We welcome the new year 2022 with an introspective conversation with Athens-based, Cypriot artist, Lito Kattou. This interview is a window in Lito’s references and inspiration for her latest body of work. She talks about growing up in Nicosia, and how the ancient natural scenery there, as well as the country’s turbulent socio-political climate and history, influenced her thinking and art-making. She also describes how her work, inspired by posthumanism, opens up gateways to a connection to “otherness”, depicting scales and temporalities that co-exist with ours yet are hidden from plain sight. Ultimately a meditation on the acknowledgment and acceptance of co-existing with other-than-human entities, Lito’s practice encapsulates an essential trait of contemporary art: one that, in the context of the climate crisis, can be of great help to humans.
Lito Kattou (Nicosia, 1990) is an artist based in Athens and Nicosia. Her works negotiate understandings of materiality and subjectivity through a composition of practices, spanning from digital fabrication to thermochemical elaborations. Her practice raises questions around the relationship between humans, animals and the environment. She is the recipient of the Ducato Prize 2019 and the New Positions Award for Art Cologne 2018. She has been the invited resident artist at Fondation Thalie Brussels, Art Hub Copenhagen, PCAI Contemporary Art Initiative, and 89 plus Google Residency. Recent solo shows have been presented at Galeria Duarte Sequeira Braga, T293 Rome, Artothek Cologne, Tile Projects Milan, Benaki Museum Athens, Point Centre for Contemporary Art Nicosia and she has participated in various group shows in museums, galleries and art spaces as in the Athens Biennale 7, the National Gallery Sofia, Culturgest Porto, Fidelidade Arte Lisbon, Ludwig Muzeum Budapest, Nottingham Contemporary, Kraupa Tuscany Zeidler Berlin, Midway Contemporary and Deste Foundation.
Adriana Blidaru: Hi Lito. Happy New Year! What are you excited and grateful for the year ahead?
Lito Kattou: Hello Adriana! Happy New Year to you too! Really anticipating this coming period. After two long exhausting years, due to the chaos of the historical event of the pandemic in which we all have drowned in different ways, I feel this as a personal moment of regeneration. I am quite optimistic for what might be revealed, excited for the journeys that will be there to embark on, both for the development of my practice and my personal growth, which I believe are interrelated. I am grateful for the synergies and the path-crossing with people, the sharing, the proximity, the care, the observance of affinities or differences, and I am looking forward to those unfolding further in fruitful dialogues and alliances. Excited also to get back to long-distance traveling despite the personal hesitation and awkwardness I might still have.
AB: Tell me a bit about your background: where did you grow up? Did you grow up around art? And when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
LK: Growing up in Nicosia, Cyprus has given me an idiosyncratic understanding of the east/west dipole. A place enormously turbulent politically and historically, violently Westernized but in extreme proximity to the Middle East or, I would say, part of it. At the same time, there is a strong colonial past unwrapping rapidly to a neo-colonialist present. A traumatized place that calls to my generation to deal with the repressed traces of sociopolitical violent events. This is filtered as a curse or as a blessing of understanding complexities. But all this unprecedented beauty hidden in the peculiarity that the Mediterranean Southeast provides, makes me think of examples of geology, history, mythology, natural resources, turbulence, hope, and transformation interwoven all together. I am not saying that all these do not exist in other spots too, but there is a certain fluidity, which can drive you crazy at moments and, at the same time, gives you food for thought.
I had no art background. My parents encouraged me and my sisters to travel, and so we started flirting with ideas of extraversion and multiculturality, reading literature, learning and playing music, and, somehow through that, I understood that I wanted to be an artist. I always dealt with art-making from a very early age: I had an urge to do stuff with my hands and, at the same time, I had questions; many unanswered existential questions. Questions for the order of the world, for the identity of the place I was growing up in, for myself, and also a growing fascination for astronomy and nature. I was thinking of those questions a lot while submerging into those primary states of art-making, as I recall. The life of an artist I guess : ).
AB: I read that you have a collection of fossils. What is it about natural history and archeology that you find interesting for your practice?
LK: I do! This relates to what I mentioned already: the geological peculiarity of Cyprus. The island emerged from the sea 1,85 million years ago due to friction between the tectonic plates. So what was the lowest part of the sea ground, ended up becoming the highest point of the mountains. As you can imagine, this vast movement of geological mass drifted together all of the marine life that was incorporated into the limestone; very substantial for the geological formation of the island. Troodos, the highest mountain and forest, is full of fossils.
