09.04.2024 Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris #art

Ari Marcopoulos

Beware* at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Ari Marcopoulos became known in the 1990s for his edgy photographs capturing subcultures such as skateboarding. His passion for portraiture also led him to photograph numerous artists and musicians like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Public Enemy and Jay-Z.


Now the Dutch-born, New York-based photographer is having a carte blanche exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 5th April – 25th August 2024. Having acquired his film, Brown Bag (1994/2020), from Galerie Frank Elbaz, the museum has invited Marcopoulos to select works from its collection that are being presented alongside his film and photographs. Among the artists chosen by Marcopoulos are Bruce Nauman, Daniel Turner, Isa Genzken, Annette Messager and  Giorgio de Chirico.

“Beware of what you say, but also be aware of what you hear and see, and pay attention visually and mentally”

You grew up in the Netherlands. What was your upbringing like?

Ari Marcopoulos:

My father was an airline pilot. He was Greek, although he was born in Egypt, and he moved to the Netherlands. He flew for a Persian airline, a Syrian airline and then for KLM. He met my mum who was a model and stayed in Holland. I grew up there as an outsider. I didn’t grow up in a household where everyone was expected to become an artist.

How did you become interested in art?

Ari Marcopoulos:

I think through music and cinema and then starting to go to Amsterdam’s Museum of Modern Art, the Stedelijk Museum. The first exhibition I saw was either James Turrell or Nam June Paik, who are both quite shocking artists to see as a young person whose first impressions of art are more classical works. Then I saw an exhibition by Robert Rauschenberg which dealt with the Saturn rockets, the space programme before the moon landing. I was also interested in space and astronauts, and that’s how I became interested in art.

Why did you want to move to New York in 1980? What was your ambition?

Ari Marcopoulos:

I don’t think I had any kind of ambition, just leave the Netherlands [laughing], to go somewhere else! My uncle lived in New York and I’d visited him by myself when I was 12 years old and 15. I loved New York City – the skyscrapers, the large buildings – and I was into basketball and baseball. In the Netherlands at that time, you had two TV channels that ran from 7 pm to 11 pm and in New York it felt like a hundred TV channels. When I was 22, I felt I should go to New York for three to six months and see what was happening over there. But I stayed and am still there.


You worked for Andy Warhol on his screenprints and for Irving Penn as his assistant. What are your strongest memories and what did you learn from them?

Ari Marcopoulos:

What I learnt from Warhol, who took so many pictures of everything, is that anything is worth documenting. I met a lot of people while I was in that milieu and other people working for him became my friends. From Irving Penn, I learnt a lot of technical things about light and composition and that I didn’t want to take pictures like Irving Penn.

When did you first become interested in New York’s skating scene and why did it fascinate you?

Ari Marcopoulos:

My first fascination for skateboarding came when I moved with my family to Rio de Janeiro when I was about 17 years old. We went there twice for a three-month period. I was really fascinated by the beach life and the surfing, and the surfers were all skateboarding. I remember buying a skateboard there – skateboards back then were thick wooden planks with clay wheels – and realizing it was very hard to skateboard with it on the cobbled stones of the Netherlands. In New York, I first photographed an early professional skateboarder in the ‘80s. Then in 1993, I was riding my bike past a spot called the Brooklyn Banks, under the Brooklyn Bridge, where skateboarders can skate a large transition, come up and land. I was always interested in how skateboarders interpret contemporary architecture as something with which to work with their bodies, and how they’re a group of people connected by a common interest. I would go around with them and see how they’d pick places to use as part of their practice.


The centrepiece of your exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is your short film Brown Bag (1994/2020). What can you tell us about it?

Ari Marcopoulos:

It was all shot between 1993 and 1995. When I moved studios in 2017 or 2018, I found this brown bag and it had all these Super 8 cassettes inside that had been exposed. I didn’t remember what they were. But I knew they were old because I hadn’t had my Super 8 camera around for at least 25 years. I thought about discarding it but then decided to process and scan it. I saw that it was all this skate footage and thought it was like a weird archaeological find. I’m doing a book along with the exhibition which has some of the Super 8 video stills in it.


How did you reinterpret the footage?

Ari Marcopoulos:

I was quite taken with the raw quality, not in any kind of nostalgic way but in an interpretative and physical way of how it looks. It’s quite beautiful.


What were your criteria about what to include?

Ari Marcopoulos:

I found the parts that I thought were usable and tried to create a rhythm and make it look kinetic. I always work in quite an experimental way when I’m editing. There are some shots of Beck’s first concert in New York which I remember going to but don’t remember filming, so that was a nice surprise. There’s a clip of my son when he was a little baby. And there’s a snowstorm with this Tropicana Florida orange juice truck driving through the frame that I filmed out of my window in a whole other period but I liked the footage.

The exhibition is taking place during the Paris Olympic Games. What are your thoughts on skateboarding entering the games, after making its debut at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021?

Ari Marcopoulos:

I don’t especially care for the Olympic Games, although I’ll watch the track and field and the basketball games. I used to be a track and field athlete. But I don’t look at skateboarding as a competitive sport. In the Olympic Games, people are judging it and I feel that the spirit of skateboarding is not about that. If you go out on a session and see someone landing a trick after falling 10 or 20 times, the excitement by everyone watching is amazing. Very often, when somebody is trying something, nobody else will skate. People sit, watch and wait in order to help this person channel all their energy. That’s the beauty of it.


Why have you titled your exhibition Beware*?

Ari Marcopoulos:

It seems an apt word for this time: beware of what you say, but also be aware of what you hear and see, and pay attention visually and mentally. For me, it definitely has a double meaning: beware and be aware.


Tell us about some of the works that you’ve selected from the museum’s collection.

Ari Marcopoulos:

So this is crazy, right? They acquired my film and gave me carte blanche to look into their collection of more than 15,000 works and select some to combine with my work. Choosing from 15,000 artworks is like editing a manuscript of 80,000 words down to 3,000! I started randomly looking at the collection online. The first work that I became interested in is a bar by Daniel Turner which I thought a skater would like to grind on. There’s a word piece, Life Fly Lifes Flies (1997), by Bruce Nauman who is one of my idols. They’d never shown it and it took them a while to find it in their storage. Then I started finding different artists that I’d never heard of.

You’ve also made an armature on which you’re hanging some of your photography.

Ari Marcopoulos:

I wanted to make a gesture that interferes with the traditional space of the gallery. I woke up one morning and thought that I wanted to make an armature and hang this series of portraits on it. I quickly sketched the footing of how it’s supported and the angle. The idea is that there are 10 photographs of friends, five on each side, hanging from a piece of wood as if they’re floating in space.


How would you like your exhibition to resonate with the skateboarders near the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Palais de Tokyo?

Ari Marcopoulos:

Well, I hope that it will engage them and bring the outside inside. I have photographed there already and will be photographing some of my friends who skateboard this time around as well.



Interview by Anna Sansom

Photos: Michael Huard for Say Who


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