Zoe Chressanthis’ Utopian World
Kimi Hanauer explores the subtle familiarity in the sculptural worlds of Zoe Chressanthis.
Part I: A Place To Rest
The exhibition YET, UNKNOWN proposes that knowledge is dependent on an understanding of the unknown that is based on our own experience of the world. Humans are motivated to understand, and attempt to control, the contexts in which they inhabit. We use common sense to determine our own behavior, language, and understanding of our surroundings as we navigate different environments. In the text Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, a French theorist, defines the term doxa as a commonsense knowledge that is tied to the specific cultural identity of a place and defines social norms that are often left unspoken, or taken for granted. Doxa is a kind of commonsense that certain ‘natural’ inhabitants of a place are indoctrinated into, and others, visitors for example, are not able to easily pick up on.
The idea of doxa came to mind while investigating Zoe Chressanthis’ body of work and wondering what type of logic or commonsense defines the creation and navigation of her constructed environments. Chressanthis’ style embraces a naivety while remaining assertive, building miniature worlds out of plasticine clay accompanied by dramatic colorful lighting that pushes each scene to appear as a dreamscape. Made up of seemingly ‘natural’ occurrences, organisms, plant life—generally uninterrupted by human behavior—these environments linger between known and unknown realities. Her spaces feel quiet and empty of human touch, with the lone animal-like presence of a small snake crawling up a rock, for example. In this tranquility, agency is held by the artist’s characters such as metallic palm trees, gravel, starfish, cactuses, and other plant-like organisms that are less recognizable. While typically presenting her work through films, animations, and images, in this exhibition Chressanthis moves her practice into the realm of sculpture, presenting the worlds themselves. For YET, UNKNOWN, she is creating a new ecosystem for our minds to find rest and ease within, a space we have probably unconsciously desired to escape to at one point in time.
Chressanthis transports the viewer into an environment where the existing landscape and logic isn’t immediately identifiable, uniquely positioning them to experience a mismatch of internal and external doxa. This position, between the known and unknown, initiates our own subjectivity, thus allowing the acknowledgment that our understanding of the world is based on personal, emotional, and experiential factors. In other words, through these works, the artist asks us to identify the place from which our knowledge comes from—the subjective lens through which we see and understand the world around us. Through producing these utopian environments within a paradoxical frame, Chressanthis is asserting a type of authority over our society’s relationship to the natural world, reminding us of our emotional and physical ties to that which gives us life. These environments, seemingly thriving, subsequently ask us to reflect on exactly what it is we are escaping during a time where society is readily on its way to destroying our natural world.
Chressanthis’ ability to connect us with our place of ‘escape’ is a powerful questioning of the viewer. What makes the viewer feel free, safe, comfortable, and calm in these spaces? What are the conditions and variables the viewer is escaping from? What limits the conditions of safety and freedom the viewer experiences within the work from existing in reality? This questioning reinforces work being created by many other artists, cultural producers, and activists today, working to shift and expand our understandings of the world around us, in the hopes of transforming society. For cultural change to take form, we need artists who guide us to recognize our biases and prejudices, who ask us to acknowledge the experiences of others, and who are finding and facilitating moments of empathy. Chressanthis’ work and the experiences she creates is a necessary complement to other modes of cultural work happening today. This work is a call for empathy: when you accept your own subjectivity, you must also accept the subjectivity of others. This positioning is a fundamental and powerful shift away from dominant dichotomies of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘truth and false,’ that often violently structure our co-existence.
Part II: Speaking with Chressanthis
What motivates your work? Powerful and sometimes merciless parts of nature: the desert, the sea, mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Also forming a space in which people do not reside, or maybe they have been taken by the land itself.
How would you describe the relationship between the different, yet related, landscapes you are building? Destinations like, Dune Valley, Pink Desert Clouds, Lagoon Falls, Mers Springs and now Palm Lake appear to exist alone, but really they are different environments with varying climates that reside within the same world and universe. As of now, I do not know the name of this world, or planet but I intend to form an atlas of sorts that fully describes the terrain of each location and what falls in between.
You talk about your environments as being transformative for the viewer. Can you expand on what experience you hope to create? Until recently, my environments have been viewed through animation or in photographs and paintings. “View of Palm Lake,” is an immersive environment, and like my films, it is simply an observation of a habitat, currently vacant of any inhabitants. I intend for it to be a destination that you can place yourself in while experiencing not only its visual details but also its sounds, and scents. This full sensory experience may give the illusion this place is possible, when in our reality it is implausible. A fully imagined land, presented without a perspective through film or 2D format.
This exhibition circulates around the idea of knowledge and the unknown. Do you feel like you’ve learned more about our reality through the creation of your environments? Yes definitely. This piece in particular is more tropical than others before, yet it lies in a cave, on an island, somehow still thriving. While my work often combines opposing vegetation and characteristics, it isn’t intended to be proven, I prefer it to remain mysterious. Much like certain aspects of our own reality, whether in nature or in society.
What is something that makes you feel free? Visiting my hometown, Topanga in Southern California. It is nestled in a canyon and if you drive only 15 minutes down a winding road you will find the ocean. Ironically I am afraid of water.
This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists.