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Monday, July 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Recognitions of Responsibility

George Hadjimichalis is an Athens-based conceptual artist born in 1954. He is of a generation that gained maturity in the 1980s and for whom expression is mediated by the conceptual. His impressive current show at P.S. 1, Seven Works, curated by Alanna Heiss and Daniel Marzona, consists of a startlingly diverse group of projects in which he intellectually confronts given sets of circumstances – the site of the crossroads where Oedipus committed patricide, the battle that ended the French presence in Vietnam, the representation of time as topology – and constructs an alternative course, meant to offset, if not replace, conventional representations of mythic and historical narrative.

Hadjimichalis’s orientation toward a theoretical poetics of engagement owes its origins to personal loss: the death of his father when he was 14 years old. According to Denys Zacharopoulos’s concise essay, Hadjimichalis was studying painting with the Cretan artist Andreas Georgiadis when his father passed away, and, as an expression of mourning, began to make paintings in which “painterly matter covers every available surface as if from an uninterrupted melting.” The conceptual organization of the paintings, which present a choice that moves the artist through the heavy materials of grief toward a metaphysical orientation, suggest that Hadjimichalis found in art a correlative not only for feeling but also for the way that feeling might be intelligently elaborated.

In 1971, Hadjimichalis left Athens for London as a teenager; in London, according to Zacharopoulos, he studied at a number of schools, taking an interest in the political movements of the time. He was also a traveler, making his way to South America and the Middle East, and even working as a photojournalist during the Israeli attack on Beirut in 1982. Despite his involvement in some of the more intense conflicts of the time, Hadjimichalis did not indulge in what Zacharopoulos calls “illustration, iconography, or ideological didacticism in his work.” From the works shown in the current exhibit, it appears that the artist’s response consists of recognitions of responsibility, in which the perception of fault – or, perhaps more accurately, guilt – permeates the material. The relationship of blame to history is expressed indirectly, however, via the media of his art. Consistent with Hadjimichalis’s melancholic version of history, culpability appears to rest with the complex, often controversial, circumstances we commonly call fate.

Schiste Odos (1990-95) approximates a landscape, the site where Oedipus kills his father, Laius. It is a complex work of art, consisting of a table whose nine iron plates have been treated with synthetic resins, 40 black-and-white photographs that reproduce details of the table, and a video that looks as though Hadjimichalis is following Oedipus’ path. A thin line is visible as it makes its way through the topological expanse of the table. It is interesting to speculate on the relation between the death of the artist’s father and Schiste Odos, whose references to mythology are bleak but second-hand. The processing of Hadjimichalis’s information, no matter how specific its set conditions, proceeds by means of indirection; the object of his intentions, much like the means of his expression, occurs by way of stealth – not in the sense that the artist is withholding truth or acting in bad faith, but rather in the sense that the mythological ground he cultivates appears from a distance, where the stuff of legend may be safely, and legitimately, handled.

The conflation of myth and personal detail that occurs in Schiste Odos reenacts, albeit abstractly, a fluid matrix of private and public responsibilities. A certain kind of perception is mediated via the incorporation of foreign material – in this case, the introduction of an ancient story – into a narrative whose implications are internally surmised. Art being what it is – namely, the presentation of myth – what is imagined, as if it were eminently reasonable, or at least consistent, matures into a statement intended to make sense of the random textures of experience. This is, I think, where Hadjimichalis is very strong as an artist; he belongs to no geography in particular, and so he presents his ideas as if they take part in the universal category of time’s passing rather than in the contested category of space. In this way, he steps aside and is free of the artist’s obligation to render a theme as though it were a particularly moral position, in these times understood more as what the critic Arthur C. Danto has called “the political sublime,” than for esthetic reasons. In Schiste Odos, Hadjimichalis brilliantly reorients an archaic tale toward a definition of intent, meant to untie the knots of misunderstanding. He explicates what is given in terms of what has happened.

The Battle of Dien-Bien-Phu (20.11.1953-7.5.1954) (1998-2000) relays information about the famous battle for the control of what was then a small village in north Vietnam. Hadjimichalis presents maps that follow the targets of French bombing during several months. Some 23 targets are shown, and the tonnage used is impassively provided, depicting how the area was bombed throughout the course of the battle. The particulars of the conflict are simply given; crossbars indicate the places where the bombings took place. Whatever pathos or indignation one feels about them, the representation of the data undercuts, in its deadpan way, the suggestion that history depends upon emotion to be resurrected as a cause of grief. In Hadjimichalis’s understanding, the past is conceived of as emphatically denying the wistful possibility that one might return and rearrange its outlines – it is by definition a done deal. Yet the fragments of history persist as choices made by conscious people – this is the burden of what happened in Vietnam. Dienbienphu remains contested; the abstract portrayal of violence lives on as coordinates on a map. Hadjimichalis is not so much hoping for redress as he is determined to render events that even in their remoteness play out as inexorably present, part of contemporary awareness. Just as he turned to myth for Schiste Odos, in order to redeem the death of the father, so he turns to the effects of war in order to meditate on (if not mitigate) the depredations of empire and racism, empire’s close friend. The truth told here is not imaginary but horribly real, but it is also made distant – by time and by the artist’s apparently indifferent hand.

A different sort of mimesis occurs in Hadjimichalis’s suite of black-and-white photographs, chosen from the Archives of the Workshop of Projects and Images in Crisis, Ninety-Seven Heads (1999-2000). Each image is a digital print on archival paper, 15cm x 15cm. Each picture offers to the viewer a tortuous, masklike face, twisted and mutilated in a perverse categorization of the horrific as real. One wonders whether this workshop of horrors is an ironic call for recognition of physical types, a copy of the rough and calculating effigies of nineteenth-century racism. The brutally cracked faces of the series demonstrate Hadjimichalis’s refusal to mourn the consequences of politics, as though events could not be helped, as well as his rejection of the inclination to generalize and pass over inequity, as though the specificities of class and race were mere wrinkles in time. His trenchant engagement with these materials constitutes not so much a reaction against but an examination of the motives of power, on both a personal and public level. He mixes and matches rhetoric and fact, believing in the seamless conflation of the imagination and the event. By waiving his right to pronounce on history, he involves it with a far greater sense of realism than might be thought. Working as he does in the interstices between private memory and public commemoration, Hadjimichalis chooses, for moral reasons, not to differentiate the two kinds of remembering. This makes for an art that may present itself, on a surface level, as seemingly diffuse, but which in fact offers a grammar of motive remarkable for its psychological accuracy and social precision.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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