Marya Kazoun: Trans-mutational Materiality

Steady Breath, 2003, installation/ performance, bamboo, wool, fabric, thread, 320 cm x 300 cm x 228 cm , photo credit: Margerida Correia

Each of Marya Kazoun’s sculptures, performances, and installations evolves into its own open-ended narrative, deriving from the artist’s personal journey—childhood memories and cultural background. Throughout her versatile body of work, Marya Kazoun plays with the concepts of time and space by blurring their boundaries, excavating a wide array of imagery from the realms of the collective and the subconscious to form rich and poetic installations evoking parallel universes. The eclectic materials she is using in her work—fabric, bamboo, Murano glass, plastic, paper, and whatever inspires her—assume new life and new meaning within her idiosyncratic, imaginative, and elaborate visual vocabulary.

You were born in Beirut and live and work in New York and Venice. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to working in installations and performance.

Yes, I grew up in Beirut. In 1992 my family and I fled the war by migrating to Montreal, Canada. I completed degrees in Interior Architecture and Fine Arts at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. In 2001, two weeks before the September 11 attacks I moved to NYC where I completed an MFA in fine arts at the School of Visual Arts.

This is where my work developed. I looked at what was unique and personal in my art making process: while I was still an undergraduate I used to make handbags with fabric, beads, cow bones, sheep horns gathered from ancient roman cemetery in Tyr, Lebanon; jewelry with guitar strings, wire, thread, plastic and glass beads. So I used that background to make my installations. I played with scale magnifying a bracelet at first. Then, from there, the works gradually developed and became segments of worlds. Parallel worlds that explore the macro and micro, the extremely beautiful versus the extremely repugnant.

The connection between installation and performance happened when I had organized a photo shoot for an installation I had just ‘finished’ in 2003 entitled Steady Breath, made of bamboo, threads and beads. I had made an outfit but wasn’t quite sure why I had done it, what was its purpose? I was wearing it and got into one of the pictures of the installation to show the scale of my work. When I got my slides back from the photographer and looked carefully at them, it suddenly hit me, it all made sense. I felt that the work needed me to support it, to help it sustain itself. It first started with embodying the works, becoming part of them, having a similar external shell, in a way to be like them, to be ‘Their equal’.

Glass seems to be central in your tool kit. What attracts you to that medium, how did you start working with it, and what can you share about your process and use of material?

Glass has always fascinated me and I have been using it in my works since the beginning of my art journey. I first started when I was still making accessories and later when I discovered Murano glass with Berengo Glass Studio in Venice. I had the chance to experiment and play with the medium. One of my first works was a translation of a large installation made of trash bags into a smaller glass one. The result was captivating.

The glass medium carries lots of meaning and metaphorical qualities. Glass is a state. It is liquid when it’s hot and solid at ambient temperature. Its trans-mutational quality makes it a perfect material to convey the different ideas in my work. It makes me see the medium as genderless as are the creatures in my worlds and in my performances. At the same time glass freezes a moment, it encapsulates it, triggering a complex viewing relationship between the viewer and the art object. Glass means fragility, resistance, transparency and eternity. It carries so many of the human qualities. 

I particularly like to observe glass leftovers, their shapes and colors are mesmerizing in the big dumpster. I was inspired to learn the process of making glass leftovers which you can see me doing in this video. I made them and used them to make the two snowmen figures in my installation They Were There. It is a work that is taking place in a post-apocalyptic future ice age caused by global warming and climate change. It is an installation/ performance made for Glasstress, Venice biennial 2011.

Self-Portrait, 2003- present, installation/ Performance, fabric, plastic bags, thread, murano glass, 65 cm x 200 cm x 300 cm, Photo Credit: Luca Casonato

Travellers from Ouppala, 2013 , Self-Portrait Series , murano glass, 40 cm x 30 cm x 25 cm, photo credit: Marya Kazoun

In your Oneart introductory text it says that you are constantly searching for “new iconography of the human reality,” using images that are “less perceptual and more mentally formulated.” What is your take on that? Can you elaborate on that in context of a project?

It’s always challenging to understand how imagery is produced in our unconscious mind. Is it innate or is it figures that are mentally formulated or acquired? Most of my esthetic vision is a synthesis of fairy tale representations combined with imagery from movies, particularly like the Peau d’Âne film, made by Jacques Demy in 1970. It can also be visuals inspired by music or children musical performances like the musical performance plays by French actress and singer Chantal Goya who sang on stage with magnificent scenography back in the 80’s. I always combine my visual references differently. I believe that the result is a recognizable vocabulary that is clear and easily accessible to the wider public.

Let’s take for example Self-Portrait, an installation/ performance that I started in 2004, that mutated and transformed each time I showed it in a different location. Its forms refer to roots, or tentacles of an animal like an octopus. The black color and the texture of the fabric convey the feeling of an organic seductive creature that looks menacing and crawling towards the spectator. Hagakure in The Secret wisdom of the Samurai said: “If we are open to all paths, it is easier to recognize ours.” This is a self-portrait made at a specific period of my life. Its title immediately brings out the notion of self-image and all its literature.

Passions make and reveal a lot of the shadows in us. We choose to ignore them or be conscious of them. In my case I think I had no choice, they came out of me fast and unpredictable, like vomiting to reject what the body is not able to process. These things can suffocate and kill us if we feed them fear. I chose to deal with them by demystifying them. Through volume and lightness in my pieces, I try to create a dynamic between the piece, the space, and the viewer.

Crumbling Desert Castles, 2007, Installation/ performance, general view, commission for SharjahBiennale 8, thread, fabric, beads, wool, stuffing, glue, glass, bamboo, wood, 9 performers

Crumbling Desert Castles, 2007, installation/ performance, close up, commission for Sharjah Biennale 8,thread, fabric, beads, wool, stuffing, glue, glass, bamboo, wood, 9 performers

Let’s keep looking at individual projects. For instance, Crumbling Desert Castles, based on your first trip to Sharjah in 2006. I like your description—bringing the ‘rawness’ of the city/world to the surface. You also allude in this work to the impact of human activity on the planet through performance and installation. Tell me about this work—what did the visitor see? What was your thought and work process?

Global warming or climate change is one of the main themes in my works. Crumbling Desert Castles was a commission by the Sharjah Biennial; I was invited twice to visit the Emirates to get inspiration and ideas to create an artwork. During my visits, what struck me mostly were the strong contrasts in society between rich and poor in all aspects. I was struck by the building of artificial islands. The devastating environmental consequences on the marine habitats and ecology were huge.

I decided to make an artwork that explores those contrasts by making a segment of a polluted world where a precious ecosystem is flourishing inside a bubble. I created petroleum rain made of bamboo and thread hanging from the ceiling, roots made of fabric depicting a nature soaked in pollution, humanoid beings and people fighting for survival during the performance. I am interested in the abstract qualities of materials, their ambiguity is what matters most. I first find materials and let them guide through their qualities. I try to listen to the happy accidents that occur during the process of making the artwork. In this piece, the people who helped during the making and installation of the work participated in the performance.

The Humble Mind, 2017, installation/ performance, close up view, fabric, stuffing, light, beads, wire, thread, site- specific, collaboration and performance: Andrea Busetto, photo credit: Marya Kazoun

Wandering Stars, 2020, installation, general view, murano glass, glue, 400 cm x 400 cm x 300 cm,
photo Credit: Andrea Busetto

Your installations give me a sense of an anthropomorphic entity—between body and landscape, simultaneously frozen and in flux. And there are also strong performative elements—actual performance and perhaps the very process of making that comes through the work. How do you see the relationship between performance and sculpture in your work and how do you think it has evolved from earlier work such as The Ignorant Skin, 2005 and They Were There, 2011, for example?

With the evolution of the different works the performers no longer had a human appearance, but they took the role of a machine as in the humble mind made in 2017. In this work the performer became one of the grey elements of the installation, moving slowly holding a light directed at the floor as if searching for answers.

In Wandering Stars 2020, the performers were no longer there but traces of them are visible in the installation and convey their presence. In this piece I explore the uncertainty of the times we’re living in. The installation invites the viewer to look up to space as ancient populations used to do. They looked up to the sky to analyze their fate and their relation to the planet they’re living on. One can see in this work an extinct asteroid or celestial body that has arrived through Alphard Gateway, another installation/ performance; a gateway connecting the worlds that I create to reality. 

Wandering Stars is very different from my other works; where life and living is very present through organisms, creatures and beings. In this work everything looks static and narrates a life that is no longer there. I guess there is no rule for how the performance is created. It comes naturally during the process of developing the artwork. It also depends a lot on what message it is conveying. The interpretation of the narrative in my work is open to the viewer, each one can read it differently.

The Title is Still a Secret, 2005, fabric, canvas, thread, glue, beads, 341 cm x 65 cm x  78 cm, photo credit: Francesco Ferruzzi

It’s Me, It’s Ok, 2005, Installation and photo series, 15 images in an edition of 3, prints mounted on plexiglas , 27 cm x 17.5cm x 2.7cm, photo credit: Marya Kazoun

The Venice Projects text says that you give life to “works that vibrate with womanliness,” referring to the materials and processes you are using – weaving, mending with thread, using pearls and beads. How important is this feminine aspect in your work and refer to one early of your earlier works in this context?

This feminine aspect reflects my background culture—I grew up watching my mother shortening her skirts using the needle and thread. I remember watching fashion shows with her on TV and looking at fashion magazines. My thought at 8 years old was that with fabric, a sewing machine, a needle, a thread, and my hands I could create anything. I know that these materials and some colors I use might be considered feminine by society. I don’t believe they have a gender identity but until those prejudices are erased in the collective thoughts, I use them when I need to convey psychologically loaded contents.

The Title is Still a Secret and the installation It’s Me, It’s Ok are both very organic works referring to the human body in different states. They also evoke taboos of many cultures. Their content alludes to independence and freedom, values that are not a given in many places. In The Title Is Secret, one can imagine hairy legs upside down. The starting point of its process was the materials I used: canvas, fabric, stuffing and thread, all materials I am very familiar with; Marya friendly.

The installation It’s Me, It’s Ok is composed of different elements, each representing a state of being. The pieces are very organic and look like anthropomorphic creatures with specific characteristics. The close up in the photo is a detail of the “bride” that is upside down, she is “examined” with a lens by another “narcissistic” creature. All the elements are positioned in a way conveying some sort of social interaction between them.

Alphard Gateway, 2019, installation/ performance, fabric, bamboo, metal, glass, stuffing, beads, site-specific, collaboration & performance: Andrea Busetto

Your installations are abstracted but they also seem to have an underlying narrative reflected in the materials, color, forms, and performance. Does narrative has a role for you? If so, do you have an idea of a narrative ahead or does it evolve from the form, or both?

It depends on how the work is developed. Sometimes it starts with a vision that I draw and then the idea of the artwork develops, and the narrative develops simultaneously. The narratives can come from a tune, a song that I combine with some elements of a movie or a concrete moment of my day that I write about. They can also derive from the materials I use. Materials inspire and talk to me. I try writing what I think they “say”. Sometimes it is the opposite, I create the whole installation and the story comes later. The result becomes a surreal narrative that makes one wonder and travel.

What are you working on in your studio these days?

I have recently been developing an installation of magical creatures that inhabit the post apocalyptic landscape of the installation/ performance They Were There. In that work, global warming and climate change have disrupted the normal course of life. Memphis Squad emerges in that frozen landscape. The squad’s elements are mutated magical creatures that have evolved into wonder beings with a role in their new environment. All the squad’s units have wings but can’t fly because of low temperatures. The squad deploys in areas of turmoil and unrest. The Memphis Squad stands against all forms of contempt. They are there to restore order and safety. Through their antennas they can neutralize any danger among the surviving species living now peacefully in the landscape of They Were There. I chose to work on the praying mantis because in Greek the word Mantis refers to those that are clairvoyant or diviner or interrogate the divinities about the future.

Memphis Squad, 2021, installation, close up, murano glass, eleven elements 30 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm / two elements 50 cm x 25 cm x 30 cm `/ whole installation is around 200 cm x 150 cm x 50 cm, photo Credit: Marya Kazoun

Marya Kazoun was born in Beirut and lives and works in New York and Venice. She completed degrees in Interior Architecture and Fine Arts at the Lebanese American University. In 2001 she moved to New York and, in 2004, completed an MFA in Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts. She participated in the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) with the solo show Personal Living Space. She represented the city of Venice at the 54rth Venice Biennale 2013 with a major commission. Some of her participations include the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, the Museum of Modern Art of Klagenfurt, 2006, the Sharjah Biennial 8, 2007, the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2008, Pozna Biennial in Poland, 2008, the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009, and the Boca Raton Museum of Arts, 2017. She has taken part recently in several group shows and solo shows internationally, in the Middle East, Europe and the USA.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: