Elena Soterakis: Not a Drop to Drink

By Etty Yaniv

Elena Soterakis is an artist and curator who has been exploring the intersection between art and science throughout her entire artistic practice. Today, she shares some background on BioBAT Art Space, her upcoming curatorial project with Jeannine Bardo, as well as some insight on her own artwork.

You are both a prolific artist and a curator. Let’s start with your latest curatorial project. Tell me about the genesis and vision for BioBat Art Space, which launched on January 4, 2019.

I’m fascinated by the connection between art and science. Thankfully, when Kathleen Otto and Eva Kramer of BioBAT, a not-for-profit lab space located in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in New York City, set out to create a new Sci/Art space in their ground floor lobby, they were community-oriented and wanted to bring in South Brooklyn artists like myself and Jeannine Bardo. Because Jeannine has successfully brought dynamic, high-quality programming to the underserved arts community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, through the Stand4 Gallery, BioBAT approached her for the project. Jeannine was enthusiastic about this opportunity but felt conflicted about taking on another project when she already runs a gallery space and has a thriving studio practice. She didn’t think there were enough hours in the day, and that is when Jeannine reached out to me to get involved. Jeannine and I are curatorially aligned because we believe the intersection of science and art can solve the problems of tomorrow.

The idea of launching a new art space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal seemed like it had a tremendous amount of potential, and I wanted to be involved. I was already excited about the project, but when Jeannine took me to see the space, I was blown away. The space is beautiful. It’s enormous with high ceilings and views of the water, and it’s only a few hundred feet from the ferry. Eva and Kathleen even had two prominent architects design the gallery during BioBAT’s initial construction.

Tarah Rhoda, Ourglass, 10″ x 10″ x 73″, spinach, ethanol, IV bag, volumetric flask, syringe, ultraviolet light, 2017. Photo by Scott McCullough.

Tell me a bit about the artists in this show.

In “Spontaneous Emergence of Order,” we featured four interdisciplinary artists who approach their studio practices like scientists; their works connect us all to the natural world and our place in it: Tarah Rhoda, Tanya Chaly, Magdalena Dukiewicz, and Richelle Gribble.

Tarah Rhoda’s work explores the body as a reflection of the natural world, echoing the landscapes, weather patterns, and biological processes that result in various minerals. She often uses laboratory practices to approach her own body as an archaeological site, “mining” her own tears or freckles to create profound pieces that cause us to reflect on our relationship with nature. Tarah also manages the SVA Bio Art Lab.

Tanya Chaly explores how natural history, wilderness, and the natural world are presented and recorded. Tanya makes research trips and gathers materials from the natural environment, as well as conducting field research face-to-face with scientists. Her work renders the invisible forces that shape our world, making it possible to re-imagine what we perceive of the natural order.

Magdalena Dukiewicz’s practice deconstructs and decontextualizes hydrolyzed animal collagen and blood, turning these substances into refined pieces of art. As the piece itself disintegrates and transforms, it evokes the natural life cycle. The ephemeral nature of her work illuminates the underlying themes: time, transformation, memory, identity, and death.

Richelle Gribble explores the interdependence of life at all levels of living systems – organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Her work reveals the striking similarities between the structural patterns that occur in our social, biological, and technological networks, blurring our world into one integrated system. Richelle poses an important question: how does connectivity, for better or for worse, influence our lives and our future?

Tanya Chaly, Cascade-Index, 80″ x 120″ overall, graphite and pigment, punctured drawing on parchment under convex glass and plexi glass domes, linen book binding thread, dissection pins, 2017. Photo by Nicholas Knight Studio.

Your own work and curatorial projects show a strong interest in science and the environment. Can you talk a bit about how that informs your art, both making and curating?

Both scientists and artists try to make sense of the world we live in. With my art, I attempt to get to the bottom of human irrationality and what drives us to destroy the planet we live on. My work explores themes of disposability and impending ecological disaster. My curatorial practice attempts to answer the same questions through other works that are very much aligned with the same themes.

Magdalena Dukiewicz, Flesh and Blood, 45″ x 17″ x 8″, blood and hydrolyzed collagen with air bubbles, 2018. Photo by Jung Hee Mun.

Tell me about “Urban Geometry.”

“Urban Geometry” was a series I completed before introducing collage into my work, and began addressing environmental issues. These paintings are a hybrid of plein air studies and photo references. I enjoyed painting cityscapes of Brooklyn and Queens because I was drawn to the math and geometry of the scenes. This series specifically was a turning point in my practice; during that period, I felt I wasn’t participating in a dialogue about the 21st Century Landscape or contemporary issues. Whenever I hit a wall in my studio practice, I introduce a new material, so I started experimenting with collage. This immediately brought to mind waste, and landed itself to more ecologically-minded scenes.

Richelle Gribble, Community Web, 120″ x 120″, found and donated rope, fabric, string, yarn, cords, and plastic, 2016. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

For the “Re-Animator” exhibition, curated by John Avelluto, you created three pieces that converse with the aesthetics of the Hudson River School. What was your idea behind this project and what was your take away?

The theme of the “Re-Animator” exhibition was to take an existing work of art and re-fashion it into something new. I created a triptych, called “Lake George Revisited”, in which I quote a painting from the Hudson River painter, Martin Johnson Heade. The original Lake George painting was completed in the 1860s, and I turned it into three different 21st century scenes of degradation. It’s a startling juxtaposition to see such beautiful nature next to human waste. I’m drawn to romantic landscape artists of the 19th century, but I’ve found there’s a dissonance in painting romantic landscapes during the 21st century, when we are facing ecological ruin.

Elena Soterakis, Martin Johnson Heade’s Lake George Revisited 1862 (triptych), 10″ x 20“, digital print with oil and collage, 2016.

You seem to be drawn to landscape painting. How do you see your work in this context?

I’ve always been a landscape painter, and while the content of my work has changed, I still consider myself as such. Even at the New York Academy of Art, which had a strong emphasis on the human figure, I was primarily painting landscapes. Two main influences in my work are Edward Hopper and Anslem Keifer.

In your more recent body of work, Ecocide, you allude to environmental concerns. What are your thoughts on the balancing act between art and an underlying social/political “message”?

For my work, I think it’s important that the art be able to stand alone on its own aesthetic merit, despite any underlying political/social message. First and foremost, I seek to create compelling, emotive imagery that engages the viewer, while at the same time opening a dialogue about the issues of our time.

What can you share about your current work at the studio?

Currently, I’m working on a collaborative project with artist Eric DicksonThe Museum of Supposedly Valueless Things, a fictional museum that is curated from the perspective of someone in the future who cannot comprehend our own society’s wasteful ways. We look forward to sharing our work with a larger audience and have plans to exhibit the show in spring of 2019.

Elena Soterakis at NARS / J&M open studio, fall 2018. Photo by Salim Hasbini.

(Top image: Elena Soterakis, Not a Drop to Drink, 18′ x 24′, oil, molding paste, and collage on panel, 2017. Photo by Scott Rosenberg.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on January 2, 2019 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing, and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She has exhibited her immersive installations in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. Yaniv founded the platform Art Spiel to highlight the work of contemporary artists through art reviews, studio visits, and interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. Yaniv holds a BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from SUNY Purchase.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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