This conversation took place at the opening of Pool Paintings Part I in July 2018.
Viktoria Draganova: Navine, we are really delighted to welcome you here, and now thinking back to how this show developed towards its current form we must realize that our conversation went through many different stages. What was it that kept being your main point of interest?
Navine G. Khan Dossos: The most important thing for me is the pool. Saying this here may sound even banal, but I’ve followed Viktoria’s program pretty much since the beginning and it was not only amazing to come and see this place after seeing it online so many times, but also seeing this kind of void at the center of the space has never been dealt with, no one never really related to the language of the pool itself and what it meant. Here, family and cultural history interrelate. Moreover, it’s not just something to deal with the symbol of the pool as luxury or leisure but also something which is leading to the subconscious. A body of water is more than just something you swim on a hot day. It’s also something which can be frightening it’s also something which could be dream-like or nightmarish. I really wanted to find a way to approach all of the subjects. We walked through many variations in the last few months. For me it is a space of great possibility, but also of impossibility. And, instead of making it like a display of my own practice, I prefer to have it rather as a site-specific interrogation of the project space and the reality of the pool.
V: For me this show is an occasion to reconsider my own curatorial practice that is also site-specific as it always invokes the space and its historical, social, imaginary dimensions. Your deal site-specificity in a complex way: On the one hand, all paintings directly refer to the architecture as they all follow the dimensions of the pool on the terrace. On the other, each of the series considers a different reference.
N: Yes, Im using a fixed ratio as I imagine all these as pools that can fit in this place. After I realised that this pool can’t be filled again – my original idea was to do a show about the possibility of filling the pool, but after speaking to architects, engineers, and insurance, It was clearly way too much money – but what interesting is when you take the footprint and you are allowed that to be a space of imagination. Its very questionable as whether I’m a painter, because I’m mostly a muralist but my relationship to painting is more architectural, and it has to do with design. So, every single one when I was painting it was really imagining in three dimensions of what it would be.
And then, I have a background in history of art, so I’m very interested in looking in this process of research and thinking about why and how we ended up in this culture of swimming pools. Some of the paintings come completely from my imagination, other are looking at the history of swimming. I started originally with the relationship in Greece to swimming (as me and my partner live there) where swimming developed primarily from military prospective. It was the naval force where boats would go down all the time and people need to get out of them as quickly as possible. But that’s also the same story in Northern Europe, especially France, as one of the first places to develop swimming culture when Napoleon realized that he was losing many people in the naval battles or by crossing the river on horses. Most of technological developments come from military history. There are some more references in the show: Аs I have a background in Ottoman architecture, I’m very interested in Ottoman history and this lead me to research Turkish baths as something that travelled around into different territories and became part of the cultures of an extended colonial Ottoman society. Also, there is series of Soviet pools, which is looking at different history of building pools in Soviet times in the spaces of churches.
V: Most of the series interrelate cultural history with a look at the development of how pools were created …
N: Yes, this another layer in the show, and the pool in this space is actually a very standard pool. It’s basically just concrete slabs, but in the 50s and 60s there was a new technology of spraying concrete on mesh so you can create beautiful curved shapes in more natural forms, that were mostly available to super rich people. Then you have this kind of kidney pools that come out from Modernism. They become the spaces that skaters used in the 70s. The rock pool particularly fascinates me because grottos and islands. And then this idea that the pool can have sort of island in the middle or that you could create a cave, or that you could create a beach made out of the fake rock.
V: What about pools as architecture very much related to privilege? It feels like this question must be asked here, especially as the pool at this place was built in the late 30s, then during the communistic regime nationalized and used for shared housing, in the 90s restituted, now used by a non-profit organization as a “blue cube” for art that is mostly financed through public funding and is also accessible for general audience.
N: If you look back at 1950s portraits of Hollywood stars you often see them lying by the pool or on the rocks. Lots of them couldn’t swim, none of them went in the water. It was just a symbol of wealth and of status. It was something to have a party around but the people wouldn’t go into it. At this time escpecially it was all to do with having the newest pool by the best designer and the best architect building your pool. People were often buying houses not because of the house but because of the pool. And now if you look at the internet to research historic pools, most of the images we see are of pools that are not used anymore. And I think that is what links to this space is that you often see the pictures of disused kind of spaces that are overgrown and have been forgotten. That’s whypools also pose questions about privilege as well as when one ends up with not being able to afford to fill them anymore. The exhibition it’s about how to touch upon all these things. This space become an anchor of that history.
V: How does the install in the show respond to this variety of references?
N: It took a lot of conversation between Viktoria and I to figure out how to hang 50 paintings in the space that has many corners, many kinds of strange architectural features, small walls and big walls, without losing too much of the surreality. Sometimes we introduced examples from different series into other constellations to create links between the works and that could be political or visual, aesthetic qualities that certain histories share, intentionally or by accident. But also we didn’t want to make it feel entirely solid. It’s a very fluid show in a way. If it’s too solid it will lose the nature of water. And I think it’s the sort of thing that the waves create when you move around in water. I mean it forces you to move around the work, there’s not a center point. You’re not going to one particular place. You travel around the space.
V: You consider yourself as muralist, so what does it mean for you to work with painting? Also, we talked a lot about potentiality. Can you say a bit more what is potentiality for you?
N: Being a muralist, its often really difficult to get jobs making wall paintings. Because they are so big, a lot of works I plan can never be made simply because of scale and time pressures. When I make paintings like these works on paper for me they act as the designs of something that cannot or will not exist. And that’s how I think about potentiality. The show is much more the kind of architectural design strategy or like a display, presenting the portfolio of all the possible pools you could do here, rather than being a painting show. Which is why we didn’t want to treat it in this way of putting one picture with lot of space around it, as you would do with hanging normal paintings in a white cube. I haven’t made just one, I’ve made six or eight in a series. And they are all meant to have same value as series, not just individually. No one piece is more important than another. And they are never the thing themselves as they’re always leading to something else. I never see the paintings I make as being an end point, they’re always imagining of something else.
V: We had an interesting conversation while we were installing the show as you mentioned icon painting and how insightful it has been to you in terms of the interrelation between method, concept, subjectivity and material.
N: Before going to art school to do my Masters, I trained in traditional Islamic art, and also other forms of sacred art, and what Viktoria is referring to here was a workshop that I did as a part of this training. I was taught by a monk from Mount Athos (Aidan Hart) to paint icons. What interested me most was the process. He said that in the traditionally when you paint an icon, of the Virgin Mary for instance, you are supposed to hold your pallet right by your heart. And every single brush stroke goes from your heart straight onto the icon. Every single brush stroke is then a meditation on the virgin. So, it’s not just making this image, it’s actually investing the image with love. So, I’m applying the same process of making, just to a different, secular subject. The things I paint are often really boring to paint. They are big and it’s repetitive, and the best way to get through it is to be contemplative. You have to go into the headspace that is a meditation. Even if I’m making a single painting of the pool I’m not just going to do a circle and make it blue, I’m really imagining what it would be like to sit in that pool, infusing it with a three-dimensional feeling. Each one is really considered and again fitted to the dimensions of the space. In my practice the subject could be anything, you know my work ranges vastly in subject matter. I don’t make pool paintings most of the time but I’m applying the same methodology as a way of entering to the subject and really kind of owning it in a way.
V: As part of the exhibition we decided to screen two films that has been influential for your practice as well as this show: 3 Women from 1977 by Robert Altman and the The Swimmer from 1968. Both films prominently deal with pools, but I’d be curious to hear more about how you contextualize them within the show.
N: 3 Women is a very strange film. It’s set in one of the great territories of swimming pools – California, and it follows three female characters. It’s not very often you will see women on screens who are painters, let alone a woman muralist, who also happens to be pregnant. When you are pregnant you are not supposed to be doing heavy manual work. I find this an interesting taboo as well. There is also a relation to creativity and fertility. I really don’t want to give away too much about the film but I did a lot of research into it and I found the artist who actually made the murals for the film, who was called Bohdi Wind. You can really see the materiality of the paint he was using and the process: they leave it as it was being painted in situ by him. He steps out of the frame and the actress replaces him holding the brushes for that scene. I think the most important scenes that have permeated my work are those shot through water. Altman used a specific technique using water caught between sheets of glass held in front of the lens to get these effects. You see the paintings in the film through water. And that was really a strong starting point in this show: what would it be like to have paintings visible through the water’s depth …
The Swimmer makes a nice pairing to 3 Women. It is very much about the individual man, his ego and the slow breakdown of his reality. We see the protagonist swim ‘home’ across his neighbors’ pools, which frame the narrative through the social etiquette, one-upmanship, and worlds of wealth that give form to his sense of self. Like 3 Women, it is also a deeply psychological film, and blurs the lines between reality and dream/imagined states. I chose this film not only for the way it walks the viewer through the mid 20th-century pools of East Coast America – the pinnacle of a certain type of design and lifestyle, but also the dark side of this kind of social class, the fragility of identity that is based so concretely on finance.