Welcome to the second installment of SynChrony, a series dedicated to exploring the collective matrix that is shaping the landscape of visual arts in contemporary Athens. By delving deeper into the people, places, and things that are active in this ongoing dialogue, we celebrate the tandem of parts contributing to the creative whole.
This SynChrony features Maro Michalakakos, an artist born and raised in Athens, who became known through a substantial body of work in which figures and themes are invariably in a state of tension—men and women; the protective domestic interior and painful intimacy; love and submission; the bond and the shackle.
Maro uses principles of figurative allusion woven in family memories, cultural references and erotic images: no description, no frontal statement, and even less so slogans. Her artistic universe is on the edge of dreams, with an apparent calm that is intentionally positioned midway between reality and imagination. Combining insistence and discretion, her work oscillates between anxious metaphysics and uncertain sexual identity.
In 2015 her performance “Kiss Me Like You’ll Never Kiss Me Again” at State of Concept Athens, Maro approached the relationship between love and death through a paradoxical ceremony celebrating carnal lust and the separation from death.
Guests were served ritual foods traditionally offered by the family of the deceased after a funeral—soup, salad, squids, etc.—followed by desserts in the shape of female and male genitals as inspired by Lucio Fontana’s paintings. Placed in the middle of the space was her “body”, a plaster-cast version of herself “decorated with sugar, flowers and silver ‘dragées’…[and] filled with ‘Koliva’ made of wheat, pomegranate, and sugar nuts.”
After the dinner, Maro “brutally cut and tore apart [her] ‘body’, taking out and serving the ‘Koliva’ to the guests while a popular Greek song played at full volume, ‘If love is a sin, I’ll cry out that I’m a sinner for loving you madly!!!'”
In her words, “I am exploring the relationship between life and death. The way in which awareness of the inevitability of the end—of individual finiteness, but of the collective cycle of life as well—resonates in the perception and, ultimately, in the quality of human life. The perception we have of our finiteness changes with age. My work evolves in this same rhythm.”
Since 2009, through frequent collaborations with prominent theater directors and companies, Maro has designed scenery installations for projects at the National Theater of Greece, Athens & Epidaurus Festival, Onassis Foundation, and Poreia Theater. It is through the theatrical aspect of her vision—combined with the performative drive seen in many of her installations—that her works are imbued with profound emotional power. They resonate with deep existential anxiety, sometimes with a quirky humor, and always with exquisite beauty.
In 2012 Maro created the installation “Happy Days” (currently part of D.Daskalopoulos Collection) which consisted of two red velvet mountains fabricated from dust amassed over time. “This is made from the fluff of the velvet I shaved over the years. I used to collect it religiously,” she stated. “Red velvet is the running thread in my work. I used it in my first solo exhibition in Paris in 1996 and even if I have done completely different things over the years, it is what I keep coming back to, always.”
The shaving of red velvet with surgical instruments is a technique Maro discovered at a point during her studies when she became frustrated with painting. It fascinated her—this process of revealing an image through shaving the fuzz without breaking the fabric. At first, she related it to elements of butchery and blood. Over time, it became a way through which she examined the masculine and the feminine—eventually, turning her contemplation toward concepts of death and vulnerability.
“Red Carpet”, one of her emblematic installations, is a crimson velvet shaved to reveal the footprint of an imaginary predator. “It’s true that human predators are the sorts that walk the red carpet, but then again, we all have a bit of a predator in us. In general the imagery is always anthropocentric. Even when it features animals, it is still about the condition of being human,” muses the artist.
Maro also draws and paints, and over the years has created an archive of mythological animals carefully represented in watercolor—most often birds. Maro wonders whether the power of birds to fly and scratch without guilt are the conditions of freedom. Looking at her work, one could recognize the evident connection between scalpels and talons.
In the key visual of the exhibition—“Till It’s Gone” (2016) at the Istanbul Modern Museum—a flamingo with its neck tied around its leg urges us to think of a world damaged by human incompetence and errors. It’s a proposition for a “parallel universe”: the animals foretell the dystopia that will be the world of our near future.
Maro is currently working on a project funded by i-Portunus and the French Institute of Athens in collaboration with Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris and CRAFT (Centre de Recherche des arts du feu et de la terre) in Limoges. For this project, Maro will create a large-scale installation composed by eight porcelain vultures. Misunderstood symbols of the fear of death, these birds that once were to be found everywhere, ensure the smooth function of the ecosystem.
Maro Michalakakos studied Fine Arts in France (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts Plastiques Paris-Cergy) and Germany (Hohschule fur Bildende Kunst, Braunschweig) and her work has been exhibited in Europe, Turkey and the United States.
Apart from the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and the D.Daskalopoulos collection, her work has been acquired by FNAC (National Foundation for Contemporary Art) in France as well as by private collectors and institutions.
Doors of Perception, Galeri NEV Instanbul (Turkey, 2017)
Flying Over the Abyss, NΕΟΝ: Athens Odeon (Greece, 2016)
Till It’s Gone: an exhibition on Nature and Sustainability, Istanbul Modern (Turkey, 2016)
Matières à Rêver, Château des Adhémar (France, 2016), Motopoétique, MAC-Lyon (France, 2014)
Heart of Darkness, NΕΟΝ: Athens Festival (Greece, 2012)
The King, Galerie Analix (Switzerland, 2012)
I Would Prefer Not To, Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center (Greece, 2012)
Parallel Universe, 511 Gallery (USA, 2010)
Sources for this article include:
Till It’s Gone, by Paolo Colombo
Maro Michalakakos: Violent Beauty, by Paul Ardenne
Working with Red Velvet: The Art of Maro Michalakakos, by Iris Plaitakis