OLGA CIRONIS

The first thing you notice about Olga Cironis’ portrait in ‘Home run’ from her series ‘Into the woods alone’ is her piercing, soulful eyes. Deep green wells that tell of a fiery sadness, of past wrongdoings that can never be erased. Within that sadness coexists a flicker of defiance; a desire to survive that burns brighter than her oppressors.

Olga Cironis is a Perth based multi-disciplinary artist whose practice is framed by her experience as being a migrant woman, born to Greek parents who were exiled to the Czech Republic after the civil war before migrating to Australia.

Her work explores issues such as political white washing, migration and the consequences of neo-liberalism. While many artists strive to interrogate these issues, what sets Olga apart is her careful consideration of materiality. She often uses found materials seeped in cultural meaning – from feathers sourced from lover’s pillow to an antique wooden piano – illuminating centuries-old stories of loss, identity, colonialism and otherness.

She ultimately invites the audience to consider a new perspective; to take off their cloak of bias – even for one moment – and to feel like part of something larger.

Olga’s work will be exhibited in Moving Nations.

Y

our work ‘Into the woods alone’ contains a confronting image of you with your mouth stitched up. As I understand it, this work is exploring your personal cultural heritage in Greece and the Czech Republic, can you please elaborate on this? 

In this work I am using my experience as a migrant woman living in Australia, as the backbone from where I tackle issues on identity and belonging, which inevitably leads to exploring and questioning current global issues such as political white washing, the effects of global environmental changes on migration and the consequence of neo-liberalism. All the while subverting the accepted tropes on mass culture.

I was born in what was then called Czechoslovakia to Greek refugee parents who were exiled children from and after the Civil War. (I am in confusion how governments can exile children from their homes, but nothing surprises me anymore)

The Greek Civil War happened after WW II. My parents as children were caught up in the conflict. Both their parents were partizans. My father was a young teenager involved as a messenger for the partizans. Mum was only a toddler when she was left in care at a refugee camp over the border in Yugoslavia, while her mother (Marika) returned to the mountains to fight alongside her husband. On her arrival in one of the partisan strong holds, she was found to be pregnant and was sent back to the refugee camp where her daughter was. On her return Marika found that her 1st daughter (my mother) was already moved on (misplaced) to another children’s camp. Then came the mass exodus of refugees from Greece and my mother (Bozana) was further misplaced believed to be dead. At 14 years of age Bozana was found and returned to her single mother, then living with other Greek refugees in Czech and two young daughters. (Greek refugees living in Czech were unable to return to Greece until early 1980’s).

My father was given permission from his father to join other children walking to safety. They crossed the border to Yugoslavia and waited to be moved to countries that were offering protection and education. The country my father was sent to was Czechoslovakia. Later his surviving family followed.

Both my parents were educated in Czech and worked there until in 1971 our family migrated to Australia. We settled in Western Sydney. Then, banks were lending money to new migrants to purchase their “dream home” in certain areas of Sydney and thus we found a home in the approved area of Sydney. Western Sydney in 1974 was a working class anglo area and where I first experienced aggressive racism. Now our family home is situated in multicultural areas of Sydney, a very different place to the one I remember.

Alexandra is a self-portrait photograph of a woman standing amongst studio props similar to those of the early 19th Century photographs. But unlike the photographs of yesterday where the subjects stare in surprise or indifference, she is staring directly at her audience. Dressed in a dark dress that hides any femaleness, her hair is covered, for practical reasons and to distract from any possible voyeuristic and fetishistic gaze from the audience. She stands both feet on the ground like that of her mother and mother before her. Her gaze is direct, if not menacing. Her lips are stitched tight yet there is much noise. Her gaze gives away the rage of many women. She stands beside a wooden table that holds a family photograph of her mother and younger sisters, celebrating her mother’s new arrival to Czech after her long absence. The two youngest girls in the photograph look on as the oldest of them stands clenching a handbag that does not belong to her. Standing in shoes that belong to her mother because she herself arrived barefoot. Beside the photograph and on the table is a small gold ceramic Kangaroo ashtray competing for attention, being placed there as a reminder of place.

This piece begins as a personal interpretation of misplacement and ends as a comment on the human condition of migration, identity and connection. This work like most of my work questions current social and cultural notions on belonging while subverting the ideological tropes of mass culture.

