This interview with Litsa Spathi was done by Zora von Burden (USA) in 2004. It has been published in the book “Women of the Underground: Art”, Cultural innovators speak for themselves. Book published by Manic D Press, Inc. (December 4, 2012) ISBN-13: 978-1933149332 . The complete book can be ordered at: Go to Amazon Bookshop.
The questions & answers:
1. What was the first introduction to any type of surreal based art you can remember? One which gave you inspiration to work within this type of medium?
It must have been in Athens, 1972. The political system was a dictatorship. The art-education was based on this. They forced upon me an esthetical system which wasn’t mine. It was tragically, because already at the age of 3 I had decided to become a painter.
On one of those days I came across a bookshops in the centre. And as chance wanted, I found myself holding a book dealing with surrealistic art. I knew instantly: there it is, the art the teacher at the Gymnasium didn’t want me to paint.
One year later I emigrated to Germany and wanted to study art. Starting from spring 1974 I began to visit the museums…… There I was seeing Otto Dix and Francis Bacon.
2. What would you describe the main difference is of surrealist art as to fantastic realism?
I myself hardly see any difference. The fantastic realism is in my opinion a variation of surrealistic art. Maybe its child. But let me think. The surrealists wanted to grasp the unconsciousness. For them the real outside world wasn’t important but rather the inner reality. The world of imagination is seen as the only reality. Reality and unreality didn’t conflict in the sur-realism, but rather embraced each other.
The fantastic realism came up in the 60-ies, and precisely there, in 1966, Breton died and with his death the chapter of surrealism should actually have been closed. But there were already new artists who claim to be surrealistic painters. Of course they don’t duplicate the old art. But they too show works with a realistic – fantasy view of the world around them with cosmic and apocalyptic visions. These transreal worlds also report of the human search for the other and original life that will be created in every new generation.
3. What is fantastic and what is ‘realism’ in itself to you?
Well, for me “realism” means the presentation of objects and items in a real, life real way, without any additions or alterations. When that is done I would speak of transposing on the first level, the transportation of direct information. When it stay on this level, the picture would bore me after five seconds. In the principle: See it, absorb it, decipher it, get it, forget it. Why? I miss the vision, the utopia. “Fantastic” are the things we have to ‘discover’ and have to ‘imagine’. Only then they start to exist.
”Fantastic” as second component creates another, distorted reality. Only on this level things can change and metamorphoses can take place. That also creates the secret atmosphere that questions the reality and make the observer wonder. For example I see a statue on a painting that bleeds. Statues normally don’t bleed. However: why shouldn’t a statue bleed?
4. How many years have you been a Fluxus artist?
To be precise: 20 years. It was in 1984. The place was Frankfurt, and the location an international book fair.
5. For those who may be unfamiliar with the movement and group, how would you best give an example of it in text?
First I should explain something about the history of Fluxus. Mental Father of Fluxus was John Cage. Through everyday sounds and theatre actions he widened the borders of music. Students at his courses at the “New York School for Social Research” were artists who later would be the heart of the original Fluxus Group: George Brecht, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Allan Karpow, and others.
In 1958 John Cage came to Germany and worked as a professor for new music in Darmstadt. Then the spark went further to Eric Andersen, Henning Christianen, Nam June Paik. Only later people like Joseph Beuys, Ben Vautier, David Spoerri, Robert Filliou and Willem de Ridder came to this group.
George Maciunas founded the Fluxus as a group. That was in the year 1961, when he came to Germany. The Fluxus Movement as such has much to do with non-sense, asks provocative questions in its time, removes the borders between the different areas in art and demands an active part of the audience.
Annoying smells and sounds fit perfectly with these art events, to Fluxus, Eat Art, Happenings and the whole spectrum of this revolting and unleashed Action-Art. Beside these actions Fluxus also brought a flood of printed materials and a gigantic amount of absurd and provocative objects in the spirit of Dada. Almost always there is provocation involved, that doesn’t exclude sex, religion or even pornography.
The Aesthetics of the painted pictures one denounced. Therefore consequently one also rejected the concept of the museums. As Chef-ideologist George Maciunas said: “Fluxus can’t be found in the museums”. Yes, of course Fluxus is a anti-museum movement, one that revolts against the bourgeois culture.
The new utopia was a symbioses of Art and life. John Cage for example cooked in one of his concerts, to demonstrate that this is possible. Others included animals in their performances or it smelled like honey. Dead fish, of a dead rabbit. The first performances of the group members were Intermedia actions with always different members. They called them “Concerts” or “Festivals”, but they resulted in legendary happenings that might result in the complete destruction of the piano.
The theatre for a performance could also be a tennis court, like the “Open Score” by Robert Rauschenberg. The players used tennis rackets that were installed with microphone and sender. Every time a player hit the ball, the audience heard a loud bang, and at the same time one of the 48 lights, that were hung in the hall, went out. With the shutting down of the last light the “play” came to an end: The Farewell symphony by Joseph Hayden in a different way. After that hundreds of people went on the court, to look at what has happened. They couldn’t see anything because the court was dark, but the events taking place there were registered with light sensitive cameras and projected on large screens in the hall. So what the ‘performers’ did and couldn’t see themselves was made ‘visible’. The audience is taken out of its passive role and is given a chance to make experiences that he/she would make never before. In this project by Rauschenberg the basis is the irritation, the conflict. One is participating but doesn’t see oneself what one does. Only afterwards with the aid of technical reproductions.
6. Do you feel that with Fluxus work, you’re ever too vulnerable as an artist?
Yes, of course. Because I show which themes and conflicts touch me. Which utopias are important to me. One has to be engaged and have the guts to do this, a daring working attitude, for which one does bare the sole responsibility. That is why ones own Achilles heal becomes visible, that means one gets vulnerable.
7. What was the motivating factor in founding the Fluxus Heidelberg Center?
8. What did this process entail?
The idea came up spontaneously, at first like a thought, which I mentioned in a conversation with Ruud Janssen. A both real building and a digital Fluxus Center should be founded. I didn’t need much time to convince him. He was very enthusiast and arranged all the computer work, the design and realisation of the website www.fluxusheidelberg.org and integrating it on the Internet.
We are in the Fluxus-tradition also connected with the first generation of Fluxus artists. With several of them we have collaborated. We practice our Fluxus not s a duplication of the old form, but in an evolutional form – with the help of tools and communication forms of our times. And that is mostly digital. We wanted and still are implementing these modern tools in our Fluxus works. How that looks concrete? An example: I write the Fluxus poetry in a digital way which is published by Ruud Janssen on our website. Only afterwards they get printed on paper and are published on cards. Together with Ruud Janssen I write performances that we realize and document. Sometimes even digital performances.
For one year now I have been working on the “Calendar Performance” A special performance for which we use both the traditional and the modern Fluxus tools. Every month I collect the most important events for the Center, made from that a large drawing and integrate in text the events and/or connected names. Persons that contacted me in Germany. After finishing the original I sent it to Ruud Janssen in the Netherlands. He scans the drawing and publishes it on the website. Makes the connections to the online world. He also makes DIN A3 sized copies of that specific calendar-month drawing and sends them back to me. Only then comes the final everymonth part of the performance: Every person or institute mentioned on this calendarpaper gets a signed copy.
9. Are you satisfied with the Center and its progress?
Oh yes, very. The Center certainly brings a lot of work, but also a great deal of satisfaction. Many visitors come, we have interesting discussions and also requests for realizing contacts. At the moment the Fluxus Heidelberg Center has become an important contact place. And that in such a short time.
10. Why do you think this type of art, be it dada, surrealist, or Fluxus has mainly been a European phenomenon?
The French Revolution in 1789 goes into the books as the revolt of the farmers. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite). The artists needed yet another 127 years longer to start their revolt, when in 1916 with Dada they started.
The art should not be owned by the upper-class or ordered products by the society and should not exists an absolute aesthetical way. All can be art. And….. nothing can be more art or less art than something else. But all this should be seen in a historical perspective. What Picasso once started with his collage, is taken consequently further by Duchamp with his bottle holder (Egouttoir of Hérisson – Ready Made). It finds its final and most extreme form in Dada. The artists emancipated and as said, in 1916, revolted against the bourgeois society, against their rulers, against the political system, which all at the same time here in Europe failed, and caused the start of the first World War.
A war that was unknown here in Europe in these dimensions. Where people were sent to the front as food for the canons. Also the Dadaists. The social and historic conventions lead to a catastrophe, according the Dadaists, and that is precisely why they rejected all these conventions, that is all civil and idealistic art forms, including the expressionism.
Dada stand for absolute senselessness, for anarchy. Breton later developed the Dadaism further into Surrealism, and Fluxus also has its roots in Dada.
11. Your work has been displayed in many archives and museums, do you have any particular works shown that you are most proud of?
To be honest I never thought about that, and now nothing comes up of which I am most proud. I am proud of all. All the works have been necessary for me. They reflect my reactions to the world I live in. they show my thoughts, my life, my fears and visions. They belong to me like…… like for example the fingers on my hand. All works are different and yet all are essential and valuable for me.