I collected my first fossils when - totally ignorant, as a kid - I started hiking on the fragile limestone cliff in the backyard of my primary school. I was spending my school breaks filling up my pockets with shells which I then kept in wooden boxes. And I still do!
In this way, I was initially spellbound and I’ve become fascinated by the concept of time; of layering and coexistence of realities. Witnessing the evidence that different forms of life, other species, and afterward other human beings, have been present at this very same place I was connected with, constantly leaves me in awe. Being surrounded by stories, mythologies, archeological artifacts, and antiquities, which are inevitably present in such heavy cultural contexts, creates a reconciliation with death and life; an acceptance of linear and circular time.
In relation to my practice and this idea of time and futurity, and through the symbolic pursuit of a community that the characters I produce seek to create, I feel that it is inevitable to look forward without being aware of what has been around before. It is an effort to make sense of the coexistence of lives in different timelines, of the succession of eras, civilizations, and advancements. Very alike, a stack, as in geology, where every layer is affecting the next one. This is how I perceive this oscillation between archeology and futurity, a present time stacked with old and new temporalities.
AB: You often use the concept of landscape in your work: can you tell me what kind of landscapes inspire you and why? How does it further connect to your interest in new technologies?
LK: The landscape is a vehicle to talk about a potential territory, as the landscape is an image reduced to all the visible features of an area of land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.
I catch myself being mesmerized by those cliches like that of a sunset or the unexpectedness of a view of a cliff above the sea. In sunsets, the event is unapologetically totalitarian: a clear drowning geometrical body. A circular orange shape and a confident horizon. Often I think of the disperse of those images as cliches; think of the ease with which they are distributed online, the tackiness they represent, and, at the same time, I find there an existential archetype of our relationship with the Other: what is far outside from us.
My interest in new technologies, or let’s say ‘tools that can create simulations of worlds’, derive from this fascination. Which is somehow a way to bear the human scale. How many worlds can we grasp and interpret at once? How many worlds could exist simultaneously? And at the same time how many potencies, different scenarios of how things might have gone are there?
In the ongoing recent series of paintings (Sunset I-V, 2021) the works are part of a scenography of an undefined world, inhabited by undefined creatures, who wander in the shade of multiple sunsets. The gloomy environment, melancholic for its nature but at the same time vivid in burning hot colors, is a moment that persuades meditation. There, indeed, the circularity of time and its flow is examined through the presence of the Sun. The works are perceived as screens, capable of perhaps weakening an anthropocentric point of view and of opening up narratives towards new worlds.
AB: Can you then expand further on the connection between post-humanism, technology, and nature, as they play out in your work and thought?
LK: Post-humanism seeks to pursue other ways of encountering the other, an opposition to anthropocentrism and its fixed ideas of the human. How Cary Wolfe (Posthuman Glossary, 2018) sharply puts it: the human can no longer be perceived either as the root or the end of thought, it is not an explanation for the order of the world around us but that which needs to be explained. What composes the particularity of what we call ‘human’ are narratives in which the idea of the ‘human’, as we’ve inherited it from the Western philosophical tradition, is not capable of lifting extremely heavy “loads”. For instance, it does not represent the most conceptually demanding part of our existence as having a 'limited term'. It is considered that what makes humans ‘human’ is a rare relationship between language and cognition. But what is important to keep in mind, as Wolfe argues, is that human beings are prosthetic beings. Beings that from their beginning have been using prosthetic technologies to entrap and exemplify memory and communication which then has impacted the shaping of the physiology of the brain. And all those “primary” technologies are all of semiotics and codes, even the most primitive and elemental ones. Symbolic systems of communication. What we call ‘we’ is an assemblage of numerous relations between us and not us, the interior and the exterior, presence, and absence, the perishable organic and the indestructible inorganic. And this is what interests me. Somehow next comes the question of what is terminable, the death of the processes that shape us, but also the finitude of our relationship to the tools we have developed, the languages, codes, maps, semiotic systems that offer the world accessible to us.
