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Stelios Faitakis Finding Divinity in Human Nature
At a time when an artist’s personality often precedes the work, it seems fitting that I have yet to meet Stelios Faitakis face to face, though I have interviewed him twice. Reading between the lines of the answers he sends by email, it seems that this may be the best way to deal with the magnitude of his work and his known disgust with the artworld’s tendency to treat artists “like demi-gods.” Fittingly, Faitakis’ paintings revel in overt religious references. While his reputation is growing, he still feels awkward with the hype surrounding him. He insists, “It may look like a blessing, but it is also a danger. One should never accept or even care about the labels that other individuals rush to stick on them. At the end of the day, I feel like I always felt—a man working to develop with the aim of hopefully reaching his full potential one day.”1 His stance is as hefty as his canvases. Like a seasoned composer, Faitakis orchestrates mountains of aesthetic and conceptual references to the past, present, and future in compositions that bear the weight of the world like the Byzantine paintings that adorn Greek Orthodox churches from which he takes inspiration. “What interested me are the inner similarities I found in many old religious art forms,” he explains—one of the common characteristics being the use of the color gold. “The use of gold as a means to signal a transcendental reality is common in Byzantine iconography, Persian miniature painting, Japanese painting, and Medieval German painting, to name just a few styles. Other common characteristics are complexity, a high level of detail, and the use of repeating patterns and elements. I was fascinated by those similarities in suggesting the presence of the divine. I consider this to be the core of my work.” Openly satirical, Faitakis’ paintings often present an aggressive social commentary, casting terrorists as saints and priests as sinners. Simultaneously, they convey a serene, sorrowful acceptance of human nature. “I convert the original use of Christian iconography for my own cause. It is a clear political statement, containing elements of pure propaganda expressed in a straightforward way,”2 he wrote in 2006, describing the political and social awareness that bursts from every brushstroke.
OPPOSITE: Stelios Faitakis, Babel, 2009, mixed media on canvas, 260 x 190 cm / ABOVE: Kakerlaken sind die Zukunft, 2009, mixed media on canvas, 260 x 190 cm (all images courtesy of the artist and The Breeder, Athens)
“Over the decades, hasn’t political art come with a certain aesthetic proposal? And at the same time, doesn't an aesthetic proposal contain an almost necessary political position? A deliberate non-political attitude is a political statement, isn't it? We do not have to agree with the attitude, but the statement is surely there.” Choosing paint over Molotov cocktails to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, Faitakis has become a painter of today’s godless world, where morals seem to fluctuate with the financial markets that partly define them. Clear and easily decipherable motifs allow viewers to enter into his visual allegory. He forsakes academic high-mindedness for simple communication and storytelling—though the historical and theoretical influences are evident. “Art today is a luxury for the elite. It is concept-oriented and philosophical, which is not so bad in itself. But it’s done in a way that has become cold and strange for the people,” he once noted. “Good art can touch and affect human beings directly.” Socrates Drinks the Conium, a wall painting for Destroy Athens, the city’s first biennale in 2007, exemplifies this standpoint. Depicting riot police holding off angry city dwellers, businessmen being lynched, and build-
ings in flames, it has since become a prophetic image of the December 2008 Athens riots. In the middle of the biennale’s exhibition space, Faitakis' wall painting was an illustration of the Parthenon by Pablo Picasso, made in support of imprisoned communist Greek hero Manolis Glezos—a fine juxtaposition of past and present-day struggles, another running theme in Faitakis’ practice. In fact, dualism is a constant in his work, from the use of the heavenly style of Byzantine iconography to depict the anarchic and chaotic reality of urban hell, to Faitakis’ position between outside observer and active participant. Beginning as a graffiti artist under the tag Bizare One, Faitakis initially sprayed city walls with the likes of saints wearing gas masks. At the same time, he was producing canvases lathered in trademark gold as a student at the Athens School of Fine Arts. Freely crossing the lines between fine and street art, he acknowledges that “each world offered things that the other could not. Those things were supplementary and it was always fun to jump from one side of the river to the other. It gave me a freedom in seeing and dealing with things that I still enjoy today.”3
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His most recent exhibition at the Breeder Gallery in Athens shows a steady maturation, as Faitakis himself observes [September 17— October 17, 2009]. “My technique has developed from using strictly spray paint to the complex mix of materials I use today. The subject has remained the same—only more complicated. More things happen at the same time in a single picture, and the interaction has added levels of possible meaning. I used motifs as raw materials to speak about something much deeper, though I am not sure that I have achieved that yet,” he says. But the giant cockroach in Kakerlaken sind die Zukunft, 2009, the metropolis-like Babel, 2009, and the sweltering bodies melting over a concrete cityscape in Heat, 2009, tell a different story. He forces people to witness what is around them by magnifying aspects of Athens’ modern incarnation as a “global city,” deftly using the Byzantine style. Raising the everyday lives of common people to biblical proportions, he makes it difficult not to be moved. Faitakis once said that “‘Art’ helps us dig further into who and what we are, to observe the world around us, with all its beauty and ugliness, and in turn place ourselves within it.”4 Now, he seems to have realized that the world
needs much more than that. “Art can change individuals; I am pretty sure about that. On a social level, however, I cannot be sure. Positive changes require things other than art.”5 If anyone can understand the need for positive change, it would be a young person living in Greece today. “How can [things in Greece] not affect my work since I live here and most of my experiences come from this place? Though it can also be very disappointing when it comes to people, politics and such, the land is so beautiful—well, the parts of it that are not destroyed yet,” he says, echoing a view held by so many Greeks of his generation, which could easily resonate universally. “I only hope the land survives the people that occupy it at the moment,” he continues. “But this is a global and not strictly Greek issue.” Faitakis’ personal insights match the images he creates. One thing may well explain why his paintings are so effective: he is just as uncertain as the rest of us as to what could happen tomorrow. Yet despite the myriad reasons to be pessimistic, he continues to improve himself, his ideas, and his viewpoints. A glimmer of hope shines as brightly in his emailed answers as in his gilded canvases—that’s the human part right there.
NOTES 1. The following quotes are taken from the author’s email interview with the artist, October 2009. 2. The following quotes are taken from the author’s email interview with the artist, November 2006. 3. The subsequent quotes are taken from the author’s email interview with the artist, October 2009. 4. Author’s email interview with the artist, November 2006. 5. The subsequent quotes are taken from the author’s email interview with the artist, October 2009.
Originally from Hong Kong, Stephanie Bailey has been living in Athens for three years. She is a lecturer in Art History and Theory and the Arts Editor of Athens Insider. She also contributes to Odyssey. In addition, her texts have been published in Athens News, Foto8.com, Adbusters, Another Late Night, and Mercy.
OPPOSITE + ABOVE, TOP: views of ...to a blessed land of new promise, 2009, at The Breeder, Athens; OPPOSITE, BOTTOM, LEFT TO RIGHT: Untitled, 2009, mixed media on wood panel, 125 x 125 cm; Untitled, 2009, mixed media on canvas, 240 x 190 cm
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