Published  11/11/2018

Andreas Lolis: ‘I’m not working with marble, I’m conversing with it’

Andreas Lolis: ‘I’m not working with marble, I’m conversing with it’

Lolis talks about why he uses marble to sculpt bin bags, wooden crates and other mundane items, in reference to homelessness, the refugee crisis and Greece’s changing society

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.


In Prosaic Origins (2018), a new exhibition by the Greek sculptor Andreas Lolis (b1970), 11 new marble objects have been placed in the garden of the British School at Athens. Lolis is a master of trompe l’oeil and each object deceives the eye almost entirely. Exhibited without plinths or clear signage, they are easy to miss. Lolis’s subjects are atypical, ephemeral things that are not often transfigured in marble: bin bags stuffed with rubbish, splintered wooden crates, segments of polystyrene and makeshift pillows. All are subtle reflections on the crisis of homelessness, for which Greece has the highest rate in the EU: research shows that, in Athens, the majority of homeless people have become so in the past five years.

Andreas Lolis and curator Nayia Yiakoumaki. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON

A 19th-century establishment, the British School at Athens is in the smartest part of the city, the Lycabettus, a steep hill, once the refuge of wolves, and which is now home to scores of villas that enjoy a spectacular view of the Acropolis. Many other institutions are clustered at the foot of the Lycabettus – the French School at Athens, the American School of Classical Studies. The gardens of these schools and villas are private. 

The exhibition has been organised by Neon, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2013 by the businessman Dimitris Daskalopoulos. With no fixed location, Neon takes the city as its museum, opening up spaces that are usually closed to the public. I meet Lolis at the gates of the British School. He is a softly spoken man in his late 40s, sporting a bright-blue goatee. When I ask, he tells me he paints it every seven days, sometimes blue, sometimes green and sometimes red. As we roam the garden at dusk, Lolis describes the process behind each sculpture, and the joys and constraints of working with marble. Later, in a bar on the Lycabettus, we talk about tricks of the eye, the purest marble and the continuing financial crisis in contemporary Greece.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

Izabella Scott: We are at the gates of the British School at Athens (BSA), beside two bin bags, which seem ready for the dump. On closer inspection, they are made from black marble. How do you choose your subjects?

Andreas Lolis: I wanted to bring this face of Athens, the garbage that we so often choose to not see, into the BSA. This building has a very particular history that goes back to 1886 – to promote the study of Greece. There’s a large library, and students of classics come here from Britain to study. There are many artefacts, but few that are what I call prosaic, that speak to the everyday, and to this particular moment in Greek history.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

IS: Your sculptures have been placed throughout the garden of the BSA. Wooden crates, blocks of polystyrene, a bench – all made of marble. Did you make all the works in response to the topology?

AL: This is a private garden; it is manicured and enclosed. It’s never before been open to the public. I have lived in Athens for 20 years, and I’ve never been inside. It’s used by the members of the BSA and the students who come to study here. When the show opened, everyone was curious to come inside – the citizens of Athens, the Greeks. All of the forms I made for the garden are a subtle reference to the homeless, the refugee crisis and the changing of society in Greece. This location is in stark contrast, intentionally so. High decorum. It’s sealed off, closed to the homeless, but also to all of Athens. All are new pieces that I created for this space. Before I made the works, I visited the garden four or five times, spending an hour or so each time, taking proportions and deciding what exactly I wanted to make. In some way, each piece responds to the garden – the light and colour, the various pathways through, the lines of sight.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

IS: Whether working in marble or paint, trompe l’oeil is one of the highest challenges – to create something that tricks the eye. The spidery veins in the black marble perfectly mimic the creases you might find on a bin bag. And the tone of the marble you use for the wooden crates really looks like dried-out wood. Touch becomes a form of recognition. Are they meant to be tactile?

AL: They are weighty objects, but they also blend into their environment and slip outside recognition. I work with feeling, and I want people to look with their eyes, to feel with their eyes – but everybody touches. I want people to walk around and discover. For all the works, I chose to have no plinths and very discreet signage. In this way, the work is integrated in the garden, and I think it allows for different responses. Some people find it hard to see the works, even with the help of a map. On the opening night, a journalist following the map saw a wicker basket hanging on one of the trees and thought it was my sculpture. Actually, it was simply a wicker basket; my work, a marble bin bag, Untitled (2018), was hidden in a nearby bush. I’m told a piece of driftwood rendered in marble, Untitled (2018), is the hardest to find.

IS: Are you constantly looking for new shades and colours of marble to work with? Does this extend what is possible for you to do, in terms of trompe l’oeil?

AL: There are so many kinds of marble, and I can match them to my purpose. The black marble I’ve been using comes from Belgium, and I order blocks. It’s important to say that I’m not “working” with marble, I’m conversing with it; I’m in a relationship with it. This is always my lesson to any student: I tell them, you have to hear what the material is saying to you. It has to be a solution between you and your material. And every block of marble is different.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

Last year at Documenta 14 in Kassel, my sculpture Shelter (2013-16) was on display – a makeshift homeless shelter, made from marble. A journalist from Vienna asked me: “Don’t you get bored working in marble?” I told him: “It’s never work.” Because to think of it as work creates a barrier, or a distance, between the material and the maker. It can’t be a labour; it has to be a pleasure. This year alone, I’ve prepared about 50 sculptures; the works for Prosaic Origins took eight months. Working with one material is beautiful. Over time, you understand its vocabulary. It’s a lifetime conversation. You begin to know it. And really, the truth of the matter is, the material chose me.

