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1/ Xenia Hotel Nafplio , 1961. Photographic archiv
1/ Xenia Hotel Nafplio , 1961. Photographic archives Benaki museum

Iris Touliatou at Palais de Tokyo

The Paris-based Greek artist takes on urban structures, deconstructing myths and fantasy of modernism

Munchkin of an artist Iris Touliatou is set to conquer, dissect and photograph the world. Athens-born, she now lives in Paris, and recently showed at Palais de Tokyo. With the eye of an anthropologist, she questions urban structures, may they be physical, symbolic, imaginary. She scrutinously inspects and deconstructs myths of modernism and the fantasy of progress. Dazed met her in the marais and talked sociology, Athens and contemporary magic.

Dazed Digital: Why art?
Iris Touliatou: 'Cause I get to wear big white shirts, a beret and drink red wine all day.

DD: Where did you study, and how did you end up in Paris?
Iris Touliatou: I studied in Athens, in the School of Social and Political sciences, and successively in the School of Fine Arts. During my 3rd year of Art studies, I took an exchange grant to Paris, where I spent a somewhat unproductive and blurry semester. I decided to apply for the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris just before my departure and was accepted. I have lived and worked in Paris for almost seven years now.

DD: What was the inspiration behind your current show at the Palais de Tokyo?
Iris Touliatou: The XENIA Hotels, were all designed by prominent Greek architects in the 60s and were at the core of the most ambitious state project to modernize the Greek tourist infrastructure after the Second World War. Up until 1965 approximately 60 modern Xenia hotels were built all over the country.  They have now been in their majority abandoned, vandalized, and are no longer operational.

The national tourist organization promoted its new architectural feat through the rising Greek film industry. Inspired by the cinematic and almost fictional presence of the architecture, my project’s title “APOLLO GOES ON HOLIDAY,” is borrowed from a Greek movie made in 1968. This propagandist film aimed to boost the tourism trade, was camouflaged as a romantic musical adventure, and was partly set in one of the Xenia Hotels.

DD: How did you translate this onto a work of art?
Iris Touliatou: For the series ECLIPSE I and ECLIPSE II, I worked with archival material from architectural and scientific magazines of the 60’s and replicated architectural elements of the hotels, in particular the shades or “brises-soleil” found on their façade. My intentions were to create a new mise-en-scène of the modernist propaganda.

DD: What themes are recurrent in your work?
Iris Touliatou: My work refers both to a physical urban landscape and to a visionary or fictional one. It borrows elements from Modernist architecture, archetypes of certain periods that evoke an idea of architectural and democratic utopia, examines failing social structures and contemporary urban pathologies. These elements are re-activated through (re) constructions and unanticipated associations, to create the set design for scenarios that teeter between fiction and reality.

DD: Who would you say are your main influences?

Iris Touliatou: The Weimar film industry, Agitprop Theater and the Russian constructivists, tourism posters, pre-1950’s science fiction films, astronauts, tight rope walkers and stage magicians. 

DD: Who was the first artist/ art work you were ever a fan of and why?
Iris Touliatou: In 1994 (I think) I was 13 years old when my high school organized a fieldtrip to an exhibition by the high priest of Arte Povera Jannis Kounellis. The show took place inside the cargo ship Ionion, moored at the port of Piraeus. There, amongst a group of sweaty, bored and noisy teenagers, I remember entering the vessel through an iron staircase and descending into what I can only describe as a “belly”.

Even though at the time I was far away from conceiving this as an artwork, the use of this floating architecture still haunts my mind. Its conceptual and physical weight created a metaphysical experience that I would find again years later when discovering Rothko, a Gordon Matta Clark or a Robert Smithson. I also really like Bob Ross.

DD: You are Greek but show internationally. How does growing up in Greece influence your work today?
Iris Touliatou: Growing up in a periphery leads to the invention and use of metaphors and symbols and it surely endorses two kinds of knowledge, namely the belief in physical and tangible things as well as the illusions of things that don’t really exist. Accepting this delicate equilibrium I have developed a weakness for eternally precarious structures, fissures and misfits, sand, marble and concrete, light and shades, impromptu singing and dancing on top of ruins and monuments, tragedies, failures and similar dramatic set ups and mise en scenes.