Marina Kassianidou: A Partial History

Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History, 2024. Installation view, NARS Foundation, Brooklyn, NY, USA. Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation

During her solo exhibition at the NARS Foundation, artist Marina Kassianidou spoke with Mary Annunziata, who previously curated Marina’s work, A Partial History, as part of the inaugural Immigrant Artist Biennial in 2020. In her exhibition at NARS, Marina presents new work inspired by her grandmother’s collection of 19th and 20th-century schoolbooks from Cyprus. On display are four photographs of selected pages from these books, four artist’s books that recreate the full original texts, and four large sculptural drawings. The show celebrates a call and response with ancestors’ material history, showcasing Marina’s time-intensive artistic process in which she works with surfaces found in her surroundings, such as walls, floors, fabrics, paper, and screens, and experiments with ways of marking that respond to the surface’s appearance, use, or history.

MA: Marina, it was such a pleasure to finally meet you and see your work in person afterworking together virtually during the pandemic. When we first worked together, you created a digital artist’s book, but I loved being able to physically “read” your work and have the tactile experience of turning through the pages you’ve recreated from the texts in your grandmother’s collection. Can you speak to the importance of tactility in your artistic process?

MK: This body of work began with me looking through my late grandmother Koralia’s books, objects that invite touch. Most of these were published between the mid-19th to early 20th century and are quite fragile so holding them and looking through them was a slow and careful process. I was drawn to all the marks of use and time their pages held—creases, tears, stains, wormholes, handwritten notes, pencil marks—and decided to start recreating the books, focusing only on these marks.

When I first began to recreate them, I used sheets of tracing paper and a pen—placing a sheet of tracing paper over a page and tracing around all the marks of use and time I could discern. I did that for every page in each book I recreated. These tracings were then scanned, printed, and bound into a new book, identical in size to the original. Partly due to the fragility of the original books, in 2020, I switched to photographing each page and using a digital tablet and stylus to trace around all the marks of use and time. In both cases, I am touching—through the pen/stylus—the traces of someone or something else. And my drawn marks draw attention to those parts of each page that were touched by someone or something else.

I see drawing or mark-making, in general, as a relational process. When my marking tool touches a surface, it leaves a mark that quite literally embodies the encounter between myself and that surface. The mark isn’t just a trace of my hand but a trace of the encounter between my hand and something other. In the case of A Partial History, the mark is the trace of multiple encounters since the marks of use and time I recreate come from various sources and happened at different points in time. The marks in the artist’s books are trying to capture a history of touching through time. The viewers can look through the artist’s books, touching these traces and possibly adding to them through their handling of each book.

Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History (Book VI), 2024, archival inkjet print on 308gsm matt rag paper, 15.5 x 18 x 1.5 inches (framed); A Partial History (Vol. VI), 2024, artist’s book of inkjet prints on 104gsm smooth matt paper, 9.53 x 5.91 x 0.91 inches (dimensions of closed book). Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.
Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History (Vol. VI) (page 1), 2024, artist’s book of inkjet prints on 104gsm smooth matt paper, 9.53 x 5.91 x 0.91 inches (dimensions of closed book). Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.

MA: The viewer also has a physical, intimate encounter with your new large works on paper in the exhibition—there’s an invitation to “read” the works in space, circumnavigate the pieces, and even peer inside.

MK: Yes – more recently, I began making these double-sided drawings that are about ten-time magnifications of the pages in each book. I make one drawing for each book, drawing all the marks from the odd pages on one side superimposed and all the marks from the even pages on the other side. These larger works are reminiscent of human scale and become bodies in space that viewers can walk around, creating paths of bodily movement that may parallel the drawn lines.

Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History, 2024. Installation view, NARS Foundation, Brooklyn, NY, USA. Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.
Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History (Drawing VI) (detail), 2024, graphite on 300gsm rough press watercolor paper, red oak, 88.07 x 53.15 inches (dimensions of drawing), 54.5 x 10.5 x 7 inches (dimensions of wooden holder). Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.

MA: Exactly – these pieces are so reminiscent of maps for me. It’s incredible to see the marks that emerge between the lines of your grandmother’s books in your work, the shift from language to abstraction. One thing that has come up for us in our conversations is the import of the original text in these books, which are written in an old Greek form on subjects like history, religion, geography, and economics. In your work, the original text disappears, instead elevating marginalia, tears, creases in the paper, and wormholes. Can you speak to the disappearance and subversion of the original text, and what significance it might have when we think about the transmission of knowledge over time?

MK: Initially, I thought of my process as one of excavation—excavating each page, looking for this other narrative that recedes to the background of the printed text. This excavation is accompanied by a kind of reversal—leaving the printed text behind and foregrounding the marks of use and time. It’s like telling another story or enabling this other story the book holds to come to the surface. I also thought of it as reading each book as a material object rather than as a text. I think we get to know and experience the world in multiple ways, including touching the world and moving through it as embodied beings. And as we touch the world, we are touched in turn—we can both affect and be affected. I wanted to approach knowledge and the transmission of knowledge in a broader way by approaching the books, these containers of knowledge, as material objects that can be held and touched.

Later, I began to consider other things as well. For example, some of the books contain information that is now outdated. Some others, such as the history books, focus on grand narratives revolving around war and nationalism. While recreating the books, I began thinking about the notion of history not as glorifying grand narratives, but as an embodied practice of small cumulative gestures, for example, the history of touching something. I see the recreated books as alternative history books, recording the history of handling each original book.

Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History (Book VI) and A Partial History (Vol. VI) (page 1), 2024, found book and artist’s book (composite image), 9.53 x 5.91 x 0.91 inches (dimensions of closed artist’s book). Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.

MA: I know there are over forty books in your grandmother’s collection, and to date, you’ve recreated eight over almost as many years. Do you consider this project your life’s work in a sense? Do you think you will complete the collection?

MK: At first, I planned to recreate all the books, but seeing how long it takes to trace and print each one and the physical work that goes into it, now I’m uncertain I’ll be able to do that. I’m also working on other works, so I tend to shift my time from one work to another. I find this uncertainty freeing in some ways—the goal is not to recreate all the books but to recreate one more, and then one more, and so on. I’m drawn to the partial nature of the work, which was something I was thinking about when I titled it A Partial History. It’s an incomplete history. I plan on continually recreating more books and making more large drawings. I’m really fascinated by mark-making and the activity of recreating marks, and I think there’s more for me to explore. So, there’s always the possibility that I may recreate all the books.

MA: Where might the work evolve from here?

MK: I’m not sure how else the work might develop. In some ways, I see my work process as one of translation—from the original books to the recreated books to the large drawings—so there’s always the potential for another translation. Over time, the process of making books and drawings has shifted my approach to this work and my way of thinking about it. It’s possible I’ll find other ways of recreating or translating the original books. It usually comes from the work itself.

There’s also something somewhat absurd about recreating something, at least in my mind, which is another reason I’m drawn to this work. I’m thinking of Borges’s story On Exactitude in Science, where a group of cartographers create a map of the empire that is as big as the terrain it represents, which is ultimately useless. I know you’ve revisited this story in your own writing.

MA: I’ve always loved this story and Umberto Eco’s response. Eco writes about the impossibility of the cartographers to faithfully represent the territory and the subsequent impossibility of reproducing the empire once the map is made. He takes things one step further, and considers the existence of a map endowed with self-awareness (“such a map…would itself become the empire, while the former empire would cede its power to the map)”.[1] There’s a resonance here with your work for me. Your artist’s books supersede the original texts, remaining true to their physical dimensions, but isolating and elevating personal and intimate stories from grand historical narratives. I like to think of your books as new editions, endowed with this self-awareness Eco references, at once embodying the past (your ancestors’ use), the present (your response to their traces), and the future (once the work is in the viewer’s hands).

Marina Kassianidou, A Partial History, 2024. Installation view, NARS Foundation, Brooklyn, NY, USA. Courtesy of the artist and NARS Foundation.

A Partial History by Marina Kassianidou is on view at NARS Foundation through May 15, 2024. An artist talk with Mary Annunziata and catalogue launch will take place on Wednesday, May 15, from 6-8pm.

About the writer: Mary Annunziata is an interdisciplinary writer who focuses on art’s intersections with conflict, migration, diasporic identity, and emerging technologies. She holds an MA in Critical & Curatorial Studies from Columbia University and has worked for arts and nonprofit institutions including the Royal Ontario Museum, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Artist Protection Fund, and Access Now. Mary is based in Brooklyn, New York.

  1. Umberto Eco, “On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map,” How to Travel with a Salmon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 101.