ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Levani (Levan Mindiashvili) as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Levani (Levan Mindiashvili) (b. Tbilisi, Georgia), lives and works in New York. They hold an aMFA from Buenos Aires National University of Arts (IUNA) and a BFA from Tbilisi State Academy of Arts. They had solo presentations at Marisa Newman Projects, NARS Foundation, Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi Silk Museum, among others. Their work has been included at the 5th AIM Biennial, The Bronx Museum of the Arts; Socrates Sculpture Park; 1st Immigrant Artists Biennial, Elizabeth Foundation for Arts; 7th Beijing Biennial, National Art Museum of China; East Slovak Gallery, Kosovo; Tartu Art Museum, Estonia; BRIC Biennial, Vol 3., and others. They are recipient of the Socrates Sculpture Park Fellowship, Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant, NYFA Immigrant Artists Mentoring Program, AIM Fellowship of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Creative Times X Summit Grant, and FABLES Commission grant for Public Art Projects from National Endowments for Arts, NY. Their work has been reviewed in Frieze, Art in America, HYPERALLERGIC, ArtAsia Pacific; ARTPAPERS, The Art Newspaper, Pin-UP Magazine, OSMOS, Observer, Art Margins, and others. Levani’s work is in public collections of the National Art Museum of China, Beijing; Georgian National Museum, Mestia; and Tbilisi Silk Museum, Georgia.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
LM: There were three instrumental factors that I believe defined the scope and formal approaches of my current practice. I have also been developing a specific position throughout this time.
My first artwork, at age three or five, was an unsuccessful imitation of the female figure from my aunt’s biology textbook. I vividly remember the countless hours spent observing this seemingly simple line drawing and the absolute conviction that I could make one myself. This failure was so traumatic that I’m still untangling the effects it had on me. It did however fundamentally pique my interest in humans as a complex, not easily attainable concept.
This curiosity got even more complicated following my first encounter with sculpture, which revealed a sense of physicality unknown to me before. When my unassuming plasticine figure became an entity of its own, with its ability not only to occupy and hold the space, but also to make it physically tangible. This cognitive awakening marked my need to create materially rich immersive installations. Built to human scale but avoiding their direct presence, they would tease the material sensibilities of whoever was experiencing it.
Not of least importance was the fact that I was the first-born “boy” in a strictly gender-polarized, low-income, working-class family witnessing the crisis and collapse of the Soviet Union. Exclusively surrounded by strong yet disadvantaged matriarchal figures and under the continuous terror of the patriarchy, I’ve been deliberately avoiding developing any signs of pertinence to assigned social, gender, or ideological roles. From an early age, I found myself firmly positioned outside any social and political convictions or systems that were known or available to me.
These are the reasons why I’m so interested in the psychological, material, cosmological, and political dimensions of being human, the systems that develop a genuine sense of self and belonging, and how we relate to each other and our habitat.
AE: Before entering the world of contemporary art, you were living in a monastery in your native Georgia, as a sculptor and restorer of ancient monastic sculptures and reliefs. How do you see this experience as having influenced and guided your contemporary practice?
LM: Mysticism and magic were something I grew up with; invoking the souls of the dead and asking them questions about who’s going to get married soon, or what would be the bride’s name, was something we’d often do as kids. It was a mixture of teenage rebellion and a desperate need for some guidance that brought me to the Orthodox Church when I was around sixteen. It was the mid-90s, and the anti-Russian spirit and the desire for freedom were still very fresh. Being religious seemed like a radical act of regaining ancestral heritage and identity. I was assigned an altar boy role within the first year and served for almost eight years. As I never considered doing anything other than being an artist, I got very interested in religious art. I started researching its history and mastered egg tempera techniques, from murals to small-scaled icons, prepping the wood and carving the stones. Isolating myself from the outside world and the burden of social convictions and dedicating my whole time and self to revealing the sacred through imagery seemed like an ideal scenario. I was very much looking forward to that in the near future. But the growing disillusionment with the Church as an oppressive power on the one hand, and my first very successful show in Germany right after I graduated from the Academy of Art on the other hand, made me reconsider the path I was taking. The definitive decision to leave was triggered after coming out to my spiritual father, who proposed I see specialists for a cure.
I continued using the egg tempera technique of murals for a couple of years after that, creating erotically charged paintings of gender-ambivalent couples. Then, as I moved to Buenos Aires for my Master’s, I stopped painting entirely for a while. I had just discovered the materiality and physicality of my own body and couldn’t wait to explore it through performance.
The medieval stone carvings, their formal aesthetic aspects, and their materiality never stopped fascinating me, though. As my work is becoming more eco-centric, I am becoming more and more interested in stone – one of the oldest carriers of the history of the cosmos and life. So, during my last visit to Georgia (December 2021 – January 2022), I visited almost every site I remembered from my early years. These stylized depictions of vegetation, mostly vine trees (symbols of the Virgin Mary and the Feminine), became the source of my ongoing mirrored paintings collectively titled Gardens of Eurasia. This imagery is the perfect entry point to introduce the spiritual through ecology. At the same time, it’s one of the most vital links connecting me with my ancestral lineage. To dive into that knowledge deeper, I am working on new depictions of fantastical creatures and animals along with vegetation and amorphic beings.
My understanding of the spiritual is much broader and freer these days. To me, it is an active, inherent quality of matter. It therefore, erases the boundaries between the living and non-living. (I must add that I recognize organized religion as an oppressive power system).
AE: In April 2021, you had a solo exhibition at Marisa Newman Projects titled, what color is the Black Sea? Can you tell us more about this show, how it came about, and the themes you explore in your work?
LM: what color is the Black Sea? was my first solo show since the pandemic hit, so there was an obvious need to respond to the most urgent conditions we’ve been collectively living through: grief and loss, shared trauma and disenchantment, conversations around the racial injustice and the need to envision the future. The entire show—which later grew into an extensive body of work with multiple iterations and re-stagings—was built around my family’s first vacation on the Black Sea shore when I was three years old. That trip became formative in my alienation from my own body. It exposed me to the internalized anti-Blackness of the heteropatriarchy.
With this show, I wanted to contribute to the conversations around the race from different geographies and cultures, and understand how anti-Blackness is played out in Eurasia. How Caucasians Became Black by Madina Tlostanova, was instrumental in framing this work.
Structurally and formalistically speaking, this show was also a proposition, a lab test of the sorts. Thinking of the strategies employed in therapy, my question was: “What would happen if I recreated my first trauma as an immersive, living tableau in a loving and nurturing environment? Can ecology become the site of healing and rebirth?” The starting point of the material embodiment was the naked photograph from that trip—which also kept torturing me over the years, as it was easily available to be seen by our guests who scrolled through our family album. The picture, silk screened on both sides of a latex fabric of my skin tone, and the blacked-out white neon of the exhibition title, what color is the Black Sea?, were the first clearly defined elements in the show. The rest: tangerine tree, growing lights, palm tree wrapped in a faux-fur coat, the hedgehog video on the yellow furry stand emerged slowly over the painful period of navigating the unknown with trust and patience.
AE: Can you elaborate on the intersection of childhood, objects, and memory within your work?
LM: My particular focus on childhood is primarily informed by the fact that whether ready or not, we’ve already entered a new stage of evolution. And every aspect of our lives is going through a radical paradigmatic shift—not to mention the planetary and ecological shifts. I often compare this state of having a newborn baby; the fear and terror of repeating the same mistakes and fucking it up completely, and at the same time, the excitement of the new beginnings.
According to psychology, trauma inflicted at an early age is particularly damaging for the child’s complete transition into adulthood. Its influence is much longer lasting because we’re the most vulnerable, unprepared, and unequipped to deal with unfamiliar emotions and situations as a child. It’s also quite clear that trauma is our response to some kind of violence inflicted on us; emotional, psychological, or physical. And unfortunately, the violence, through its vast expressions, is inherent to patriarchal normativity.
I wanted to emphasize this aspect in the second iteration of what color is the Black Sea? for the Bronx Biennial. To present a childhood trauma as this frozen expanded moment in space and time, that completely denies the possibility of being in the present. Visually, I imagined these forgotten bus stops in the middle of nowhere or abandoned children’s playgrounds. To keep the continuity with the initial installation, I cast the leaves of the palm tree that was used in the first show. But instead of using the latex fabric with my printed photograph, I casted a palm-tree bud in silicone tinted again to my skin tone. For the second iteration, I created a mirrored painting with the quote from Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which reads: “…like a small plant that turns toward the sun in order to survive.”
