Young visual artist Iakovos Volkov is a familiar face on Sarri Street in Psyrri. His first graffitis were under his alias, NAR, but later on he abandoned spray paint in favour of other materials and techniques. On the occasion of his recent exhibition at Alibi Gallery we sat down and talked to him about his work, his materials of choice and why working in abandoned buildings is important for him.
Interview by Kiriakos Spirou
Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you start making art? Where did you study?
I was born in Russia and I came to Greece at a very young age with my mother and brother in 1991. We settled in Thessaloniki where I lived until 2014. That year I met Iasonas [Cacao Rocks] at an exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens, and he invited me to come and do a show here at this space. It’s the space that’s Alibi gallery now. I did the exhibition here and I stayed. I’ve been living in Athens for four years now.
And is street art your main interest?
I wouldn’t describe what I do as street art. It doesn’t interest me anymore. In the past I did a lot of graffiti, but now I’m more interested in making installations inside abandoned factories.
How long have you been making work in abandoned buildings?
It started in Cyprus I think, where I lived for some time in 2011. I lived in Limassol for a year and I collaborated with street artist Paparazzi while I was there. Anyway, around 2011-2012 I began making installations with found objects, but now I also buy some of the materials I use.
Do you find the materials in the space you’re working in, or do you collect them and you have a stock so to speak?
At first I only used things I found in the space, so they were literally in situ installations. Or I collected things from the garbage. But now, because there are many trash pickers in Athens, I just go to the trash-picker market in Elaionas and I buy what I need.
Basically you’re buying garbage. Could we say that you’re recycling in a way?
Yes, that’s exactly it. These are actual garbage that the trash pickers collect or someone gave to them because they’re cleaning their storage or closet or something. But in any case they are things that someone didn’t want anymore and threw away.
I notice that you mostly work with fabric.
Yes, I do. That started completely by chance when one day in Thessaloniki I found a huge pile of clothes and I gradually began using them. I like the material because it’s soft and you can shape it the way you want it. It doesn’t have a particular shape, you make the shape yourself. It’s an ongoing process for me, I’m still experimenting with it.
I guess clothing as an object has very specific connotations: it’s something you wear, something utilitarian. I’m wondering whether it has a particular meaning for you in that sense?
I don’t see it that way at all. It’s just a material for me. Most objects I work with I treat only as materials. I don’t think about the story of the object or its connotations, those are already there anyway. For example I did a solo show at Atopos CVC, which is an art space dedicated to fashion, photography and the human body. My exhibition that had a lot to do with clothes, most of which I had collected from the abandoned airport at Elliniko. There was a refugee camp there and because they couldn’t wash them — they had no access to water or washing machines I guess — they were throwing their dirty clothes away. So I collected them. Some of the clothes in this exhibition here are from that same stash. I’ve seen a lot of clothes being thrown away at Elliniko, like containers full of it.
When making a new installation and you enter the site you’re going to work in, what is your process?
It mainly has to do with the visual aspect of it, with how I look at things and how I understand the space. I try to find ways to combine my interventions with what’s already there, with how the space is: with the mould, the pipework, everything. That’s what I like, the colours and the old objects in the factory. And the quiet. The calmness. The experience of being there on my own and doing what I like without anyone disturbing me — no passers-by, no friends popping in to tell me their opinion. I don’t want to hear all that, I prefer to be alone there and stay dedicated to the task at hand.
How about your relationship to words. Is it something that has to do with street art and tagging?
Yes I think it relates to that. I used to tag my name a lot and used letters sometimes. Some of my works are still in the streets of Thessaloniki. But it’s not only from that, I’ve broken away from the street artist’s obsession with tagging their nickname. I think words have their own power.
Some of your work involves repetitive handwritten words. Is that something you’ve been doing for a long time?
That’s actually something that I first did in 2014 with the work one thousand sorry. It’s a piece I did in an old factory in Thessaloniki and was inspired by a friend who used to say the Greek expression “I’m sorry a thousand times” very often. So I decided to write “I’m sorry” a thousand times to see what it means to actually do what you say. I found a space that was suitable and did this experiment. After that I did three more works that are similar to that. The one repeats a specific word that has a symbolic meaning for me, and the other says “work work work”, because I’ve been working a lot lately. And I don’t mean just making art, but also my job, because I’m not earning a living from art. I’m working full time at a company.
You also did a similar piece in Atopos CVC, I think you covered an entire room with writing?
Yes, [curator] Vasilis Ziniadakis asked me to do it as part of his Blah Blah project. He saw one thousand sorry, he liked it a lot and asked me to do it with “blah blah” on the gallery’s walls.
And how about the new body of work that you present here in the exhibition? I see stuffed toys, different materials... Do you see it as an evolution of your textile installations?
In general I don’t work with a particular material. I like expanding my horizons so to speak, to work with other materials. I don’t want to stand still. I used to work with spray paint, then with clothes, now it’s other things. I like that. As long as I’m creative...
But these are objects that you find on the street, right?
Yes, all these are things I got from the trash pickers. If I had the time to do what they do, I mean to wander around and collect things, I would do it.
So they’re part of the art supply chain now I guess. Let’s wrap this up with some info about the area here. Is Psyrri your home?
I don’t live here anymore, but this is my neighbourhood. This is where I stayed when I first came to Athens in 2014, and I spend a lot of time around the area. If I could, I would be still living here, because I can find everything I need. All the materials, the tools I need I can find nearby, some artisans I need are also here; ironsmiths, plexiglass worshops, they’re all here.
And why can’t you stay here anymore? What’s standing in your way?
It’s becoming more expensive here. Property owners are upgrading their apartments and turn them into Airbnbs. So it’s hard to find a place here. Hopefully in the future this will change.