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'We need art that gets people closer to it'

Alexandra Kehayoglou describes how her textile sculptures capture the essence of endangered natural habitats, like the Santa Cruz River she recreated for the NGV Triennial exhibition

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Alexandra Kehayoglou with her work No Longer Creek, 2016. Photos: Supplied

I hope the work connects people to the importance of this natural approach to life, and how to re-connect to the land in a world that has to do more with digital and industrialized contexts. To get on the carpet, most of the people kneel, and go down to floor level; this is already important for me, since they get down to an unfamiliar position to experience "nature" and, even more, a decimated landscape that will disappear. I feel it's like a prayer for the land.
05 February 2018

The National Gallery of Victoria's 'Triennial', has been one of the art events of the year. Since its opening, the free exhibition has been attracting hordes of visitors, marvelling at a series of urgent works of contemporary art. There is one specific installation that seems to be particularly welcoming to people, Alexandra Kehayoglou's Rio Santa Cruz. The work is a large three-dimentional tapestry, recreating the river bed of the Santa Cruz River, one of the last unexploited glacial rivers from Patagonia that connects the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors are welcome to touch the textile, lie on the rug, have a personal, tactile experience of the artwork. The Greek-Argentinian artist would not have it any other way.
For her, this is the best way for the audience to relate to the work and get the message of the effect of deforestation and riverbed devastation on our lives.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1981, Kehayoglou has made a name for herself creating large sculptures out of textile materials provided by the industrial carpet manufacturing company El Espartano, a family business with a 60-year presence.
She talks with Neos Kosmos about her work, the importance of textiles, and her aspiration to "change the speed of time."

Alexandra Kehayoglou's Rio Santa Cruz, as exhibited in NGV #triennial.

How did you get involved with the NGV Triennial?

We came to Melbourne for the first time in February 2017 for the press announcement of the NGV Triennial. I got to see the work of Emiliy Kame Kngwarreye as part of the exhibition 'Who is Afraid of Colour?'
Getting to know her work changed me and my approach to my work. The environmental aspect of my work was to be able to embrace a more thoughtful
concern - connecting to a more primitive perspective, relating to ancestral knowledge and the exploration of vegetation and the representation of these by women artists. After this, getting involved in the Triennial itself was very enriching, meeting the work of many artists and designers that are contemporary to my work, and making it possible for my carpets to be visited by so many people in the four months that the Triennial is open. I had this opportunity of going very deep into a subject, and the NGV perspective has been always very enriching.


Why did you participate with Santa Cruz River?

The project was born out of the interest in water issues in Argentina and in the world, and how big projects are putting at risk important information that goes down rivers and flows through oceans. I had been working with the importance of native landscape for more than five years, and I decided to take a leap forward and address a bigger issue such as the construction of two big electric dams that will flood more than 500 square kilometres of virgin land of Patagonia.

Installation view of Alexandra Kehayoglou, Santa Cruz River, 2017 at NGV Triennial at NGV Melbourne 2017. Photo: Ben Swinnerton.

How does this work fit in with the overall concept of the Triennial?

I guess it fits since it tackles an important current conflict regarding nature, politics, and the relationship we have with the land.


What was the initial spark for this project?

The conception of the work involved travelling twice to the location of the Santa Cruz River, in Patagonia, next to Calafate. We visited the amazing Perito Moreno Glacier, that feeds the river with glacier water. On our second visit, we went down the river on a kayak expedition with photographers, biologists, engineers, and a political activist from Argentina. This trip was definitely a big spark for the project. The documentation I gathered from this trip is unique; from images, drawings, and encounters with fossils more than 100 million years old. This trip was definitely a challenge, as well as the conception of the final work for the Triennial.

How do you relate, personally and emotionally, to this work?

Through this project, my work and my practice reached a new level of compromise. As an artist, it is difficult to think that a work can not affect you in personal or emotional ways, but what happened to me, the new perspective this work gave me is much higher than anything I have ever done. And it has to do with spirituality and really getting on track with defining my contribution as an artist.

How independent is any work of yours, once it's completed?

I like to think my works come to life once they leave the studio. We see these rolls of carpet coming out into the gallery and being unrolled to show all the work that has been done for months in the tufting canvas. Further to this, once people actually start to interact with the work, and get on the carpet and experience the landscape, it feels that the work is completed; people are finally part of the project too. Lately I am very interested in the relationship between people and this proposal of forensic land that I bring into the gallery space.

Visitors at the NGV are welcome to touch your work; how does this physical experience translate to an emotional interaction?

I expect people to translate their respect to nature into how they respect the work and decide to interact with it. I think that the carpet is able to reveal some part of our inner attitude toward taking care of the land. Regarding emotional interaction, I hope the work connects them to the importance of this natural approach to life, and how to reconnect to the land in a world that has to do more with digital and industrialised contexts. To get on the carpet, most of the people kneel, and go down to floor level; this is already important for me, since they get down to an unfamiliar position to experience 'nature' and, even more, a decimated landscape that will disappear. I feel it's like a prayer for the land.

Alexandra in Rio. 

What is it in the world of textiles and tapestry that attracted you?

This world has been travelling through my bloodline for many, many generations; I didn't choose this medium, it chose me. I've been surrounded by tapestries and carpets since I was a kid, and my father has always talked about carpets. My first works were more related to painting and photography, and I also explored sculpture, using many techniques. But once I started making carpets, almost by chance, there was some natural technique that was coming from another generation into the canvas.
How do you relate to the material?
I relate to the material through the skin; I feel textiles are important, since people can easily relate to them and we need art that gets people closer to it, not that detaches them from feeling or understanding the work. So it's easy to relate with something that is similar to our skin. For me, this is of great importance.

Your work is an urgent commentary on our relationship with the natural environment. How significant is this for you?

My work is not only about nature, but also about the forensic understanding of how the landscape is changing through time with the presence of humans. My work intends to change the speed of time and the way human beings go through it. Textiles can be approached in many ways. This is what makes them so powerful.
In each piece I try to restore landscapes that could be decimated or that could disappear with the advance of mankind back to their pristine state. For example, in No Longer Creek – the big installation I presented at Art Basel, in the Design at Large program, with the sponsorship of digital art platform ARTSY – I recreated the Raggio Creek located in the North of Buenos Aires. This landscape is extended in beautiful green natural lentil carpets. Its topographic features are of great interest to the city where I live, since the creek is the only course of transparent water that flows into the River Plate (Río de la Plata).
Unfortunately, it was put at risk by irresponsible municipal policies. Its banks were badly damaged by different activities concerning the ongoing process of economic and technological modernisation. Finally, thanks to the neighborhood assembly and the untiring work and commitment of activists, the creek was saved by means of a legal resolution. This work generates a physical effect that allows the possibility of entering a new state of consciousness. The viewer can interact, make use of the rug, touch it, step on it, and therefore be part of a unique and unrepeatable moment which is captured with a camera. This space-textile practice addresses the dynamics of change that go along with the transformation in urban landscapes. In a way, the viewer is immersed in a timeless stage where everything starts again. I try to visualise how nature struggles to survive in a hostile environment. In a way, I try to restore this creek back to life, to its natural, pre-human state. The creek is brought from past to present and at the same time it creates consciousness about what our future could be.

What is the role of art in today's social and political environment?

The role of art for me, is that it's a tool or medium to put light on a reality; it is about communicating something that has the power to make a significant effect in the body and the way that we sense what surrounds us. This is a very personal impression but I truly believe in this medium to channel information and address an audience. In addition to this, I am also interested in the documentary function of art, how it can act as a forensic document, in my case, of the landscapes that are being decimated.

How has your Greek background affected your work?

My work has to do with tracing a tradition and rediscovering it through working; coming from a Greek family in Argentina has always been quite special. Thanks to my work I could understand a lot of things that belong to the genetic and cultural path of my family, and I think I will continue to understand and learn much more as my practice evolves. Today, being Greek to me means staying close to my ideals, and feeling strong about them, but sometimes it has to do with a nice tzatziki and a lot of olive oil.

Will Smith at the NGV yesterday. Photo: Facebook

NGV's 'Triennial' explores cutting edge technologies, architecture, animation, performance, film, painting, drawing, fashion design, tapestry and sculpture featuring the work of over 100 artists and designers from 32 countries. The free exhibition is on at NGV International (all levels) until 15 April. For more information, visit ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/ngv-triennial
Follow Alexandra's work on Facebook at Alexandra Kehayoglou Studio

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