“Trees don’t care if they are blue,” says conceptual and social artist Konstantin Dimopoulos discussing his wildly successful environmental art installations, The Blue Trees. “They just don’t want to be cut down.”
To date, Dimopoulos has created The Blue Trees—what he calls an “ongoing environmental art intervention”—in some 20 cities on 50 different sites around the world. From Vancouver to Sydney to Germany and around the USA, the artist has colored the trunks and branches of living trees in parks and urban settings with a vibrant blue watercolor that captures viewers’ attention, compelling them to pause and reflect upon a landscape they may have overlooked for years. While the harmless color naturally degrades off the trees over a few months, their revitalized presence endures. The goal, says Dimopoulos, is to raise awareness in urban communities about the devastating impact of deforestation around the globe.
Motivated by the belief that art can initiate and support social change, Dimopoulos approaches his artworks as vehicles for expressing social and humanistic philosophies. Employing a diversity of materials, he grapples with equally diverse subject matter: immigration, homelessness, mental health, environmentalism, domestic violence, political power and cultural appropriation to name a few. Consistent in nearly all of his work, however, is the use of highly saturated, monochromatic colors that create visual statements as bold and overarching as the projects’ themes themselves.
“Color is an incredibly powerful medium for us as tribal human beings,” Dimopoulos says, whether signifying a shared identity—through, say, flags or team jerseys—or—as with red blood or berries—alerting us to danger. “And it’s especially true in urban and industrial settings where color captures our collective attention.”
Public Art and Social Change
Take, for example, The Purple Rain, a 2015 public art installation in Melbourne, Australia, created to generate greater visibility and empathy for people who have experienced homelessness. With vibrant purple dots, passersby are compelled to stop, move closer, and explore one dot and then the next, like a path within the installation as a whole. Through information printed on those dots, accompanied by QR codes, viewers take the time to learn about one individual after another. “Color attracts people,” Dimopoulos explains. “It brings people in and slows them down.” The end result, he hopes, is to engage viewers long enough to reevaluate the human suffering that most of us accept as an everyday fact.
Informed by The Purple Rain, Dimopoulos’s body of neon artworks, Mind At The End of its Tether, continues his socially-engaged art practice by introducing industrial media as social commentary. Here the artist juxtaposes images and words relating to extreme poverty and social disadvantage with commercialism, represented by painterly, fluid neon lines in saturated colour. “With Mind At The End of Its Tether I seek to express the truth that lies in colour. Electric neon lights allow a consonance between the object, the narrative and the viewer.”
In fact, Dimopoulos’ deceptively playful use of color betrays a fatalism that fuels much of his work. Works such as Virus, The Trojan Horse, and his pictorial narrative The Goldilocks Series, make clear that the artist despairs for the natural world. Whether accusing humans of environmental ecocide, mocking the veneer of “false news” and unbridled power, or challenging the reputation of fairytale animals as evil, the pieces fiercely defend those unfortunate to find themselves in our paths. “The only thing on the planet that has the potential to be evil is us,” he says. “Forests and animals are just in the way.”
Take, for example, the contradictory Barbed Wire Buddha, at once transcendent and violent, constructed of repurposed barbed wire encased in ultramarine blue. “I think our world is the paradise they spoke of,” Dimopoulos says of spiritual leaders through the centuries. “Yet, if we are given paradise, we will turn it into Chernobyl. A Barbed Wire Buddha is a contradiction in terms, a universal symbol of non-violence constructed from a materiel of war, defensive, and so generating an ideas universe that is rich, plural and complex.
Visual Language in Translation
Vibrancy and bleakness, presence and memory have long been recurring themes for this Egyptian born artist of Greek descent. Having lived in the cosmopolitan city of Ismailia until the age of seven, Dimopoulos relocated to Wellington, New Zealand with his parents and grandparents in the 1960s. There, he remembers, their identity as foreigners was only amplified. Unable to find work as a master tailor, his father’s health declined from long hours on a car assembly line. Without English as a second language, culture shock characterized Dimopoulos’ early years.
A passionate sketcher and keen observer, however, Dimopoulos hungrily absorbed the colorful cultural sights, smells, and languages of the immigrant community he was part of; many members shared his family’s background in the fashion and the garment trades.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the artist gravitates toward the metaphor of translation when asked about his approach to art. “It’s really ideas that interest me,” he says. Influenced by Mark Rothko and German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, Dimopoulos says his inspiration lies in the intersection between intangible concepts (human suffering, environmental destruction), material objects (carbon fiber rods, neon tubing, barbed wire), and decidedly physical space (urban parks, windswept shorelines). Having to express those ideas with a visual language? “It’s like trying to translate, say, Russian into English,” he says. “You’ll never get the perfect translation.”
Public Art: Global Concepts, Local Connections
Dimopoulos uses flexible shafts of carbon fiber for purely linear, abstract, and geometric kinetic sculptures exploring the volatility of natural forces. His pared-down color palette uses primarily monochromatic applications, also visible in his large-scale steel sculptures. Pointillist at their base, each work creates multilinear interventions of space and time, describing restrained arcs in movement.
For nearly four decades now, Dimopoulos has continued his travels, erecting public arts works and large-scale sculptures everywhere from Korea to Canada, England to Australia. While travel is surely in his nature – he now lives in the USA – it is the allure of commissioned work that drives him to unexplored territory. Beyond the appeal of accommodating a client’s particular interests and space, he says, “commissions are what allow artists to push themselves and create substantial works.” Such investments are particularly essential when designing sculpture for urban environments, he says. “You have to work on a scale that has presence.”
Despite a packed schedule of installations for public and private collections, Dimopoulos is expanding his studio practice, creating prints and works on canvas and paper. The latter are saturated with colour and heavily resined, a metaphorical veneer of truth over richly fabricated falsehoods and fairytales.