oksana barshinova [art critics's text]

The new project, “Labyrinth”, by Michael Murphenko showing at the Tsekh Gallery, combines installation, performance art, video and drawings. It gives the viewer the opportunity for a unique experience of being inside the work of art, looking at the artworks and the other visitors inside from a distance, and later combining these two perspectives to re-experience oneself as creator, artwork, and spectator, all at the same time.

For this reason, a model of a labyrinth was constructed in the Tsekh Gallery. It is a labyrinth in the original sense – not a system of misleading branching passages, but a single route, where the person doesn’t face the problem of choosing a path. The entrance into the labyrinth is the beginning of the path. It will lead to the center eventually, but before that the person must follow a certain way to pass through the whole labyrinth. When one reaches the center, the only thing left to do is go back to the exit the same way one came in. Such is the structure of a traditional labyrinth. Although Murphenko’s installation has a minor deviation from that structure – the Tsekh Labyrinth has two exits (entrances) instead of one and the journey doesn’t end once the labyrinth has been walked through. The visitor can go up the stairs to the balcony and look at the labyrinth from above, ascending to the level of a demiurge.

In cultural tradition, a labyrinth is associated with initiation, the acquisition of new qualities and transformation. In a broad sense, a labyrinth is a metaphor for one’s path in life, and the search for one’s true self. It is also seen as a symbol of growing up, maturation, during which a person that existed in a single dimension evolves and becomes an integrated and many-sided personality, who is able to find their purpose in life.

When reaching the center, one is left completely alone, face-to-face with oneself, with the Divine Principle, or something else that can denote “the center”. In any case,, the center is a place where a person can find something vital and significant. The person leaving a labyrinth is different from the one entering it. This person has been reborn for a new stage, a new level of existence. It is in the center of a labyrinth where death and rebirth take place.

In the “Labyrinth” project, the center is represented by a black cubic column, which signifies a stop in movement, a threshold, a core, where the meanings are revealed. The movement towards the meaning (i.e. the journey along the labyrinth’s passages) has to create a feeling of aloofness, a departure from the normal way of things. The participants are drawn into the performance, they become a part of this work of art, they transform it, and, at the same time, their movement creates the invisible thread of Ariadne in the labyrinth. The question of interaction between time and space occupies Murphenko’s attention. The author establishes and dictates to the viewers his will, his intention, the path, the order, in which the visual material must be perceived. The viewer can’t avoid the imposed path, so they must spend as much time as the author intends. The space, in which the viewers can move, is restricted and doesn’t let them stray from the intended route, therefore, the viewers physically experience it and can contemplate their corporality. The author also focuses his attention on the balance between personal and social, the marginal state of losing one’s own self and being absorbed by common cultural symbols.

Four videos that are shown on four screens represent the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. Placed outside the labyrinth, just in front of the entrances, these videos establish the principal themes that concern transformation of a person, melting and fusion in the melting pot of experience. They contain alchemic allusions that have profound use inside the installation.

The “Labyrinth” consists of black and white areas. This principle of contrast is continued and emphasized in drawings. Distinctive signs, reference points, of sorts, await the participants inside Murphenko’s installation. These are small circular-shaped drawings with symbolic motives, characteristic of the artist. They are made of ink on hand-made paper, and they can be found only on the black walls. The main theme is alchemic transformation. This is reflected in the drawings’ names (“The Nine Stages of Love”, “The Winged Lioness”, “The Martyrdom of Quicksilver”, “The Melting Process”, “The Death of a King”, “The Philosophical Chicken”, “The Divine Child”, etc.)

The artist’s text runs along the white walls of the labyrinth. It tells about dreams, visions, and vague feelings that are familiar to everyone, despite being very personal, and are related to the fundamental natural elements. The text facilitates a meditative state, and is also a metaphor for the thread of Ariadne, which serves not to lead out of the labyrinth, but rather to connect different layers of meaning that can be found in the different art works within the installation.

In Murphenko’s "Labyrinth” there is a tangible connection to a variety of art traditions, specifically minimalism. It shows itself in operating with basic, elementary shapes, the development of the relations between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms, ways of their location, the subordination and coordination in accordance with scale, proportions and rhythm.  The labyrinth becomes the creation independent of the existing environment, which is developing according to its own laws; it's a kind of a thing-in-itself. On the other hand, the labyrinth sends us back to the tradition of constructivist architecture (where minimalism originated) with its social function, with its aim of space organisation of human streams in the centre of the city, with its wish to control and direct human beings. Apart from everything else, minimalism is characterised by symbolism, which is also very important for the understanding of Murphenko’s project.

The artistic revision of minimalism is combined with romantic and symbolist trends in Murphenko’s works, as the artist is traditionally sensitive to them. The “Labyrinth” installation is the opportunity to reveal the subconscious impulses of various types, to discover the universal categories of being, which open up to people only in extreme, limiting situations. That is why the labyrinth, regardless its seeming rationality and order, proves to be an antipode to the technocratic world and the myth of the total functionality and general logic. Today it is acquiring a new symbolic meaning: it demonstrates the world not the clear path of scientific and technical progress, but the mysterious and incomprehensible world -full of surprises.

In this respect, the project is a natural result in the creative work of Michael Murphenko, distinguished by a very gradual development of the main theme of biomorphness, naturalness of existence, of the necessity of finding one's own self. The ideas of mysticism, which cross the restrictions of some of the confessions and religious traditions, allow us to find our own symbols, which acquire universal character and become the signs of the artistic language understandable to everyone.

In particular, the four elements in video art send us back to Murphenko’s favourite English painter of the end of the XVIII – the beginning of the XIX century, William Blake. Blake believed that every person had four forces (he called them Zoas) “four eternal feelings of a man”: reason, feelings, intuition, and senses. As a matter of fact, Murphenko’s project appeals to all of these forces, the synthetic character of which is connected to the idea of the recreation of human integrity. Besides, the visionary character of the romantic artist’s creative work has left its trace on Murphenko’s drawings as well. The round shapes of paper sheets, the airiness of the strokes and the incomplete arrangement of the image remind of the impossibility of revealing the meaning of creation, of the mystery from which every creative work emergences.

The labyrinth is a living symbol which tends to avoid obvious, unambiguous conclusions and statements. Its various interpretations also refer to organic forms (the brain or the abdominal cavity), which is connected with the prenatal experience. The problem of new birth, rooted in the primary purpose of the labyrinths, is very important in Murphenko’s work. The labyrinth in the Tsekh Gallery is the visual embodiment of meditations on the search for the form in the course of creative activity, the material implementation of a creative idea. This aspect becomes especially prominent when looking at it from above.

By identifying itself with utopia, the labyrinth comments on the art’s attempts to become a substitute for religion, science and philosophy, to make art the deposit of the vital energy. The longing for to break free from the illusory space of painting, exiting into the three-dimensional space (in which Murphenko suggests finding the possibility of the fourth dimension – the spiritual one), and into the world of geometric shapes, now looks like a peculiar theatricality expressed through a shift of focus  from the form to the direct experience, per se.

Oksana Barshynova, Art historian, Kyiv, May 2011