Extreme artist: Yiorgos Zafiriou
- Published: 16 January 2010
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Yiorgos Zafiriou's body is a canvas for his art. He utilises body modification, has tanned his own hide and made soap out of his body fat. He spoke with Katrina Fox.
One of your key ‘trademarks’ if you like is your use of the (your) body in art to explore new possibilities of identity. Having done a plethora of performances and creations over the years, what conclusions have you come to in this regard?
In terms of understanding identity, I see my body as more than just its visible exterior. I’ve come to understand my body in terms of the shape of my skin and what I wear to clothe myself. I’ve learnt that that my body is integral to my consciousness especially in the way I see and feel about myself.
I have mastery of my body and the way I choose to be recognised in society. I’m still seeking to further understand the relationship between the exterior experience of our bodies and interior, both physical and in terms of consciousness. My interest is in shifts in self-perception that can come about through the body’s manipulation and modification.
The experience of my body I have come to see more broadly in how bodies are perceived in society. I’ve come to understand than our identities are never fixed, we can create and re-create ourselves.
Our identities change as our bodies change and as our exterior appearance changes through dress. We can surgically recreate ourselves to become, as we want to be seen. This is especially important in the trans experience or trans people. Its also key for people involved in body modification such a piercing a tattooing.
The world of surgery and tattooing is an experience of the west and is a privileged one. I am constantly inspired by the possibilities this privilege gives us.
I love to play with these things. I am an avid lover of drag and dress ups. I have a wardrobe that has many options for how I want to present myself at any one time.
I consider myself a trans-scholar and research looking at the way sex and gender are experienced throughout the human experience. My artistic work is an exploration of this. My work is about my experience of identity however it is not autobiographical.
I love that we can be one person and can dress up and project an image of how we wish to be recognised or seen. I need to clarify we have this ability in the west and in spaces where it is safe to do so. In Australia we privilege in this regard. GLBSGDQ people in other places on our planet are vilified and killed at a whim if they manifest any challenge to their expected position in society.
This drives me as an artist to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. I like to flaunt my colourful life as unapologetic with a FUCK YOU kinda attitude in the nicest possible way.
Aside from identity, what are your main areas of interest in terms of themes and why do they appeal to you?
I have a fascination with understanding human bodies and human experiences. I’m using a plural because to say “the human body” in a singular sense makes our species into a homogonous mass and we are not. Each human is an amazing organism and as a species we demonstrate extraordinary diversity and amazing adaptability. We have enduring capabilities for survival and we can cope well when pushed to our limits.
The medical model has taken ownership of our bodies and rationalises who we are as an animal. And our waged labour systems have reduced us to overworked machines. We are inherently biological creatures with hormonal drives that have evolved over millions of years. Our developing intellect has given us a new range of possibilities for pleasure and expression and I like to play at the edges of these ideas.
Performance has given me the opportunity to test some of these limits and explore stillness, pain and fasting.
Increasingly I am seeing an undercurrent of the spiritual in my work. I have a fascination with Zen Buddhism although I am not devout. I draw just as much from the philosophical position of minimalist architecture, which can inspire similar responses through the built environment. Increasingly I’m drawn to creating sense of purity and simplicity in my art.
Insert contradiction here…
In contrast when I do drag and it’s all about fashion, glitter, makeup, colour movement and bling.
Please tell us about your piece where you surgically removed your nipples in 2004 and the subsequent piece Malignant Mother.
Malignant Mother was a performance work undertaken in 2007 at ARTSPACE Sydney.
I underwent two significant surgical interventions. The first procedure was in September 2004, a Double Mastopexy (surgical breast operation used to reduce the size of breasts) with Nipple Grafts and an Abdominoplasty (a surgical procedure designed to remove excess skin and fat from the lower abdomen and to tighten the abdominal muscles. Commonly it is known as known as a Tummy Tuck.).
In May 2006 I underwent a Lipectomy (surgical removal of excessive fat deposits from the body. It’s where lipos (Greek for fat) is excised from the body and may include surface skin tissue. This was the instance in my second surgical intervention in 2005. Liposuction is sometimes known as suction assisted Lipectomy) and Scar Revision of the lower back.
Both interventions were a desire to reshape some earlier bodily changes I underwent in the early 90s. These were massive weight loss and female hormone consumption that in combination resulted in my body becoming that a transsexual female-bodied man. The transsexual/transgender experiences have had a profound effect upon my performance practice and material production as a visual artist over the last decade.
My nipples had been one of my erogenous zones that after my breast surgery were relocated. During the surgery the underlying nerves were severed and my nipples became like the surrounding skin tissue unable to render the pleasure they once gave me. I lamented the loss of that sensation and marked it with the Malignant Mother work. The performance entailed my nipples being tattooed black to signal a death rite had been performed.
