I first visited Theo Michael at his studio a few years ago when it was located in a dilapidated building once occupied by Francis Alys in Mexico City’s centro. This time we met in the up and coming San Rafael neighborhood, which has become a favorite spot for young artists in the past few years. After seeing his latest exhibition at Galeria OMR, I dropped by his studio and check out some of his work while we talked about working with cheap materials, modern day hermits and the complexities of being an artist in the current art world system.
Interview by Melinda Santillan
Studio visit photos by Mud Heredia
Images of work courtesy of Theo Michael and Galeria OMR
Melinda Santillan: Where did you grow up and study, and how did you end up in Mexico City?
Theo Michael: I grew up in Thessaloniki in Greece. I studied there but also in Utrecht and London. I stayed almost ten years in London after finishing my MA, trying to be a full time artist and working the odd freelance job. Painting houses, security guard, A/V Technician, social worker, school bus driver, 3d animation and post production lecturer, music video director and more…Then I met Sofia, she is Mexican, we got married and moved to Mexico as an experiment. I never looked back. London is a great city but if you are not a millionaire you cannot be an artist. The expenses are brutal and unrelenting. On the contrary Mexico is the land of opportunity for artists, low living cost, plenty of time for self-development and very healthy art scene. All artists should move here.
I love this new space, what made you move from your old studio?
Yeah the situation at my last studio became out of control, the building used to be Francis Alys’ studio, but in the past few years most of it got taken over by local families who were basically squatting there and they eventually drove all the artists out. There was no real landlord, no water or electricity. The squatters started to rule everything and it became really difficult.
Like the mob…
Yeah, I didn’t want to be ruled by the mob…So now I am in San Rafael in an building with different studios and practices and it is a lot more controlled and safe with a lot of artists living and working in the neighborhood.
San Rafael has really thrived in the past few years, but luckily it still maintains its local flavor, no Starbucks here just yet! So tell me about your new work, I noticed in your last show there were a lot of changes, mainly new sculptures and these raw big earth wall hangings, which contrast with the more labored drawings I have seen from you in the past.
Yeah around the time I was doing the show my wife and I had a baby and suddenly there was not that much time anymore, especially around the first six months. I couldn’t really focus on those detailed drawings anymore so I tried doing stuff that was faster and more immediate. I started working in a ceramic studio and experimenting with soil. At first I was stealing soil from the construction sites at night, then one day I walked by the construction site and the guys just offered it to me…
Ha ha, it’s the soil they dig up right? They were probably trying to get rid of it the whole time!
Yeah exactly, and I though I was being really sneaky… Anyways, at this time I started using cheap readily available materials, Home Depot stuff, nothing fancy.
So the changes in your life basically affected your approach to art.
Yeah, I guess most art reflects life conditions. In this case, as a response to not being able to spend enough time in my studio, I started making architectural models, which I was already doing but these are mainly models of dwellings in which I imagined myself being inside with a coffee machine, a low folding chair, a laptop, a pencil and a notebook. And of course fast Internet! I imagined them to be a philosopher’s house. Places for a lone thinker, a place to sit and reflect. Fantasies of mine around that time, I felt like I could live in a cave. Some fantasies are great as long as they remain fantasies you see.
So you were drawn to living in a philosopher’s or a hermit house…
Something like that, maybe a barely updated version of Diogenes The Cynic’s ceramic jar (Diogenes used a big ceramic jar as a house). They are symbols of ascetic life and influenced from vernacular and prehistoric architecture. So I built a few models and I am intrigued about the idea of these objects finding a resting place inside high-end designer villas with swimming pools.
I was surprised to see those big earth “paintings” they were really different than your previous work, how did you end up going in that direction?
On one hand we have the cliche answer, which is that it has to do with geological time, you know the idea that everything becomes earth at the end, so it represents ‘a patch of something’ in the far future. The real reason I used earth was more complex. It came out of my compressed love/hate relationship with the art world. In many respects I tried to make the type of art that I ‘hate’ and ‘let’s see what happens’. I gave myself a tough challenge to play with basically. These works have some relationship to abstract expressionism and the canonical system of art, Yves Klein, Rothko maybe, references that I usually try hard to avoid. So I see the earth paintings as an attempt to challenge myself by making a banal artwork (art that looks like art) and then having to deal with it. I feel really uncomfortable about the earth paintings, I kind of hate them, they look like really cliche 80’s Greek art. I was kind of mad at the art world at the time so I did cliche art and got myself in a weird spot, but in a way this is why they are very valuable.
In what way were you mad at the art world?
Melinda…I could write a book about that…
Hahaha tell me more!
Well, you know the “art world” is supposed to be this progressive creative field, the avant-garde of the human intellect. It is supposed to criticize the ills of modern society but the market has seized the aesthetics of criticality in order to cover up its own guilt. You know, the nuclear weapons dealer whose wife buys tons of conceptual or “political” art, etc. The art world not only reflects the world’s cultural and technological stagnation, but is basically a system for validating inequality. Owning art is supposed to signify that you understand more than others, that you are superior in a financial and intellectual way. It is the ultimate symbol of power. You know it is a bunch of billionaires showing off between them by exchanging purple to blue gradients on canvas, that shapes art history, it’s ridiculous.
I guess it is something that is complex but not surprising. In a way it’s very interesting that art and certain artists could be shaped because a bunch of billionaires want to show off to each other and I think it is not a phenomenon that is unique to art. Powerful figures have been showing off to the world and each other forever…
Something else that troubles me as of lately is the fact that in order to be a successful artist, your practice needs to be in total alignment with the establishment. Your taste needs to be the 1% man’s taste. Otherwise it is almost impossible to make a living as an artist. The 1% man’s taste represents a specific post minimalist and neo-modern aesthetic that we all know about and see in galleries and museums the world over. Since the 1% can also buy off the credible curators and intellectuals to work for his/her foundation there is no hope for any other type of art to infiltrate the crystallized art market that works almost like the fashion world.
Yes the fashion world. A design might be really good but if it’s not on trend it will definitely not be selling as much that season…
Yes, this year it is post grunge and flip-flops; last year it was normcore and pink coats, etc. You can take a look into the market manipulation tool ArtRank.com to understand exactly what I am talking about. They will try to tell you that everything has a place in the art world but it is not the case. If you are into figurative portraits you are fucked and everyone knows that (for that reason exactly portraits might be trendy very soon). The more you emulate the market aesthetic the more successful an artist you are considered. But the more successful you are the more assimilated you are, and so the less personal and original your practice is. I think this is a paradox. It seems that individual expression only matters as long as it satisfies the needs of the larger creature that is the “art world”.
So you have complex feelings about how the art system works. Putting a dollar amount on a work of art does seems to conflict with the idea that art should be about exploration and self-expression. If the work of an artist sells for more than another, are we essentially putting more value on some people’s self-expression over others? The idea of putting value on self-expression is kind of a strange concept to begin with…but at the same time, to be working as an artist your work does need to sell or be validaded.
When I follow my instincts and do what I really enjoy doing people are confused, yet if I follow the easy recipes and the expectations of the mass everyone applauds… I ask myself, should I stick to my instincts- which is what I have persuaded myself that I am doing- or should I go for trendy art and universal approval -which sounds horrible to the average art person who still thinks he/she is special. I have the impression that the most difficult part of making art is the negotiation between what is truly yours and what you do for the sake of financial survival, acceptance in the establishment and being part of the larger creature.
In a way to be true to yourself AND be successful as an artist, the stars really do need to line up, so that whatever you are into doing and expressing is in alignment with whoever is buying.
What about the titles you gave your pieces in the show, they seem to be a commentary on your feelings about the art world at that time. I feel like they as important as the work themselves. Can you tell me more about that?
Ideally the works should stand on their own, without titles. The titles are a tool for me to make sure that the viewer is informed of the critical process behind the works. Yet because in my work criticality is directed towards the aesthetics of criticality itself, it can end up looking uncritical or naive. It’s a double bluff. So the titles come in and partially unlock the conceptual mechanisms involved for the viewer that is curious yet slightly perplexed.
So you tried the new techniques and materials and it’s been an interesting experience but I see you are still working on your drawings, which are the total opposite in a way, really detailed and time consuming…
Yes for me it’s a relaxing process, it’s what I really like to do. It is also my aim to compliment the spontaneous with the elaborate. But detailed drawing is kind of “out” in a way…
Yeah, in the past to be considered an “artist” you had to have crazy technique and be able to do really realistic representation, then artists challenged that idea with more conceptual stuff, and I guess now it is more about what you are saying, and the technique or lack-there-of, is there to support that message…
I don’t make super detailed drawings that are copies of other images, but use technique, in order to build new worlds. Craft is mocked these days but I like the process. I also think it is a great challenge to create good art out of nothing on a piece of paper. You pit yourself against the masters, the whole history of art. Many see this as outdated but I like playing with the preconception of what is cliché and naive. In the end, it’s not really outsider art because I am kind of an insider, or maybe I am an outsider making insider art, I don’t know.
I love contemporary art and I think sometimes less is more, but at the same time, I think if you are saying something relevant, good technique never goes out of style…One doesn’t have to be better than the other, they are just different languages.
Yes, I have to go with what I love doing, and since everyone is trying to “think outside the box” these days I thought… fuck it, I am going to “think inside the box”. In the art world thinking conventionally can be radical.
What can you tell me about your Tumblr? I know you are not into social media and all that, so how do you relate to the Internet?
ASSYRIAN EFFECTS (my Tumblr) is basically a hybrid between collecting and curating. There you can see the images that fascinate me but also the kind of art that I would buy or the kind of show I would curate. Tumblr is a great resource for image junkies. About social media…I don´t have time and I’m not very social either so I’m better off outside. Plus whenever I tell people I don’t have FB they congratulate me. “Oh you are so wise, it’s such a waste of time, I want to close my account but haven’t found the courage…etc”.
Haha, yeah. Facebook doesn’t even let you delete your account I think…it’s probably smart to stay off of it in the first place. So what are some of your upcoming projects?
There are projects coming up in Palacio Nacional and Museo Universitario Del Chopo in Mexico City, and also at Galeria Millan in Sao Paulo. One of my animations will be screening at the Art Basel Miami Beach Film Sector.