“…I tackle issues on identity and belonging, which inevitably leads to exploring and questioning current global issues such as political white washing, the effects of global environmental changes on migration and the consequence of neo-liberalism.”

From left: Home Run, archival digital print mounted on aluminium, 122 x 95.5 x 10cm, 2013. Alexandra, edition 1/4, archival digital print, 120 x 80cm, 2013. Images courtesy of the Artist.

Y

ou recently exhibited a work at Sculpture by the Sea called Falling. Could you please explain what issues this work is exploring? 

This work is about being vulnerable, belonging and our desire for connection. Falling is a site-specific sculpture that invites public participation. It is a silent work, ephemeral and melancholy. This sculpture is a whimsical interpretation of Daedalus and Icarus; an ancient Greek mythology about power, loss and redemption, while exploring our connection to place. Using feathers as a symbol for peace and a teacher’s chair in reference to wisdom and learning, Falling is about our mortal fragile impermanence.

The piece is made from a recycled wooden teacher’s chair (In my work I use recycled material loaded with historical meaning to add meaning). The chair is covered in feathers sourced from lover’s pillow and each feather is painstakingly, individually glued to the surface of the chair. I added height to the recycled wooden seat referencing the ‘Life Saver’s’ high chairs, once familiar on the beaches around Australia; a cultural symbol of Australian colonial history. Placed into the sand, facing the ocean, the feather sculpture is poised for flight and watching for danger. Could the danger be sharks, invading army, a drowning, refugees or ourselves? This piece is about human rights, identity, connection to land and belonging.

During the install of Falling on the beach, public was invited to sit upon the feather chair to contemplate the horizon. A quiet time for being present; to listen, feel and watch the world go by and experience a sense of belonging to something greater than self. As fragile as it seems with the feathers blowing in the wind, Falling is water resistant and durable due to the natural feathers. A play on what we think and what really is. It is this dichotomy of materiality and meaning that I am interested in.

Note: None of my works can be fully realized without public interaction. The way in which people interact with this work determines the interpretation and meaning of falling. It has been described as fragile and ethereal.

 

You seem to have a thing for feathers. Why does this medium appeal to you so much? 

I use every day material that is loaded with cultural meaning and always incorporate recycled material that has connection to its origin. I am attracted to feathers because the significance of feathers as a symbolic expression is evident in many cultures. Feathers like birds hold personal meaning of unbridled freedom and aggressive desire. Bird is the perfect symbol for freedom and perspective.  Because birds fly high into the sky, in mythology they hold the title as messengers between ancient gods and modern world. Feather symbolises trust, honour, strength, wisdom, power and freedom.

We associate feathers with fragility, beauty and softness yet the opposite is true. Feathers are strong and durable, constructed from sinewy material that is as strong as carbon fibre, used to build planes such as Boeing’s 787. The natural material of feathers is stronger and lighter than steel. It is this conflicting connection we have with feathers that interest me. For example it was laughable to witness the feather chair endure the storms that pelted the coast while other metal sculptures could not. I play with dichotomies and feathers are a perfect material. What we instinctively think is fragile like feathers is actually strong.

Falling, mediums and dimensions varied, 2017, photo courtesy of the Artist.

Y

our work ‘The Weight of Their Voices Echo In The Black Sand’ is inspired on a beautiful story of a piano washing up to shore in Western Australia. As the story goes, an Englishman played a sonata on it which reminded him of home. This sorrowful sound of remembering and loss could be heard from miles away. How did you find this story and why did it resonate with you so much? 

I start with an idea that is supported by research. Actually I am not sure which comes first. Often it is the research that changes the direction in which I approach a project or idea. It Personal experience is what underpins the ideas and creative process.

