Introduced through a conversation between artist Eva Papamargariti and curator Nadja Argyropoulou
Nadja Argyropoulou: Eva, I am exhilarated that you tuned into the work of Mihalis Lekakis for this project. The Greek American sculptor, painter, poet and philosopher, who was born and died in New York (1907-1987) is still largely unrecognized in this country even though he was honored by major art institutions abroad and befriended by well-known intellectuals, artists, poets and art theorists who recounted how he chose to distance himself from the glory of public career and the art market in order to think deeper into the act of creation.
Although he bequeathed several of his major art pieces to the National Gallery of Greece, there has not been an exhibition organized since 1980 and none in the light of contemporary art discourse. I have been researching his rich and complex art since the end of the ‘90s and visited his studios in and outside of New York years ago. I believe that this work should have been celebrated and studied no less than that of other important artists of the diaspora like Takis and Jannis Kounellis; and have been thrilled to find some of his art, and most important his unpublished notebooks, in the ACG Art Collection.
In these notebooks, in his writing there is a process of carving and elimination quite similar to the one that we see in his sculptures and paintings. The botanical and biological worlds of his upbringing are also there. Forms and concepts – like “melos”, “rhythm”, “ellipsis”, the column, the garland, the sphere, the bud – equally draw from Pre-Colombian art, indigenous philosophies, Greek folk dance, Mayan and Greek classical architecture, philosophy, Cycladic art, science and poetry, natural hues and Natural History archives, leaf patterns, light texture, his many travels.
There will be more, within the book phase of this curatorial, on Lekakis’s contemplative method and mostly on his ecosophical approach, which premeditates the awakening proposed by Felix Guattari and others. His relationship with poets like E.E. Cummings (a painter too), Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Charles Olsen, Richard Howard and philosophers like Joseph Margolis and Stephen Bourgeois truly shaped his interests and broadened his thinking – a precious process largely lost to the art world in later years when interdisciplinarity was professed while segregation was exercised.
Let us for now enter our talk through his poetics, a choice that you made and I find both wise and original.
Handwritten pages from his notebooks appear in your work as do his drawings and sculptures. What of this chain he talks about? It’s odd that it is the first thing that appeared in the video extract that you sent me while I was reading about blockchain data storage technology and crypto art in view of our talk.
Eva Papamargariti: I was immediately attracted to Lekakis’s art when you sent us the ACG collection choices and we first talked about his work and life. Yet it wasn’t until you sent me pages from his notebooks that I conceived my approach to your invitation. It was a revelation. Those notes, resembling poetry, haiku, random thinking were a guide to his art and vice-versa. They also reminded me a lot of the way I keep notes on my phone.
NA: It makes sense. Your videos have increasingly incorporated spoken and written language: Virtual bodies roam digitally constructed, alien but alluring environments, and chant their promise that “things will become weirder”.
EP: There was something very familiar in Lekakis’s own creations and their morphology and I was tempted to investigate this kinship – bring them into my own experience and time frame and see what happens.
I feel that his creatures are on the verge of transformation, that they resist fixed identity even though they are real, solid, as in made of wood or paint. His writings confirmed this impression. They reveal a cosmological vision full of anguish, doubt and longing for unfettered communing, beauty and freedom. Seeing his works, with no additional info, I could visualize them in various scales and dimensions. They could be small or gigantic, existing in variations – this corresponds to how critters that I make may live in various forms and planes: in a small device, printed in large scale, up on a large screen, always shapeshifting, adapting.
Lekakis’s art exudes a kind of disquietude that I hold dear. His notes reverberate through what his art makes visible. It is akin to the way I mix various kinds of languages in palimpsests of meanings, overlapping, meddling.
All these erasures in his notebooks, the short aphorisms, syncopated words, mostly uppercase letters, English and Greek versions, illegible scrawls and misspellings, hesitations, recurrences, different types of pencils used; his writing interests me a lot as it recalls the process of inscription and erasure in designing and coding, when we develop computer-generated images. There is no seriality there. There is randomness, accidents, unfolding, abstraction and figuration, something to mold and tame, or to end, leave, throw away. It may be easier to undo in software – we can almost always retrieve previous choices – but the moment of decision feels the same.
NA: Negative space is a mystery that he chased in carving, drawing, writing. It is probably one of the most overwhelming qualities of the virtual, too. Lekakis has been recognized as a master carver in that his work brought us to the root sense of carving: into graphein, into the graph of becoming.
EP: It is the root of the digital too. The digit is both the number and the finger.
NA: It is quite interesting that Lekakis thinks of himself more like a conduit rather than as a source. He channels various agencies: “The concepts of my sculpture are not mine….They already exist in the nature of experience….When I see a piece of wood, if I have a rapport with it, I immediately see what its possibility is…If I am truly creative, I will realize from this piece of wood its full potential.”
