Henry Krokatsis turns antique glass, smoke and mirrors into grown-up versions of the Velveteen Rabbit, giving displaced material new life as memento mori. Instead of reinvesting once valued but now forgotten items with artificially inflated status, he thoughtfully engages them in their current state. Krokatsis’s sculptures, installations and “smoke drawings” are poignant examinations into cultural values, art’s philosophical “uses” and the relationship between ordinary objects and our sense of permanence.
Here, Henry and I discuss the metaphoric meaning of his material in London’s artfully antiqued Dean Street Townhouse.
AFH: You’ve said that the glass, rubber and mirrors you use don’t have an inherent value, as collectables. How does that unappreciated aspect attract you to your material?
HK: I am interested in things that had a value but the value has been drained out. I am interested in the instability of what and how we invest belief in things. Certain things get chosen and there is a belief that these things have value. That value sticks and grows. But other things have their value drained out of them and there is a general acceptance that they’re not worthy. There are materials, which were valued and had a specific function, which gave meaning and value, or were perceived as representations of something valuable. If you look at the patterns that we use in seventeenth or eighteen-century flooring, they have changed. The flooring in Versailles is still recreated and regarded as having status. It’s become a recognizable archetypical parquet panel. But other floorings have disappeared.
Their value has displaced or they were never regarded as “blue chip” enough to hold status. I am interested in those. I want to take the shell and re-evaluate and re-configure that shell. And I want to use the familiarity of the external floor or the idea of its concept in a way that’s unfamiliar.
AFH: That makes sense for decorative objects. But how does a floor or window lose value as a functional object. The windows still function.
Isn’t that enough to give them worth?
Ambo, 2008 (installation view)
Reconstruction #3 – The artists’ Playground
Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, UK
AFH: Only because their age gives them a dirty appearance?
HK: And they are on a slightly different plane. They don’t give an even reflection. They cut up the reflection. Unlike a Koon’s bunny, these mirrors are already soiled, old and dirty. A touch or a greasy finger ruins the surface purity of the Koons but there are already clear imperfections to the materials that I use. They are not cut cleanly. You can have a laser-jet to cut glass and that would be perfect. The glass that I use is hand-cut. It’s not “hands off” but the opposite. It’s the difference of Robert Ryman’s immaculate objects. I often play the game of looking for any single piece of evidence indicating human touch or a mistake in his work. But there is nothing there.
AFH: Warhol’s works are always assumed to be clean but they’re actual very human. The idea of mechanical reproduction overshadows the interesting mistakes and flaws in his production.
HK: Silk-screening is just one step away from painting. So, you really feel that process.
AFH: Back to mirrors, what about the fashion for antique mirrors?
HK: Antiqued. They are all antiqued. There are certain techniques at antiquing mirrors. Unless you are brilliant at it, and few people are, there are obvious clues. There are differences in what’s called ‘foxing,’ when the silver goes in the back of a mirror. When a mirror foxes naturally, it’s as different from an artificial version as a fake Louis IV sideboard and a real one.
AFH: But how can the real thing have less value than its facsimile?
HK: It’s just an aesthetic, isn’t it? As an artist, you want something that traverses being a functional object into becoming an object of aesthetic fascination. When you look at collage or assemblage, the separate elements are completely divorced from their initial context.
But the thing about mirrors is that, unless they are broken, they always work somehow. But I’ve started using the backs of mirrors more.
I’ve started to turn them around. There is a whole history to the backs of mirrors.
AFH: You mean the memorial lure?
HK: Yes. In the Jewish faith, you do turn mirrors to face the wall when someone dies. But there are other histories too. There are the Etruscan mirrors. They used to engrave the backs of them and those had value for the engravings. Mirrors are also sealed with chemical to stop tarnishing. Over the centuries, those chemicals have changed. In the twentieth century, it was cadmium. Because the backs of the mirrors were never intended to be seen, there are all these strong industrial colors used on the backs from the nineteen-twenties onward which were never given any aesthetic consideration. It’s almost the opposite to every other use of color. It’s a color linked totally to function.
AFH: Is the experience of looking in the mirror affected by the color?
HK: Yes, but weirdly and in a very slight way. It only has an effect when the mirror gets old and the silver starts to thin.
AFH: So it functions as an under-painting?
HK: Exactly as a Renaissance under-painting. Every mirror has a slightly different tone. There is nothing such as a pure reflection of ones’ self. Even a Vera mirror is inaccurate. Are you familiar with this concept? It’s a response to the fact that all mirrors reflect the inverse of how everyone else sees you. But, when you look into a Vera, it shows you as you are. You look completely wrong and lopsided to yourself. We’re all accustomed to seeing our asymmetries and ourselves in a certain way. When it’s reversed, it all looks wonky. But it’s a much truer version. You take for granted the mirror’s truth but that’s a facility.
AFH: Isn’t that true on a deeper level too? The things we like about ourselves are often irritating to others whereas our self-perceived flaws might be endearing.
HK: Its true but I think the realization of mirrors’ distortion is especially disconcerting because you have an expectation that a mirror will reflect a neutral identity. A mirror is assumed to be a true reflection of the soul. It’s an ancient idea that a mirror has the ability to give back one’s self.
AFH: Yet the point of a mirror is to see how others’ perceive you, so isn’t it troubling to assume others can understand your soul better than you can? That seems like an easy acceptance of the possibility that we’re just created by outside influences.
HK: Yes. It’s that but perhaps also it’s the idea that a torch can’t illuminate itself. Your perception, your being, can’t reflect back on itself. It’s there but it’s difficult to recognize. Some people have more self-awareness than others. It’s fascinating to encounter people who are truly deluded. We’re all deluded to a certain degree but it’s fascinating to encounter people who truly operate under some hardcore delusion.
Leaded Light, 2008
Found glass and lead
200 x 300 cm
AFH: It seems nice. It’s hard not to envy people who can create their own realities and roles within them.
HK: But you wouldn’t wish it upon yourself.
AFH: Why do you use windows, as well as mirrors? How do they connect symbolically or philosophically?
HK: There is the idea of neutrality and expectations. Glass and windows are assumed to be neutral and passive. But a piece of glass from 1910 and today are made entirely differently. They are made through different processes and with different materials. Even plain pieces are remarkably different. Fine details are different and dated. Once you become familiar with these differences, you start to look at the surfaces instead of what they reflect or present. You look at the surface with the same eyes that you’d use to look at a painting. You look at the surfaces’ formal qualities, its color and texture. Those things go together and they join up.
AFH: They function as filters?
HK: They are objects but they are like paintings. There was a split when oil painting was invented between Southern Europeans who dived into perspective and Northern Europeans, who became obsessed with luster, glean and shine. These mirrors really represent how light reflects and what it does. That’s the area that I naturally work with.
AFH: What’s the connection with smoke?
HK: It’s all the use of bankrupt materials. I used the remnants of Votive candles. Someone comes to church and makes a prayer. There are often two inches left after the candle is burnt though. Those bits are thrown away and I collect them. You take your fresh candle and it’s only for your prayer. It’s an object invested with belief and hope.
It’s the medium for intense spiritual outpouring but the remaining bits are just chucked.
AFH: Do you have a relationship with a particular church that gives you the remaining bits?
HK: I collected the beeswax candles from the Roman Catholic Church. I was not very good at collecting them. There was concern that I was a devil worshiper because Satanists collect consecrated objects. I had a low return rate when asking.
AFH: Pretending to an artist is a really clever ruse for a Satanist.
HK: I didn’t understand why they were reluctant but I have a friend whose father was a Vicar and she said that Satanists would pretend to be scholars or something else to gather objects. I then asked a very English friend from Cambridge to collect for me and she would bring the same amount in a day that I’d need a month to collect. It was fantastic. Everyone gave up everything they had.
AFH: The Satanists should contact her.
HK: That’s the secret.
AFH: And then?
HK: I use the smoke from the candles. It’s the bankrupt bit from the bankrupt material. I trained as a painter and I still try to paint, by other means. I used to make lots of drawings but I couldn’t bridge the gap between drawing and using a bankrupt material. Now, I can make drawings with the most fundamentally valueless material.
AFH: What is the belief within the church about the smoke? Does the smoke carry the prayer’s prayer? If the candle transports the wish to God, then isn’t the smoke the vehicle for that wish?
HK: I don’t think they think about the smoke too much.
AFH: Why do you use images that are unrelated to wishes?
HK: It’s hard to say why I use the images. Some derive from photographs or found drawings. I don’t have a particular set subject or images. I made a few of Saint Bernadette. She was the saint of incorruptibility. Her body never rotted. She was exhumed three times and her body never rotted. One theory is that, if you’re so enlightened that you have no fear of death, and then your body is never flooded with adrenaline and remains soft. That’s a very poignant idea. The idea of materials being in flux yet pure makes her a fitting image. It’s the contrast of bankrupt materials with an image of purity, non-denegation and permanence.