12. How do you react if your work is misunderstood? Is that a concern for you?
The first time I was irritated and unhappy. I saw the misinterpretation as a rejection of me and my work. Today I see it as a compliment, because I know it has more to do with the observer himself as with me.
When I first showed my art here in Heidelberg, people already knew me as an artists and an educator but they never had seen my work. This new side of me they didn’t know., and what they saw made them afraid. The distance grew even during the opening of the exhibition. It took some time before we could communicate in a normal way again.
Another example is when I wanted to start a dialogue with artists. Again here in Heidelberg, to be precise with their “Forum für Kunst”, an artist group run by artists themselves. Ideal I thought, but first I had to go through the formal way of applying, handing over some samples of ones work and formally apply to become a member.
Without telling me the reasons my application was rejected. The colleagues had voted against me. That hurt. Their rejection however protected me from their provincial mentality.
13. You have written many books as well. Can you talk about those briefly?
Some books have my poetry in them. Others are Artists Books with my own work which I published myself. There is also a large series of Artists Books, or books with visual poetry, that have been made in collaboration with other Fluxus Artists.
Besides that I work together on a regular basis with the in Berlin living and working publisher Hendrik Liersch. I illustrate texts by other writers which results in publications issued by his “Corvinus Presse Friedrichshagen”. These publications are mostly bibliophilic treasures, printed by hand in a limited and signed edition and contain original linocut prints or other graphics. Precisely in the tradition of Gutenberg.
14. What would you say is the most important expression a Fluxus artist can produce?
Chaos…… After that a new order can start.
15. You’ve also done many elaborate performance art. Will you talk about some of the small and large scale work you’ve done?
There are performances of different nature. They sometimes come up spontaneously, by coincidence, as a result of a specific situation. Sometimes also as a reaction to a social or political event. And it also could happen the performance is just done for pure enjoyment. But there are also those performances that are planned long ahead, prepared in full details, rehearsals so we have learned the smallest details.
A sample of the last sort. Some years ago, at the University in Heidelberg, the medical director of the psychosomatic clinic celebrated his 49th birthday. The party would take place in one of the official rooms at the clinic. Guest would be members of the staff, colleagues of the director, medical specialist, crème de la crème on the subject of Psychoanalyse from Heidelberg and far away.
”7 times 7”, I called this performance. For the actions I had prepared a special Artist book, each page printed on a hand-press by myself. The content: 49 perforated coupons for very special hot themes. Seven coupons were for one kiss. Furthermore seven coupons for one quicky, bread, coffee, longy , bath and change. Every coupon-title brought the thoughts of the audience into a specific direction, causing for a part wild expectations, which weren’t confirmed with the words I spoke. My storyline was always in another direction, an unexpected one, and brought the themes in a different light. With this also the emotions of the public had to follow this line and went from excitement to disillusion. After ending the performance with handing over the Artist book to the director, the audience came to rest and the specialist praised me that I achieved with the aid of art that they all felt on the sofa of a Psychoanalyst.
A spontaneous performance was done after I heard on the news that Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as next governor of the state California. I used my earrings as contact lenses. They transformed me into a woman with bionic eyes and before the mirror in the bathroom I performed “Terminator IV”, made winner signs. Doing this I asked Ruud Janssen to document this event with a digital camera. The complete performance was published on the Internet and brought lots of visitors and comments. Comments like: “Is the new governor as convincing like you are as Terminator IV?”.
Of course I can go on about my performances, but maybe too much for this interview…..
16. Do you prefer working solo or in collaboration? What was your most memorable collaborative work and with whom so far?
Normally I like to work alone, like most artists. Reasons are: First of all one is responsible for the work oneself, the creation process and the result. One can control every step in realisation and modification as one likes. Secondly the copyright-issue isn’t a problem. It solely lies by one person.
Some examples of my most memorable collaborative works:
The Blue Book. For that I invited Robin Crozier from England to work with me on two books that went back and forth by mail (December 1995 till July 1996). In them visual poetry was created by me, on which Robin should interact. The final result was a set of two object books of which also a printed edition of 200 copies was published by Nobody Press Heidelberg. This publication later on is also mentioned in the “Anthology on Visual Poetry”, published in 1998 by Dmitry Bulatov, Koenigsberg. It is also an example of how the copyright-issue can go wrong. There it is mentioned as Robin’s Publication with copyright by Nobody Press England.
The Say Cheese Performance is another collaborative work I did for the Fluxus Heidelberg Center. The idea was to ask tourists to take photos of Ruud Janssen and me in front of the Old Castle in Heidelberg, taken from the “Old Bridge”. Instead of photographing the old stones they were asked to add on their pictures living persons that work inside Heidelberg right now. The press was informed and the “Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung” in Heidelberg brought a large article about the event. The resulting photos were exhibited in Heidelberg. The performance is memorable because it confirmed the idea that tourists are only interested in dead stones of a city and not in the living persons within that city.
A third Performance is memorable because of it complexity: three persons from three countries, and a time-frame where one communicates between two years. Fluxus artist Ken Friedman from Norway does this performance every year, and at the end of 2003 Fluxus Heidelberg was invited to take part.
17. How exactly does one go about the process of melding oneself with the viewer?
Very complex but mostly it is a natural process that one has in ones mind when creating the idea of a performance.
When I think of a specific performance I mostly already know what kind of audience here is and I will keep that in mind while conceiving the performance. It is like preparing for an exam. The theme, my knowledge, the audience, and that all mixed with a bit of psychology.
18. What would you say the focal point of a large portion of your work has been in the last decade? What was it when you had first started out as a Fluxus artist?
When one starts with the first steps in art one is under the influence of the artists that one admires and has seen. That happens to all and one has to free oneself from that and search for own ways of expression. So the focal point for me was also to find a way to express my thoughts, my feelings and my emotions in a form that fits me.
The ways that I have chosen brought me to Fluxus, a platform that gives me the broadest basis for combining several things that normally don’t go together or aren’t brought together.
19. Of all the mediums you’ve worked with, and you’ve worked with many extensively, which would be your preferred?
It isn’t drawing. Drawing is just like a disease for me, I constantly feel the need to draw. The medium I would prefer is most likely the painting and the object book. Funny enough one of my latest works was a combination of both. The British Council in London invited me to send in a work for an exhibition to be held in February 2005. The envelope for the object book I designed for them was an original painting on canvas.
20. Do you feel it’s necessary to be educated in some degree of art to be a Fluxus artist? Or would that completely undermine the point?
What one needs is a the ability to see things, recognize things, analyse things and to play with them. For that one doesn’t need some degree of art, rather a degree of creation. There isn’t a college for that yet.
21. Do you have a moment in your career with which you had felt you reached the apex of your work? Or expressive possibilities?
No, not really. I am still too young to see things I have done as the apex of my work. Too many plans for the future still.
22. What would you say is the single most important expression an artist can relay to another?
The first word that comes up in my mind is credibility. An artist I admire a lot is Vincent van Gogh. The paintings he made in his last years are so bright, emotional, and ingeniously made. His whole life he worked to reach this, even if he had only so little time. He always searched further to capture the essence of his search. An idealistic search for beauty and truth in relation to man and nature. Because of the intensity of this search the works of van Gogh show credibility.
Thinking of that another expression an artist can relay is consequence.
23. Of all the work you’ve seen throughout your illustrious career or life’s work, what type of medium do you feel is something that should be explored more, or has yet to be discovered?
Often I have heard that all has been done in art. Throw away all you tools, brushes, paint, etc. That would be the natural consequence. It is subjective to think that all has been already done. The new times and new mediums will emerge and artists will discover them and start to use them. Sometimes as new mediums, sometimes in combination with the old. We have seen the birth of video, digital media, and lots of artists have now their own website.
What I think is interesting is the exploration of the digital media and how they affect our lives. The new digital media alone don’t give the sensual satisfaction that we look for in traditional art.
24. What are your plans with the Fluxus Center in the future?
Lots of things already have been started and the plans are to work on realizing these things. The Calendar performance for 2004 will soon be ended and the final publications for this large undertaking will be published. New performances were created and are being planned. New Fluxus poetry is realized and will go online. Just the everyday routine.
But the greater plans are also there. Building plans have been discussed and the builders have started with the building of a new place for the Fluxus Heidelberg Center and that includes my new atelier. So one of the future performances will be a move to another building, another city, another country. That is the real Fluxus life
25. As a Professor, what types of classes are you teaching? What are some of the focuses in these classes you teach?
I teach two subjects: languages and art. The students are always adults. Some classes want to learn a new language. The other classes want to learn to paint on large scales with acrylics on canvas. In these last classes I try to show students how to find ones own way in painting. Create instead of copying the art that is already there.
26. Do you feel an artist should try and embrace all types of mediums whether they’re considered successful in all areas or not?
For god’s sake no. Imagine you would enter a store with clothes and you would buy all clothes that are modern for all generations in all colours. If you would wear then and go out of the store, how would you then look like?
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