There are great curiosity and a mythopoietic desire to articulate the dynamic forms embedded in materials. He cut wood shallowly at first, so that he could step back and wait until the optimal direction, the inherent form of the material was revealed. Sometimes this took years. He chose sectioning because it permitted a distinct sense of pulsing life, akin to the one we have in oral reading, in recitation, where there is the rhythmic beat of lines and the intervals of breathing. This is a long birthing process and the artist works like a midwife based on experience, reason and intuition. More than that, every created piece retained the promise of another gestation. He often spoke about “the pulse” of his sculptures, the entasis which is proof of the outward oriented life of materials, visible in the legendary and almost imperceptible swelling of the Parthenon columns. This is no mere illusion or rather it is a very different take on the illusory, on the trick. It is possibility realized, unfolded, extended, honed like a tool, danced, tested in, with and against time. Lekakis demonstrated inordinate skill, inordinate technique, inordinate empathy with reality.
EP: And the kind of thinking which corresponds to processes in the virtual realm.
I am considering this notion of time that he cherished as he was laboring for years on the same roots and trees. In my work, time is also both compressed and extended. Software allows us to bring time down to the scale of instances but then hardware imposes on us other limits – rendering may take hours and this when my agency is arrested, gets put on hold.
I then become an observer much like Lekakis in front of his wood. I am an observer while confronted by the screen which to a certain point dictates my response. My own tools may be quasi-invisible compared to his as I saw them gathered in his amazing toolbox, but they are still instruments, even intelligences embedded in the process, present in the bodies that occur.
NA: Titles in his works are very telling -“Chorosphere”, “Galaxy”, “Thunderbird”, “Eros Psyche”, “Trisipostaton”, “Apotheosis”, “Sympan”- although not binding: retitling often occurred according to the development of his thoughts and pieces were reworked.Even the bases for his sculptures are part of this complex ontology that stretches in time; he makes them so as to confirm his works’ chthonic origins and liminal identity.
Tell us about the ceremony by which all this enters your video.
EP: “Spineless and Sublime” engages with Lekakis’s breathing works, it responds to how they tend to grow beyond harmonious proportions, it even attempts to detect their kind of spine which seems to be quite “other”, to sense their totemic, cosmic ambitions. Fragments of his and my worlds come together, merge, melt, dance, diverge. A new critter emerges, it moves and metamorphoses. I read something in his notes that unlocked my thinking in this work like an epiphany. He writes:
DO NOT UNDERSTAND
I read it as a paradox. Earthly cannot understand what is of the earth. I was drawn to the burning doubt in this. The critter that resides in my video became its embodiment. You cannot tell if it is soft or hard, big or small, structured or liquid, headless or many-headed, of rock, of tissue or of wires; if it grows limbs or branches, if it is aggressive or benign, a residue or an outgrowth, a host or a ghost. It is a liminal being in continuous stretching, reaching out. It envelops and mimics Lekakis’s forms as well as his lesson. The screen shows and conceals as we cannot really experience the critter’s presence in full. We become interested and feel repulsed. The screen presents and discloses, the critter doubles the screen’s function.
This is my impression of Lekakis’s whole work; of a promise that stays always on the verge of fulfilment, that may change without warning, a swelling that may lead to a burst or to another form, another kind of thinking.
NA: The text that you just brought forward is extremely important in the context of our talk. Lekakis’s thought here reads like a foretaste of what will come; it is virtual, prepositional, in advance of or on the way to becoming position, thesis, stasis. It spells out the distance we have to put between ourselves and the other in order to make room for the new languages in need to emerge. Both in this, and in your art, I can see less of the notion of “liquidity”, less of the sheen of seamless flows. I see antistasis, rough magic, things born with a strain and a scream, born out of confrontation, out of the corruption and manipulation of forms, codes, programs.
I can see a marriage of the analytic and the evocative that also creates this “tending towards”, which is not an easy thing when orientation is impossible amidst constant symmetry breaking. I see resistance, which, in the words of Michel Serres “is a process that occurs between parasitism and symbiosis”. This is where we are at the moment in many ways.
EP: In the presence of Lekakis’s works resistance feels like promise. I think of the quasi-objects that we have talked about in the past. A quasi-object is an evocation, the result of a meditation, a mundane thing that mediates, fixes, connects and distinguishes. My smart phone, his note books and sculptures. With them, through them, in the exchanges they facilitate metaphysics collapse into physics.
NA: Rugby balls, coins, art works are all quasi-objects, they enable relations, they create communities and they thus make the real. “We humans spend our time making the virtual real”, says Serres.
EP: In this new world of advanced technologies and augmented realities new agencies emerge all the time and we are obliged to be attentive to their demands. We can predict very little and so we have to be alert and eager to engage in conversation.
Fun fact: I often use a zoom-out technique in order to prepare for this. I keep my most important notes when I travel by plane – back in the pre-pandemic paradise of abundant choices. When I find myself in the limbo of transition that this particular circumstance offers I gain the distance I need in order to achieve clarity, better intuition, original thinking.
We do a lot of zooming in and out in our everyday lives but it is either an organic process achieved by the mind or a trite part of the ritual of communication dictated by smart devices. I return to what you said about resistance earlier. I think that what fascinates me in Lekakis’s works is the way they resist their own form, the way they seem eager to change even at the risk of being shattered. They embody the duration of indecision and the moment, the instance of change. This is how my critter exists: on the verge of my pressing the undo.
