Alexandros Lambrovassilis and the Reverberations of the Unknown

04/05/2017

For his first solo gallery show, New York-based photographer Alexandros Lambrovassilis explores the concept of reverberance as a state of palpating invisible connections between things and places. I first met Alexandros at Depo Darm gallery, where he was writing the text to accompany his exhibition: it was during this first chance meeting that he told me about his musical background, that he plays drums, that Lemnos is a very important place for him since his childhood. Flipping through the works to be exhibited on his laptop he also told me his first memory of photography as an experience, when as a child he came across the image of a decapitated body in the newspaper Taxydromos. Leaving for New York opened up a completely different set of possibilities for him, and he’s currently very comfortable to not know everything, as he admits in the interview below — which is a very humble statement to come from a photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Benaki Museum in Athens, is part of the collection at the National Air & Space Museum and who is currently preparing a project to be permanently displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The following discussion took place in Kolonaki, on the busy Skoufa street, with loud jazz playing in the background.

Interview by Kiriakos Spirou
Photos by Alexandros Lambrovassilis, courtesy Depo Darm Gallery and the artist.

In what way are music and photography connected in your work? Does it have to do with your subject matter, or the way you understand space, rhythm?

Yes, it has a lot to do with all that. I remember many examples from a record company based in Germany, in Hamburg I think, called ECM. I’m talking about their covers for records or CDs, which call for a certain visualisation of the music. Looking at their record covers I realised that there’s a huge connection between the musical content and the way it is visualised. That was an interesting confirmation for me, because I then started to trust my eyes for something I would choose to listen to. It also opened up an entire world for me in relation to the possibilities and the dimensions things can have in the world, that there can be a common thread that connects many things, or even all things, and that the point would be to find all these common threads. So for me all this was more than an intrigue, it became a way to think about and do things. I mean, I find very interesting the question how to visualise for example the condition where a drummer is playing a bit behind the rhythm, to groove as we say: how could one render or depict that sensation visually?

So is that something that’s part of the work you’re showing now at Depo Darm?

Well that’s the field I’m generally exploring and palpating — of which the work at Depo Darm is a first attempt to document and receive feedback on, not in order to tell whether it’s true or false, but in order to correct things. I mean, the course is already drawn, but it’s drawn in a very open way let’s say. So although the goal is clear, there’s a certain stance of trust towards life. It’s like that scene in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where they throw the rolls of fabric towards where they want to go, their zone, their space. And that requires a certain faith, because you can only say “I’ll head in that direction” and go. If you micromanage every single detail you won’t take a singe step. So this whole thing needs trust. So trusting my own intuition and disposition towards things, I decided to revisit older work together with new work and see them with new eyes. Attempt a new syntax.

I like the way you organise the photos with an empty frame around them. You were telling me the other day that it’s a way for you to give room to the viewer, for the imagination to fill the space...

Yes, of course! To participate. I mean, a white margin is potent and active space, it’s not just a margin, it’s not something that frames in order to show something else, to make the image important. That’s not its purpose. It’s necessary space for the narration, and for the viewer to be able to put themselves inside the frame in a way. At the same time it’s an attempt to convey a sense of rhythmicality, which is another part of me coming from music and drums. This setup of four photos that sometimes are three and elsewhere are two or just one on its own, and all the white space around them that allows them to breathe: I think it gives a vibration, a dimension that possibly is interesting for the viewer to palpate, and then tell me as well what they see and what they don’t see in there.

So you would say you’ve created a rhythm in space, with the exhibition’s layout?

Yes, I’m very interested in that. All the photos in the exhibition are chosen and placed in a very conscious way.

Which years are these photos from?

The series I’ve included start from 2006, when I first left for New York and up to a few months before that. I didn’t mention it in the exhibition text, but visitors to the gallery will be able to see what I left behind, meaning what kind of material I left Greece to go to New York. While I was in Greece I used to work for magazines, and one of my first collaborations with print media was with Ticket, a magazine that used to be distributed with Metrorama newspaper in the subway once a month. But the very first thing I did in print was with the publisher Estia, where I used to provide them with photos for the covers and portraits of the authors. Later on I collaborated with Paper and Homme magazines, and it was about that time that I decided to leave for New York. I should say, I decided to leave Greece, because New York wasn’t in my plans at the time, I wanted to try something more accessible like London or Barcelona. Some people advised me not to go to these places, I can now say luckily. And a friend encouraged me to go to New York, and even helped me with the paperwork.

So what is that which you left behind when you departed from Greece?

Well, while I was here I used to photograph social events. I mean every kind of party, public or private, fashion shows, backstage, anything you can think of. All these were expressions of our luxurious lifestyle at a time — I dare say of our impunity even in relation to money — and between 2003 and 2006 I was in most of these events to photograph. At some point I put together a portfolio as a document of this lifestyle, and with that I went to New York. But I was determined not to continue in that direction, I just wanted to have it as a token, a documentation of what I have done, if only to prove that I can at least press the camera button!

Now when I say that I left these things behind, I’m not denouncing them. On the contrary, I think they are a very organic part of how I take photos today. But at some point the relationship between the image, the photo and the event wasn’t as interesting for me.

I think now that I see your work in Depo Darm but also on your website, there’s a strong element of the trace, of what remains after an event. I mean in the photos from the abandoned airport, some photos from New York as well, your photos from the countryside in Lemnos... You are tracing the trace of human presence in a way.

Exactly, you describe it very well. I’m interested in this aftersound, the trace we leave behind, and the fainter it is the more motivated I feel to be able to become attuned with it and find it, to find a way to observe it. I mean to find a vantage point and a way to capture it as an image. In photography, the medium is just as important as the angle you’re shooting from: you get a different image from a Polaroid or a digital camera, even if you use the same angle. There’s a certain hedonism in high definition, a desire to see better and in detail that is on the verge of obscenity. This kind of extreme clarity loses the sense of “once upon a time” that a photo can have. So for me it’s not the point to find the story, or the event before the story, and then place myself in relation to that. The means I use to tell this story dominates this process. And as I said to you the other day, there’s no point in playing a musical instrument, to do music, if you don’t have melodies. You can do a test, or a research on the sound of the trumpet or the violin, and do all the Paganinis and the Flight of the Bumble Bee and whatever, but after a certain point this becomes a bit literal. I mean, when the violin imitates the bee and the trumpet does the lamb, it’s a thing for children, or just to prove how fast you can be or how skilled you are. But this has nothing to do with our souls, it’s something else.

Is that why you work both with your Hasselblad and your phone camera?

I work with everything, with every tool that can take a photo with — I mean if a potato could take a photo I would use a potato. And this is something that relates to my exhibition now. Some of the series as you say are not taken with an expensive camera, they’re taken with my phone. My work on Lemnos and Shanghai are taken with a phone. And I don’t think the result misses out on anything. I mean, if someone’s drowning and is crying for help, are you going to stop and think whether they have a good voice before helping them? It’s my way to stress that we shouldn’t be lost in these trivialities. We’re not working for a big brand and their cameras, we’re working for our souls.

So some of the methods you mention might not be able to catch the urgency of a moment, in the way a phone camera can.

Exactly, there’s a certain crisis in the moment. One of the photos I’ve taken in Lemnos is with a galloping horse, that photo would be impossible to take with a Hasselblad, it takes time to prepare and shoot with that camera. It was taken with a phone. And this whole discussion about whether the people shooting with phones are photographers or not is utterly stupid, and in a way reminds me the discussion back in the day when the first 35mm cameras came out, and the large-format photographers would not acknowledge those using smaller cameras as their peers. But now we know what history did to them.

Let’s go back to this concept of reverberation, in its metaphorical sense. If sound reverberates in the environment, how does human experience reverberate so to speak? I mean, let’s compare between New York and Lemnos for example: what kind of reverberance does your experience in Lemnos create and how does it compare to the big city?

What is the case with Lemnos is that for me it’s my workshop. I mean it’s the place where physically and spiritually I first experienced new dimensions: simple things like to balance on a bicycle is an achievement for the body. At the same time to float in water, to learn how to swim, is a similar experience. Or to fall in love. These moments are critical for a person. For me, these experiences are impressed in a very strong way, and in that sense year after year, milestone after milestone, I feel that Lemnos, both the place and its people, is a reference point for me. I can tell whether there’s any progress [in my work] by the way I see the island: do I see things with different eyes? And what happens now?

New York is a place where I was allowed to live with the things I didn’t know. Every time I land in New York and I get in a cab I’m filled by this sense that I can do whatever I can imagine, despite all the practical difficulties this might entail. But the essence for me is the way in which we stand before the things we don’t know, and how we approach that side of us that doesn’t know. I think it’s very dangerous to wear the cloak of the expert, to be confident in what you know; when I find myself in such a moment it kills me inside, to have to repeat a form or a motif or whatever that I’ve done before, something I know how to do and I can do to get money. A commercial exchange is not in any case honest or sufficient. I mean I prefer not to work, especially not to treat things I’m researching on as work, when the whole exchange is all about money. If all I have to get from a project is money, I’ll hesitate to do it, which is not the case in projects where I can learn things.

So what’s the inversion of that? I mean, how do you stand in front of the things you don’t know? How do you approach the unknown?

Look, this is something I’m still trying to answer myself because it’s a process, and I’m still learning from this process. I’ll tell you this: when I have a project or an assignment, either to develop my own idea or to work on something for someone else, the first thing I do is to marinate the idea in my head and find a way to do it in a meaningful way. That’s why I said earlier I’m not satisfied with just dexterity, the technique. Each problem has its own answer. Once I was on the train going to a photo shooting for a client and I got the idea for the concept ten minutes before I arrived. This is my way. It has a huge risk in it, but it’s also a kind of truth. I mean, you need to trust. It’s what I told you before, you can’t micromanage every moment of your life.

This has a lot to do with improvisation right? This trust you need to have in the unknown, and to be present in the moment, without planning ahead...

Exactly. You know what? This is the condition I live my life in. I live an improvised life. And everyone who knows me can confirm this, that that’s the way I live and work and whatever I’ve done so far I did it through this philosophy. I’m pretty certain that we would be living in a completely different world as a human race if one of the things we focused on in education was the way of improvisation. We all speak about democracy and so on, but there’s no condition more democratic than improvisation. To be able to participate in an improvisation you must have your ears and soul open: there, your ego is naked and every other silly issue each person carries within them is exposed. So we should teach our selves and future generations the importance of improvisation and how you get there; to listen to each other and to respond to what the other is saying, not to what you think the other is saying or what you would like them to say. This again has a huge risk, because improvisation doesn’t always work. But if we don’t have the strength to take the risk we can’t make the next step.

This condition of improvisation also has to do with seeing the world as if it’s the first time.

The miracle! Yes, it’s what the famous physicist Richard Feynman used to say. The awe in which we stand before the phenomenon of the world. When we live as if we know everything, we miss the point. If we don’t stand in front of things with admiration and awe, we can’t discover them.

I understand that this also has to do with your exhibition at Depo Darm. This feeling of uncanniness, to not be certain of what you’re looking at.

I’m interested in the state where the consciousness stands speechless or awkward in front of an event. As I told you that other time, the first photo I remember is from a body without a head. That event was very significant for me, because I had never heard about or seen a decapitated body before, I was like seven or eight at the time, so momentarily I saw myself looking and not knowing what I was looking at. That for me is what moves all things: to look as if you don’t know. This idea of knowing it all is what brought us to this point, to have the nerve to say that there’s no alternative to the neoliberal dogma. I want to say to the people who believe this, or express this (because I’m not sure they actually believe what they’re saying), that what they say is a hybris, and their own existence cancels their claim: the whole world works because of alternatives. If there were no alternatives, the neoliberals would still have a tail and be hanging from trees eating bananas. Evolution depends on alternatives, and I simply cannot accept that human intellect has reached a point where we can throw a rock and land it on the moon, but we haven’t found a solution to the issue of managing resources. For every centimetre of pride we have as a civilisation, there are kilometres of shame for our heartlessness and our reluctancy to solve issues that could be dealt with easily.

The exhibition Reverberance by Alexandros Lambrovassilis is presented at Depo Darm gallery from 03 May to 07 June 2017.

Depo Darm is listed in Und. Athens Directory at No.80, and is also featured on Route 4 of our map.