Eros as a quest for the Noble
In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima, along with her friends, gives love an unusual name, a name that surpasses the common, conventional dimensions of the present state of the existence, and calls it “a demon”. This otherworldly name, that is “eros” (love), hunts Nikos Michalitsianos as both a conception (idea) and a realization (visual representation) almost from the beginning of his artistic career –the last example of this being the works which were included in the athenian exhibition with the title “The Look of Innocence”- up to the series of the thirty three works (another intimation on theological love). In the Look of Innocence, inspired by the images which are created by the memory of childhood, Michalitsianos portrays young children projected on an illuminated wall. The wall is used as a point of reference and at the same time the basis from which the small human presence is brought out. The light creates playful shapes full of color while in these paintings one discovers small blank papers, unwritten messages of the children. The look in these paintings is disarming, or seems annoyed, thus daring the viewer to participate in a game of dialogue with the memory and return to innocence.
The novel way Michalitsianos is using in order to initiate the viewer to the dialogue about love derives from a triple admission; eros/love is something unbelievably material and can be represented by the body (the glowing garment of the white-clad maiden); love is a metaphysical matter yet can be depicted with the tools of the human conceptualization (objects, fish, butterflies); the reference to love needs the mechanism of language in order to be completed.
In the same manner that the words of the enamoured youths aim to the assertion of the conquest over the Other (“I demand that you tell me that you love me”), so the visual code of Michalitsianos, seeks to capture the viewer using words/notions as a vehicle, and at the same time to set this conquest in motion using the symbols chosen by the artist himself. Symbols ostensibly out of frame, dissimilar, exaggerated, either taken from the natural world (butterflies, lions) or commonly used, symbolic, every-day objects (baits, hooks, diaries, small hearts), which handle with delicate sensibility the various aspects of the erotic phenomenon from the beginning of time up to the recent industrial civilization (helicopters, trains).
What is the reason for this visual illustration of words/signals and objects? A first answer would be to maintain that Michalitsianos explores the matter of love/eros and sexuality starting ab ovo –from the creation of the world (the blank paper)- and eventuating –after the adventures of the objects that imply the socialization of the loved one- to the eroticaly mature, completed form of the glowing, elytian in her conception, maiden. And this happens neither by chance nor with exaggeration. “The erotic speech”, says Jean-Luc Marion, “causes exaggeration and does not wish to state anything further than this exaggeration –that is, every completion must become a new beginning”.
In the first unity everything starts from the arrayed chaos of the white, of the unsaid, of the untold. This cosmology includes not the visualisation but the words which define the meaning of this cosmology; sun, night, man, girl, love, pillow, bed, big, tip.
These are primeval, biblical words, tenderly erotic but with a specifically ironic tincture: for example, the sun and the night, erotic deities of old, meet with the common bed or the contraceptive pill (one can imagine the obvious antipathy of the conservative for this surrealistic co-existence ).
In the second unity, titled “Souls” we enter the butterfly paradise. It consists of nine works (Flaps, joy, most, Pane, spring, fond, Butter, island), and depicts again the familiar blank papers with butterflies in various poses and shades on them. Why souls –that is, butterflies? In the great tradition of the word psyche (soul), from the ancient Greek philosophy to the eastern religions and mysticism, the term identifies with the quest of self, with the fates of our personalities. Psyche may even exist after death, transcends to another condition, accompanies humans to the other world, needs tender care to avoid suffering, psyche is everywhere –in animals, plants, humans, even stones. According to Heracletus psyche is rarefied and ethereal while Empedocles believed that in previous lives his soul existed inside a bush, a bird and a fish. Michalitsianos’s psychae/butterflies seem to adopt part of this tradition; the butterflies/maidens fly over the islands enjoying the journey, have their antennae raised ready to land on joy –or fall either on good or evil. Sometimes extreme in their quest, they flap their wings searching anxiously after their identity, converse with the shapeless white, assume innocence, love music, are spoiled, adore the smooth surface of milk, exalt beauty. They are naïve and trusting, yet can be loving, embrace the other, and thus they are trained to love.
The impressive aspect in this unity is not only the clever use of this polysemus symbols, but also the spare metaphors, the simple images, the pure visual “language”.
In the third unity, twelve works (hung up, traction, hanger, simulation, commonality, lay, passion, submit, member, cockshy, holdall, close) are housed under the title “circumstances”. These circumstances are nothing but the stages which the erotic subject must get through during the erotic realisation. In order to taste love, or even the pain of love, one must suffer, must pass through a series of traps, carry out small missions triumphantly and face trials successfully –the theorists of structuralism, in their study on the fairy-tale and textology, use the term “trial” as an irrefrangible rule in the technical structure of every adventure story. As Michalitsianos seems to state, such circumstances can be mainly identified with the hook, the fishing, as well as the erotic bait. In other words, one has to know whom to bait and be prepared to turn oneself to bait, so that the love game can be played. Then, true love needs a stud, or a lion (the ultimate male), a helicopter (a modern symbol of traction, of grasping, even indicative of the cosmopolitan social status), a pair of red woman’s shoes. In other words, when in love, one needs passion, charm and even a little vanity (moreover, the theme of the red shoes is a small memory, an echo form the vast community of artists with whom Michalitsianos shares his love for the depiction of female theme.)
However, love is prone to missing the target, to jumping the rails (derailment, madness, the deviation of one’s mind from the conventional is a small proof that, at least, one has loved, as the Tolstoyan scripts have taught us). At the same time (and may the knife be my witness), love can also lead to violence, to crimes of passion, as the popular literature, from the Shakespearean era through the whole body of the detective novel to the film noire in the twentieth century, shows.
Of course, in order to come to erotic age, one must also assume the role of the “rooster”, get initiated to all-male companies, know the love for the body of love, the anguish of erection. If in the world of love the travel bag symbolises the knowledge, the meeting with other places, then one can safely defend the view of Michalitsianos claiming that acting erotically presupposes the journey, the wanderlust, the vagrancy, the quest of the Other, the Stranger beyond the self.
Finally, as regard to the mythology concerning the symbol of fish, one can detect the Christian tradition, as well as the wealth and erotic virility. The wandering through the circumstances of love now seems to come to an end; the adventure of the initiation is (temporarily?) over along with the open diary of youth. On the blank surface one can see the enamoured person fallen on the ground of love, and also a heart –the banal symbol reminding us yet again the longing of love.
The fourth unity consists of one and only painting. The artist leaves the conceptual art behind and returns to the familiar, everyday symbols. The girl, in actual size, is barely sixteen. Plainly-clad, epitomises puberty; here austerity prevails –a white linen dress, skilfully created by the artist, a bracelet. The white garment denotes innocence, virginity, the essence of the world, the pure quest of truth (or faith, for that matter). She stands with her feet firmly rooted on the bare floor boards –and one can smell the wood; the souls of butterflies can be seen and felt –their bodies being the vehicle through which the light-flooded maiden gave meaning to her existence. Perhaps she is standing inside an old house, a spacious abode, a sacred endowment by venerable grandparents –or in the artist’s studio, the hatchery for brave new worlds. The maiden enters now the solitude of love. She stands safely in the enclosure of the room, turning her eyes to a higher place, towards the butterflies of love, towards the souls surrounding her like lost loves and the nostalgia for paradise. The shadow that darkens one half of her face seems to recall the distance that the loving soul has yet to cover; the murk of puberty; the fears and anxieties which will still be present until the moment when the light, that is the passage to the world of adults, will disperse them.
Through his latest works, Nicolas Michalitsianos has given us a summary of the study of love for the advanced reader. He gave all us, his hypocrites semblebles, a gift similar to those between lovers, a gift so rare and strong that is able to last even beyond the present time of love. He has revealed through colours, words and light the rugged way to erotic adulthood, using the tools of many schools. With simple, symbolic and expressive means he manages to illuminate the routes of the heart. He belongs to the talented generation of the ‘80s, while he himself would maintain that, artistically speaking, he is closer to “audacious” Courbet than to “heavy” Rembrandt.