NA: With respect to your critter’s life let me introduce here Lekaki’s use of the camouflage. He trained as a florist in his family’s business and while in the army excelled in perfecting and even teaching camouflage techniques; he then constructed forty-five full scale installations and, as training aids, sixteen three by four-foot models. To strip the exterior of natural forms in order to get to their concealed structures and their meaning, so as to render them visible again, was a long-life experience for him. His clairvoyance is well informed intuition as well as enduring engagement, practice, the cultivation of the self.
EP: This is a very interesting perspective. Camouflage is another form of confrontation. It presupposes a cunning intelligence unafraid of transformation, aware of the workings of the gaze that falls upon it. It protects and preserves its life by changing its identity. My critters live like this I think, they twist and turn so that they cannot be fathomed, they pretend to be buildings or animals, they evade identification. Sound in my works possibly partakes in camouflage and confrontation. In the “Spineless and Sublime” work too. I make sounds with my voice, I blend melodies, notes, instruments and I work everything into a computer-generated whole that imitates an other-worldly murmur, my critters’ inner monologue, a sign of alert, a warning rhythm. It is a form of breathing that counterbalances vision, the violence of gazing. And when it stops, the screen goes abruptly black. Is this the end?
NA: This may be our cue to speak about the new craze with crypto art and the whole new economy that is emerging. The phrase “it’s the art, stupid” – an allusion to the Clinton campaign slogan – unceremoniously unveils the ugly face of the art industry and propels a dizzying reconsideration of authorship, authenticity, aura, dissemination, the full recalibration of power structures in the abysmal distance between Walter Benjamin’s treatises on reproduction and Injective Protocol’s use of facsimile or the flat, cute-politics of videos made by Grimes.
What is evident under this sweeping gesture of idol-trashing and idol-making is a new-born ritual of profiting enacted in the name of justice, knowledge redistribution and democracy, by the power of advanced technology.
EP: It is both quite fascinating and utterly frightening. Block chain technology, the emerging processes of tracking the history and identity of digital objects is a way to liberate their unique existence with transparency and beyond the intervention of the old institutions and systems (museums, dealers, art critics, auction houses, galleries etc.). At the exact same instant a ridiculous space of economic speculation erupts. Art is entering the market in new ways, in clouds and bubbles reminiscent of the big-tech stock rise and subsequent fall.
NA: A new war is being waged and it just transfers power to a few others within this paroxysmic momentum. There is no revolution, no miracle, no collective empowerment, no carbon-neutral haven here. Just the thrill, the fix of the “new”, the wild joy of the old guard’s obliteration, profanation and instant gratification, the blast of white noise and wild monetization. The Internet today is still a space of no law and a place where new sheriffs are emerging as heads of clans. There is a collision at play and both good and bad stuff occupy the space that is thus generated: Wikileaks and Non-Fungible Tokens live side by side.
This is a tipping point in the life of digital arts.
EP: Indeed. In this process of re-appreciation, new rituals and forms of gaming that are mesmerizing evolve. You enter the space of crypto-currencies and pay “gas-fees” in order to upload your object – the terms of modernity and the industrial revolution remain; you acquire a “meta-mask”, a digital wallet identity made by a number sequence and a fox logo. Then you can gamble. Artists and tech entrepreneurs participate equally; art-washing is now justified, normalized.
It is quite funny that the system gives you a random word sequence for security purposes that reads like pseudo-poetry; Lekakis’s cosmic haikus generated by artificial intelligence. It is even funnier that you are asked to write these twelve words down and never store them digitally as they can be hacked.
NA: Tragicomic. A move back to the notebook then, to gesture, to the hard instead of the soft – an adaptive move. I remember us talking about the trial and error process that AI uses in order to teach itself and evolve. No one talks about “singularity” anymore – we may have by now crossed that hypothetical point in time when technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible. Much like climate change.
EP: It is actually an ecstatic move between different planes that holds us captive. Things are always awake, alert in the “metaverse”, in the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space. I am not sure what the face of the Internet will be but I am curious about this life that continues relentlessly beyond my everyday rhythm, while I sleep. It is an enhanced type of existence that we seek, we help shape and we also dread. This is completely different sense of the ecstatic. Paths merge, material and immaterial convergences occur, participation does not even feel like a choice anymore.
NA: It feels more like the inexorable push and pull of a future that we cannot see or even imagine. I also think that this kind of augmented experience is something that cannot, will not let you exit – it is a perpetual ‘enter’ command. Yet the symbiotic agencies that may arise are a fascinating subject to consider.
EP: There is a constantly renewed “high” in this kind of participation and a certain flatness too. A new sublime with coding as its main source. In contrast to Lekakis’s forms in their state of promise-yet-to-be-fulfilled, there is the experience of a pregnant, spineless void in the virtual. We are all, already, in.
“Spineless and Sublime”
2021, HD video, color, sound, 4’40”
created by Eva Papamargariti
Work commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for the project: “Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin”