Athena Papadopoulos at Liebaert Projects / Kortrijk, Belgium

Athena Papadopoulos / "The apple nun"
Curated by Joachim Coucke

October 23 - 17 November, 2019

Liebaert Projects
Minister Liebaertlaan 1B
8500 Kortrijk

Photography: Alexandra Colmenares
Courtesy of Liebaert Projects, Emalin & the artists

For her first solo exhibition in Belgium, Canadian artist Athena Papadopoulos (b. 1988) presents a new body of work specifically conceived for the context of Liebaert Projects. Papadopoulos has transformed the space into a complex narrative that intermingles sculptures that sing – with sound derived from the artist’s book The Apple Nun - painting and installation.

The central hall of Liebaert Projects features the keynote text that informs the exhibition’s narrative at large. A hand-written and sewn, painted and dyed, sculptural and oversized book titled The Apple Nun (Book of Hymns) sits atop a kneeling church lectern. The text takes as its point of departure the autobiography of the artist’s 94-year old grandfather. Papadopoulos hones in on the marginalised story of her great aunt Magdalina: a beautiful, young Greek woman, whose small portraits are integrated on the front page of The Apple Nun (Book of Hymns).

Coveted by all the men in the village, Magdalina fled a life of lust and instead sought solitude as a nun. One of her duties at the nunnery was to pick apples during the harvest season. One day her life took an unexpected turn as she fell from her ladder while trying to pick too many apples. The consequences were devastating: she was paralysed and, no longer being able to fulfil her duties, was expelled from the monastery. The tension between lust and celibacy, fight and flight as well as acceptance and rejection weaves itself throughout the exhibition. Alongside this, the artist layers this narrative with references to earlier bodies of work: interrogating the positionality of different groups of women in society, the Biblical predicament of Adam and Eve as well as the history of Liebaert Projects itself.

The Apple Nun (Book of Hymns) takes on a ubiquitous presence in each room of the exhibition. Papadopoulos alters the space with a newspaper reproduction of the text explosively scattered throughout. Like yesterday’s news - a stand-in for the fallen woman - the pages constitute the binding framework that unites the rooms of the exhibition and the characters that inhabit them. A tornado of autumnal leaves, at first beautiful and fun to play in but ultimately a nuisance to get rid of, this abundant distribution brings to mind the destructive and toxic misrepresentations of women’s transforming complexities as potentially high-maintenance chores. Historically, these women – branded witches, lunatics or jezebels – have systematically been swept from society’s view.

In a casual conversation with the artist, she mentions that, when she was a little girl, she desired to become a plastic surgeon. Fortunately, Papadopoulos became an artist – otherwise her patients would have birds beaks for noses and purple, pink and green stitched up skin. But it’s a beautiful metaphor: she cuts through layers of various textiles, making up and dying these bodies using hair-dye and other products – adding further material cues and clues to tell her multi-layered story. Like a crooked surgeon, Papadopoulos tends to the wounds (through stitching) that she herself inflicts upon these anthropomorphic sculptures. They are visually sumptuous upon first glance but continue to grow in complexity and meaning as we explore them through repeated viewings, thereby assuming further psychological significance and visual complexity with the passing of time.

The five central sculptures (Leaves that Talk Dirty Making Curlies Stand Straight) are figurative abstractions, each singing one of five songs from The Apple Nun (Book of Hymns): tree-like, twisted instruments that take on the characteristics of a musical choir. They each have their own unique character and voice. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Papadopoulos creates the skeletons of the sculptures by dissecting furniture and medical equipment, bending, curling, gluing and welding the metal back together. The Leaves that Talk Dirty... are then wrapped in Papadopoulos’ own personal clothing. Like a tornado sweeping up its casualties, the artist saturates these bodies in meaning by blending object, material and text. And like bodies, the skeleton and bones find a counterpart in the furniture framework, with skin made of makeup-stained medical gauze. Sitting atop - or rather growing out of - the sculptures are small cartoonish birds whose eyes have been stolen from stuffed toys and whose beaks are constituted by gynaecological speculums. This detail is also a tribute to the spirit of gynaecologist, Gery Van Tendeloo, the former curator and driving force behind Liebaert Projects who passed away last year.

In one of the side rooms, we encounter Infertility Orchestra Cries in D-Minor. A small choir of organically shaped creatures congregate around a music stand holding the newspaper version of The Apple Nun (Book of Hymns). In another, the biblical theme of apple as a moniker of sin makes a reappearance in The Apple Tree, (Mary Magdalexxxi): a light-bathed sculpture sprouts from a janitor’s bucket, incorporating Hooters waitress pins, cheerleading pompoms, teen-age miniskirts and string-tied chicken bones. In the details, the hand-painted faces of a cast of fallen women morph into animals such as bobcats and long-beaked birds.

Next door, a ghostly couple, entitled Former Selves, recall some of the artist’s earlier anthropomorphic sculptures. Domestic objects and furniture frequently come to life in Papadopoulos’ practice, embodying the qualities and social situations in which the artist’s characters find themselves embroiled. The same inseverable tension that connects the Former Selves, is doubled in the work FF&BB (BoomBOOMWoom), where two lovers find themselves emotionally and materially entangled. A lyrical song sung by a young girl’s voice plays out of a broken telephone, setting the scene for a relationship shifting between symbiosis and parasitism.

The editions at the entrance were given the title Hardest Harvest. A head-less chicken, duck or turkey - or “churduckens,” as the artist refers to them. Here, Papadopoulos has looked back to her childhood favourites, including Jim Henson, Tim Burton and family traditions such as Thanksgiving Day. The artist associates these familiar rituals with the autumnal holidays and an appreciation of their grotesque reciprocal carnivalesque manifestations. The editions are displayed on gas station shelving and presented as we would encounter them at a carnival fair stall where visitors shoot at figurines to win their prize. Hardest Harvest acts as the exhibition’s miniature mascot and usually a mascot has connotations of being rather ridiculous, running around like a headless chicken, perhaps again playfully commenting on the allegory of the fall of Adam and Eve. Like sitting ducks to the evil snake unable to see his tricks, ultimately leading them to become self-conscious beings (unlike any other animal) who therefore gain subjectivity through their messy lives full of both tumultuous conflict and deep joy and awakening.