I spoke to Konstantinos Papamichalopoulos via Skype because the artist was on the Aegean island of Folegandros working on pieces for his latest exhibition. At the beginning of our conversation, the picture and audio were crystal-clear. At some point, though, his face broke into thousands of pixels and the sound of his voice switched to that of a dying robot. The title of Papamichalopoulos’s postgraduate work at Panteion University in Athens, “We Are all Cyborgs: The New Representation of the Artificial Man in Deus Ex,” immediately sprang to mind.
The influence of technology and contemporary pop culture on Papamichalopoulos’s work is evident. As a child, he says, he loved to read comic books and then copy the pictures of the characters, but he lost interest as he grew older. It all changed when a friend gave him a video game as a gift, telling him that it reminded him some of his early works.
“I was stunned,” he told me. “There were real works of art out there. For more than a year, I took all the games I could get my hands on into my studio. I would sleep just four hours and the rest of my day I would play games,” he said.
“I wanted to explore the nature of this seduction. At the same time, I wanted to find a reason why I would continue to draw.”
After immersing himself in gaming, Papamichalopoulos received a scholarship to study engraving at the Athens School of Fine Arts. He started to explore imaginary spaces, which became his main focus. Thus was born “The Great Golden Room,” his show last year at the Museum of Greek Folk Art in Athens. “Talos,” which is an offshoot of this exhibition, went on display at the National Archaeological Museum at the beginning of August.
Why is Papamichalopoulos – an artist who draws inspiration from science fiction and with a keen interest in the impact of digital technology on art – showcasing his work at a traditional institution? Why does the 40-year-old artist use egg tempera and gold leaf, elements of Byzantine and Eastern artistic traditions, in his depictions of places that are reminiscent of the dystopian universe of electronic games? And what is the connection between disabled US veterans of the Iraq War and Talos, a mythical bronze giant who protected Minoan Crete from its enemies?
“I don’t just pop into museums like a visitor,” Papamichalopoulos told me. “I go there to sketch. It would be great if everyone could do that, with cheap museum cards for example, so that they became as accessible as our living rooms,” he said.
“The Archaeology Museum, which is one of the most important institutions of its kind worldwide, needs to become more outward-looking,” he added.
Papamichalopoulos explained that he wanted “Talos” to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the museum on Patission Street. He also wanted the works to be showcased in a space that would not only attract the usual gallery crowd, but also ordinary visitors enjoying a coffee break after touring the ancient collections.
Some say Talos was made by Hephaestus at Zeus’ request, to protect Europa from people who wanted to kidnap her, while others claim he was forged by the inventor Daedalus. So Talos was the first robot-like creature in human mythology. He is seen by some as a symbol of the technological developments in metallurgy during the early Minoan era, while others believe he symbolizes our constant efforts to overcome God.
This combination of man and machine, the cyborgs of science fiction and the images of disabled US war vets proudly posing next to their prosthetics comprise the basis of these portraits.
“[In my current work] I preserve some of the actual characteristics of people’s faces – I usually rely on real images, photographs taken by friends or myself – while replacing other parts with biomorphic fragments of cyborgs,” the artist said.
“I do not aim to depict what is visible. I want – similar to the monumental portraits of the past which were inspired by myth – to depict the invisible that interacts with the visible.”
The artist has also created a series called “Plants,” which became part of the show following the introduction of 700 new plants to the museum’s atrium. “I worked on my own drawings of real plants using material I found on the internet and images of electronic games that were based on natural patterns. I wanted each plant to be incorporated into another composition as a sculpture or video game. At a time when we are overwhelmed by imagery, I like to give the audience a little shock.”
“Talos – Representations of the Artificial Man” is on display at the atrium cafe of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (44 Patission, www.namuseum.gr) through August 31.