. She has a unique way of engaging the mind and senses through the often-overlooked intricate process of viewing.

Kotretsos studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a Full Merit Scholarship (2004) and at the Durban Institute of Technology, in KwaZulu Natal, (2000) in South Africa. She has also written and lectured on the topics of her research and practice. Georgia is one of those artists who recognize the site-specificity involved in the seeing of art. Experiencing artwork requires presence that is attached to the physical space, whether museum, gallery or public space, within which it is shown more than we often tend to acknowledge lately. She critiques the conformity of viewing by studying, proposing and practicing liberating and anarchic approaches of looking at art.

Her work recently crossed into the realm of public awareness practices with the project 4 Cents: On Show For 500 Years, 2018. Kotretsos was invited by Sotirios Bahtsetzis, curator of the G. & A. Mamidakis Foundation to propose a site-specific installation near Minos Beach Art Hotel in Agios Nikolaos, Crete. The work was to emphasize the crucial environmental issue of coastal and ocean pollution.

4 Cents today asks the viewer to consider what personal memory and care mean in the context of a ‘social contract’ which promotes the impersonal and ephemeral. It calls the viewer to consider the ongoing pollution that can lead to a marine “museum of the future” consisting of waste that belongs to all of us collectively. Kotretsos here triggers an exploration of our relationship with material culture alongside the place of sculpture today. ‘4 cents’ in the title refers to the so-called ‘environmental fee’ charged per plastic bag. ‘500 years’ refers to the time it takes for plastic to decompose.

Through this work, Kotretsos addresses daily environmental issues that connect with her understanding of daily rituals and material culture. For example how a shopping bag translates to carrying goods only to become accommodated in the seabed after it fulfills its temporary use. She looks at the seashore in terms of an archaeology of the future. It is this huge collection of waste that characterizes our common approach towards the future and becomes our collective testimony.

The Act of Viewing

My own first encounter with Georgia’s work was a photographic triptych exhibited at the Onassis Foundation Cultural Center in New York City a few years ago. The work was titled Being-seen-by-another-is-the-truth-of-seeing-the-other (seen below):

No. I Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Wing, Chicago, United States | No. II National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece | No. III Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece

It magnetized viewers, to say the least. It depicted people in an exhibition space, looking at a framed photo of people looking at a framed photo…and well, it was a seemingly infinite loop of a process of viewing and being viewed that you became a part of. In a way, Being-seen-by-another-is-the-truth-of-seeing-the-other extends beyond its surface and envelops the present viewer in the physical space of the Onassis gallery. It draws them into their own narrative space. The viewer, thus, becomes a non-independent part of the whole as Kotretsos links viewing an artwork to using it. The work becomes an object of use.

Being-seen-by-another was also an intriguing play between space, action, and art as a surface. Not surprising – Georgia’s work consistently embodies her beliefs and theories about in-person viewing, while she works to discover and demonstrate just how powerful art can be. The artist notes “Looking is a physical act, far from passive. The body is alert and in the art world, we cover great distances to look at what we wish. There is athletic stamina to art viewing.” Consider our mass pilgrimages to major shows and art fairs across cities and countries. Georgia alone walked many kilometers every day during in 2017 to see all the mega-events on-view that year.

Much like tracing back to one’s original thought though, Georgia here also traces back to the original act of viewing which is rendered out of sight through an endless trail of spectator/obstacles. In a way, her own work contributes to this endless act of seeing and interacting with other works within a gallery space.

Spectatorial practice

Kotretsos notes that her entrance into the art world began through the role of the spectator, and it is that role that she chooses to honor until today. Her artistic process involves observing and researching and is, as a result, quite time-consuming. This may explain the span of time many of her works cover – beginning one year and continuing many later.

To Georgia, any space where art is exhibited is a source of information that she sifts through and documents. Interestingly, this produces artwork that extends beyond a simple artistic surface. Her work is as much the visual result, as the thought and research process behind it, and the thoughts evoked, later, within the viewer. Her work never fails to be consistent with expanding ideas on viewing that she develops through her meticulous and unique process. As an artist deeply interested in peoples’ interest and reaction to art as well as in art’s socio-political power, the artwork itself resigns from the spotlight. Its effect on the viewer, their thoughts and experiences become part of it. In her own words:

“There are numerous ways in which one and the same artwork can be viewed and made present, whereas the identity of the artwork is sustained through them all. What makes up the identity of an artwork is the way in which it is experienced by all its viewers either directly or through memory or a second-hand experience like reading about it. As a result, a work needs its viewers to be completed as an artwork.”

Rothko Chapel, 2007, Houston28 x 24 cm, archival print, plexi glass, kappa mount, framed, 2011 (series); The Story of Art Retold. Images courtesy of the artist.

Approaching the Exhibition Space

For Georgia, museums, and any space where art is exhibited are playgrounds – “a microcosm that can become a metaphor for everything,” she says. Museums are Georgia’s temples. She visits them not only to see the art, but most importantly, to see others viewing the art. This is where her work begins.  Being-seen-by-another is an earlier work that demonstrates this. Through this work, you begin to contemplate the ideas of presence and absence that she seems to render as one and the same. What is a work of art without the presence of a viewer?

It is fascinating to consider later works, however, like Hollowgraphs documenting the ghostly marks remaining in empty spaces where paintings once hung in Athenian houses on the market during the peak of the economic crisis. The vacant spaces of the works once occupying the walls here become the strong evocation of Georgia’s method of confronting the viewer with the process of viewing while illustrating the role of memory in the experience of a work. And Karfi, where we see frames of artwork (?), pictures (?) hung facing the wall. The artist exposes the viewer to the nail (karfi in Greek) and in reverse, instead of the recto. While playing with the same ideas of viewing and being viewed, Kotretsos implies the effects of the economic crisis, as well as ideas of power that generate through placement that dictates the direction of the viewer’s gaze.

Hollowgraphs (ongoing series); KARFI, L’appartement22, installation (dimensions variable), Rabat, 2014. Images courtesy of the artist.

Yet, Georgia does not stop here. Her mental engulfing of the viewer into her works expands outwards into physical space through works like Guardians (2013) which slide into the realm of installation art. With Guardians, the artist exposes the viewer to an exhibition space filled solely with this installation of actual chairs of gallery attendants. She executes in a way that evokes a feeling of wandering about an abandoned space. The empty chairs, signifying their once present museum guard, render the viewer almost like a trespasser. Georgia toys with their traditional experience of walking through a museum gallery.

Guardians, 2013

Per Georgia herself:

“These are chairs of gallery attendants at museums in Europe and the US. When I enter a museum, which I consider my playground, I look at the mechanics of the institution. These chairs are not really meant to be used. They provide an alternative in case of emergency or fatigue. I am interested in the conditions that facilitate art spectatorship. I always talk to the gallery attendants – they live with the work. Their insight even when not having a creative background is often spot on. They are art-sitters… they know how it feels walking into a room to live with a work for 8 hours. That is impactful. Visitors take glances, whereas guards have the luxury to stare, get bored and daydream with it.

That is a completely different experience and it requires props such as these ghost chairs. The invisible guardians.”

Presence and Absence

Georgia’s work, one could say, is about many things, one of which is the act of appearing and disappearing. The artist finds blind spots and invents anarchist ways of seeing. Her work produces a commentary on the phenomenology ingrained in the process of viewing art, paired with an institutional critique. This is especially interesting to observe through her treatment of the architectural presence. Like in The Master of State (2016) for example, where the buildings appear to play the role of an artistic object as well as that of a person. It may be my architectural background, yet, I often look at these buildings as though they represent a person or a collective of people similarly to how iconography signals presence in the Byzantine art.

“In reference to that my works should be understood as heuristic devises that negotiate this dimension of presence and absence, of filled and empty intentions.”

Digital art may be on the rise, and even the concept of an online exhibition “space,” yet, this can never quite replace the physical experience of being in the presence of a work of art. Architectural space, the sounds, the presence of others, and countless other factors come into play to form the viewer’s final, and entirely personal experience. To say otherwise, would greatly undermine the capabilities and capacity of the human mind, intellect, and senses. In such politically turbulent times across the globe when the humanities are threatened to be pushed into the shadow of irrelevance, work like Georgia’s is ever more important and relevant.

 

 

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