Another work from this project is a series of paintings on latex collectively titled Patterns of my Consciousness. The source of these works is a Georgian children’s cut-out alphabet, the one I used to learn reading and writing. Formalistically, it’s a beautiful, modernist-style, minimalist grid. Each painting depicts a word comprised by blocking out all unused letters from the grid. I was inspired by the idea of the morpheme—a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided. In this sense, the sculptural objects and practically all elements that are part of these installations carry the meaning of morphemes for me. Each is an undividable meaningful morphological element in my conceptual and visual lexicon. I’m particularly fascinated by the language and its cognitive power, which is becoming increasingly prominent in the project I’m working on now.
Another example of how I look at this intersection of childhood, objects, and memory would be the concept of the meta-code: in programming, “meta” is an active conceptual and functional component that is not visible. For me, all these three factors act like embodiments of these invisible, yet fundamental, constitutive elements of our being.
AE: You’ve been experimenting with glass and mirror as a material. What was the process of arriving at your current approach to using this material? What is its significance to your practice?
LM: Before going into details, I want to say that I was never interested in art or art-making as an end-in-itself value. To me, it’s a tool—a very potent one—to inspire and instigate change. So, my projects start with the idea, concept, or condition that intrigues and seduces me and makes me want to explore and learn more. And the entire process of making becomes the process of embodiment, which continues throughout the show’s run. The only “truthful” way to achieve this is to utilize materials that respond to the chosen concepts with their own physical nature. A big part of my process is researching materials and studying their qualities.
I first used the liquid mirror for my solo presentation at NADA Miami in 2018. My encounter with it happened the same way as with nearly every material I use now, by rigorously studying the aisles of the hardware stores in the free time of my first years in New York. Around mid-2018, I faced the dilemma that creating static images had become absolutely obsolete, as they could no longer capture the swamping circulation of the images in our every day and the frantic scrolling through them as means of interaction and consumption. For NADA, I created Studies of Impossible Image, a set of abstract photo-sized rectangles in a standard 5 x 7 inch size on glass that looked like vintage daguerreotypes. Upon a closer look, it was apparent that the only image in these works was a constantly changing reflection of the surroundings and the viewers. I looked at them as continuously updating archives of the very moment. With this in mind, I started creating sets of “archives” for every new project and presentation.
My inquiries into microbiology and epigenetics introduced me to the porousness and the idea that there’s no clear-cut separation between the object and its surrounding, between the subject and its meaning. This opened up yet another reading of the Gardens of Eurasia. My interest was not only emphasizing the porousness of the ecosphere but also the site of my origin: Eurasia.
I feel very humbled that Christian Rattemeyer wrote a thoughtful essay on this body of work, in which he speaks of them in the context of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the inframince. He ends the article with a final note on the inframince: “that a deep mirror could be an optical illustration of the idea of inframince as ‘conductor” from the second to the third dimension.” (OSMOS, Issue 19, 2019. pg. 50)
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
LM: My friends are my biggest and most immediate inspiration. Their dedication and love for their work, watching them over the years expanding their creativity, is my strongest stimuli. I’m afraid I will forget so many dear names to me, but just to name a few whos and whys: Lucas de Lima, for their uncompromised quest for truth and raw, sincere poetry; Uta Bekaia for his endless imagination; Tato Akhalkatsishvili’s and Cristian Tonhaiser’s flair for the poetic; Marisa Newman, Francisco Cordero, and Irena Popiashvili for their uncorrupted love and dedication to the artists. And, of course, there are artists such as Anika Yi, Pierre Huyghe, Sung Tieu, and Stella Zhong, whose works have opened up worlds unknown to me. Recent major influences are Rachel Pollack’s The Shining Tribe tarot deck and Clarice Lispector’s Passon According to G.H.
I’m also extremely fascinated that, according to microbiology, humans contain only 10% of the human cell; the remaining 90% are fungi and bacteria that exist in the world, and we depend on them to survive. That the thinking doesn’t happen in brains but across membranes.
AE: What are you currently working on, and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
LM: Right now, I’m at the Artist Alliance’s LES Studio Program residency and working on the new pieces for the Gardens of Eurasia.
Simultaneously I’m interested in the phenomena of the lullaby, nesting, and the crib; envisioning their sonic, psychological, and physical dimensions. I want to take further the sonic element in my installations as working with Bryce Hackford and dr.fruit for the sound for my Socrates Sculpture Park piece turned out incredibly gratifying and exciting. I decided not to commit to any new shows this year and to give myself enough time and space to explore. I’ll have two solo exhibitions in 2023 at Marisa Newman Projects, New York, and Turley Gallery, Hudson. I’ll be in a group show with a fantastic group of artists in early 2023 that I’m very excited about.