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INTERVIEW
Black and White & Gold All Over

The artist Panos Tsagaris tells his story from Athens to New York and discusses mythology, ritual and the alchemy of gold.

Interview by Pam Grossman, first published in Abraxas #5

Panos Tsagaris is Greek speaking New York artist. Working with such disparate materials as gold, blood, light, photocopies and newsprint, he manages to distil the idea of the fine versus the mundane into a bold visual shorthand that relies as heavily on graphic design principles as it does on alchemical symbolism. Upon first glance at a typical piece of his, one could not be blamed for assuming it was a poster for an obscure art film or a new death metal album. Though drinking deeply from the well of Greco-Alexandrian Hermeticism and its many offshoots, Tsagaris manages to create imagery that feels wholly of our time. His pieces are an exercise in both/and thinking. Cheap and priceless, dark and gleaming, they challenge us to reconcile their dualities, and thus come to terms with the contradictions within everything.

The concept of gilding – both metaphorical and literal – is key to Tsagaris’s work: gold-leaf text is painted on photographs of body parts; sacred oils anoint his drawings; rays shine in aureoles from self-portrait photographs; front pages of newspapers are treated like redacted illuminated manuscripts. It’s easy to refer to King Midas here, or even to da Vinci’s God-to-Adam index point. There’s something alluring about those who can sacralise solely through the power of touch. Tsagaris ups the ante, however, by using not only his handcraft but his actual blood – literally bleeding for his paintings at times. Hoc est corpus, hocus pocus. This is his body, he tells us, and transmutes himself into a work of art.

 

Pam Grossman: You were born in Athens and now you’re living and working in New York. What spurred your move?

Panos Tsagaris: I first moved to Canada from Europe to go to university; while studying in Vancouver I had the chance to visit New York a couple of times. I fell in love with the city’s energy and decided to move here right after my graduation. I’ve been here for nine years and I still love walking around the city by myself for hours, but trying to remain sane and balanced while living in one of the most materialistic, competitive and fast-paced cities in the world is an ongoing challenge.

PG: So how do you do that? Remain sane, I mean.

PT: Making art helps me a lot – it is like meditation for me. I do also meditate and do yoga. Reading my books is another daily ritual, mostly at the end of the day for an hour. It slows down time, and it also allows my body and brain to rest and to focus on the moment.

PG: Greece obviously has such deep roots in the mythological and esoteric space. How has your background informed your work?

PT: In school, we were taught from an early age about the mythological history of our country, the gods and goddesses, the Oracle of Delphi, the mysteries of Eleusis, and so on. You kind of take it for granted and believe that all countries have such a rich mythological past. It wasn’t until I left Greece that I got truly interested in my country’s history. I have done extensive research on the ancient Eleusinian and Samothracian mysteries; their inspiration and influence can be found in many of my artworks and performances.

Panos Tsagaris, The Triad, 2010. 23 ct gold on photocopies, 100 white roses, 3 golden nails, oil of cinnamon, oil of myrrh, galangal oil, hyssop oil, olive oil. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries Athens–Thessaloniki.

PG: When did you first start making art? And when did your work start reflecting occult themes?

PT: I always enjoyed drawing and painting, and when I was about sixteen I decided that I wanted to become an artist. In my first year at art school, I was introduced by accident to the personal library of a family member who happened to be a Freemason; there I found books on the ancient Egyptian and Greek mysteries, the Qabalah and Hermeticism. Up to that point my artwork had no direct or deliberate spiritual influences; as I continued my research on the occult, traces of this new knowledge slowly started to appear in my art. Everything happened very slowly and organically, nothing was forced, and I am very thankful for that. A couple of years after my graduation, my art – my life in total – was very inspired and influenced by the occult.

PG: One of the things that first drew me to your work is that you seem to really play with the dichotomies of sacred/profane. The pieces of yours I first encountered – and was lucky enough later to have in my show Alchemically Yours – were photocopies you then embellished with 23-carat gold. You instructed me to just tack them to the wall, like one would with rock posters, which frankly terrified me! But I was also really moved by the tension of having such a fine work of art that was made of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ materials, and that was hung in a bit of a haphazard, potentially even damaging way. What is it about that polarity that appeals to you?

