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Working with Red Velvet: The Art of Maro Michalakakos

By iris plaitakis, April 16, 2016

I’ve known artist Maro Michalakakos for many years, but this was the first time I visited her studio. I wasn’t sure what she would be working on, and was more than pleasantly surprised to find the walls lined with lengths of red velvet being shaved with a scalpel and heaps of fluff littering the floor. This is her signature work, which she does stray from, but it’s what I came to talk about.

Tell us about red velvet. When did you begin working with it and why?

Red velvet is the running thread in my work. I used it in my first solo exhibition in Paris in 1996, and even if I have done completely different things over the years it is what I keep coming back to, always.

At art school in France in the early 90s, I was studying painting and covering surfaces with layer upon layer of oils, which as a process was seemingly never-ending. For some reason I bought a piece of red velvet. I didn’t know what I would do with it; it was just my instinct. I hung it in my studio and at first I would just look at it and pet it! One day a professor said to me ‘well, it has hairs,’ so I thought to myself ‘then I’ll shave it!’ and that is what I did. And it was the act that was so satisfying, almost filling me with euphoria, a strange feeling indeed. I enjoyed the physically removing, the taking away and that I was creating via this process, as opposed to layering. The material at some point obliged me to stop. I think red velvet freed me from painting and that is why it stuck and why I keep coming back to it.

What role do the historic/cultural associations of red velvet play in your work? Does this inform the imagery you shave onto the panels?

After a while I began thinking about why red velvet and that led to the direction in which the work would go. We find red velvet in the theater, in church, in royal contexts; even in modest homes there is a touch of it. In the theater and in the church, it is a curtain that divides, the audience and the divine. By shaving you try to break through these barriers, but in the end you can’t.

As far as the imagery is concerned, yes but it’s not so obvious. For example, I have put the legs of a predatory bird onto a red carpet and it’s true that human predators are the sorts that walk the red carpet, but then again we all have a bit of a predator in us. In general the imagery is always anthropocentric. Even when it features animals, it is still about the condition of being human.

The red carpet and opera curtains both have to do with performance, the notion of the spectacle. Is this particular association of red velvet what led you to do certain site-specific installations, such as in theaters?

I didn’t think so, but perhaps you are right! I have also done theater-set design.I enjoy doing site-specific installations in places that have a history because the place inspires fantasy.

You have also upholstered furniture with shaved red velvet. Presumably this has to do with the fact that your family had an antiques shop?

It was very natural for me growing up surrounded by all of these objects to use them in my practice. Often we would receive furniture from people who were emptying the home of a recently deceased parent so I didn’t want to know the story behind. I was more inclined to create a fantasy tale around the object and that is what red velvet allows me to do.

You also collect all of the pile shaved from your panels and in fact covered two columns of a gallery almost to the ceiling with mounds of it. Tell us a little about this.

When I shaved that very first piece of red velvet as a student, perhaps I didn’t keep the pile but I photographed it. I still have that photograph, which shows how important to me that which came off was from the very beginning.

When I began working with it in my practice, I started thinking about not only fiber fluff but also the dust balls that gather under furniture, in empty spaces. Wherever you leave space, something will come to fill it.

What is the relationship of this work to the rest of your work, the plumbing networks for example?

What is common to everything I do is the notion of the tie or the knot. For example, in my recent watercolors I have painted Audubon’s flamingo, but its neck is knotted around its leg and it can’t move forward. It is just like the boundary that red velvet gives you, not allowing you to go any further.

What are you working on now?

I am about to send off this work that you see here in the studio. It will form an installation in a medieval tower in France. The shaved velvet panels will cover the five large windows of a room and act like stained glass making the entire space crimson. I was inspired by the tower’s history as a prison. That’s why certain heads are upside down. They are meant to reflect the pain, agony and sense of fatality that the prisoners must have felt.

A second installation in this show consists of eight pieces of furniture. Each is upholstered with red velvet where I have removed the pile to feature body parts (hands, eyes, heads) of their “fantasy owners.”