I came across this particular story while researching the history of Subiaco, a suburb of Perth. I was commissioned to create an ephemeral public art installation that referenced place and sense of belonging – in this case around the area of Subiaco. I spent time in the local Subiaco library and with the help of the librarians who have an amazing skill sourcing information that nobody can find. After weeks or reading late into the night, I came across this poetic description of the first known piano being delivered on the beach of the WA coast. To move the piano to relative safety a number of men carried the piano over the coastal sand dunes inland to where Subiaco is now. I could only imagine the difficulty of such move. Then to relieve oneself from the ardorous task of carrying the piano over sinking sand, one of the men who played piano in his previous life in England opened up the wooden salt swollen piano. He played a sonata that reminded him of home and captured the melancholic attention of anyone who heard the sound of such a magnificent musical instrument. It is this moment of stopping to listen, that haunting toll of the bell so to speak. Imagine if you were a local indigenous child walking with your mother some 500 meters away from where the men and the piano were. You were probably aware of the other presence but the music, the piano it would have stopped one in their track. It would have been hauntingly beautiful yet devastatingly violent. In a sense it is also a story of forgetting. That is why I wanted to recapture this suggestive moment that silenced acts between humans.

This haunting story epitomizes the first stage of colonial settlement in WA and the inevitable brutal misplacement of the local indigenous people. Both the piano player and listener of music symbolically represent the new and the old, loss and gain, both aching for the familiar. The moment the piano was played I imagined a sense of connect to place/nature/home/self and in a bizarre way to each other.  I was inspired by this melancholy story seeped in endless possibilities and weighed down by loss. In researching one can find the hidden histories of people that the victors prefer to silence. It is these hidden histories that I am interested in that give strength to our identity.

 

Australia is a place that prides itself on being ‘multi-cultural’ – but in reality there is a shocking amount of insidious racism at play. How do you see an artists’ role in changing people’s perceptions? 

Today more than ever I feel a sense of urgency. I have always used my art to critique and communicate my concerns. The world has become dangerously conservative. People are fearful, suspicious, easily manipulated. Equal rights to education and health has been compromised and Australia the lucky country has lost itself in the greed of neo-liberalism. Because of my heritage I am aware that there are other ways of being in the world. What we in Australia accept as the norm may not actually be the norm elsewhere. In my work I bring up other realities and by doing so I question our place in the world and how we interact. Because of my migrant experience I have an understanding that there is other realities at stake.

I believe art can change people’s perception. Art can challenge the statues-quo and empower one to act. But how that is done is different for everyone and I can only speak for myself. My work has always been political, seeped in gender and racial politics. I use my art as a tool to subvert the ideological tropes of mass culture, questioning how easily we accept tainted information as truth. I believe I do this because of my heritage, upbringing and experience. If I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth I wonder if I would be doing the same. I have always included counter narratives to explore other ways of being in the world. Maybe art is just my therapy. Or is it my excuse to not participate in the mass culture of my surroundings, that I find tediously uninspiring.

“I have always used my art to critique and communicate my concerns….Today more than ever I feel a sense of urgency. People are fearful, suspicious, easily manipulated; equal rights to education and health has been compromised and Australia the “lucky country” has lost itself in the greed of neo-liberalism. Because of my heritage I am aware that there are other ways of being in the world.”

The Weight Of Their Voices Echo In The Black Sand, laneway ephemeral installation for the City of Subiaco, WA, 2013. Photos courtesy of the Artist.

I find it interesting that many Australians seem to be quite vocal regarding Trump’s racist policies, and yet they turn a blind eye to the atrocious conditions at Manus Island, for example. What do you attribute this to? Has our treatment of refugees become so ‘normalised’ that its intangible? 

I feel frustrated that we like to point the finger at everyone else’s shortcomings and cast a blind eye to our own actions? In Australia our treatment of refugees is inhumane, shocking and shameful and illegal.

It is the fear of the other that our politicians reinforce and exploit as a tool to manipulate. To make things worse, education becomes a business and the divide between the have and have not widens. Quality education and available information is compromised. Privatizing, and commercializing knowledge offers only bias information.

Art is one way where ‘other’ information can be disseminated, opening other critical discussions.

Racism is not separate from economic stratification or sexism. The infiltration of Neo-liberalism has removed our connection to each other and our environment. I think we somewhat got lost. Human desire to survive is same all over the world so I hope we can get it together and make the governments accountable.

Some behind the scenes shots from Olga’s newest work Mountain of Words – Weaving human hair into a hair ribbon that will be completed when 500 meters long.  Hair is donated by people from all over the world, with their names and portrait photos included. Thus far there are over 3000 people involved.