I created the performance as a visual and immersive experience for the audience. In the performance area I was laid out on a table where I remained motionless for 3 hours.
The first part saw artist Fiona McGregor suture a chain of fingernails to my naval that connected me with a large photographic print of me before my surgery with breasts. Then tattooist Megan Oliver proceeded to tattoo my nipples.
It was very painful, although the original nipple sensation was gone; it was still sensitive skin being tattooed. My friends often think because I lost the original sensation I also lost all feeling. I have to remind them it hurt a lot.
I had seen Megan Oliver for two other tattoos and spent 14 hours in the tattooist’s chair getting acquainted with the pain. Each nipple took about 40 minutes. Well-known Sydney performer Zoo was sitting on a high platform high above the audience. She would occasionally squirt her breast milk down at the audience. The costumes were by Daniel Cater.
I believe you have tanned your own ‘hide’ (skin) and made soap out of your body fat?
After my second surgery I had my skin and flesh set aside in formalin. At the time I was looking at discourses surrounding the use of human tissue by science to develop new therapies using matter that was taken from patients without permission. It was a way of taking ownership of matter that was mine.
It was either soap or candles; I found a recipe for making candles from pig fat. I went with soap because I liked the idea of making something that would clean from something that could be considered unclean, especially since it was no longer a part of my body. It was abject.
I went on to make the documentation of the process into a performance paper for two conferences. I presented my finding as a DIY session.
You also create art objects through performance, such as in the Interior Foil Landscape piece. Can you say something about the relationship between the two i.e. the material objects and the performance? What ‘weight’ do they have in terms of importance?
I will reflect here on my artistic practice over the last twenty-five years. My early years as an artist in the 80s as a teenager were spent as a painter, working in ceramics and photography. I believed I was destined to be a painter then my experiences in as art school changed that. I ended up working out of the photo-media department at the college of fine arts at UNSW.
In the early 90s photography was still a highly chemical medium with film and darkroom work. I loved the solitude of the darkroom the process and time it took to generate photo-based imagery.
I was also encouraged by my tutors to have a broader experience of artistic practice. I was working between jewellery, photo media, video and performance. All my early work was an exploration of the materiality of all these things including the materiality of the body. Identity was always a strong underpinning I did, even in design.
I left my art practice for a few years in 1993 to study a design degree and start a commercial studio, which I loved doing very much. Design studies gave me an incredible understanding of the world we live in. I went on to run a successful design and photography studio for a few years before I came back to performance and began teaching in 2000.
Running a design studio was hectic and gave me little time to practice as an artist. I continuously made work however the hectic demands of my commercial practice was out of balance with my art practice and giving it up was a good move to get things how I wanted.
My body has become the material I work in. A painter works with paint in performance I work with my body. The making of objects such as the foil pieces in “ Interior Foil Landscape” was a way of visualizing something when there was nothing to see. The performance involved me being in a residential studio for 5 days.
I made the space absolutely light tight and did not eat for the 5 days. I had 3kn of aluminium foil sponsored by Gladfoil, so I could make material responses to my time.
The foil responses were intended for me to draw from the exterior and create an interior landscape that has a direct link to the outside landscape. Earlier I spoke of the relationships between our exteriority and interiority in terms of our bodies.
In a way the work was a way of bringing consciousness outside of my physical self where I had none of the usual (visual) stimuli to make up my world. In a way I was looking to draw on this idea of exteriority and interiority and create as a response to this. The work was as much about identity as my drag and cross-dressing work.
I understand the world best through tactility; I like to be hands on and can make sense of the world around me this way.
I’m a compulsive maker; I like to create to understand the world and so. Sometimes it's to make things that I don’t see in the world that I want to see and need to see so I can better understand who I am and what I experience around me.
I see the materiality of things I make as integral to my work:
I make things as a thought process working towards a performance.
Sometimes I make things I can use during a performance
At times I make objects during the performance
And with media such as photography and video it becomes a material response after the performance and is documentation.
You engage in body modification for artistic purposes, often doing things that many people would perceive as excruciatingly painful. Can you say something about what happens to you as a performer when you are experiencing cutting, branding etc? Is there a ‘spiritual’ or ‘transformative’ process happening, for example? Does the performance become a form of ritual?
My background is Greek and it has a rich and long history of ritual. Both in pre Christian pagan rites and then the way the rites become subsequently absorbed into Greek orthodoxy following the development of Christianity.
I believe fear creates a need to find the divine. Ritual is a way of inspiring the sacred. It has been an important part of the human tradition. Its in our genes, we all carry a genetic memory for the need to create order and process. Shopping isles are processional complete with checkout alter that beep. Medical procedure has the same dogma as catholic liturgy. All for seemingly practical reasons and I believe they are also holy.
Pain is not something I seek out and im not a masochist. I have learnt a great deal about its nature through tattooing, being branded, body piercing and S&M play. I did these things as a radical youth and found they were a part of the developing queer culture I belonged too. Men’s leather culture was something uniquely gay with its all codes and rules. It’s the same dogma used to reach the divine.
Modern analgesics and anesthetics have sanitized pain for our species. Pain is something to be avoided and controlled. As a human organism millions of years have made us adept to dealing with pain. I’m not advocating a return to a world where pain is not managed or we a avoid taking a headache pill.
Our bodies create a myriad of hormones that can lessen pain and meditation can shift our focus from pain sites with practice. Pain has sometimes become ritualized however the human bodies ability to deal with pain came before our ability to create ritual and rationalise. It’s a raw prehistoric experience. I think of a woman’s experience of childbirth, that gotta hurt but the rush must be awesome.
Performance by its nature is public, yet in some of your work there is an element of you going ‘into the zone’ or an almost private sphere, so what role do audiences play for you?
Interestingly my new research is heading towards performance as private. The efficacy of my art practice shifted when three things happened:
1. I could ask for a fee.
2. I would not undertake a performance without adequate dressing room facilities
3. I realized my favourite sound was people clapping.
The third point I have to clarify as a tongue in cheek, however it was a bit true. At the time I had a short stint as a wanker. I enjoyed the attention, which is not a bad thing as many performers enjoy the gratitude of the audience that way.
I stepped off my podium and began to create work that made it impossible for the audience to know when the performance was over or I would disappear with no evident conclusion. Or where performance was durational and audiences would not be at the presentation for the entire time. It was ongoing research to look at the nature of performance and my role in it.
In the last few years ive been exploring performance without an audience, or an incidental audience. The “Interior Foil Landscape” piece was solitary. No one could see me, and the cottage I inhabited was about 500m away from the other artists’ studios. It was afterwards that I received feedback from the other artists that there was in fact an audience.
After looking at decades of performance work I realized most of the experience I had of performance and in fact all art was through documentation: photography, video and written accounts. From the position I felt a lot more confident to make performance work without an audience present at the performance.
I have not stopped entirely from live work, as an artist I have a different experience of the work when I interact with people. I sometimes set up a work so even I don’t know whats going to happen. This way I can be a member of the audience as well.
How do you define an ‘extreme’ artist?
The use of Extreme and Extreme Art draws from the language of popular culture where participants are involved in a risky sports and similar activities. For example base jumping, bungee jumping and some skateboard and cycling activities. These activities are often dangerous and a risk to personal safety. Extreme Art is used in reference to contemporary art practices that also pushes the body to its limits and is similarly invested with danger and risk/s to personal safety.
I note you wrote a periodical on extreme art. Do you consider yourself an extreme artist? Why/why not?
This was my Master’s research, which I completed in 2006. I wrote a paper titled: Extreme Art: The invention of identity in Performance Art through ritual, pain, body modification and surgery.
I studied at Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney University. It gave me an opportunity to involve myself in comprehensive research for 3 years. I had worked independently as an artist for 10 years and it was humbling to have my work redirected within an institution.
I worked under Professor Richard Dunn and alongside some incredible artists. It was an inspiring time of great exchange and it gave me a chance to examine the work of other contemporary artists working with the body in extreme ways.
I am an extreme artist. I seek to look at the limits of my own body in a way of better understanding the animal I am.
What are your thoughts on the notion of ‘shock value’ in art?
Things that are shocking move us out of our comfort zones. This is an important avenue for change and shifts in consciousness. We have to improve as a society to better handle these shocks. To have an approach were we look at things and consider them in context and inquire about the artists intent. It’s too easy to dismiss contemporary art.
I’m pleased to see that galleries have become more active in engaging audiences. There is a long way to go and education is critical. Creativity is key to innovation and it needs to be encouraged in children and adults.
All the arts need to be given greater importance in Australia. As a society we need to work toward the day when the daily arts round up follows the sport on the nightly news.
They can assist us to rethinking what is normal and acceptable. I take great delight in shocking work, it sparks discussion. We just have to make the nature of the discussion more constructive.
There has been ample done in art since the 50s that would be considered shocking to most people. They don’t have mainstream attention and are considered important in terms or art history.
The performance where Chris Burden was shot in a gallery in 1971 and French performance artist Orlan's multiple cosmetic surgeries in the 90s are common fodder in the world or art history and shocking at the time. To some people would be shocking even today even though the works are decades old.
Who (if anyone) would you cite as being influences or inspirations to your work over the years?
British artist William Turner had a distinct style I admired and infused into my painting for a long time. Of course all I had was art book reproductions to follow, when I finally saw his work I realized I had it all wrong and that the reproductions never captured the emotive texture of his painting.
It was sobering to see that the printed page mediated my work and it’s turned out to be a departure point for me rather than a pale imitation of his style.
In the 90s I was immediately fascinated by French artist Orlan for her cosmetic surgeries and her presentation of surgery as art. Her assertive feminist stance in the reclaiming of the female body, her pioneering work is one that I drawn from and built on in my own work where surgery becomes Art.
Cindy Sherman for her work with recreating identity through photography.
Do you consider your work to be political? Why/why not?
Yes. Because: I’m queer, sex/gender variant, ethnic and live with MS. I’ve been a trans-woman, morbidly obese, gay and a leatherman.
I live/have lived many “undesirable” identities. All of which I assert as valid and defend to the death. My identity has never really been fixed. All these identity boxes are the essence of who I have become and how I thrive in the world.
As a feminist I adopted the stance that the personal is political in my late teens and understood my very presence is a political position. I felt like a bit of a sham that I never became an active member of any group to organise protests. I do rally at marches to protest for a more just society.
I take any attack on a groups culture personally. I’m not black, Muslim or a sex worker. I’m an advocate for multiculturalism and the right for various cultures to coexist. My parents came to Australia as migrants from Greece and as a child I lived through some dark days of vilification and mockery of ethnic groups in the 70s. It was difficult to reconcile two identities at the time and made learn an appreciation for difference and a celebration of diversity.
I’ve come to understand my art and my mere existence is a political act. In 2008 I turned club promoter and ran a club night called Tranni Panic. It was a space for transpeople to call their own, trans folk on the decks, performing and running the place. It was inherently a political act and the response I got was awesome. It attracted queers and the curious; it was a lot of fun and great to be a part of. I later came to see it as a political action.
To make a space for people to be themselves and have a fun without being capitalized on or fetishised was a great joy. I was sad to let it go, although I loved the fun times. I had to get back to my art practice.
I have a broader view of political activism, which is possible on the dance floor, on the gallery wall and in the classroom.
Outside your own work, you also teach design, right?
I have been teaching design for the past ten years. Teaching is a profession I came to in my last twenties. It was something I had a natural affinity for and has continued to have as a part of my broader practice. It wonderful to be instrumental in peoples lives. Esp. Young people. I have no interest in parenting or raising children of my own and teaching satisfies the role to help initiate citizens into the world.
I take my responsibilities as an educator seriously. I approach my students with great respect and command the same. I consider my role as a teacher as a privileged position to discuss and explore difference and diversity in addition to the practicalities of the design discipline.
Students thrive on this, especially Design students who become responsible for the images and communication we see in advertising and other communication media, especially in terms of the digital arena.
As designers they must understand the world’s diversity and never opt for images that reinforce stereotypes and reduce our visual world to something predicable and dogmatic.
I’ve had opportunities to develop my teaching and recently I have written an online Performance Art unit for COFAonline. The College of Fine Arts has a fully online Masters coursework degree. Some of the performance I discussed earlier in terms of not needing an audience to undertake performance meant it was possible to create an online course in Performance Art.
You seem to have a foot in the camp of mainstream (through your teaching) and another in the counterculture/fringe camp (with your performances). How do you reconcile the two, without ‘selling out’?
My role in the classroom is not defined by my artistic practice. I act as a conduit for information and to challenge my students thinking so they can become productive citizens. I share my work with them when its relevant or they take an interest. I do like to keep my private life private even though my work is often public; the work I make is not entirely autobiographical.
When I teach design I draw from other experiences of my practice, esp. the many years I had in design. I share more about my artistic practice when I work with postgraduates at COFA online, it more relevant.
I have some aspects of my performance that is not often recognized in terms of my artistic practice. In terms of artistic practice I feel that my work is not so radical.
Please say something about your latest projects, including the ‘simple action’ series and anything upcoming.
The simple actions are a new direction for my performance. They have a gestalt quality as any one performance is not so great, I’m working at the totality of the works to have a greater quality that any one of the performances. I
’m undertaking some of the other performances later this year.
Any other comments?
It’s difficult to pinpoint anything certain about my work. It’s quite varied in terms of the materials I use and the perspectives that my work explores. This is something that I have struggled with over the years and now I sit comfortable with. I like that my work looks like it’s all over the place. I work hard and I’m ambitious for my work.
To be kept up to date with Yiorgos’s projects, email him at artaddict [at] unwired.com.au to go on the mailing list.
Photo credits from top: Haikam; Jeremy Dillon; Yiorgos Zafiriou; Kristen Elsby; Theresa Caruana.