Dimitrina Sevova experiments with different states of clay, its fragility, and how it can be transformed into various forms from handbuilt to cast ceramic and porcelain objects, or sculptures of unfired clay. Her work involves a creative process that incorporates chance and the inherent qualities of the material. She was born in Varna, Bulgaria, and has for a long time now lived and worked in Zurich and Effretikon, Switzerland.
IMATELIER: Dimitrina, to start with something simple but important… we are now in your studio in Effretikon. What led you to choose this particular space? What do you like about it?
DIMITRINA: Studios are a complicated issue, especially here in Switzerland. Rents are high, and if you want a space in the city, you have to compromise on size. In my case, because I work with materials I needed more space, so I decided to move outside of Zurich.
IMATELIER: Great choice – natural light, high ceilings, it feels so spacious. And there’s something quite romantic about having a studio in the attic, don’t you think?
DIMITRINA: I would prefer to have a studio on the ground floor. I’m hoping to get one in the future. There are some nice spaces on the ground floor of this building, but they were already taken when I was looking for a studio. As an artist who works with sculpture and ceramics, working under the roof without an elevator can be challenging. However, I really love this old factory building and its surroundings. And after spending hours working, it’s nice to take a walk in the forest, sit down on a bench, read, or just enjoy the rays of the sun.
IMATELIER: Do you have some kind of routine? Are you highly organized, or do you prefer to work spontaneously?
DIMITRINA: It depends what I’m working on. Lately, I have been working a lot with ceramics – it is a fairly routine-based practice. I typically work on several pieces at once, rather than focusing on one at a time. It’s important to show up every day. Unlike painting, which can be left alone for a few days or even weeks, ceramic sculpture requires a lot of technological preparation and attention. I use wet rags and plastic bags to maintain the humidity of the material, and if I disappear for a few days, I risk losing my work. For example, look at this piece on my working table that fell apart, which I didn’t manage to clean and put the clay for recycling before you arrived! I watered it too much, and as a result, it’s a bit of a catastrophe. I was under pressure to leave fast, and you see what happened. Ceramics is a slow process, and it requires a lot of patience and consistency. Sometimes I’m exhausted and leave the studio in a total mess. I’m quite happy I can do that, because when I was studying, every student had to clean their workspace in the ceramic workshop on the same day. Now I can just leave the studio, but it means the next day I start by tidying it up. So, I often start with that – putting things in order so as to feel good in the space and be able to organize my work. But I also keep the door open for spontaneity.
IMATELIER: It sounds like working with clay is quite demanding. Why did you choose to work with this material?
DIMITRINA: All materials are capricious and demanding in their own way. One has to find a way to work and collaborate with their physicality and inner forces and learn to listen to them. Clay doesn’t like to be forced; it has a really strong memory. At the same time, it needs to be pressed, and you have to feel its limit. It’s a bit like taming a wild horse. You have to be forceful and gentle at once. There is a need for a mutual relation because clay as a material is rather sensitive. I also feel that the material has found me. There’s a sort of chemical affinity between us. Clay, a highly performative and plastic material, when fired becomes ceramics, which gives a wide range of possibilities, a great vocabulary. Ceramics as an artistic medium is not new, even if it was long seen primarily as a craft and marginalized in the field of fine and even contemporary art. It has recently gained recognition as artistic expression, which has opened new ways to artistically deal with ceramics. The same goes for textiles. Nowadays, ceramics is seen as a crazy experimental material that offers endless possibilities for creativity and strangeness. There’s a huge spectrum of options, and of course it can be combined with any other materials and found objects.
IMATELIER: Do you have a specific concept or plan when you’re working, or do you allow the process to guide you? How do you feel about the journey from idea to result?
