The gallery space at F_AIR was recently transformed by artist in residence Kali Nikolou into a highly organized storage space for the building’s studio materials. When her show, Do It Right When Nobody Is Looking opened on July 12, 2012 at the gallery, she says many of the guests in attendance came up to her asking, “so where is the show?” Her response was, of course, “this is the show!” The Greek artist, in a relaxed interview at F_AIR later that month, admitted that her show was inspired by her adamant distaste for “shiny white plastic art galleries” and an even more tenacious desire for her work to inspire her viewers to ask questions when they enter the gallery. Our confusion about the message behind the piece plunged us into an hour-long discussion with Nikolou about questioning institutions, the role of contemporary art and of contemporary artists, how art should be taught, the validity of “artistic genius,” and many other poignant topics. However, as Nikolou would certainly be happy to know, an hour simply isn’t enough time to ponder the simple but comprehensive message behind Do It Right When Nobody Is Looking.
The following is a just a portion of a talk about Nikolou’s show and the ideas that inspired it, conducted between Arthur Kozlovski and Amy Tanzillo on July 24th, 2012.
Amy: Her entire philosophy is actually quite simple. It’s refreshing. It’s not over complicated. It’s lovely how it builds out of the simple idea of reacting to a stimulus, especially to a structure, to a culture, to an environment, and then it builds up into theories about art education, about a lot of things in society, about historical traditions, including art itself.
Arthur: And so we have this simple idea, not a simple show. And from this we build upon the idea of art education – instead of being taught technical ways to hold a pencil and draw a line, what students should be doing is questioning, “Why the hell am I using charcoal” or “Why am I constantly doing these still lives?”
Amy: They should be learning to be critical and to be aware.
Arthur: And that’s what she achieves with her show – the ability to question what’s being given to you by taking things out of their context in order to understand what they’re actually worth. The concept of questioning is so important nowadays because we have access to a ton of information, which we cannot dream to process. The only way we can retain it is if we begin to filter it through questioning, choosing what we retain as part of memory and experience, and leaving the rest. Questioning allows you to deconstruct what’s present, and then build upon it in a new manner through critical analysis… The reason why the show is successful is because it not only invites you to question, but the idea is implemented so that you MUST question to understand the work.
Amy: It’s built in. It’s not questioning for the sake of being subversive, but questioning for a higher purpose. It’s as if the whole show, the process of making that show, is teaching people a critical skill that they need – which is to question their own motives, to question, “why am I questioning?” I love that, it’s something worthwhile. She seems to have that tendency to not only create art that makes you think, but also helps you figure out how to think – Then you can apply this valuable skill, not just to the art world, but in general.
Arthur: At that point she makes a critical statement about art itself. Art with a capital A isn’t for a certain type of person, it isn’t for just the intelligent…
Amy: I don’t even think she believes in art with a capital A.
Arthur: Yes, I agree, it seems that her philosophy is that art should be for everyone because at the base of it all it’s a matter of questioning and choosing what to see and how to see it.
Amy: It’s really refreshing to go into a space like Kali’s and say, “I really don’t get this.” That’s good. Just because people like you and I are used to looking at art doesn’t mean we should be able to sit back at every art show and be like, “Oh, it’s a piece of cake.”
Arthur: Leaving her show made me realize that I have become blind to certain things because I accept conventional knowledge.
Amy: … Because you’ve become accustomed to standards, and the show didn’t fit that standard.
Arthur: Exactly, and that’s what made me question the show, the environment, the systems, etc. It’s not time to drop our traditions, but we need to question them and understand why they still exist. And this applies to everything, not just to politics and art – it applies to the individual, too.
Amy: It starts off on a small scale, you walk into a gallery and you realize the work is about more and more things, which is so clever, I think.
Arthur: Yeah, simple, but the simplicity is key.
Amy: It’s effective. Another thing I liked, thinking back on our conversation with Kali, is that she said that she doesn’t believe in “artistic genius” – the concept that the artist is a genius whose role is to dictate to everyone how to see the world. She does obviously believe in artistic choice, which is brilliant. That’s something that can be shared with other people, that is applicable to the masses. I love that she has analyzed herself in the role of an artist, and she has chosen to be someone who promotes the idea of choice.
Arthur: Right, and it totally denounces the whole idea of a hierarchy in the art realm, establishing an even playing field for those involved. It’s nice to see an artist, originally from Greece, doing a residency in Florence, create artwork that invites the viewer to question on their own accord, to interact with the art on an individualistic level – it’s not a forced opinion coming from the artist. This process can occur between the first five seconds in the gallery to however long that person remains.
Amy: And even after, hopefully.
Arthur: Yeah. I feel like everyone who walked into that gallery was able to find some sort of question to ask and to build upon, even if it’s as simple as, “where is the art?” or as complex as, “why do we have boundaries, especially in art?” Regardless, questioning establishes new boundaries in which to work.
Do It Right When No One Is Looking
Curated by Lucia Giardino
July 12 – September 14, 2012
The summer 2012 artist in residence at F_AIR hails from Greece and is a resident of the Netherlands. Kali Nikolou is currently teaching drawing at FUA while preparing for her solo exhibition scheduled for opening on July 12.
Interview conducted in May 2012
Grace Joh: Kali, tell us about yourself, how you became involved in contemporary art.
Kali Nikolou: The first years of my life were defined by the borders of my parental house in Corinth, Greece. As soon as I realized the impossibilities of this environment, art became a way to break loose from it. When I turned eighteen I decided to move to Athens and study at the School of Fine Arts where students are trained intensively in the technical aspects of painting and drawing. During this program, I also started experimenting with different contemporary media such as video. After graduating I moved to Amsterdam to continue my studies in the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute (MFA) in order to give more attention to the conceptual aspects of art. Later, I became more interested in the social aspects of producing and applying art, and I continued with a postgraduate program in what is called “social design.”
GJ: What course are you teaching at FUA, can you tell us about the experience of interacting with international students?
KN: At FUA I teach to students the traditional drawing techniques while also introducing conceptual ways of approaching art. Being in Florence poses an important challenge – it is the city which opened the first academy of drawing in Europe, a city that now has a position of responsibility for imparting contemporary approaches to creating and thinking. I very much enjoy working with international students; it definitely enriches my own experience.
GJ: What type of art media do you work and experiment with? The themes that you explore?
KN: I do not have any specific medium. Every project demands its own means. I do have a preference for subjects that are related to the existence, meaning and functioning of different ideological systems and their demands. I see myself mostly as an explorer and not as an inventor. I tend to present the already existing, which is either not easy to be seen or too normal to be noticed.
GJ: What do you envision for your residency exhibition?
KN: My intention is to make people specifically question the function of the art institution itself and the political system in general. I see FUA as a micro-cosmos of the general cultural scene of Florence. By openly presenting some of the conditions of the art institution and the city in general, I challenge participants to rethink the established, question the authorities and to take action.
GJ: How has living at F_AIR and the city of Florence influence your way or working? Can you share your impressions of your new surroundings?
KN: The fine arts studios at F_AIR remind me quite a bit of the studios at my first art school in Athens. This gives me the possibility to return to a specific environment but in a different position after having acquired a more analytical perspective. The specificity of the institution and the city that it belongs to are my main source materials. I find it crucial to react upon every current, given the surrounding environment and circumstances.
GJ: Being from Greece, how does the Italian Mediterranean culture impact/contribute to your creative approaches?
KN: Italy definitely influences me, as every place would. There are obviously similarities with the Greek culture but big differences as well. I try to avoid comparisons and to integrate to my new environment. Italy, and especially Florence, has the reputation of being the mecca of Renaissance and indeed they are. However, there are other contemporary social, political and economical issues that make this location an interesting place where a contemporary artist can intervene.