Small but rich in meaning: the artist’s new exhibition at a.antonopoulou.art.
Consider the number of works of art that tackle political topics, contain some political commentary, or even engage directly with the community – for example taking some kind of action in society. It isn’t hard to see that the question of whether art can have political influence is a pertinent one. But could it also be naïve, considering that contemporary art comprises not merely the works and their subjects, but a whole economic and ideological mechanism?
In any case, it is likely that this question will be on the mind of the visitor to Michalis Kallimopoulos’ individual exhibition “Strength vs. Violence” at the a.antonopoulou.art gallery. The political content of this exhibition is as particular as it is universal. The artist ventures to comment on current affairs – the trial of far-right party Golden Dawn is what sparked the idea for the exhibition – but he manages to transcend the particular and address the ever interesting, philosophical question of what constitutes Violence and Strength.
Small and concise, but rich in meaning, the exhibition makes use of the grotesque. It contains two huge sculptures, one in the form of a wolf or bear in an attacking pose, and the other of a humanoid beast ready to draw himself up to his full, threatening stature from his seat. There is ambiguity as to whether he is about to destroy something or if he has just sat down, defeated. Moreover, if the bear is a case of the victim having become the victimizer, the artist undoubtedly identifies both as violent creatures. The ambiguity counterbalances what could otherwise be the most evident and theatrical – therefore bordering on the obvious – rendering of violence in the form of a dangerous beast.
Violence itself is not openly revealed, but subtly implied. The grotesqueness exorcises it, subdues it, makes it ridiculous. This method of mixing intensity of feeling with the liberating power of humour lends the exhibition a dark but also optimistic quality. It makes the content somewhat enigmatic, suggesting questions and leading the viewer along different trains of thought. Violence can activate strength as a reaction to it, and yet violence and strength are opposing concepts – as Kallimopoulos notes in the accompanying text to the exhibition, quoting a passage from Hanna Arendt’s On Violence. On the other hand, cannot violence be a form of strength – as anarchy has been at various points in history?
To this “esoteric”, intellectual pursuit of the nature and depiction of violence and strength, Kallimopoulos adds drawings he made after attending the hearing of Golden Dawn. It is a collection that shows the artist’s skill in manipulating different media and combing large- and small-scale images. In these sketched portraits, emphasis is placed on the shape of the head, which is often distorted. Many of the drawings caricature the person’s real face, hinting at their unseen, hidden inner world. It represents their dark side, while also mocking them.
Hilarity defuses threat. But still there is ambiguity. Strength is not violence, but violence can be all-embracing. And so the question remains: what exactly is strength, who wields it and how do they abuse it? If violence is absurd, unforgivable and grotesque, what happens to those in power? And what is the relationship between strength and authority? Setting aside the personal and moral responsibility of each one of us to be strong – in the sense of responsible, sincere and just – what about strength on the level of institutions and laws; on a societal, collective level?
The point of view from which the artist draws the accused gives the viewer – and society –the privilege of choice and action. The visitor to the courtroom, like the viewer of the exhibition, can see the accused, but they cannot look back. The sitting giant looks at the ground. The ferocious animal is an unseeing scarecrow. What’s more, the handles on the arms of the former sculpture, or the rope that binds the latter to the wall, imply the existence of an invisible hand. Whether this is the hand of the viewer, of each one of us who can tame violence, or the hand that incites violence, is a question that some visitors might ask. But in the collection of sketches, too, various portraits of dogs on leads take this role-play even further: if the dog is tamed, then is violence tamed too? Or is it stirred up? Leading on from this, what is the relationship between nature and art, the wild and the tame?
Such ambiguities (though I should note that the artist’s intention is not a black-and-white opposition of violence=bad and strength=good) lend the exhibition a protean character. They manage to transform a specific political event into a broader reflection on politics. As in his previous works, Kallimopoulos aims to involve the viewer (past works have even been interactive). Once again he places the viewer face to face with themselves and their relation to society. In this way he touches on the question of whether a work of art as an image, a reproduction, can be so impressed on a person that it nurtures a different position or action in their relationship with the world. This does not mean that art should be used as a tool – then it becomes propaganda. Art has its own symbolic language and its own position, which is the power of the image and the capacity of the senses and the mind to process it. It is – or should be – a form of strength, in the positive sense, as a human need for expression. “Strength vs. Violence” raises these kinds of question through drawing and sculpture, with the plastic language that sets art apart from other images, such as a dry document. This care for the plastic qualities of a work draws attention to the forms themselves, the modelling of the shape and the rhythm of the drawn line, arresting our gaze, making us really look.