A "Different" Angelus Novus

Caterina Pizanias

Voies Lactées. PalimpsestesVoies Lactées. Palimpsestes
":Engel:Engel" was a large scale exhibit that took place at the Kunsthalle of Vienna between June 11 and September 7, 1997. Participating in it - along with Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Christian Boltanski, Gary Hill, Gilbert and George, and other major international artists - were Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki with a photographic piece from their Angel Cycle. The purpose of the ":Engel:Engel" exhibit was the investigation in art and literature of the concept of the Angel, particularly as proposed in Angueliki Garidi’s work Les Anges du Désir (Paris, Albin Michel, 1996), that is, as an "open" concept which allows one to examine basic existential questions.

Examining basic existential questions, while in the process dismantling binarisms of heterocentric patriarchy such as culture/nature, representation/reality and most of all, male/female, has been the core and connecting thread of the work of this collaborative duo during the last years. They began working on The Angel Cycle in the mid-nineteen eighties as a means to pry open taboos surrounding intersexuality. This Cycle includes by now a vast number of works in different media - photography, multi-media installations and performances, texts, sound, computer animation - works that have been exhibited internationally. 

The Angel Cycle has its beginnings in a clinical photograph of a congenital hermaphrodite found in the archives of Klonaris’ father - a gynecological surgeon. The timeliness of this project cannot be over-looked: it comes at a socio-historical moment when trying on/trying out new sites/sights for/of sex, gender and physicality have acquired center stage in art and everyday life alike. Seen from the social context of the present, the "Angel" provides opportunities to escape the stronghold/authority of naturalized heterocentric patriarchy. One of the enduring strengths of Klonaris’ and Thomadaki’s long artistic career has been their timeliness/political acumen, which results from a combination of a provocative (critical) inter-weaving of the autobiographical elements/desires of their work with the (still underground when they first engaged with) discourses of the last quarter of this century - feminist/queer/transgender/intersexual. The "Angel" is no exception. It is meant to unsettle gendered (male-sourced and rational) knowledge and it is offered as a counter discourse to the patriarchical discourse of sexual polarity. 
The "original" photograph shows the double-sexed body of a proud blindfolded person, emanating a strong feminine energy from within an extremely androgynous posture. Neither the posture nor the energy has been lost, even after the many photographic manipulations by Klonaris and Thomadaki. The anonymous hermaphrodite’s photograph having first been confiscated from the medical archives, has ever since been multiplied/appropriated/manipulated, becoming a forever deferred image of someone already seen, until s/he became their angel - touched in adoration by earthly hands, a free floating ethereal archetype in the constellation of stars.

In texts/interviews/discussions of the Cycle, the artists have stated a number of times that they were drawn to the archival photograph which was to become their angel as a result of their familiarity with the angels of byzantine iconography. This familiarity is most evident in the visual (rhetorical) structure of the angel: the superhuman size, the wings, the averted (blind-folded) gaze, the occasional appearance of colouring in ultra-violet or pale yellow light, the weightless travel through the stars. And, as is usually the case, they do not want the viewer to become easily "familiar" with their work; they achieve distance through the use of multiple/overlaying photo-imaging technologies. I have spent many hours looking at their angel and have yet to become familiar with him/her, even though I too have grown amidst the plethora of byzantine angels. Their constant renewal of technological apparatuses opens this cycle (as the previous ones) to many levels of entry/meaning, all of which prohibit a reductionist understanding of their work. Klonaris’ and Thomadaki’s aim appears to have always been the deconstruction rather than the solidification of binarisms - their angel slips through so many boundaries, expanding available discourses, and in the process initiates critical self-reflections. 

Examined from the sociohistorical context of the present, this angel offers opportunities to escape the authority of both heterocentric patriarchy and eurocentric aesthetic. As an object of visual exploration it succeeds by combining elements not only from byzantine iconography but also from other areas - earlier (minoan), later (renaissance), and far eastern (japanese theater). As an object of epistemological investigation this angel seeks to upset the classification systems - set in motion during the eighteenth century in western Europe [1] - those that naturalized the two-sex human model and excluded all "others" as different/odd/deviant. This angel, marked as "different", and blindfolded - to protect, I wonder, the angel from his/her own indeterminacy, or the archive’s keeper from the "truth" of the angel’s soul? - was found/appropriated by Klonaris and Thomadaki to be offered to us now as a test fantasy at the moment, at least, of the "ungraspable". As an object of political investigation and revolutionary praxis, this angel is a utopian offering, a liberating vehicle setting out on a voyage of discovery of new systems of sexual representation and narrative desire, systems of non-fixed biology and non-male sources of empowerment. It is a remarkable achievement, and another milestone in Maria Klonaris’ and Katerina Thomadaki’s artistic career. 
Caterina Pizanias
Fall 1997

[1] For relevant historical reading see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990
All photos by Klonaris/Thomadaki unless otherwise stated
Photos: Voies Lactées. Palimpsestes

Le Cycle de l'Ange (1985-2013) homepage
The Angel Cycle

Photos: copyright Maria Klonaris/Katerina Thomadaki. 
Texts copyright: the writers