An ocean of outcry at the Whitechapel Gallery – Mikhail Karikis: No Ordinary Protest
By James Brewer
Greek-born artist Mikhail Karikis has joined with school children aged just seven years old to raise clamorous voices urging society to cleanse the oceans of pollution.
Mikhail, who lived in Thessaloniki for the first 17 years of his life, now divides his time between London and Lisbon as he pursues the weaving of “moving image, sound and other media to create immersive audio-visual installations and performances.” He has long celebrated the voice as a sculptural material and socio-political agent.
London’s Whitechapel Gallery awarded him its 10th Children’s Commission, for which he devised an installation that combines film, sound and performance entitled No Ordinary Protest.
For a year, he collaborated with a group of 30 local school children aged seven and eight to create a project specifically for the Gallery. It showed brilliantly that, far from being obsessed with technological devices, the young ones were quick to display their innate quota of intelligence.
Mikhail said that while the language of the young students might be less polished than that of adults, its messaging on politics, ethics and justice was clear. “Although they are seven-year-olds, their discussions are sophisticated and profound.
“Children have an instinctive sense of justice and political consciousness, and it is our responsibility to listen to that. They realised the [question of the] environment is a matter of emergency.”
His theme was inspired by him “falling in love” with the book The Iron Woman, a children’s science fiction novel published in 1993 by the author and poet Ted Hughes (1930-98) as a sequel to his Iron Man of 20 years previous.
Iron Woman warns of the destruction of the planet by adult humans. Children are looking for a way to reverse the enormous pollution of the seas, lakes and rivers, and they turn for help to the super-heroine the Iron Woman who emerges from a marsh.
Spurred by the unfolding ecological catastrophe and the culpability and apathy of their seniors, in alliance with the Iron Woman the children break into factories and challenge grown-ups with a demand for radical change. The youngsters develop the ability to hear supernatural noise and emit a cry that echoes the collective howl and suffering of all the creatures of the planet blighted by pollution.
A short but compelling film shot by Mikhail tracks close-up the reasoning and reactions of the students, who are from Mayflower Primary School in East London, to the experiences of the children in the Iron Woman story, as they identify and prepare to tackle the threats to the global environment.
The group experiments with noise and vocalisations which take on visual forms and they become deeply committed to active solidarity with creatures at risk.
The Gallery comments: “Allowing the children to probe the boundaries between the real and imagined, communal noise-making and deep listening become tools which ignite an activist imagination with the potential to transform the world. The artist gives voice to the students’ responses to an unstable ecological future; voices demanding to be heard.”
The work was commissioned alongside the Gallery by Film and Video Umbrella, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, and is supported by Arts Council England. It is curated by Sofia Victorino, Whitechapel director of education and public programmes, with Helen Davidson, curator for children and families. Benjamin Jones, class teacher and creative arts lead at Mayflower Primary School, was praised for his cooperation.
Sofia Victorino said that Mikhail’s work “touches upon themes that affect us all: a sense of belonging, the environment and the power of a collective voice. The collaborative process he developed with the children inspired them to expand their activist imagination and claim other possible futures.”
Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, said that the project illustrated that significant works of art could emerge from encounter with the local community.
Mikhail specialises in “developing relationships with communities socially or geographically marginalised. This was a slightly different community,” he said of the scholars.
Other recent exhibits featuring Mikhail have included participation in Ear to the Ground at New Orleans Museum of Art; State of the Union, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne; Artists’ Film International, touring 16 countries; British Art Show 8; Remembering the Future, Tate Liverpool; Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India; Steirischer Herbst, Austria; and Art in the Age of Energy and Raw Material, Witte de With, Netherlands.
His solo exhibitions have included The Chalk Factory, Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017; Love Is the Institution of Revolution, Casino Luxembourg Forum d’art Contemporain; and Children of Unquiet, Villa Romana Florence. He has a continuing busy programme ahead with solo shows at Mori Art Museum of Japan, Turku Art Museum in Finland, De la Warr Pavilion in the UK, and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Italy.
Following its residence at the Whitechapel Gallery, No Ordinary Protest will move in summer 2019 to Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
Mikhail Karikis: No Ordinary Protest is at the Whitechapel Gallery until January 6, 2019. Entry is free