In Conversation With Kiriakos Tompolidis | Episode 24

June 1, 2023
© Kiriakos Tompolidis' Studio. Image: Kiriakos Tompolidis, 2023.
© Kiriakos Tompolidis' Studio. Image: Kiriakos Tompolidis, 2023.
Hey Kiriakos! You have studied Art and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Then you decided to move to Berlin – was it a natural and obvious next step for you? Have you always known that you would like to live in the capital one day or was it rather an emotional spontaneous decision?
It was a kind of mix. At first, I studied Art from the teaching perspective. To become a teacher in Germany, one needs to study two subjects, so I took Art and History. I studied teaching in Essen, but  I wasn’t satisfied, because I wanted to study free art. I was very afraid at that time and too anxious maybe – I didn’t have connections to galleries and didn’t know, how the art market works, I was just painting. 
Was it more practical or theoretical art studies?
Both! Normally you have three subjects – Art History, Psychology, to understand, how to treat children, and Art Science. Besides you also have practical studies. However, these classes were very formal – people met in the room and painted something under the guidance of the professor. I have been studying three years and was about to finish my Bachelor, to become a teacher, and I was thinking: “Ok, then I would go to school, and that is all, I am done”. Suddenly I thought that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. However,  I didn’t quit my education and finished my teaching studies later in Berlin. The problem was, I still wanted to study free art, but in Essen the only opportunity was this teaching career, theoretical art studies, and that's all. On the contrary, here, in Berlin, you work with free artists together, and you can always switch from theoretical to practical studies. I have three good friends, and it is quite typical – either you want to become a teacher or you want to study free art, but you are too anxious. And there is another thing – my mom was working at the university in Essen. Others would say that it was perfect for me, but I wanted to take care of myself.  I wanted to challenge myself. 
As for Berlin, living in Germany as an artist, you can either move to Cologne (some even call it „more Berlin") or you can go to Berlin. I was very interested in fashion back in time, so I thought that in Berlin I could find that kind of lifestyle, that attracts me. At the same time, I could study art together with teaching there. I even applied for an internship in Berlin and was teaching three months at school, and it was a disaster. It was not for me at all. Then I started with my portfolio and finally decided to move here. So, what brought me to Berlin, is lifestyle, and the opportunity to study and practice free art.
And of course this creative surrounding that you now have in Berlin?..
You know, we have talked a lot about it. I would never say, Berlin has helped me with my inspiration, because I am dealing more with Greek context and investigate Greek legacy. But at the same time, everyone is much more ambitious here than in Essen. When I see somebody painting a work and I like the colours, for instance, who the artist is using like green and pink, that is the kind of influence I have in Berlin! But this influence is not on the surface, it is rather something subconscious, that you do not even realize.
Getting closer to your art practice, where do you find protagonists of your works? Are they always inspired by people you know, somebody from your family/friends’ circle or could be also complete strangers for you?
The all are family-based. Back in time I was creating only self-portraits. Even my teacher made jokes about me, like, „Oh, the Beauty one, do I have to look in the mirror again?“. And then I understood that I didn’t want to be the one, who was only painting himself. I started to think, how I could show myself without my face. Why I started painting my family, is because of the Greek guest workers, who came to West Germany after the war. And though in my works I only use my family as protagonists, they stand for a lot of people, especially those immigrants coming from the South – Italy, Spain, Greece, Arabic countries and Turkey. There are problems, my family dealt with, that are the same for everybody, like money issues, or a shortage of living space. It is mostly about my family, when you see my mother, it is my mother, but she stands for any woman who came to the country. Sometimes it is a little difficult, because when I see an interesting charismatic person and think, if I could paint him, make him a protagonist, I immediately realize that I do not know him, so it doesn’t make sense. You need somebody who you are related to.
Sometimes you turn to the collage technique, incorporating photos, or images into your canvases. How did you come up with this technique? Have you been influenced by Dadaists and their experiments with collage and photomontage?
I started five or four years ago, and I only painted on paper. I used a lot of collage, painted everything, except for hands and face. Then I was sketching these faces, a little bit in Egon Schiele manner. So, I painted everything, then sketched the face, cut it out and glued it on the canvas. Thus, the face is standing out from the canvas, like a 3D element. I have done this for a lot of time, but the problem was, that my works were too temporary. After some time, I could see these small bubbles on the paper. And I wasthinking: “It is not an abstract collage, that can be kind of messy. If the transformation of the work continues in five years, it won’t look like it was originally planned". So, I was considering how I can make the work last longer. Other problem was with rolling – you really cannot roll a collage like this. So, I started thinking, how could I have the same effect without gluing the paper on canvas. How can I place something on the canvas, but still have this „stand out“ effect. Then I realized - I can print it! Moreover, I can print these faces thick, so that the image is standing out. Then I used stamps with the images of flowers, instead of really painting them. These are easy things, and now everybody got it, but two years ago it was like „Oh my God, how did you make it?“. And it happens because of this academic approach, you just don’t consider easy things. I always tell my friends, don’t focus at Rembrandt or Maastricht school too much – they all paint in anacademic manner, just use your natural painting technic.
So, I was experimenting, and at some point, I also thought, maybe I could use tapestry? But it cannot be just any tapestry, it needs to be very family-based. Everything started when my grandmother said that she needed to move out from her German flat. And you should imagine, in every room there was this cheesy tapestry from the 1970s, but eachof them had a different mood. One was black, the other – green. So, I went to these empty rooms and photographed tapestries. In the end I had hundreds of photos that I used for works.

