Mikhail Karikis, born in Thessaloniki, and currently living and working between London and Lisbon, is a visual thinker who converses with the grave contemporary problems of mankind

Mikhail Karikis

No-one should be excluded from culture

Text: Tassos Retzios | Photographs: Mikhail Karikis' Archive
Mikhail Karikis portrait by Felicity Crawshaw

Yet another Greek living abroad, whose work, influential capacity, and recognition prove right all those claiming that the country’s elite is not to be found within borders. Mikhail Karikis, born in Thessaloniki, and currently living and working between London and Lisbon, is a visual thinker who converses with the grave contemporary problems of mankind. His work is always endowed with a socially-oriented aspect, triggering a sense of urgency.

His international career over the last decade is impressive, comprising back-to-back exhibitions on a worldwide scale. His work “Ferocious Love” was recently unveiled at Tate Liverpool, taking the torch from the exhibition “No ordinary protest” hosted last year at Whitechapel Gallery. His audio works featuring Björk were showcased at the Royal Opera House, as well as within the framework of the Venice Biennale. As to his homeland ventures, he has taken part at the 5th Thessaloniki Biennale, in 2015.

With regard to the socially-oriented aspect of his work, that’s what he has to say: “Right from the early stages in my career, I had developed serious ideological problems about the structural inequalities in my job: the limited and non-inclusive diversity of the people I was working with and the strictly commercial ways through which my work was becoming accessible to the public. Most of my colleagues were university educated, white middle or upper middle class; the technical teams were exclusively male, the office assistants and secretaries were exclusively female, the cleaners and ticket sellers were non-white migrants, and the audiences were comprised of people who had enough disposable income to access culture events. All this contradicts my personal belief in the democratization of culture. Everyone has the right to produce and consume culture: culture is a fundamental right.”

Mikhail Karikis explains the way he uses the word “culture”: “When I use this word I include the entire spectrum ranging from children’s improvised songs in the playground, to the women’s traditional lamentations in Mani and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Culture is a human need. When someone dies, we don’t just throw the body away, we invent rituals to honor their memory, mourn and process our loss. Culture provides the means for humans to reflect on the past, tackle questions of life-purpose, offer compassion, cope with problems, imagine alternatives and create a hopeful future.

He goes on to say: “So, about fifteen years ago, I demanded of myself to proceed to the next level: not only to talk politics in my work, but to produce and disseminate my work in a political way. I started creating projects in collaboration with communities pushed to the fringes of society and whose voices are politically inaudible: children, people with disabilities, incarcerated people, the elderly and the unemployed, as well as underprivileged teenagers and young people. These projects, mostly produced with public funding, were disseminated worldwide, mostly through free exhibitions, public museums and state-run broadcasting stations. This does not mean that I do not sell my works – I do, but mostly to public museum collections. This means that thereafter and for generations to come, my artworks belong to every single citizen of the country where my works are collected.”

Karikis wraps up his reasoning by saying: “There are many injustices and hierarches that need to be challenged and changed, so there is a lot of work to be done urgently. In recent years I have been particularly preoccupied by human-caused climate change, extractivism-based economy models and the environmental dystopia we are passing onto the next generation.”

The fascination of sound
In Karikis’ works, both sound and the human voice play a pivotal role. “I’ve always been fascinated by sound. First of all, sound is somewhat mysterious. It is experienced by moving and penetrating the listener, without necessarily revealing who/what is producing it. In contrast, when we look at someone or something, we remain at a distance. Hearing operates differently, as even invisible things can become audible. From a political standpoint, the potential is immense. Sound can challenge or even overturn the relationship between what is visible in a societal context and the voice needed to actually make it audible. That is why I place so much emphasis on the sound element in my work.”