IS: How?

AL: My father was a mason and, when I was 12 years old, I borrowed his tools and began working in stone, as an artist. Soon, I began using marble. I grew up in the north of Greece, and we have a lot of marble up there. You can find it everywhere. I began by carving into the stone and making pictures; also working in clay. I remember making a portrait of my brother – I was 12 and he was two! Even though I’ve been to many art schools along the way, I feel relatively self-taught. And I’m always researching – there’s always more to learn. These days, I cut by eye.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

IS: So you don’t work from life – it’s all from memory?

AL: Yes, it’s all by eye – no sketches – which makes it so physical and direct. There’s an element of intuition at work: I’m responding to the marble, not forcing it to take shape. You can’t do everything in the material, and you have to respect that. It’s a conversation, and you don’t want to fall out, or disagree. Instead, you have to listen and you have to compromise.

IS: So, it emerges slowly? I read somewhere that Leonardo da Vinci once said: “There’s a form hidden in every block, if only you can only find it.”

AL: I think of trompe l’oeil as a kind of devotion. Take the sheet of cardboard, for example, which has a very detailed edge, giving the illusion of there being three layers to the sheet. I had to get special tools from Italy to do that – I had to learn a new technique. I’m always looking for new solutions, or working out which aesthetic point I want to dramatise. But I stop at a point when they are still sculptures, and not copies.

IS: Typically, classical sculpture deals in idealised subjects and bodies. Even though you distinguish your work against mimesis, you still bring a new kind of realism to classical sculpture. Is this what you mean by “prosaic”?

AL: I use prose in opposition to poetry, to speak of the everyday, the commonplace. You may have noticed that I kept the word in English; there is no Greek equivalent. And it’s important to make a distinction, because classical sculpture was aligned with the poetic. Indeed, marble has always been somewhat poetic, spectacular, epic – high ideals, noble subjects. While I consider myself a classical sculptor, I’m working with subject matter on the opposite end of the spectrum: the forgotten, the unseen. Not luxury things, but simple things. All the works in this garden are made to human scale and they relate to contemporary politics. The piece of driftwood under the tree: an echo of arrival by sea. A dented pillow on the park bench: the echo of a sleeping body. By putting these ephemeral forms into marble, I want to stop time, and to capture these fragile things – because these things will fade, be washed away by rain. Putting them into marble is a way of defying this.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

IS: Are you attempting to speak to the future of this period of crisis – to a future archaeologist, say?

AL: I believe that it’s important to have a record of this moment. In some ways, you might think of these sculptures as portraits of the homeless. In other ways, they become part of the garden – artefacts that combine with the urns and pathways. At best, they are held in suspense, between these two states. If we look at this sculpture of a crushed cardboard box, it is damp, collapsing – but it is for ever held in this state of deterioration, rendered in marble. It’s off the plinth like all the rest, and laid on the soil. Each day, it becomes more integrated. When it rains, the water pools and drips around the marble and it’s almost the same colour as the earth. Or take the row of bamboo canes, which I placed on another bank. It really could be part of the garden, a place for growing things, but it’s also a symbolic border. In Greek culture, we have many songs that have the image of the bamboo cane in the lyrics. The bamboo cane is a solitary image: bare, alone on the plain, an image of human isolation. But it’s also a reminder of the kind of fences that we can pass through.

Andreas Lolis. Untitled, 2018. © PanosKokkinias, Courtesy NEON.

IS: Do you want objects to transcend their singularity – to become symbolic?

AL: By putting these objects in marble, I want people to look at them again. I’m playing with the way marble signifies importance, grandeur. One of the problems of living in a constant crisis is that the crisis becomes invisible. People stop seeing the homeless. I hope that these sculptures will help people to look again. In a simple sense, the sculptures are also a homage to these people, these things.

IS: You’ve been working in marble all your life. It is immediately obvious why artists have chosen marble for millennia?

AL: Marble has light inside. There is a proverb that goes: When the day breaks, the marble glows. I have a house on the island of Paros. There is a very special marble that originates there, a fine-grained marble, known as Parian marble – a flawless marble. It was quarried during the classical era, and this marble has the greatest transparency of all. Light travels through the stone up to 5cm! This is a property that differs from marble to marble, and it depends on how the rock is made. Marble is metamorphic, which means it’s made from different rocks that are forced together. Transparency, hue, streaks and veins all depend on how the crystals have formed, and how much salt or silt or oxide the marble contains. I’d say there are 300 or more types of marble –  I often discover new colours and shades. Recently, while visiting Italy, I saw new marble in new shades, completely new to my eye. Parian marble is white, fine-grained – the purest.

IS: Who are your masters?

AL: For me, it’s Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Funnily enough, I’m not a fan of the baroque – and Bernini was credited with creating the baroque. But, besides this, he was a master of form. Everything in his sculptures is flowing. Just in terms of skill, he was the master. I learn from looking at the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. But ultimately, I find the baroque excess to be crass. I don’t think you need to say so much – you can say things in a few words. And that’s what I mean by the prosaic. I want to take out that which is inside – not the spectacular, but the ordinary. There is always something inside, it’s about how prepared you are to find it. You have to listen. Really, you have to listen to the material.

Andreas Lolis: Prosaic Origins, presented by Neon and curated by Nayia Yiakoumaki, is in the gardens of the British School at Athens, as part of Neon’s City Project 2018, until 14 November 2018.

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