Maria Tsagkari — Flying too Close to the Sun

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I was driving in a rough mountainous area of Crete with the intention of installing an artwork on the peak of Psiloritis. It could have been Anogeia, Livadia, Zoniana, Axos or any of the villages I drove by on my way to the road’s end, when I came across the most bizarre landscape: a football court amongst the rocky slopes and the steep cliffs. It appeared like a mirage, or a photograph badly photoshopped into the reality of rural Crete. A rectangular patch of bright green in the sun-scorched flora of the area. What was even stranger was its flatness. “If this makes sense here, then so does a biennial” I thought. Of course, there are more ways to adapt an exhibition than a football court on a mountain.

The First and Last and Always Psiloritis Biennale (FLAPB)

The First and Last and Always Psiloritis Biennale is an ongoing curatorial experiment that started in 2017 and for which I collaborate with artists from every field for the realisation and documentation of artistic acts in the area of Psiloritis and especially on the path to the Timios Stavros summit. Up to now 9 episodes have been realized with the participation of 10 artists: Pantelis Chandris, Phoebe Giannisi, Katerina Katsifaraki, Panayiotis Loukas, Iris Lykourioti (A Whale’s Architects), Malvina Panagiotidi, Rena Papaspyrou, Efi Spyrou, Maria Tsagkari and Georgios Xenos. After the realisation of several projects in the course of 5 years, my initial concerns about curatorial self-sufficiency, audience, goats and video projections gradually diminished. I started being more concerned about bringing back a story that was enabled through the ephemeral installation of a work of art on a mountaintop, which was in turn facilitated by my quite unusual curatorial endeavour. To do this I used exhibition catalogues that I could design and produce by myself. This process resulted in a hybrid storytelling that merged the narrative of each specific artwork with that of the biennial, with Maria Tsagkari’s Flying too Close to the Sun as a vivid example.

Maria Tsagkari in front of her installation Heinrich Did It, 2016 at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST), photo by Anna Primou

…and there, a small little Icarus is drowning

Bob Ross, allegedly during copying Peter Bruegel the elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

“Landscape” is a term referring to a painting genre. Maybe in the recent past, it would have been impossible to experience a view of nature without several preconceptions deriving from painting, as a narrative unfolding from a single viewpoint depicted in a rectangular frame. Today similar preconceptions originating from art would also be at play, though a contemporary viewer would most likely experience landscape in cinematic terms: montage, pan, tilt and zoom. Maria Tsagkari’s work Flying too Close to the Sun is inspired by the Icarus myth and its multiple interpretations for creating her own variation. In this work, the myth is re-written as a cinematic scenario while it is illustrated through photographs which I shot during the ascent, wandering and descent of the Psiloritis mountain. The Icarus myth in classical literature appears as a short passage in Apollodorus’ Library, narrating how Daedalus warned Icarus to fly neither too low nor too high and how Icarus died after disregarding his father’s advice. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the story expands in size as it is rendered through the thoughts and feelings of its characters. Through subsequent literary references and artistic artistic renditions, Icarus is upgraded from an extra to the protagonist of his own story. Indeed, the myth has the dynamism of a primal narrative, opening up to a multitude of interpretations: the passage from youth to maturity, drunkenness from newly gained power, the importance of moderation, obedience, technological advancement, poetic justice. As mentioned by Jacques Lacarriere in his book Τα Φτερά του Ίκαρου [The wings of Icarus], this special attraction of the myth is correlated with the primordial desire to fly, ability which humans assumed was exclusive to birds and Gods. In addition, this myth is the first expression of the belief that humans can fly by technical means. In the same study, Lacarriere mentions: “The Icarus myth is the only Greek myth that never died, which occupies the fantasy of the western world since the end of antiquity to today”*.

For obtaining the photographs that she used for the work, Maria Tsagkari provided me with timed and dated sealed envelopes which I had to open on noted moments. Within the envelopes were directions, often with chance elements, which I had to follow. An example:

Saturday 26 June 2021 10:00 a.m. Within the folder you will find a small coin, toss it in the air, if it comes heads up, take a photograph of the first shape that you will see in your way that reminds you of a triangle, if it is tails place the lens cap on your lens and take a photograph.

Despite the chance elements, Maria Tsagkari guides the hiker/photographer/curator like a director guides the camera operator. She overlaid the resulting images with text, styled like movie subtitles, in order to compose 13 film stills of a movie that was not filmed. Those film stills re-create the myth through a cryptic love narrative between two unknown persons that never fully appear in the work. Like in Ovid’s narrative, which gloriously describes the view from the Aegean sky, or in the painted mysterious rendition of the myth by Peter Bruegel the Elder titled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in Tsagkari’s work the landscape attains a major role. In the history of cinema, landscapes are often the backdrop of love stories. Is it possible that in Flying too Close to the Sun, the landscape itself is in love?

Maria Tsagkari, Flying too Close to the Sun, 2021 Courtesy of the artist

Visual artist Maria Tsagkari is an awardee of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship by ARTWORKS (SNF ARTWORKS Fellow 2019).

Stamatis Schizakis, is an art historian and curator of Photography and New Media at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST). He was member of the selection committee of curating for the 3rd SNF Artist Fellowship Program.

* Jacques Lacarriere (1995) Τα φτερά του Ίκαρου [The wings of Icarus], Athens: Chatzinikoli Editions, p.108.