He goes on to say: “The voice serves as an interface between our inner world and the world around us. That’s why I think our voices operate as an emotional barometer. The sound of our voices can reveal how we feel both physically and emotionally. We emit vocal vibrations and the recipients respond accordingly. For example, before children even learn to speak, they are in a position to recognize when a voice addresses them in a tender, aggressive or playful tone. When we truly listen to voices we begin to hear not only to what is being said but also to who is saying it and how. What I try to demonstrate through my work is the existence of a different form of listening that becomes activated when as soon as we obtain the capacity to hear in a level that goes beyond the mere use and understanding of the language. Then we begin to hear what people truly want to emit and discern different levels of reality than the ones initially apparent.”

Children and young people
Another key feature of Karikis’ works is the participation of children and young men. In his own words: “In my collaborations with children, teenagers and young adults, I make it clear that they may use whatever aspect of my skillset and experience they want in order to learn whatever they think necessary in their lives. I must admit I do feel a sense of responsibility towards them, as I feel obliged to offer them positive alternatives to the dystopian and toxic narratives they absorb through much of contemporary politics and popular culture. I choose to work with them because their voices are structurally excluded from politics and public life. My projects aim to amplify their voices. I also think that children and young people are really good instinctive cultural producers, and both their culture and ways of thinking ought to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Mikhail Karikis added the following: “As I take a look at my work over the past fifteen years, I realize that earlier projects were focusing on professionals whose jobs had an extractivist relationship to the planet Earth and its resources. I worked with coalminers, pearl divers, geothermal and shipping engineers. These professions extract, harness and transform natural resources to produce material wealth without replenishing what is extracted from nature, leaving nothing but pollutants behind. Extractive and petrochemical capitalism is destroying everything: our environment, our health, and our societies. When I look around me and see the somber legacy of socio-economic injustice and environmental abuse our current system is passing on to the younger generations, I get infuriated. Anger is not a positive feeling, but when paired with the instinct to preserve life and to love, it can serve as a productive fuel to keep you going. That’s what has been fuelling me and my work. Through my collaborations with children and young people, I became exposed to a way of thinking and attitudes that cultivate an entirely different approach on producing wealth and wellbeing, which is based on servicing nature and care, on nurturing a symbiotic relationship with the environment and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. I am tuned to the vibrations of the next generation in this respect.”

Pandemic vs. creation
When speaking with such a ruminative artist, the whole experience of the pandemic could not be omitted from the conversation. “The pandemic is not an isolated event that dropped out of the sky, but the outcome of an uncontrollable and prolonged exploitation of nature. We are rapidly reducing animal habitats through deforestation, urbanization, pollution and anthropogenic climate change. We are gradually coming in closer proximity with diseases that may but not fatal for animals but may prove deadly for human beings. Covid-19 is such a disease. Unless we change the way we organize our societies, politics and economies, aiming to coexist with nature rather than fight it, things will not improve.”

Any chance of returning to Greece?
How does a renowned artist living abroad view Greece? Is there anything that could trigger his return? “Greece is a country of beautiful energy vibes and its artistic communities deserve more attention, state funding and opportunities both nationally and internationally. An entire country’s contemporary art scene and its artists cannot be expected to make the ethical compromises required by relying perpetually on money provided by former shipping tycoons and oligarchs. Greek governments need to recognize the power of culture as a form of ‘soft diplomacy’, as well as the influence and impact they can exercise by supporting contemporary Greek talent. By no means do I suggest a political instrumentalization of contemporary art. What I mean to demonstrate is that we produce ideas, innovate, discover and have opinions on crucial issues, as expressed through our cultural production. If we fail to support and promote our artists internationally, it is as if we suppress our own voice”.

Mikhail Karikis concludes: “I would for sure return to Greece to develop a project, but having lived in three countries and have worked in over fifty countries, my greatest service would probably lie in contributing to the internationalization of the Greek cultural scene by helping Greek artists to gain experience and confidence, as well as build networks of collaboration beyond Greek borders. Sometimes, in the company of dear friends, I get somewhat carried away dreaming of ideas to set up an interstate residency program for young artists, in Greece, the UK and Portugal… It’s not a promise, I am still in the dreaming process!”