DIMITRINA: For many years, I was driven by concepts and felt quite restricted by them. This may have been one of the reasons why, at one point in the past, I decided just to curate. Curating, for me, was a pure state of conceptual expression. My generation was focused on post-conceptual art, where artists had to be post-Duchampian tricksters or jokers, perceiving good art as that which eats its own tail, oscillating between art and non-art. It was a type of self-negating art that mostly had to be smart, to the point, and self-ironic. While many recent brilliant artists follow this formula and excel at it, this is not the way my artistic practices function. I enjoy philosophy and poetry, but I also love the physical dimensions of my art practices and how the body is involved. Some have commented that I am too theoretical, but I do not consider myself as such. Even though my practices are research-oriented, and I try to reflect on the reality around us, I think I am mostly driven by intuition and curiosity. I may be inspired by Donna Haraway’s philosophy, and reading her can be a point of departure for a journey in an unknown direction that may not end up having anything to do with her ideas. I would not try to illustrate anyone’s concepts, even my own.
And yes, the idea is essential in art, but so is the process. There are unexpected inventions and great failures that we learn from or that lead us in a new direction. Art needs ambiguity, not only in the display of the art works in the exhibition space, but also in the artistic process itself.
When I started working with ceramics, particularly porcelain, I received criticism suggesting good artists don’t work as craftspeople. Some advised me to simply sketch my designs and have them made by skilled artisans, to focus on the idea rather than the physical process. While this approach is ok for some, I personally enjoy working with materials with my own hands, imprinting my own fingers into them while exposing myself to their whim.
IMATELIER: What motivates you to be an artist? What inspires you to wake up every morning and work?
Is it some kind of evil spirit?
Is it some kind of evil spirit?
DIMITRINA: It is like a vital force in nature that evokes a migratory syndrome in birds, or the even weirder nomadic force that gets hermit crabs to migrate. I am motivated by something deep inside myself, by love, and the self-healing effect of art. The god of Spinoza, or a universal creativity that propagates and moves things along irreversibly. Art is beyond imperatives, beyond good and evil. This applies to both art and writing, but writing can be even more exhausting, a very time-consuming and crafty activity. Some writers compare writing to embroidery, while others say it’s like hammering out each word to create a good text. One can say that writing is a type of Thanatos drive, or backward force of the virtual – because in a way, you’re not living your life, at least not in the usual way. It’s a form of self-sacrifice in the sense of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It takes dedication, deprivation, and passion. The creative process in art, like in writing, involves trying and trying over and over again, and self-discipline to sustain a daily practice. For me, it is much more enjoyable than writing, perhaps because in art, the process is more concrete, more relieving, even though it also evokes the virtual. Especially in painting, working in two dimensions, you always have one elbow in the virtual or in the abyss. In this sense, sculpture and ceramics are earthlier in a Hegelian fashion.
Working alone in the studio, I try to produce a loneliness that is also a self-alienating form of displacement that moves my work. We artists often compulsively continue working without limits when normal people in an office or other workplace call it a day and go home, to the pub, restaurant or somewhere else. Of course, the notion of work has changed for everyone in the post-Fordist situation, where there is no longer any leisure time in the old sense, and automation, acceleration, and digitalization generally signify our living conditions. However, it is critical and clinical to feel an urge to stay in the studio, experiment, break pieces, start over again, and never feel satisfied because you must go on and on like a hermit crab without reason, to make another piece, to make something new. Often without any financial reward, in continuous precarity, forced to prove yourself again and again to yourself and the public, unable to tread on familiar paths.
IMATELIER: It seems like your work is a kind of addiction.
DIMITRINA: Perhaps it is. Someone told me that before. I was working on paintings during my Master studies at ZHdK, spending long hours going back and forth on a big-size canvas, on the floor, on the wall. I would sometimes work 24 hours on end with no sleep with the idea of making one painting in one day, catching the flow of the wet-on-wet painting process in a kind of trance, on a threshold. I would then be exhausted to the point of barely being able to stand. One day, a fellow artist who shared the studio with me, herself a hardworking artist, told me that I was like an addict, and my work was like a drug for me. While I don’t necessarily agree with her, I can see how it might seem strange to others, even to artists just as obsessed by their work. Perhaps it was a kind of insider joke among workaholic artists.
IMATELIER: Then what is your high? What moments do you find the most satisfying in your practice?
