Exploring the relationship between the body, memory and space, artist Patricia Voulgaris creates photographs and installations that map out the blueprint of her creative, experiential process. By situating her own body within paper sculptures and constructed sets, she creates physical abstractions in real time, photographing them in black and white to highlight the similarities and contrasts between textures and tones.
While her photographs are the visual record of this experimentation, Voulgaris’ work is necessarily rooted in her performance and physical explorations; how does the body relate to its surroundings, and how do these surroundings shape our perspective of our own bodies? More importantly, how can we visualize and recreate memories and experiences that aren’t usually captured in photographs? With her magnetic and conceptual imagery, the artist articulates her investigation into these dynamics, inviting viewers to engage in her visual discussion.
Curious about Voulgaris’ striking images and what sparked their creation, I reached out to her to speak about photography, performance, and how both can be used to explore the relationship between physical and mental experience in space and time.
LensCulture: Your creative practice results in a final photograph, but there’s a lot more that goes into your process leading up to that point. I’m curious about why you’re still drawn to photography as a medium for your artistic expression, even while dabbling in so many other methods.
Patricia Voulgaris: I started photographing in high school, so photography was, in a way, my first tool. I didn’t really feel comfortable using other mediums at the time. A camera was easy to pick up and take photographs with, but to actually conceptualize something was much more difficult. Back then, I really didn’t think of art as being something that could cross over into different mediums, but now I’m getting into things like sculpture, and my practice is much broader. But it does take a while to get comfortable with yourself and to get comfortable with using the tools around you to say what you want to say. It’s important to look at all different mediums, see what works for you, and never limit yourself.
LC: You’re interested in blurring the distinction between the texture and tone of flesh and other materials, like paper. How did bringing these two things together first manifest for you?
PV: When I first started studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, I was a student and didn’t have a lot of money, so I thought about what could be the cheapest and most economical material to use in my work. I didn’t have the luxury of affording what I really wanted, and paper was very accessible to me. I thought about how I could create and emulate something with materials that were already around me, and I also started reaching out to friends, saying, “Hey, this is sort of strange, but would you mind sitting for me so I can play with these materials around you?”
So I played around a lot at first, and then it turned into me only wanting to expose certain parts of peoples’ bodies. You need to play first in order to understand what it is you actually want to say. I was always very attracted to flesh and identity, so the body has always been of interest to me, and so has self-portraiture. I guess I’ve been doing these things all along without realizing it, and now it’s all turned into something more concrete.
LC: The way you exhibit your work is incredibly important. Your prints are hung and styled in a specific way, and other archival pieces are often integrated into the space. Why is it important for you to incorporate both images and the ephemera from your process into presentations of your work?
PV: Images and objects go hand-in-hand in my process. It is important to me that I show all aspects of my work. Sometimes the sculptures are more interesting than the photographs, or vice versa. I like to challenge the viewer in that sense. Everything that I make is an extension of myself, or it becomes a stand-in for my body. The body is replicated in every piece that I make over and over again in these subtle ways.
LC: A lot of your work is rooted in the distance and flicks between memories and specific moments in time. Your current work is a new take on this space and distance, but this time, as you said, with a heavier focus on the body. Can you speak a bit about your interest in the relationship between memory and the physical body?
PV: I am interested in how far I can push my physical body within a space, and how I can interact within that space. I apply my personal memories to spaces that are unfamiliar, or I will often recreate somewhere, like my childhood bedroom, from memory. I have also been thinking about how we measure distance both scientifically and emotionally, like the distance between family members, friends, enemies, lovers – and also the space between the subject and the camera. All of these ideas can be experimented with in the realm where memory and body come together.
LC: How do you think this interest in your own body – and bodies in general – began? I find this fascination usually starts with your own self, and then you start looking at how you are interacting with other people and how they are presenting or using their bodies in relation to yours.
PV: I started focusing on the body as soon as I started art school. I was taking a lot of self-portraits and photographs of my family. The camera gave me permission to photograph the people around me, and the photographs of my family that I was making at the time were intense and emotional. I certainly learned a lot about my own self through photographing the people who were important to me. It was crucial for me to document my life and go through that process of seeing myself through a photograph. Now, I have a better understanding of who I am and my relationship to my body and its importance in my practice.
LC: Tell me about your new work, Mere Exposure. I see your oeuvre as this endless narrative, but with distinct chapters throughout. Can you speak about how this particular section came about?
PV: Mere Exposure is a sort of continuation of my Fragments series. I like to think of every series that I create as an extension of the body. Memory and body are a constant theme in my work, and for this project I focused on the sculptural aspects of photography. Most of the photographs from this series are based on specific ideas. I became interested in how the body interacts with different shapes and forms that do or do not necessarily go together. In a strange sense, I was creating puzzles for my form, trying to navigate myself into a certain mold or sculpture. I really wanted to push myself and manifest these ideas in a studio environment. My only limitations were the ones that I placed on myself.
LC: And one new image in particular, “Studio View”, actually discloses the gaze of the photographer by revealing your set, which is definitely a new feature in your work. How did this come about?
PV: It’s the first time that I have ever shown my face, and it is terrifying! “Studio View” is a reveal of the space where I currently make photographs. I converted my parents’ attic into a somewhat workable studio, and I’ve been creating photographs there for a while. It’s sort of a bizarre space, and it was important for me to show the viewer the true nature of it– that a simple backdrop can be something so much more. The space around the white backdrop also adds another layer to the work.
LC: I find myself having a very visceral reaction to these images. They trigger an awareness of my own body while looking at them. How do you think photography plays a role in eliciting this sort of reaction from viewers?
PV: When we photograph ourselves, there are certain aspects of our bodies that we choose to hide from or reveal to the viewer. There is a real sense of empowerment for the photographer – it forces the viewer to recognize that the artist is present. The body in these photographs serves as a mirror for viewers to reflect on their own bodies.
LC: What do you think the next chapter in your exploration will be? Have you been thinking about how your work will evolve?
PV: I am working towards creating a new body of work that primarily focuses on the body in both unfamiliar and familiar spaces. I haven’t developed a title for this new project yet, because it’s still a work in progress, but I am focusing on more performative work. I’m in the beginning stages of mapping out a few new ideas, and I am going to include more video pieces in my work, which is very new territory for me. It will all come together in some strange and beautiful way, I hope.
—Patricia Voulgaris, interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj