With the four-day event Why I Am the Way I Am at Galerie Joyce Yahouda, Nicolas Mavrikakis tried his hand for the first time at creating a work of art. Well established and respected as an art critic, and more recently as a curator, Mavrikakis took a sizeable risk by crossing the line from art reviewer to art creator. And if that wasn’t enough, the main ingredient of the piece was the artist’s own mother.
Why I Am the Way I Am was a mix of performance, audience participation, installation, and sound art. For three days Mavrikakis’ mother spent her afternoons at Joyce Yahouda Gallery and made herself available for 15-minute interviews with members of the general public. One of the gallery’s exhibition spaces was arranged to resemble a living room, with a period straight-backed sofa and matching armchair set up on a large Persian rug, complemented by an elegant side table laden with a China tea service and wine glasses. Madame Mavrikakis, a stylish Parisian lady of 87, sat on the sofa on top of a plaid blanket, propped up with lush pillows, her toy-sized golden poodle on her lap and copies of Paris Match by her side.
I attended one of the interview sessions, slipping onto one of the three fold-up chairs set up facing Mme Mavrikakis. It felt a bit like one of those cocktail parties where you don’t know anyone, and everyone is trying their best to make polite conversation. A young man acted as moderator, filling the occasional awkward silence and steering the conversation along a roster of topics. They were sometimes personal, sometimes random. Mme Mavrikakis talked about her first husband, a Greek man who is the artist’s father, her profound dislike of gardening, and her love of designer clothes.
“This is a bit of psychoanalysis,” confessed the artist after the session. He was staying out of his mother’s ear shot and out of sight, so as not to influence her as she spoke about herself and her family. “On Saturday I will re-enact my mother’s interviews, and then she’s the one who is not allowed to attend.” He pointed to another sofa in the adjoining gallery space where he would be performing the next day. At this moment I realized that this was not just a sofa, but an analyst’s couch. Mavrikakis was allowing the public a glance into his psyche, something a traditional artist may do in a more circumspect, coded way. Why I Am the Way I Am was a voyage of discovery for gallery visitors as well as for the artist himself.
On Saturday, the last day of the exhibition, Mme Mavrikakis had fulfilled her obligations as a living artwork. The living room set-up in the gallery was still intact, but visiting hours were over. Instead a recording of the previous three days’s interviews were being screened on a large flat-screen TV, the sound turned low. The sessions had been documented by interdisciplinary artist Céline B. La Terreur, though whether the recordings will be transformed into another artwork is yet undecided.
While visitors watched the video they were treated to audio recordings made by Mavrikakis of the messages his mother leaves for him on his answering machine. They are not the usual pragmatic calls one leaves on a voice-mail, but rather an audio diary. Mme Mavrikakis chats about how she finally got rid of the ants in her house, about her hairdresser’s appointment the next day, about running into a friend, and always ends with an urgent invitation to her son to call back his dear mother. The recordings are punctuated by an indifferent female computer voice: “message effacé” (message deleted).
The culmination of the event was Mavrikakis’ re-enactment of his mother’s interviews. For two hours he sat on a large red sofa, talking to the young man who had acted as moderator the previous days.
It was a loving caricature of his mother. There was intermittent laughter from the audience as Mavrikakis mimicked the idiosyncrasies of an elderly lady who is a black-belt in delivering sugar-coated insults and an expert at paying herself compliments. In fact, he was so funny that he had a hard time staying in character, and I saw the moderator having to bite his lip to stop himself from cracking up. Mavrikakis’s version of his mother was blissfully unaware of political correctness, critical of race, education, and personal appearance. And at one point she made this pointed statement: “If I could do my life over again, I wouldn’t have children. I messed up my life.” Harsh words, especially from a son channelling his mother.
“This person is awful,” Joyce Yahouda whispered to me at the end of the event, “his mother is such a sweet lady.” Was this a fair portrait? Or was this a reflection of how Mavrikakis experiences his mother? Can we as children of our parents ever come to an objective assessment of their character? The laughter from the audience demonstrated how everyone was able to relate to the figure of the flawed parent, and connect to the love-hate relationships we have with our mothers. But can we, in an effort to understand ourselves better, investigate this dynamic through recordings, interviews, and role-play? It would be interesting to know what conclusions Mavrikakis drew from this exercise. It certainly made me think of the relationship with my own mother and the fingerprints my parents left on my soul.
My hope is that Mavrikakis and La Terreur create a follow-up piece with the recordings made during the event; I would look forward to seeing what else Nicolas Mavrikakis the artist comes up with.
Galerie Joyce Yahouda, space 516
Why I Am the Way I Am
June 20 – 23, 2012
Photos by Céline B. La Terreur