DIMITRINA: When I stop thinking; when I’m on a threshold to another dimension, in the vivid moment in which things work out by themselves, in which something alien is passing through my hands. It’s magic. When I’m alone in the studio trying to produce that loneliness, even if I’m listening to music or a podcast, my thoughts are constantly flowing. Sometimes, they can be rather desperate, full of doubt, or they can be just strange. Many artists are afraid of being caught in self-pity and prefer shared studios not only for material reasons of sharing the cost, but also to protect themselves from their own negative thoughts. I’m not afraid of negative thoughts. I can avoid them by concentrating on my work and don’t even need music then. It’s like a meditation.
IMATELIER: In one of your project descriptions, you mentioned that art is the only field with no rules. Is it so?
DIMITRINA: Well, yes and no. When you enter the realm of art, there are no rules. It is more about following a principle. I mean a certain philosophical and aesthetic idea that reflects the notion of play and human creativity, unleashing its unruly dimensions.
IMATELIER: Can you elaborate on that, please?
DIMITRINA: Children are a great example of this. When they play, they are free – they create their own world with flexible and changeable rules applicable only to the moment. The same goes for art – the rules are not completely absent, but they are flexible, changeable, creative, and inventive.
For instance, when parents buy toys for their children, there are certain expectations about how they should play with them. However, kids can surprise us with their inventiveness and use the toys in completely new ways. And in this sense, I think that art is the freest expression of humans. It’s also connected to natural forces, like the wind playing with sand, leaves, or water. It’s a continuous search for form, a constant shaping of expression, like ludic games. This gives a lot of freedom, but there are still some rules to be followed. Or rather, rigor, consistency, and repetition.
IMATELIER: What is your current game, what are you playing with?
DIMITRINA: I’m currently working on a project for a small solo exhibition in May, and I really like the exhibition space of the Waschhaus of Villa Grunholzer, and the town of Uster. Dieter Holliger invited me based on my previous work and gave me a lot of freedom to do what I want, which is great. I’ve always been interested in the notion of play and games, not only as an artist but also from a theoretical and curatorial perspective. I have spent a lot of time researching and writing about it. However, the current state of the world, human conditions, particularly the situation of war in Europe, has also been very much on my mind. As a result, I decided to connect the topics of play and war in this project through the prism of the flaneur, walking and being troubled by the news.
Coincidentally, I was doing research last year and came across a paragraph in Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” that really resonated with me. This text of his remained unfinished and contained some disappointment with some of his earlier ideas. It speaks of the hidden mechanisms of power, ideology, the game of chess, and the technology of war. Benjamin wrote this in the final weeks of his life. It’s a highly cryptic text that some philosophers and Benjamin specialists find to be rather strange. On one hand, my project is inspired by this text, a grain of which remains relevant to some aspects of the current situation. Where Benjamin wrote about the mechanisms of power and its technologies in relation to the notion of progress and history, which I speculatively expand to how new technologies could affect future wars, particularly with the nightmare that can come from the newest generation of drones driven by artificial intelligence. And yet, this is just one possible line of direction of the exhibition. Indeed, there are more lines that cross diagrammatically. I also built on Benjamin’s phrase “botanizing the asphalt,” which I think is still inspiring, and the practice of the flaneur absurdly extended to how one can work with clay as a material of documentation of strolls and encounters with found objects. Clay used instead of a camera, a notebook or a sketchbook. How can a ball of clay be thrown into daily life? Usually, clay is associated with studio practices, but in this case, I leave the comfort of the studio, overcome my shame of working in the streets and parks to pursue visible traces and invisible lines imprinted on the clay from the surface of my surroundings, occasionally interrupted by small talk with passersby.
My exhibition project is called “Inner Faces,” but the secret title is “Interfaces.” It’s also about inner gardens or the maze of inner mental landscapes, human but also inhuman, and how they resonate with our fears in troubling moments, the relation between the invisible and visible.
IMATELIER: Would you invite us to the opening?
DIMITRINA: You are very welcome at the Waschhaus of Villa Grunholzer at Florastrasse 18, 8610 Uster.
The opening is on Saturday, 6 May from 17:00h to 19:00h.
The opening is on Saturday, 6 May from 17:00h to 19:00h.