PT: I often use cheap, mundane materials for parts of my works. The photocopies symbolise the material part of our existence, while the gold on top of them is the divine part; together they represent the disconnection, the broken link between the two. The elevation of the material self and the restoration of the divine body within us is the ultimate goal in one’s life.

PG: Though your work has shifted stylistically over the years, one fairly constant through line is the use of gold. When did you start using this as a material, and why?

PT: Like modern alchemists, our quest in this life is to transform our undeveloped consciousness into a fully developed consciousness. Life is a purification process during which we aim to elevate our impure self to the level where it can reunite with its divine source; the gold used on my artwork is a reminder of that process and that ultimate goal.

PG: Your work from a few years back uses your own blood. Can you describe as much of the process of making those pieces as you care to share? First of all, I’m curious how, logistically, you got the blood from your body, and then made it such a delicate substance to paint with. And second, I’m wondering how your blood works differ from your gold works for you, energetically speaking.

PT: The blood drawings are some of the most personal works I have done so far. I started on this series in 2006, and by 2008 I had made about twenty drawings (each 60″ × 40″). I was interested in creating a series of artworks that would act more as talismans, drawings that would reflect the self-sacrificial aspect of my art. I originally intended to keep most of those drawings in my studio and use them as amulets. Eventually I presented them in a couple of solo exhibitions in Athens and Berlin. Making them was a bit tricky because I had to work very fast before the blood started to clot, and that gave all of those drawings a non-perfect look that I really like. Each of them took weeks to make since the amount of blood I was collecting at a time was only enough to finish a very small part of the drawing.

Panos Tsagaris, Behold Thy Soul Is a Living Star, 2012. 23 ct gold and copper on archival print, 51 × 76 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries Athens–Thessaloniki.

PG: I haven’t yet had the honour of witnessing any of your performances, but the stills I’ve seen make them look highly ritualised. You’ve mentioned you do them very rarely. How do you devise these ceremonies, and when do you know it is time to do one?

PT: Most of my performances are private: me locked in my studio with a video camera. I rarely do public ones, they mostly occur when I need the assistance of the audience. My public performances often end with a gift that I offer to the audience. My performances are rituals – purification rituals – inspired by everyday moments: walking, drinking water, counting my breath, kissing, and so on, presented in a way that is inspired by religious ceremonies (life is an ongoing ceremony, after all). The feeling has to come first, then if it’s appropriate it might be transformed into a whole ritual. I am not a performance artist; performance is a tool for me that I can use if I desire, but most times I choose not to. I am also too shy a person.

PG: I noticed a few of your pieces use sacred oils: hyssop in particular shows up several times. When did you start working with them, and why?

PT: I first started using some essential oils while working in my studio, then I started researching the qualities and benefits of each oil and its significance in ancient religious ceremonies. I believe the first time I used sacred oils, including hyssop, in a performance was in 2005.

PG: Do you create your work ritualistically as well, then? In other words, were you originally using the oils, for example, to get you into a more otherworldly creative space?

PT: I do try as much as possible to treat my studio the same way a magician will treat his/her altar. I often perform purification rituals to clean the air and energy of the space. At the completion of each artwork I meditate for a few minutes in front of it, often with both my hands placed on the work, in order to transfer positive energy to it.

PG: I’ve often posited that art is magic, and that creating something is, in fact, doing a working. Would you ascribe to this theory?

PT: Yes, definitely. Art for the most part has no functional purpose or value – it is the visual representation of the emotions, dreams, fears, ideas and hopes of the artist. The artist projects this energy into the work; the magic comes in when some of the energy is then passed to the audience upon viewing it.

PG: Your earlier pieces were highly figurative – taking photographs of someone (presumably yourself?) and then overlaying them with golden text and alchemical diagrams. I note a recent turn towards the abstract, however, with far more shapes and rays and lines. What brought about this change, do you think?

PT: My art in many cases is a visual translation of various mystical and spiritual philosophies and ideas, which tend to be quite complex and abstract (as well as simple at the same time). The recent abstract series of works is my attempt to understand and visually represent those ideas by focusing more on emotions and less on logic.

Panos Tsagaris, The Mystic Death of the Kiss, 2009. Photograph of performance at the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennial of Contemporary Art, Greece. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries Athens–Thessaloniki.

Panos Tsagaris, The Inability to Interpret Sensations in This Excess of Light, 2007. Video still from performance at the Assab One Foundation, Milan. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries Athens–Thessaloniki.

PG: So is it fair to say the abstraction frees you up a bit, as an artist?

PT: I believe that it does help. Usually during my creative process I need to have a clear reason for everything I do, every single element in my art must have specific purpose and placement. I leave almost nothing to luck. This new abstract direction allows me to loosen up a bit and to create works that are intuitive and structured at the same time.

PG: Artists and occultists alike are notorious for being secretive about their resource materials, yet on your blog you freely share images of books you’re reading or symbols you’re incorporating into your work. Are you ever afraid you’re giving away your ‘secrets’?

PT: I collect first-edition mystical books; some of these have been the main source of inspiration for many of my artworks. In a way they are equally important. I created an online portfolio (http://panos-tsagaris.tumblr.com) so that I could present my art and my books next to each other, as equals; I believe that one can understand my art better by seeing and reading some of the images and text that have influenced it.

PG: What are some favourite books in your collection?

PT: Usually the most recent addition is also my favourite. I just finished reading The Text Book of Advanced Freemasonry (London: Reeves and Turner, 1873) – a great and very informative read on the higher Masonic degrees.

PG: Who/what are some of your influences and inspirations? 

PT: The love that I get from my family has been a continuous source of inspiration and strength for me. So many philosophers have inspired and influenced the way I see the world. To name only a few: Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Jesus Christ, Helena Blavatsky, George Gurdjieff and Mikhail Bakunin.

Panos Tsagaris, yet to be titled, 2012. 23 ct gold on photocopy, 135 × 85 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries Athens–Thessaloniki.

PG: The pieces you created for this issue are splendid. Can you explain your intent for them?

PT: Here are a couple of paragraphs from the book The Secret Wisdom of the Qabalah by J. F. C. Fuller, the first quoting the Zohar, that will give you a better idea of what this diptych is about:

This small still voice represents the Shin emerging from YHShVH, which by turning the darkness into a luminous mirror enabled YHVH to be reflected upon it. Then only was the balance between the Former and the Formless established. As the divine spark scintillated forth, ‘He caused a wind to blow from above against a wind that blew from below. From the shock of the meeting of these two winds, a Drop emerged and rose from the depths of the abyss. This Drop united the winds and from the union of these winds the world was born’

. . . With the disintegration of Tetragrammaton we sink into the carnal . . . The Vau must unite with the Heh, for when it does so, in accordance with the magical law of inversion (Necessity), the Yod will unite with the Heh, and the Shin – the Flaming Sword – will be plunged into the heart of Tetragrammaton . . . materiality will vanish; the Trees of Life and of Good and Evil will dissolve into one; and as this unity takes form, not only will Tetragrammaton be re-established, but simultaneously will he become Yod Heh Shin Vau Heh, the Messiah.

Panos Tsagaris, Pentagrammaton/Tetragammaton (diptych). Mixed Media, 2013.

PG: What are you working on now?

PT: I am finishing a series of artworks that I will be presenting at the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale (curated by Adelina von Fürstenberg), which will open on 18 September 2013. These works are based on a series of New York Times front pages that I have been collecting over the last three years whose lead stories reported on the economic crisis and the riots and demonstrations in Greece. All the text and smaller images are covered with gold leaf, exposing only the main photograph. Using those front pages I am creating a series of diptychs and triptychs that symbolically represent the purification process that my home country has been going through – just as in alchemy the undeveloped consciousness (lead) transforms into a fully developed consciousness (gold). Through a complex and sometimes painful process, the pure separates from the impure.

Panos Tsagaris, The Union (triptych). Gold leaf on archival prints, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki.

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