Originally from Athens, Eleni Zervou now resides and works in London.
Recently, I visited her studio at the Art in Perpetuity Trust (APT), where we discussed her upcoming show and ongoing work. Eleni's ideas and intentions were of interest to me, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak with her about them.
How has your practice evolved during the years?
My practice has always been multidisciplinary, materials and techniques shift according to the “story” I am trying to tell and the resources I have in hand. When I started my BA in the Athens School of Fine Art my practice took the form of installations, sculpture and performance and in many ways I still consider creating immersive environments to be my main practice. However, coming to London and following the lockdowns, in the past couple of years I have been exploring airbrushing, screenprinting and working with video. Partly because as mediums that require less physical space and material resources, they allow me to practice from anywhere.
How do you work?
Following a research-based process, I tell stories via a world-making practice. I combine figurative sculpture(e.g. ceramics, plaster, bread and paper clay) and drawing(airbrushing and ink) with moving-image and everyday objects(e.g. sand, flashlights, furniture) to construct conditioned, set-like installations.
I try to create no matter where I am, whether I have access to a studio or not, but in one way or another my work always responds to the spaces I inhabit. At the moment I have access to a sort of white cube studio space with no windows which pushes me to be more introspective. Ever since I moved to the UK, I feel that I have been living in between two realities that do not always speak to one another. So even though I am in London, conceptually I might be locating my work in my mother’s birthplace in Crete or in Athens and bringing images and objects from there into my studio. I enjoy working on a large scale; I paint in big canvases and make big prints, combine my drawings in expandable wall mounted compositions or I create spaces where objects gain walkable distance from each other. The role of space in my work often is that of a stage; the objects within my installations function as props and visitors perform a score that is shaped by their emotional response to my scenography.
How would you describe your Αrt?
My practice is a play/battle-ground where I attempt to de-construct and unlearn hegemonic narratives of my upbringing as a white, middle-class woman born within a heteronormative, nuclear family (in Greece). I think about the ways in which gender identities and socially imposed roles, class and racial disparities have shaped my experience and how I navigate the world; how my journeys of seeking empowerment and taking accountability can happen simultaneously. Ultimately, my motivation comes from the need to materialize uncomfortable realizations (a device of horror) and (re)create hybrid worlds and myself in an act of resistance/insolence. If I could summarize it all in a sentence, that would be BITE-THE-HAND THAT-FEEDS-YOU.
How do you see your art evolving in the future?
I see myself making more collaborative works and expanding into a combination of live performance and scenography to create immersive environments. Even more importantly though, I aim to lead a sustainable practice that can support me financially and gives me space to grow in multiple ways including socially and emotionally without breaking my body in the process.
What inspires you?
I mainly draw inspiration from my everyday experience, my relationship and past with my family and loved ones as well as films, comics and TV.
How do you locate yourself within the western cultural and social context? In what ways does it affect the way you create?
Everything I make and do is directly informed by the sociopolitical circumstances I navigate; I don’t separate social, political and artistic life. At the moment I am based in London and the decision to relocate my practice here has been a strategic one; I came to the UK to further my career and be financially stable. However, as a migrant and as an artist I refuse to revolve solely around the matrix that is the western world, but to locate myself and my practice within a broader context.
Growing up in Greece, meant being constantly confronted with the dissonance between popular projections of heirloom to the “glorious” Greco-Roman ancient past -that functioned as a conceptual base for the west and white supremacy- and the culturally divergent modern Greek reality, financial doom and multiple conflicting imaginaries. To make a long story short, I resent what the west represents in the world and its colonial baggage, and that’s why I find it hard to be inspired by what is happening in ‘western art spaces’. Of course, as a European citizen and a white artist my position is a privileged one, but that’s all the more reason why I believe it is my responsibility to express my artistic voice in ways that reflect my position towards it.
How do you hope to impact or communicate with your audience through your art?
I hope that an encounter with my art will trigger some sort of emotional movement both for my audience and myself. I aim to create work that can prompt my audience to question what they know about the world and how they position themselves in it; to leave them with a sense of urgency and new imaginings.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your art or your journey as an artist?
I grew up surrounded by art and started studying it at a pretty young age with very little life experience, so it took quite some time for me to realize where I stand in the world and what I need to say through my practice. In some ways I think I’ve learned and grown the most as an artist outside of academia, when I worked, traveled, left comfort, loved.
What challenges do you face as an artist, and how do you overcome them? How do you balance your artistic career with other personal and professional commitments?
The main challenge I face as an artist is that my practice is not yet financially sustainable, so I divide my attention between working two jobs, my studio practice and striving to maintain my social and personal life. At the moment I find myself lucky enough to have a free studio at APT in Deptford which has been hugely beneficial to my practice but that is temporary. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture of how wonderful it is to be an artist because often it is not very rewarding, unless you come from money. Balancing an art career with a healthy life sometimes is impossible and there have been various occasions where I became continuously ill and experienced burnout as a consequence. It takes great discipline and sacrifices to keep going but this is what fulfills me most.
What are your plans for the future?
For the next year or so I will be in London, completing my residency at APT as part of the APT and Fenton Arts Trust Mentorship Award. I have a show coming up in June at APT Gallery together with my co-mentee Millie Layton, for which I am producing exciting new work! Hope to see you there :)
Check out Eleni's work by visiting her website and Instagram: