Vrasidas Karalis reviews ‘Artifacts: A Hymn To Materiality’ by George Michelakakis

Artifacts: A Hymn To Materiality by George Michelakakis at The Shop Gallery until December 6, 2015

'Blanket - Migration' by George Michelakakis
Blanket – Migration

Artists never explain their work: artists only locate their works. They point out to their viewers where they will find, through the strength of their imagination, the appropriate location of its meaning. Because, as we see their works on the walls of a gallery, of any gallery, from Glebe Point Road to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, we have the impression that they are like children who wandered off and were lost in the dense forests of human creativity. Autonomous yet alone, together with other works but totally silent.

The viewer must follow the lead of the artists and try to locate them because as Shakespeare said:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

This is a significant aspect of George’s art: it localizes a collective loss, and establishes sites of memorialization, sites of mourning and at the same time topoi of redemption and as his calls them, spaces of transubstantiation.

George feels acutely where he is, where we are: on a foreign land, on the land of the Eora people, not simply Greek but invaders, not only Europeans but conquerors, not only ourselves but also strangers to the spiritual geography of Aboriginal land. Only the artist can bring to the light of conscience the complex and multiple levels of the existential adventure that we embody as the inhabitants of this country. We are not only migrants, not only Greeks or Mediterraneans: we are interlopers on somebody else’s heritage. We have usurped it, we have stolen it.

Yet, there exists something mildly redeeming about us; we still bring with us the signs and the wonders of our own expulsion from our paradise. Nevertheless, for George, this paradise never really existed. Our nostalgia becomes our own alibi; but the artist is here to transubstantiate the ‘lament for a time lost’ into a spiritual presence in the Australian land.

His Curtains, hide, reveal, cover, veil or unveil, conceal or unconceal: what or whom: that’s not the question. What matters is the hand that touches the curtain, the hand that lifts it or tears it down. These curtains become the litmus test of our moral empowerment to confront our own ghosts and demons. We see how carefully they have been put together: intricate folds, precise symmetry of colour and arrangement of volume. The one-dimensional space of the art object circumscribes the space of a unique revelation. It says: be bold, resist, fight back. I remember here an old story about the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis:

According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny, the Elder Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius staged a contest to determine the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. However when Parrhasius, whose painting was concealed behind a curtain, asked Zeuxis to pull aside that curtain, the curtain itself was the painted illusion. Parrhasius won, and Zeuxis said: “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”

Vrasidas Karalis launching Artifacts: A Hymn To Materialitykaunchin George Michelakakis, Antigone Kefala
Vrasidas Karalis launching Artifacts: A Hymn To Materiality with George Michelakakis and Antigone Kefala (left to right)

These curtains therefore are our own illusions, ours own pretexts or in a Freudian sense our own displacements. George confronts us with the inability to be critical therefore political. With the generosity of art he transforms the fears and darkness behind the curtains into very striking gateways towards our liberation. The Curtains elucidate the inner self, they guide us through the labyrinth of our own contradictions towards the open revelations of our corporeality, of our bodily presence in a land whose spirituality we struggle to understand and internalize.

This can be palpably seen in the second part of the exhibition: Blankets and Talismans. With them George explores the materiality of crisis and social implosion that we have seen evolving for so many years in Greece, the Middle East, in Australia and worldwide. It is a profound crisis of meaning, humanism and conscience that is expressed through the humble, frayed and used blankets and talismanic emblems.

Bertolt Brecht used to say: From all things, I most love the used ones because they bear on them the touch of another skin and the aura of another being. The material harshness of the artifacts is really striking: it a protest against conformism and complacency. When I look at or touch these talismanic symbols I see the realities they indicate rising frighteningly in front of my eyes. The swastika, the Euro, the crucifix, the gospel, everything foregrounds the symbols of our subjugation, of our voluntary servitude.

Through his protest against false pretexts that enslave people, art liberates, as Brecht again said: art is the lightest form of being, which means at the same time, the most luminous and the most free, even when it depicts blackness or relies on gravity.

George’s art brings back to memory, the poem My Testament, the most famous poem of postwar Greek poetry, Mihalis Katsaros’ revolutionary Manifesto

Resist the one who builds a small house, /and says, it’s good here. / Resist the person who returns home and says; glory be to God. / Resist Persian carpets in big flats, / the short bureaucrat, / the export-import company,/ state education, taxation, resist me, who tells you to resist.

Resist all immigration services,/ all passport controls./ The terrible flags of states and diplomacy,/ the military factories,/ those who call verbosity, lyricism, / resist military anthems,/ sugary songs with lamentations, / resist all spectators, / resists all winds /all indifferent, wise men, /resist all those who pretend to be your friends,/ resist even me who tells you to resist. / Only then can we cross over to Freedom.

Katsaros’ manifesto is realized in George’s art: it is an art dedicated to the homeless, the dispossessed, the deracinated, the universal sufferings of humans under conditions of coercion, servitude, subjection. George dedicates his exhibition to these people, to the thousands of young immigrants who abandoned Greece and the millions of homeless people from the Middle East and Africa who have drowned in the Mediterranean.

Through these blankets we see both the hypocrisy of humanitarianism and the despair of the civilized conscience. Through the talismans we discern the fear and the attraction of grand ideologies, the fascist allure of the minimal self that has conquered the contemporary middle class through fear, the fear of freedom, as Erich Fromm had said. It’s up to us now to internalize these spaces of loss and fear, these no-places of despair and crisis, and transfigure them through our personal sensitivity.

‘Blanket’ (detail) by George Michelakakis

George Michelakakis’ work gives form to the chaotic universe of fears and nightmares that have bedeviled our conscience for far too long. Your work achieves something that the ancient Greek used to expect from all artistic representation: the purpose of art is to salvage phenomena, διασωζειν τα φαινόμενα. You don’t simply salvage the material world of such phenomena but also the emotional atmosphere that envelops them.

As viewers we understand the great mystery of art that embodies empathy, communion and resistance. Resistance to smugness, communion with the other, empathy for those who suffer. George has restored the hope, that art is the most political activity of the mind—a hope which in the time of sterility and hubris, seems to help us regain our ontological authenticity.

 – Vrasidas Karalis


Vrasidas Karalis is Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney. He is the author of numerous books including Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris, Brandl & Schlesinger 2008 and A History of Greek Cinema Continuum  2012

Artifacts: A Hymn To Materiality by George Michelakakis at The Shop Gallery until December 6, 2015 http://theshopgalleryglebe.com

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