© Kiriakos Tompolidis' Studio. Image: Kiriakos Tompolidis, 2023. 

That’s amazing, because that is exactly what I wanted to ask – where do you find the motives for the tapestry. And it turned out to be real tapestry, that you have once photographed!
Exactly. Sometimes I always use these „grandma dishes things“, these. lace dollies. I am using elements that my grandma once used. It is like I am creating rooms that are real, but also mixing them with other rooms. It is not like I am imagining rooms for 100%, but I am using elements that I have once seen in the real rooms.
You also mix times and époques, because now you are referring to the times of your grandmother’s youth, mixing them with today. All these different time levels meet each other, kind of collide within one art work.
Correct. Most of these memories come from my childhood. Some of these things I never saw in real life. It is like me, but in the 1960s/1970s. It is like the psychological trauma that is moving from one family member to the other. Me could also be my grandpa, because we suffered from the same issues, or my mother, because she gave me all her pain and happiness. It is just my body that is new and young, but what is inside the body – all these feelings, emotions – they could belong to my mother as well.
It reminds me of a reincarnation concept, when you suddenly find yourself in other body that belongs to a person who lived many years ago.
It is like when you have family issues, and everyone is a different unique person, but you shouldn’t consider this person as an individual, because every person depends on his family. So, the person stands for the entire family, not only for himself.
We have spoken about memory and immigration and we have discussed this emotional link to your family’s past. Are there any further topics that you refer to in your art practice? What other key topics do you address and investigate within your art? To what extent do the current political and historical narratives influence your work?
The mythology is definitely one of them. The ancient Greeks used to paint their stories on the vases – Greek amphoras. Besides I am using statues and figures, und put them into immigrants’ stories. For example, for the work Self-portrait with a vase (2023) I used Dionysus, the ancient God of sex, wine, parties, celebrations, associated with people losing themselves, who cannot control themselves, falling into sins. I use mythology, these old meaning and interpretations and put them into new contemporary contests. I use ancient gods to speak about the problems of today. I once developed a show for the USA and I painted a lot of statues, including Aphrodite, but I painted her as my grandma. I use a lot of references to ancient Greece, but connecting them to the present, creating links between them and my family and other immigrant families. Sometimes it is even myself – like my head on the chair – of course it is not my real head cut out. Sometimes I use statues as they are, and sometimes I put my head, it depends. My works are often ironic, they are criticizing the society, but in the very end it’s more about the society rather than politics. However, nowadays I am getting a little bit more political. I have one work, where there is a newspaper on the table with the title of the article - „Worker wasn’t that cheap, as now“, meaning the immigrant topic, that Germany used to invite immigrant workers, paying them 3 DM or even less, trying to get their labour force at low costs. So, my art is becoming more political, bu I still predominantly use old symbols based on history, cultural context and Greek traditions.
 © Kiriakos Tompolidis, Self-portrait with vase, 2023,  100 x 70 cm. Image: Dominique Suberville. 
In your paintings there are some recurring motifs and objects that you depict again and again, e.g., Greek amphora or nazar – this eye-shaped amulet believed to protect against the evil eye, or even a severed head. Do you also have it? Could you comment on it please?
Everyone in our family have it, and I also have one, hanging on the fridge. It is not that we believe in it so much, but at some point, we all started to have it.
Are there any artists you particularly admire or that have influenced you, either directly or indirectly?
It may sound a little cheesy, but it is Egon Schiele, because everything started from him. When I was 16, I was painting a lot like him. Then I moved away from him, but I still have some references to him, e.g. these red marks on nose. Then Francis Bacon, when it comes to big empty rooms. When you have a big room, you can actually fill it with hundreds of objects. But then I thought that every object has meaning and if you put ten objects inside, it would be too much, because everything has meaning. So, I thought of Francis Bacon, because he used two-three objects - a chair, or a lamp, and everything has meaning. So, my rooms are based on the Francis Bacon’s works. 
Do you remember your first encounter with Schiele?
Back in time I was very much into fashion, and there was one designer who published his sketches on Instagram. These sketches were based on Egon Schiele. And I thought, why do they look so ugly? Every work, every person on the canvas looked thick. How could you sell fashion, if your models look like if they were going to die or kill you? And then I read that the works have been inspired by Schiele. And that is how it all started. Schiele is perfect to start sketching. Not all his works, but especially the ones from 1907 to 1910. They have some emptiness, and you can learn how to paint, just using a couple of lines and a bit of gouache. Why Schiele really helped me, because when I started to paint human bodies, I understood that they didn’t need to be so realistic, because Schiele has a lot of mistakes as well, like body deformation, but in a good way. He intentionally presents the body not in a beautiful, but in a rather painful way. Though it might sound a bit dramatic now, but I felt a kind of sadness, because I wasn’t a happy teenager. I always thought I am too skinny, I was very critical to myself, always thinking that I could do better. And the works of Schiele look at you in such a skinny ugly way. And I thought: “That is me!” I felt a kind of personal connection to these works and to this approach, that you do not no need to paint something to 100%. There were some works consisting of just a pair of red and blue  lines , and that was it. It is where less is more. It is quiet and loud at the same time. Then I mixed it with social media. And Egon Schiele is exactly the artist who came back with social media, because a lot of people like this aesthetic too. And I could combine these things - I can talk about problems with my body, caused by social media, through his works. I could articulate these body issues, but from a different angle.
This year you were invited to participate at The La Brea Studio Artist Residency program in Los Angeles. How has this experience influenced your art practice?
Interesting question! It has both pros and cons. It was my first residency that far away. LA is very dusty, and it has also influenced my art in a way, because there was dust on the works. Once, for example, I painted a black pen and next morning it wasn’t black anymore. I could remove this dust, but at the same time, as the paint hasn’t dried yet, this dust was in the painting. Then, because it was my first art residency, I came there with nothing, just six oil sticks, so during the first week, it was more about: „God, where can I get my stuff“. I was organizing the working space and it was tough in the beginning. Then I needed glue print and I needed to wait one week to deliver it. It wasn’t really easy when it comes to material, but of course working there was very nice.
Though I do not live far away from studio in Berlin, it is still not in my flat, but in LA I literally slept with the works. I waked up and could just start painting. Now, after this residency experience, I think I need to work on my daily structure, because sometimes, when I wake up, there are pictures in my mind, so I cannot eat and go directly to the studio to paint. And it is not healthy. For example, I wake up at 9 am and cannot eat, because I am very impulsive, and I need to go to the studio right now. I paint a couple of hours and then I am literally dying, because I haven’t eaten anything, and it is 1-2 pm already. In LA, I woke up and as I was already in the studio, I could immediately paint from 9 to 10 am, so I felt productive, my stress level was going down, and I could have breakfast. Somehow I have to figure it out and practice the same here, in Berlin.
And when it comes to private life, you need to discover yourself. There are artists from different cities and when you make breaks or in the afternoon you meet new people, but at the same time you meet your „new self“. So, it kind of opened the door for me, therefore I would love to do residencies once a year or every second year. It is great to be with new people to escape from your daily routine. Speaking about how residency influenced my art practice, e.g., the colours that I used there, were much brighter. I wasn’t scared to try new things, I was experimenting a lot. In Germany I am a bit stuck into my visions, but LA has provided me an opportunity for further development. I feel myself like a young artist, open to any new experiments.
Could you please tell us, what you are currently working on and give a quick glance into the future. Do you have any extraordinary idea in your mind, not necessarily related to art, that you would like to bring into life one day?
I would like to work more with wood as material, the one that has been used for wooden Greek Orthodox altars. Besides I am thinking over some ideas for installations and performances, where I could address social and political issues. And I am currently planning a couple of new shows, one of them is going to take place in Mexico.

© Kiriakos Tompolidis. Image: Stefan Simchowitz


Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova