THE ACCIDENTAL SURREAL: A CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST KRISTINA WILLIAMSON

by Jeff Strabone

Kristina Williamson is a multimedia visual artist who can find the erotic in a Cheese Curl, the surreal in the every day, and signs of globalization in the empty village left behind. Her photographs span the globe from her small-town origins somewhere in America to the islands of Greece and Spain. Like Byron's Childe Harold in the ruins of the Acropolis, her new book of photographs in Greece contemplates in the contradictions of modernity what endures of the past and what is 'Gone—glimmering through the dream of things that were'. Her work alternates between domestic, global, eerie, surprising, revelatory, and beautiful—sometimes all in the same image. On the eve of her book's publication I caught up with the artist at her studio in Brooklyn to talk about the project and her new work, which she describes as 'the accidental surreal'.

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Q: Your new book One Year on Kythera is a monograph of photos from a Greek island no one's ever heard of. Why Kythera and what is this strange vision you had there?

A: I've always been interested in rural communities having grown up in a small town. My first exposure to Greek culture was while living in the Greek precinct of Melbourne, Australia during a semester abroad. I was fascinated by the community's efforts to maintain a satellite of their homeland. So it was a combination of these two things that inspired my research into photographing in rural Greece.

Q: But why Kythera specifically? How did you end up there?

A; It actually started with a book called Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village by Juliet du Boulay. It's an important sociological study of rural Greece written in the late 1960's, early1970's illustrating village life on the island of Evvia and its response to modernization. Originally, I had the idea to revisit this same village thirty years later to see what has become of it. However, when I managed to track down du Boulay she refused to reveal the name and location of the village for concerns that it might bring it some 'uninvited publicity'.

Q: So that was the end of that?

A: Yeah. She did, however, lead me to Kythera, which had experienced a similar history of emigration under the pressures of globalization. I decided to write a proposal to photograph contemporary life on Kythera and the aspects of tradition and change seen in the day-to-day lives of those who chose to remain on the island. I received a Fulbright grant to do the work and here we are.

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The Carnival Brides, from One Year on Kythera.

Q: A few of the photographs appear to be straight-up landscapes. Surely the land is the one constant thing as the people come and go?

A. Mmm, not totally. I mean, yes, the land stands as the silent witness to human change. But people shape the land as much as it shapes them. Olive orchards, for instance, can be planted or abandoned. There are landscapes with unfinished, abandoned construction projects and wildfires every summer that consume the land and threaten villages. Land and people are always reciprocal.

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The Avgo, from One Year on Kythera.

Q. Generically the series is unplaceable: documentary, ethnography, I don't know what to call it. Were you trying to bend genres, or is that just how the land and the people shaped you?

A: After some early unsuccessful attempts to direct the project, I eventually allowed the project to direct me. A mentor and fellow photographer Johanna Weber, to whom the book is dedicated, said to me, 'Capture what amazes you and people will be amazed.' I always tried to keep this in mind, to stop thinking and just react, and trust those reactions. Then I focused my 'thinking' efforts to learning to speak Greek and simply trying to be everywhere I could and meet as many people as possible, which freed me up creatively to simply capture the life and characters around me.

Q: You were clearly allowed into people's homes and lives on a fairly intimate basis. How were you treated as a foreign photographer living among your subjects?

A: The people of the island were remarkable. They took me in and were incredibly hospitable. It's hard for me to talk about this work without seeming overly sentimental, but it's true. The Kytherians saw me first and foremost as a person. The photography was secondary. They saw me there, alone, trying hard to find my place on the island and they wanted to help. My camera was the least of their concerns. I remember, in the early stages of the project, being surprised by how seldom people would even ask what I was doing. I had been conditioned to prepare myself with some explanation for: 'What are you doing here?' 'Why are you doing it?' 'Who is it for?' But instead the questions I was asked were: 'What village are you from?' “Are you Greek?' 'Are you hungry?'

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Shotgun, from One Year on Kythera.

Q: Have the Kytherians seen the work you created? If so, what was their reaction?

A: I always gave prints to everyone I photographed while I was working on the project. Every time I went to Athens to get film developed I also had prints made to give out. I also had an exhibition of the photographs on the island before I left, which was a great opportunity to show the work all together. People came from all over the island to see themselves and others they knew on the gallery walls. Some were photographing themselves in front of the photographs of themselves on the wall, which I thought was great. And now that the book is out I'll be returning to Kythera for a book launch on the island on August 9, which I am really looking forward to. It will be interesting to see what their reactions are.

Q: How important was the Fulbright Program's support?

A: Receiving a Fulbright grant was a life-changing experience. As an artist, to be freed of financial concerns and be able to concentrate fully on your work is an immense and rare gift. As for the mission of the Fulbright program, I can't see a better candidate for a cultural ambassador than artists. Artists speak a universal visual language that can be communicated to the world allowing an interaction on a level outside of social-political restraints. Art is the one true constant ambassador.

Q: Work from your series Everything I am is on wheels, which is not about Greece, was recently included in the 2014 Greece PhotoBiennale. There is one image from the series I have to ask you about: the Cheese Doodle, or whatever it is. That shit is freaky!

A: It's a Cheese Curl as a monument. It's already an icon, everyone can recognize its shape, but to me, in the context of this photograph it upgrades to majestic. Romantic. Even seductive.

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Antidisestablishmentarianism.

Q: That's cool. Can you tell me more about the new work? What are some of the animating ideas behind it?

A: My visual language is built from growing up in a small town I wanted to get out of but that I keep going back to because I also love it. Wanting to leave but always returning is kind of like what Freud was talking about it in 'The Uncanny': it's home and not home at the same time. And that contradiction or duality or whatever it is makes you see differently. My instincts have been honed in on things that are slightly off in an otherwise 'normal' scenario. This what I call the accidental surreal. I appreciate a certain darkness in the details, the feeling of memory or near-recognition. I'm interested in seeing these moments in the everyday and pointing them out. That's how I see my work, as pointing things out. I try to think like a poet, leaving space for air and room for new narratives, experimenting with how connotations can be altered, redefined, or expanded when our gaze breaks out of its everyday torpor.

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Aberration.

Q: Are the recurring figures your family?

A: That particular image, no, but I do shoot my family a lot. They're great. They have no filters and have been incredibly generous with their lives. They've given me access to everything, having no idea what the hell I was doing or why and, with complete trust in knowing it is just 'what I do', they have always been game. I've been shooting them for over fifteen years now. My nieces and nephews grew up in front of my camera. They became so used to being photographed that at my sister's wedding the photographer had to keep reminding them to smile because they were so used to being told—by me—not to smile and to just ignore the camera.

Q: I hear you also have a film project in the works?

A: Yes, I am currently in post-production on a film project involving a clown school. I had the idea to make the film while spending a winter on Ibiza working on a self-portrait photo/video series. I ended up returning a few months later to do some research for this film idea and ended up shooting over 200 hours of footage. I was totally unprepared for what I got myself into. I put some gear on a credit card, booked a flight, and ended up reading the manuals on the way over there. It was an intense learning experience and continues to be. We'll see what happens.

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I swear it will never happen again.

Q: Good luck with it. Well, we've covered a lot of ground. Any final thoughts?

A: I'm really looking forward to the upcoming book events for One Year on Kythera. I've been very fortunate to have such a great network of support for this work and so I'd like to thank the Fulbright Foundation, the Kythera Cultural Association, the Kytherian World Heritage Fund for funding the publication of the book and the George 'Best' Costacos Foundation for hosting my book event in New York. I always dreamed of seeing this project in book form and so I'm overjoyed that it has come to be.

*******

The New York book launch of One Year on Kythera will take place on Wednesday, June 25, 2014 from 7:30 to 10:00 p.m. at the Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th Street in Manhattan. Click here for the official book webpage.

Kristina Williamson is an American artist born in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania in 1980. She holds a BFA in photography from Parsons The New School for Design in New York and was awarded a Fulbright grant to photograph life on the Greek island of Kythera. Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions in Greece, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as various group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. Williamson currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. To see more of her work visit www.kristinawilliamson.com or on Tumblr at everythingiamisonwheels.tumblr.com.

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Whiffing.

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