Interview “Transparent Mirrors” by Syrago Tsiaras, 2003

Syrago Tsiaras
Mr. Tsiaras.

Philip Tsiaras
Please call me Philip.
And by the way, don’t you think it’s ironic to have made an exhibition with the concept of mirror imaging, and discover the interviewer’s name is identical to mine? In the whole of New York City’s phone book there are only two people named Tsiaras—my brother and me.

ST
There are plenty more of you in Greece so don’t feel so special.

PT
Oh, Feisty! Well at least we know that you didn’t get the job because you are my relative!

ST
Can I begin now?

PT
Sorry. Yes, of course.

ST
Well, Philip, it seems that transparency is a key word for your work these days. You have a traveling retrospective in Greece that I curated called Transparent Spaces, and now in Venice a new exhibition, totally different, called Transparent Mirrors.
What is it about transparency?

PT
I am sure that part of giving title to a body of work has to do with a few critical features, which are at the core of the artist’s repertoire. Also my fascination with glass over the last few years has given rise to an overall interest in transparency. Looking through glass “lightly” is perhaps a metaphor for trying to understand other earlier bodies of my work too.
The artist and the critic probe differently for the same thematic transparencies–gossamer links– which are at the core of the work. In my work, apart from glass, there are layered, spatial transparencies in my Topology paintings and my White paintings. It seems for me these days that everything is a reduction of some kind or another toward an invisible clarity for which Calvino would be proud. Eventually I will show up at one of my openings with no works in the room, no clothes on, wearing just a clear plastic raincoat! (laughter)

ST
Haven’t you done this in your Family Album photographs?

PT
Oh, many times!

ST
Concerning transparent places, if you think about it, Venice, Thessalonica and the Seaport of New York where you live, are all ports. Is the reflectivity of water a decisive or subliminal element in the making of your new works?

PT
Interesting, I have not thought of this liquid triangle of cities.
Port Boy, could be my next book!

ST
I think we need your Glass Boy book first, as your boy days are numbered.

PT
Thank you Syrago, I needed that. And why don’t you have a nice day too on your way to the butcher!

ST
Water and Ports, Philip?

PT
Are you asking me, what does water mean to me, having lived around it so much?
I like the way it smells.

ST
I think we are talking visually here.

PT
Well, water might be something that absorbs information, as in a porous skin, collecting all the colors of nature and all information of time immemorial -or reflective– outwards, in the sense of light or information being completely non-interactive, a glimmer, a shimmer, a flash of Sense Datum (the impressions that Phenomenologists record after closing their eyes), a blip of nothingness. Now you have asked me something that takes us from the physical into the metaphysical, while wearing our dunce caps.

ST
In our dunce context, does the myth of Narcissus in any way champion the depth of human nature or does it demonstrate only how shallow it really is?

PT
I think the myth of Narcissus champions (interesting choice of word) the stupidity of and the complexity of human nature—commonly thought of here as Vanity. Not Ego, which implies the intelligence to be selfish, and the wherewithal to construct a world that revolves around the self. Narcissus is, glibly speaking, the precursor to the ultimate California, surfer bimbo. But what makes Narcissus extraordinary is that his self- love is connected to pain, (something very un-Californian) and that he was forced through unrequited love to love himself. What is remarkable about the myth is how psychologically forward thinking the Greeks were, that Narcissus would expire from having to love himself– frozen by the pool’s reflection of his own beauty–shows to what an exaggerated extent the Greeks would go to make a point! This is what myth making is all about, shedding human skin and transfiguring into the mythic other. Artists try to tap into that hysteria—but the heat is high, I think T.S. Eliot was somehow thinking of Narcissus when he says at the end of Prufrock , “ till human voices wake us and we drown.”

ST
Philip, were you a happy child?

PT
I was a happy angry young man child.

ST
Change and metamorphosis, your work tends to live in those areas of redirection and transformation. Overall, when following your work, one has the sensation of sea changes–mental, psychological, and material. Are you shedding your skin in an attempt to become the mythic other?

PT
Not consciously, but now that you mention it, I guess some of that might be true.
I think I am aware of trying to touch the myth, perhaps fondle it, even though the heat is high, and the fall from grace, graceless!
When I think of it, even in my early work there is much about transfiguration or metamorphosis. Everything is in constant flux. In my early photography, moving cars become blurred abstractions. In my paintings, there are series called Vase Morphologies and Liquid Portraits. There are horses that bio-morph, and portraits that dissolve. A high- heeled bronze shoe turns into a fish or pistol; glass heads morph into rhinos, serpents or airplanes; humans sprout wings.

ST
Isn’t transfiguration therefore, somehow connected to seduction, as you use metamorphosis to lure in the viewer?

PT
Yes, in fact, in Greek mythology, when Zeus wanted to cheat on his jealous wife and take his lovers by surprise he turned himself into a bull, a swan, or a golden rain as in the case of the imprisoned Danae. And the converse situation was also true of his female lovers who transfigured themselves in order to escape Zeus’ clutches, as in Asteria who changed herself into a quail, or Nemesis and Metis, who were constantly changing their identities. And you know of course that Zeus, that bad boy, transformed even Dionysus into a goat to escape the jealous wrath of his wife, Hera, which is a much hairier transformation!

