"Collecting Traces" by Christopher Marinos
Michalis Katzourakis walks around the city collecting the traces he finds scattered in it. He revisits the same places years later, observes and records with his lens the changes in the urban landscape. He isolates certain views of this landscape which attract his interest and excite his curiosity. He stops to photograph them because they condense his mood of the moment, or in order to save them from oblivion, from assimilation or destruction by man’s building mania. In addition to any critical approach, every snapshot must meet the requirements for evolving into painterly reproduction. “I am always thinking of paintings when I take these photos” confesses the artist as we browse through old slides carefully filed in cartridges depending on the place, the city or the journey they relate to.
The traces that Michalis Katzourakis likes to collect are often found in dense assortments, piles of objects and heaps of materials (stacked fish crates, firewood and boxes neatly arranged in columns, moored fishing boats, old wooden pallets and crates, books, containers, abandoned railway cars), i.e. where the human hand has accidentally produced a poetic geometry. Sometimes the traces are sought and found over entrances and exits, openings and passages of the gaze or the body: doors and windows occasionally planked shut, whitewashed or covered with newspaper. The artist’s eye falls almost obsessively on debris, scaffolding and pockmarked building façades but also on in-between spaces that usually go unnoticed, such as backyards, roughly-built garden walls and traffic signs.
He often combines traces and architectural elements of his own city with those from cities he visits temporarily: thus a concrete wall around a schoolyard crowned with embedded glass shards against trespassers —which the artist did not need to snap as it was an everyday sight near his home in Psihiko— converses with a similar wall he had captured in a trip to Vietnam in 2009. This conversation between two walls in two different parts of the world, built by peoples with entirely different cultures and views on building, led to the works of the Arsakeion series in which the main material is glass shards: the large-scale “MANDRA” sculptures (2011), a series of atmospheric works like the black wall-mounted steles whose interior emits a narrow-band light (“Steles”, 2013) and the mirrors-windows (“Windows 14.Α”, 2014) which are among the artist’s latest works. Mirrors, which have something sinister and disturbing about them since they multiply the number of people,1 are combined here with broken bottles. Arrayed like memorabilia from a violent act, with their opening glued underneath the wooden frame, the bottles underscore in a subtly humorous way the unfamiliar nature of the mirror. In this sense these works are ideal for opening and closing an exhibition like Variations whose starting point is photography — that ‘thief’ of the aura of people and objects.
Similarly, a series of photos of some enigmatic stone steles that Katzourakis snapped in 1995 in the ancient Sri-Lankan city of Polonnaruwa will trigger the theme of the Incontri sculptures and its variations. Made of Neurometal plaster mesh in various colours (red, blue, black), these works come in various versions and sizes ranging from one metre to the monumental and occupying anything from Plexiglas pedestals to main squares, respectively. Again, as in the case of the broken bottles, the sharp edges of the sculptures may exude a certain aggression but deep down they converse with the totemic nature of the original structures. Moreover, with the allusion to the projecting reinforcement bars on the roofs of buildings these works become an ironic comment on the notion of the unfinished, so inextricably linked to the Greek urban landscape, its aesthetic peculiarities and the mentalities which had contributed to its gradual destruction: the prospect and the illusion of future expansion, the developer’s greed, the futile modern-Greek dream in all its glory…
On the other hand, seen with non-Western eyes the galvanised-steel ‘bouquets’ of Michalis Katzourakis bring to mind Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement: the inner rhythm and the sense of neatness in these works radiate an abstract beauty.2 Even a hint of such an eclectic affinity could not but influence the presentation of the works in the exhibition space: wishing to remain true to the spirit and the aesthetic of Katzourakis’s work, the curatorial concept of the exhibition treats the museum like a vase or a Japanese garden.
The town of Myrina on the island of Lemnos holds a special place in the works and in the heart of Michalis Katzourakis. The unique topography of the seaside town and the aesthetic of its buildings as it had evolved prior to its gradual loss since the ’80s was for years a standard source of inspiration. The artist managed to capture in photos and then process in painting some rare aspects of Myrina which are now a distant memory. A wall in a state of disrepair yet rich in hues and textures he had photographed near the crumbling villa of an Italian doctor, known as the Vodella mansion, would spawn the Vodolla series, named after the villa’s owner; the fishing boats at the port’s Turkish Shore (the other one is called Greek Shore) trigger a series of abstract studies and still lifes, as do the façades of dozens of shops at Tsarsi, Myrina’s marketplace. Although the artist records the gradual loss of these architectural elements and the lack of interest in preserving this legacy, his gaze is in no way nostalgic. On the contrary, it seems more akin to a reading of contemporary life that emphasises the question of the individual’s adaptation to his surroundings. As Michelangelo Antonioni puts it in an interview about his film Red Desert: “My intention …was to translate the beauty of this world, in which even the factories can be very beautiful….The line, the curves of factories and their smoke-stacks, are perhaps more beautiful than a row of trees which every eye has already seen to the point of monotony. It is a rich, vibrant, useful world”.3 There is much of this treatment of the urban and industrial landscape, which we find also in other artists after the war, in the approach and the aesthetic of Michalis Katzourakis.