Michail Michailov: Just keep on going
Through my art I try to take the viewers out of their usual contextMaria Vassileva , Sofia
I believe that a new way of thinking, new perceptions and experiences can take us, step by step, to the answer of the fundamental question who we really are, says performance artist Michail Michailov in an interview with Maria Vassileva.
In many of your photographs, installations and public space interventions, you wear or otherwise use protective white clothing. Today, more than ever before, this grips our attention because in the current coronavirus pandemic it is a means of protection and isolation. Was it your intention to express just that? In my opinion, through the neutrality of the suit you strive to become a part of different environments rather than to dissociate from them. How did it all start?
Yes, I use the white protective suit ever since 2006. In pre-Covid-19 times, it had two basic functions. The one is to reduce your own footprint (for example, in criminal investigations) and the other is to protect yourself (let's say, in a nuclear reaction). In both cases people try to minimise their physical presence.
I put it on for the first time for a public space intervention at a metro station in Vienna. In this work I added my name onto a large poster of the Museum of Modern Art next to the names of world-famous artists. I used the suit as its colour made me stand out against the backdrop of the poster, and at the same time it served as camouflage giving the impression that I was someone who had come to repair, clean or paint over something. Some passersby even congratulated me on a work well done. So I started to put the suit on every time I embarked on an artistic intervention. In the end, I used to stand completely motionless with my head bent down, with an air of humility, as if I would like to become invisible.
However, in my latest works the protective suit has transformed a lot. I started to create installations from the same material, in which you can put your head or even enter, isolating yourself from the world outside and connecting with me, with other people or with architectural details. Thus, the object turns into an empty, protected, plain white zone, an exhibition space in the form of a white cube, where a person can project his or her thoughts and exchange information with me but also with oneself.
I would like to continue our conversation along the lines of the white, the fabric, which are your regular means of expression. Let's discuss two of your works: Vive le France, in which your own clothing becomes shelter for the homeless in the streets of Paris, and The Sleep, where the delicate whiteness of the bedlinen contrasts with the dramatic cross-shaped bed. The first work is public, and the second is very personal. Can we talk about such distinction in your work at all?
My work is closely connected with the situation and with the form it takes, this is the predominant factor. I made Vive la France during my first long stay in Paris and it took its inspiration from the strong patriotic feelings of the French and from Paris itself, which is this cosmopolitan capital of fashion, but at the same time a place inhabited by a great number of homeless people, who are in the streets even in wintertime. In this particular case, the white protective suit has been transformed into a fashion item and serves as a safe space for the homeless… Whereas, the work The Sleep appeared during one of my artistic crises, in which sleep was of paramount importance to me. My white double bed, just like myself, folded in the edges. It turned into a single bed, but with two side sections, on which I still could spread my arms. The white represents a linking element, a blank piece of paper, which makes every little particle visible and manifests the existence of every separate individual.
You engage in performance art, which is one of the hardest and least popular artistic forms. How important is to you the direct clash with the viewer?
In a large part of my performances the viewer is invited to participate and then our contact is of great importance to me. For instance, in the performance Tap and Touch White Cube (one of the transformations of the white coveralls) the viewer is supposed to enter a white cube that comes out of my body and exhibits a part of it. In this way he or she visits an exhibition, but also visits a part of me. The public observes the process from the outside without knowing what is happening inside, which additionally arouses their curiosity. The boundaries of this interaction is the thing that interests me. In the performance series Headspacing I turn my mind into an exhibition space, which on its part is connected with a building or an architectural element. In this way, the performance raises questions like “who am I and where does my body end”. The viewer is invited to exhibit his or her head for a moment and to interact both with me and the architecture. In the latest Headspacing my head and the viewer's head can be seen from the inside of the building. In these brief moments I ask myself the question “who we really are, how are we related to one another and what defines our existence?”
In your previous interviews you've repeatedly mentioned that you are interested in and are looking for the meaning of existence. Isn't that an overambitious, extreme undertaking for the modern man, always busy and absorbed in his self-centredness?
My video series Just Keep on Going comments on that topic exactly. The search for life's meaning is a process which continues until we die; maybe even after that. But just running in a circle without the slightest attempt to break from it would be unsatisfying for me. That's why, through my art I try to take the viewers out of their usual context. I believe that a new way of thinking, new perceptions and experiences can take us, step by step, to the answer of the fundamental question who we really are.
In this sense, I hope that the Covid-19 nightmare can actually bring forth something positive and make us abandon our usual well-trodden paths.
In the days of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems like we finally started to look into ourselves. We see the problems under a magnifying glass and they finally appear concrete. And they are mostly of our own making, not someone else's… I see a relation between this and a series of works that you started years ago, in which you draw the dust gathering around you. Is that the starting point? Can a particular speck of dust give us the answers we've been looking for?
Back in 2014 I started a series of drawings called Dust to Dust. I draw the dust, stains, useless plastic pieces and mould that accumulate in my studio. Things generated through my own existence and the existence of the people close to me. All of these things we'd rather not see and usually choose to dispose of or hide. The drawing process takes almost as much time as it takes for the material to gather naturally.
The unwanted meaningless product acquires new meaning and new value through its materialisation into a drawing. Transforming this microcosm, I try to find parallels with the macrocosm, accepting the inherent contradictions. While science delves into the composition of matter, I through the means of art try to comprehend the meaning of matter. In this case, the speck of dust is not a goal in itself; it symbolises the matter as a whole and as a part of me and you.
Looking for an answer to the question what has real meaning in life, I realise how relative our individual answers may be. Just as relative as the perception of the viewer, who, when looking at my drawings often finds it hard to distinguish between the real and the drawn dust.
The interview was originally published by Structura Gallery in Sofia.
Born in 1978 in Veliko Tarnovo, Michail Michailov lives and works in Vienna and Paris. He studied Art History at the University of Vienna. Between 2006 and 2009 he worked in cooperation with the Gelitin artist collective. In addition to having several residencies and awards under his belt, he is the winner of the 2018 Drawing Now Paris award and the Austrian State Scholarship for Visual Arts in 2017.