ST
The new works in Transparent Mirrors depict this sensuous process of transfiguration– velvety glass and mirrored bronze, in this case not hairy but smooth as silk!

PT
Yes. I guess you could say that the process of creating art for me could be read as a kind of reflective sexuality, in the sense that the mirror image automatically distorts reality and therefore becomes an erotic trompe l’oeil.

ST
The mirror has been used in psychoanalysis too, particularly in Lacan’s theory on mirror phase, a crucial step in the process of self-identification. I have to admit Philip that I had to go through all of my old psych books for this!

PT
That’s O.K., I even looked some things up on the internet- though I think I will never understand what is Astroparticle Transparency.

ST
Good, I don’t feel so bad. Anyway, Lacan describes a six-month-old infant’s fascination with its own image and its tendency to strain forward towards the mirror, as an attempt to get closer to its own reflection.

PT
Funny, I do this every morning myself. (laughter)

ST
Identification, I guess for Lacan, means that the infant is trying to get control over the unrecognizable image of himself; that reflection and consciousness are separate even though they are the same.

PT
I don’t know why a baby makes me think immediately of Parmigianino, perhaps it is because I am hungry! But “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” comes to my mind when thinking of babies and cheese! Seriously, the use of the mirror is very prevalent in the history of painting, even down to the pinhole, camera obscura, as in the three V’s –Vermeer, Van Eyck and even Velazquez.

ST
Let’s talk more generally about you, Philip. From what I know of your work, without it needing to be called an installation, there is an assemblage of material and energy that creates an overall experience, what the Germans call a Gesamkunstwerk. How does the collaboration of people from the outside, in this case Ware and Clark, producing ambient music affect the narcissistic control of your exhibition?

PT
Well, first of all, we don’t share toothbrushes or underwear!
But to answer a much harder question, what is the nature of narcissism for the artist when it comes to the creation of a new and personal imagery and how does one share that with others? I think in a way, we are back to Lacan’s baby straining toward the mirror again. Let’s just say I’m enjoying the compromise.

ST
Is it a compromise though?

PT
Honestly, not really. I think Martyn Ware and Vince Clark are great artists in their own right, otherwise they wouldn’t have so many groupies! It is a pleasure to think of them composing music out of the inspiration of the works I have made. I am excited to see the synthesis, and how their musical collaboration will interact with the sculptures when everything is put together.

ST
Well, that you have to share in any way unites you in a bond, which curiously is a kind of marriage—that introduces a dynamic of reflection –as an old married couple eventually ends up becoming a mirror image of each other.

PT
You mean like a pair of old comfortable shoes making calypso music by clicking their castanet heels together. Tak atak atak atak!

ST
Something like that, but not so cruel.

PT
Would you prefer a Strauss Waltz?

ST
Not that Romantic.

PT
How about a Polka?

ST
Not so Ethnic.

PT
What about a Tarantella?

ST
Not that Folkloric

PT
All right then, a Tango?

ST
Much better.

PT
What I think you are saying is, in a “support hose” search for conjugal bliss, that the highest aesthetic dance would be the Tango. The Tango being a mimetic coupling with dark, accordion interludes, mixed with spastic, robotic, synchronized, android movements.
I can live with that!
Since we are on the mirror-marriage thing, one might also think of common expressions, the linguistic nature of which describes hidden mirrored bondage, as in “tying the knot”. Here two dissimilar beings are tied in a mirrored bond to produce the perfect stranglehold! The “ball and chain” is not so far away either.

ST
It sounds good, but bleak. Let’s divorce ourselves from this concept for now!
Seriously, how does compromise create reflectivity?

PT
Well, let’s think in Darwinian terms, since we a have a work in this exhibition called Charlie Darwin, depicted as a human-aquatic-simian. In nature, mimicry is a biological reflectivity created for purposes of survival, as in camouflage of the Chameleon. Science Fiction is replete with various highly evolved species who mimic nature, most notably the Changeling, who can take the form of any object, any time, utterly undetectable. It is like a giant Chameleon on steroids.

ST
I’d like to wind down with a question about your interest in changing and arriving at new artistic identities, an effort which seems undetectable to us, a little like your steroid creature.

PT
Are you asking me if I take Art steroids?!

ST
No, I’m asking you if those giant leaps of variety that I find so rich in your work come with traditional misery, or effort made to look easy.

PT
For me all artistic expression is connected to my character and personality. Moving from one form to another is natural for me.
But although it may be made to look easy –it never really is.
Artists struggle always to find original ways of rediscovering an image, as mathematicians look for a model to explain the universe. The pressure to be original in our global-instant-communicative time is disproportional to the search for quality. Truth and Beauty, ancient Greek concepts, have suffered at the expense of trend and gimmick. But I live in this time and accept the challenge to be modern without allowing my zeal to compromise me. It is difficult to stick to your guns, a “cowboyism” but true, in the lure of the new. Being true to yourself as a young artist is itself difficult, as part of your nature is meant to be open to new information, your time, and the ideas of your generation. To the extent an artist stays true to his own course, while still being open to the energy of his era, truly open, is what will define him ultimately.