Interview with Thomas Egoumenides

How do objects transform into symbols? How value is ascribed and redefined, and what happens to our perceptions (and aspirations) when everything is repurposed? For Thomas Egoumenides, the discarded remnants of consumer culture serve as raw material for sculptures and installations that explore societal dynamics.  While contemporary markets clamour for scholarly discourses, Egoumenides’ art offers a sensitive, more deliberate exploration —a thoughtful meditation on the inherent worth of discarded materials and the stories they carry. Sculptures of reimagined dreams, abstract formations from discarded relics, mythological narratives reconstructed from the fragments of the past:  in each piece, Egoumenides’ craft blends with the tales within castoffs, inviting viewers into dreamscapes of their making.

Born in Paris in 1986, Egoumenides focused on architecture and design during his undergraduate years — one reason, he says, that his art often relies on the interplay of form, function, and spatial dynamics. Recently, I visited his studio in La Goulette, where he has resided for the past decade. Despite it being post-launch of his exhibition, he was engrossed in finalizing new works — ideas that materialized after his Meta-Morphée series. As he described the show, he seamlessly transitioned from practical considerations like handling unconventional materials to deep philosophical reflections on value perception and the passage of time.

Your exhibition Meta-Morphée dives deep into shaking up the usual stories that materials tend to tell us. What inspired you to explore this idea in your art?

I’ve always had this knack for uncovering treasures where others saw none. I was that kid spending hours collecting rocks and seashells on the beach, captivated by their unique shapes and textures. This fascination with the seemingly mundane, overlooked bits and pieces, has always held a certain magic for me. It’s as if I’m on a quest to breathe new life into these objects, to reveal a hidden beauty and significance that eludes many at first glance. When I began the Meta-Morphée exhibition series, the idea of disrupting material narratives to explore new forms and meanings felt like a natural evolution of this philosophy. I wanted to poeticize the ordinary, the discarded, and the unwanted. I sought to challenge the established perceptions of materials, divert them from their usual trajectories, and mould them into something unexpected.

Your journey seems to embody a natural inclination to diverge from the status quo. How did your experiences in Tunis, particularly grappling with issues like plastic waste, shape your perspective on materiality and its possibilities?

Indeed, my time in Tunis confronted me head-on with the glaring issue of plastic pollution. As a designer, my relationship with materials forms the bedrock of my practice. Witnessing the invasion of degraded material into public spaces created a lingering idea in the back of my mind: even though plastic may seem repulsive, it holds the potential for transformation into something new and valuable.

The breakthrough came while I was working on the stage design of ‘Ayur,’ a dance performance by Radouan Mriziga. I hit a roadblock with the connectors I had planned to use for the stage dome. That’s when necessity became the mother of invention, and I started playing around with thermoforming techniques on plastic bottles. What started as a workaround for a production issue soon turned into a realization: this could be a powerful way to address environmental pollution while pursuing my artistic goals. It was a revelation that opened up a new realm of possibilities for me.

Courtesy Yosr Ben Ammar Gallery, ph. Pol Guillard

Can you tell us more about the title Meta-Morphée and its significance to your work?

Absolutely. The title Meta-Morphée holds profound symbolism as it was organically integrated into my creative process. Morpheus embodies shape-shifting and transformation in Greek mythology, concepts deeply resonant with my exploration of materials. The term “Morpheus,” rooted in Ancient Greek, connotes “the maker of shapes,” stemming from “μορφή,” meaning “form” or “shape.” My interest in imposing a narrative or myth upon my series was sparked by my encounter with the myth of Theseus, during my installation at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. But creation doesn’t work that way: I spent months in fruitless research. It wasn’t until I relinquished control, allowing my instincts to guide me, that the true essence of Meta-Morphee began to unfold. I vividly recall a moment of serendipity, as I heated a plastic bottle to shape one artwork, only to witness faces emerging, hinting at stories untold. In these chance encounters, these dances with materiality, the narrative revealed itself. Thus, Meta-Morphee emerged—a testament to the inherent poetry residing within the mundane, the discarded, and the forgotten.

It seems like you stumbled upon the perfect Greek narrative!

Indeed, it was a remarkable moment of providence. As I gazed upon the statue, I saw nothing but Morpheus—the Greek god of dreams and shapes. It felt as though I had discovered a deity with multiple faces, assuming different human forms while hovering in the air. This synchronicity between Greek mythology and my artistic work was incredibly striking. From there, I realized that the theme of Meta-Morphée, beyond its form, aligned perfectly with my ongoing work. For instance, one of my other pieces depicted a boat. Initially, I didn’t see the connection with Morpheus, but once I grasped the narrative, everything began to harmoniously fall into place.Thus, Meta-Morphée was born.

You've been described as a "poet of materials."

Ah, I’m fond of that description—it resonates deeply within me. I dream of myself as such: a seeker of poetry within the fabric of existence. My quest is to evoke this poetry through material manipulation, transcending conventional labels like designer or artist. When viewers perceive my work as poetic, it brings me immense satisfaction. In each piece, I try to embody this relentless search for shapes and meanings through material transformation to celebrate their capacity to inspire and transport us into a wordless realm of poetry.

Theseus ship, installation Sharjah

Can you walk us through your creative process when selecting and collecting materials for your artwork? How do you decide which materials to use to convey your intended message or theme?

My approach to material selection is a blend of intuition, deliberate choice, and an inherent connection to the narrative unfolding within my work. Let me illustrate this through the example of the thread spools, a recurring element in my artistic journey dating back to my installations at Dream City Festival. Originally repurposed for crafting lamps, they underwent a metamorphosis of significance when incorporated into my Sharjah Triennal project. Their inclusion wasn’t a conscious choice;  it unfolded organically, allowing me to infuse them with new meaning and narrative depth.

When presented with the opportunity to participate in a group exhibition at the Yosr Ben Ammar Gallery in Tunis, the idea of integrating these thread spools into a sculpture immediately struck a chord with me. Despite the constraints of a tight timeline—just five days before I departed for Sharjah—I embraced the challenge of refining the piece. I opted to present a modified version of my Sharjah work in Tunis, adapting it to incorporate the newfound elasticity of threaded rods discovered during the Sharjah project.

Throughout my creative journey, I trust my instincts to guide me in material selection, allowing for a symbiotic relationship between myself and the materials. However, as the pieces begin to take shape, I reclaim a sense of authorship, shaping and moulding the materials to fit the evolving narrative. At times, the process becomes so immersive that upon completion, the artwork feels as though it has acquired a life of its own. This delicate dance between intuition and intentionality fuels my exploration of new ideas and materials, effectively curating a “material library” that serves as a wellspring of inspiration.

Your practice involves manipulating materials in various ways, such as stripping, stretching, crumpling, cutting, burning, and assembling. How do these techniques contribute to the overall narrative and aesthetic of your artworks?

Firstly, it’s crucial to understand that, for me, the material itself tells the story. I approach it with a childlike curiosity, exploring its magical properties like a young chemist. When I manage, for instance, to transform plastic into something entirely new using a heat gun, it’s truly exhilarating.

Next, manipulating materials brings me solace and satisfaction. Through these techniques, I strike a balance between control and letting go. Despite being a bit of a control freak, my creative process allows me to find freedom. It’s in this state of surrender that the most exciting experiments happen. Every action, every manipulation, adds to the narrative. Each fold, burn, and assembly is a step in a journey where the material itself becomes the star.

Ultimately, these material manipulation techniques aren’t just about aesthetics; they’re the essence of my art, revealing the hidden beauty within the materials I use. 

How have your experiences and interactions with the local community in Tunis influenced your approach to art-making and material exploration?

My experiences and interactions with the local community in Tunis have profoundly shaped my approach to artistic creation and material exploration. For me, the environment is an endless source of inspiration. Every time I embark on the quest for new materials, it goes hand in hand with encounters and exchanges with people. Materials and people are inseparable in my creative process. Tunis, in particular, serves as a major wellspring of inspiration. This city, simultaneously inspiring and chaotic, is reflected in my artistic work. The vibrant colours and the controlled chaos of the materials I use echo the essence of Tunis itself. Moreover, it is in Tunis where my artistic practice has evolved. I firmly believe I wouldn’t be the same artist or designer if I were not based in Tunis.

Theseus ship, installation detail Sharjah

Are there specific artists or artistic movements that have significantly influenced your work, particularly in the realm of sculpture and social design?

I’ve been influenced by a variety of artists and artistic movements, but I find that my immediate environment and interactions with other artists have had the greatest impact on my work, particularly in the realms of sculpture and social design. Benjamin Perrot and Fares Thabet, two contemporary artists living in Tunisia, have been major sources of inspiration for me. Their creative approach and commitment to their artistic practice have encouraged me to explore new artistic territories and push the boundaries of my work. There is also one particular artist who has significantly influenced my practice: Sander Wassink. His innovative approach to sculpture and social design has deeply inspired me. By observing his work, I’ve been prompted to rethink my approach to art and explore new ways to incorporate elements of social design into my creations. However, I also became aware of the need to detach myself from academicism at a certain point in my journey. Since being in Tunis, I’ve let my instincts guide me and have been open to new influences.

How does the physical space of the exhibition influence the presentation and reception of your artworks?

When considering the influence of the physical exhibition space on the presentation and reception of my artworks, I find it to be considerable. Most of my artistic projects have revolved around installations or space designs. In these contexts, I’m often free to create without the commercial constraints of a gallery, which opens up exciting possibilities for exploring new artistic territories.

However, when I exhibit in a gallery, as has been the case for my solo show Meta-Morphée, it involves a different approach. I’ve been excited by the challenge of formalizing my artistic experiments within a more conventional framework. This often means transforming my explorations into individual artworks designed to be presented on a wall or within a delimited space. This formalization of the exercise requires some adaptation, especially for someone like me who is used to working with volume.

Each space offers a unique canvas on which my creations come to life, and each context influences how they are perceived and interpreted by the public. This is an exciting aspect of my work that constantly urges me to push boundaries and explore new ways of creating and presenting art.

Were you freer in galleries or institutions?

In truth, most of the projects I’ve undertaken have granted me considerable creative freedom. An interesting example is when the Sharjah Architecture Triennal team initially contacted me for a small booth to display a series of lamps. Instead, I proposed a monumental installation measuring 12 meters long by 5 meters high, seizing the opportunity for grander expression. Similarly, with Yosr, my gallerist, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy complete creative freedom. Being supported in this manner by one’s gallerist is a profoundly pleasant and stimulating experience creatively.

My somewhat rebellious nature may have also contributed to my artistic freedom. I’ve always been unhesitant in advocating for my ideas and pushing the boundaries of expectations. Today, people seek out my work for the artistic language I employ, which confirms that this creative freedom has been beneficial for my work. Ultimately, these experiences have enabled me to fully explore my artistic language and develop projects that truly reflect my vision and values.

Why work with Plastic?

Plastic is at the core of everything. We are so confronted with this reality that initially, my response as a designer was directly related to the surrounding pollution. It all began as an exploration of how I could use my art to respond to this crisis. However, over time, this environmental concern became intertwined with financial considerations. Working with recycled and reclaimed materials allowed me to create without being hindered by financial constraints. Consequently, my artistic practice became a means of demonstrating that creation is not necessarily tied to financial power. One can create from nothing.

Courtesy Yosr Ben Ammar Gallery, ph. Pol Guillard

Your work often engages with themes of memory, collective history, and identity. How do these themes intersect with your artistic practice?

I believe that every material carries its narrative, its story. Plastic and metal, as ubiquitous materials in our daily lives, often evoke personal experiences and emotions in viewers. This fosters an intimate connection between the artwork and the audience, allowing each individual to project their meanings onto it. When I engage with materials like plastic, my goal isn’t solely to convert waste into visually appealing objects, but rather to unveil the beauty inherent in what some might consider unattractive. It’s all a matter of perspective, highlighting the transformative potential of art, where perception can be reframed and meaning redefined.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that my works will be interpreted differently by viewers. That’s why I endeavour to create open-ended pieces that accommodate a range of interpretations. While my work may offer initial context, I am careful not to impose a rigid meaning. It’s a delicate balance between expressing my intent as the artist and respecting the autonomy of the viewer, allowing each observer to bring their unique perspective to the artistic dialogue.

This is where the enchantment of my work resides: it establishes a realm where individual and collective memories converge, intertwine, and evolve into new narratives.

Thomas Egoumenides is a French designer and artist based in Tunis. His work focuses on the intersection of sculpture and social design, with a thoughtful approach to valuing and poeticizing waste and unwanted materials. Rather than viewing waste as a dead end, he collaborates with local resources, breathing new life into forgotten objects while honouring their history. Egoumenides intervenes early in the material lifecycle, making subtle alterations that preserve their essence. His creative ethos envisions cities as repositories of materials and stories, ripe for transformation. Through projects like Rascal, an upcycling research lab launched during the Tunis Dream City Art Festival in 2021, he redefines urban spaces. His work gained international recognition at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2023, notably with his installation “The Ship Of Theseus,” solidifying his position as a pioneering force in sustainable design and artistic innovation.

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Emna Lakhoua
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