The recognition that "the map is not the territory” (Gregory Bateson 1988) could make us think that the world we might be aware of, could be simultaneously the world we are unaware of. From this leverage, the land or territory, let’s say, becomes a virtual complex space with no solid interpretations. And from a more-than-human point of view, it shouldn’t mean less real but more real. I understand the interweaving of the post-human condition with the idea of the territory and technology as described by Wolfe (the different codes, semiotic systems, cartographies, the maps and tools we use to make sense of the world around us), both as a “becoming” index and an operator of complexity.
AB: It seems like you are using post-humanism to open up parallel worlds to ours, which is very interesting. I was reading that, a while ago, scientists discovered that the roots of young corn plants make regular clicking noises at 220 Hz (sounds and vibrations at a rate unnoticeable to humans) and it is speculated that it is a way of communication between plants. Oftentimes, posthumanism - in its link with technology - seems to be positioned somewhere in the future, yet still fixated on the human. It is, of course, important work that shakes some perspective and deep-seated beliefs, but it also relies on an undetermined future that is somewhat externally positioned, and, with the climate crisis, it feels like we cannot afford not to be in the present. I wonder if you feel the same way, and, if so, how do you reconcile this with posthumanism?
LK: Since posthumanism is an ongoing process of eradicating the Western dominant perception of what the human is and ignoring the behavior in which humans focus on themselves at the expense of all other species, it is inevitable not to deal with the present time. The idea of futurity has no priority in my way of thinking. Through the works, I am envisioning alternative symbolic approaches of becoming and living together in unprecedented, and in-between past and future times, as an allegory of finding ways to talk and approach the present. Through post-anthropocentric thought, we become aware of our numerous identities encircling not only other species and organisms but also the sustainability of our planet as a whole. I think indeed that the challenge of the posthuman condition concerning the current environmental and philosophical concerns is about confining the opportunities for new social bonding and community building while pursuing sustainability and empowerment exactly at the same very moment.
AB: Returning to some specific elements in your work: can you tell me more about the flowers that you sometimes include in your installations? What kind of plant is it and where do you normally find it?
LK: The copper or nickel-plated milk thistle flowers deal contextually with the idea of time and the transformation of materiality as they are collected dry from various spots in the Mediterranean area. They are then processed through electroforming to get a layer of copper, capable afterward to host any other metal coating on top. Their lifetime transforms in this way from organic and humane to the time of minerals and geology. The flowers conclude to hover simultaneously between fragility and threat, as they become a kind of metal spiked weapon. It all started when I began spotting milk thistles in Cyprus and I understood that they are everywhere. Since always. But, in disguise within the urban landscape, they somehow went unnoticed by me. Onopordum Cyprium is an endemic species to Cyprus, it can be found exclusively on the island with an outspread/ diffusion on locations from 0 to 1250 meters, and a large population dispersed almost everywhere: along roads and in empty fields. Onopordum could reach a height of 1.50 meters, and are upright biennial plants with a basal rosette, gray-hairy leaves, and large pink or purple flower head during the summer.
AB: I’m also interested in the use of fire in your work: as a metaphor for both technological evolution and destruction of the environment through the climate crisis that we’re experiencing. Can you tell me more about how the climate crisis reflects in your work? What do you think is the role of art - more generally - in the age of climate crisis?
LK: Fire appears in drawings and imagery on my sculptures’ “body epidermis”. I am thinking of these beings in an in-between state of functioning as non-gendered guards of nature, mythical creatures, fighters, endless walkers, and dreamers of places for symbiosis. Those drawings reveal the creatures’ origins and memories. A hint from where they are coming from, what they have been through or where they are heading to. The element of fire traced on their bodies implies that they have departed from tempestuous locations, holding memories of wildfire incidents or that, as protectors of landscapes, they will be able to soothe and heal affected from fire places they will be arriving at.
I am interested in the speculation of the post-human or the other-than-human body and its relation to the ecological shifts. How the body adapts, metamorphose, if any coping mechanisms arise collectively or individually, how bodies are represented in those new environmental regimes.
I perceive art as a refuge, a space of freedom, of openness and acceptance where the dominant narrative of what the human is, could be challenged and destabilized. Aiming to this potential flipping and by using art as a deconstruction tool, I feel that we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and the cosmos around us. Art as piracy but instead of attacking and robbing ships at sea it could attack consciousness and systems of belief, rob of their attention, and use it as fuel for new ways of becoming and co-existence.