Luleå Biennial 2018
The majestic drawings of Alexandros Tzannis build spaces. They invite the onlooker to walk into and between them. Hung on steel structures, the paper bends like a wave over the frame. The motifs are abstract, drawn movements in detailed layers that, when looked at more closely, resemble maps or topographic figures. The work is part of the series Blue Black Layers Over the White Cities for which Tzannis has drawn, among other places, his hometown Athens – its layers of emotion, history and crisis veiling it in darkness. For the biennial, Tzannis has expanded the series with an additional four drawings. The drawings contain references to the colour palette of steel extraction: the grey metal, the glowing red of transformation, and the white smoke emanating from the material as it cools. One of the drawings is exhibited in the lunch restaurant Malmen at SSAB Steel mill in Luleå.
Would you like to say a few introductory words about your artistic practice?
I consider myself a painter, even though I usually make sculptures. I choose my materials in relation to situations, the one that is best suited to design and develop my ideas. Thematically, my work is balanced between the past and the future, between utopia and dystopia. I am interested in how these extremes are balanced in the present.
In the biennial, the ongoing project Blue Black Layers Over the White Cities is on view, how did this work come about and what is it about?
The project Blue-Black Layers of the White Cities began three years ago when I was invited to do an exhibition at the State of Concept in Athens. I worked with a spatial installation consisting of two sculptures, ceramics and large-scale drawings made with ballpoint pen, suspended on iron frames. The exhibition as a whole served as a kind of personal metaphor for the city of Athens: beloved scenes, walking paths and hidden places. The idea was to map the city without creating a clear overview. I wanted the viewer to understand that the maps I drew and the places I told them about would be almost impossible to find, unless they followed the route stated. While I was drawing on the paper with ink and ballpoint pens (a time-consuming process) I began to think about when I lived in Vienna 10 years ago and how people often referred to Athens as the White City. This notion became the starting point for the work's title Blue Black Layers over the White Cities, because on top of the white layer, blue and black ink was added. For me, these became emotional layers over the white city of Athens, blue layers of melancholy and black layers of darkness. The work began during the years of crisis in Greece. The entire exhibition at the State of Concept was named after the work and then my mapping of the city continued with the additional maps of places in where I was invited to exhibit: Paris, Cyprus and now Luleå. My materials are consistent, I like the ballpoint pen because it is common and simple, something that is used in everyday life. I also like the idea of overcoming the material boundary and creating something impressively big. When I make the drawings, I usually get help from friends to cover the three to five layers that the drawing usually consist of. The collaboration becomes part of the process. I want the large scale of the works to give a feeling of being in the middle of architecture, in the middle of the city.
How has Luleå and Norrbotten inspired you in the production of your work?
When we started the conversation about my participation in the Luleå Biennial and presenting a continuation of the series Blue Black Layers over the White Cities, I began to do research on Luleå and Norrbotten. I was interested in contradictions between the heavy industries and nature, Sweden's neutrality, and military activities in the area during the Second World War; how the northern territories are exploited for their resources by the south; the quiet and calm life one lives close to the nature, but also the aesthetics of the futuristic industrial areas, their production and wealth and the ecological problems that follow. These are tendencies at play in most modern cities. I began to make maps and drawings to highlight underlying structures. I was drawn to the infrastructure of the industries, the steel factories and the thoughts of an activity that goes on out of sight, or under ground. I wanted to draw what we don't see. The four new drawings that I produced for the Luleå Biennal contain maps of the city, tracks from the railways, simple floor plans from steel factories, mental labyrinths and two sea horizons.
And the work is also linked to personal memories?
Yes, the steel industry in Luleå was what I was first drawn to when I started to work on the new commission. After a while I understood that there was a personal reason for this, stemming from memories of my childhood: I used to spend my summer holidays on the Greek island of Serifos looking for beautiful rocks and minerals along the shore - I think I wanted to become a geologist at the time. At Serifos there had been iron mines since ancient times and this is where the myth of the cyclops plays out in Homer’s Odyssey. The mine's activities resumed in the 19th century and continued until the 1960s. Around 2000 people lived and worked there under terrible conditions. In 1916 an individual worker started an uprising and a strike. For a few days, the island was occupied by the workers who demanded better living conditions. This was the first time that the eight-hour workday proposal was raised in Greece. This story and my personal memories are reflected in biennial drawings: the materiality of the steel, the shape of a labyrinth,– to dig where you stand. In addition to the collection of works shown at Luleå Konsthall, one of my drawings is also on view in the entrance and lunch restaurant at SSAB's factory in Luleå. The drawing Sea Horizon carries a stamp with the number 1916 - a memorial for the iron workers protest on Serifos but also for today's ongoing struggles for workers' rights and resistance.