Cesare Pietroiusti interviews Miltos Manetas | Part I

At a certain point, you decided to paint portraits of Julian Assange. One a day, or so. When did you start? Why Assange? Why oil paintings?

23 February 2020. Yanis Varoufakis and several comrades from Diem25 are in London. Along with Brian Eno, Roger Waters, Vivienne Westwood, Zižek and others, they are trying to draw media attention to the Assange case. It's not easy; not many people are interested in the condition of a man who has spent the last 8 years "locked up". However, only a few days later, Assange's condition resembles the condition we will all find ourselves living in, something that we could never have imagined...
I feel lucky here in Colombia as I'm free to come and go to my studio in the Páramo whenever I feel like it, but I feel that I also have to do something for Assange. I’m reminded of Diogenes who, in the middle of a war, rolled his barrel through the streets, trying to contribute to the common cause of peace. I start to paint a portrait of Assange. Faces aren’t my strong point, and Assange has a rather difficult physiognomy, but the painting comes out well enough. Then I ask myself: what do I do with this painting? Sending it to my gallery for sale doesn’t seem "politically correct" to me. So I put it on Instagram and see if anyone wants to have it for free... and I immediately receive many requests! I give the portrait to the first person who asked for it, and make a second portrait right away. Same story: I discover that a lot of people want a portrait of Julian Assange. I do a quick search on the Internet. He was kidnapped on April 11, 2019, but his saga began eight years before that, when he was in self-imposed isolation in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – as a precaution, more or less like us now. In Assange’s case, he was trying to escape the revenge of the U.S. government; but his long quarantine wasn't enough to save him from that "virus". Now he is in mortal danger, and international law – which could save him – is powerless: his detention is in fact illegal, as are his arrest and his possible extradition to the United States, where he risks the death penalty.
At first, perhaps, I plunged into this project in order to "help" Assange; now, with the current epidemic, the terms of the matter have changed. The fact remains that I’ve decided to paint a portrait of Assange for every day he spends in prison. And, of course, to give them all away to other people.

The portraits are published on your Instagram account and the first person who "likes" them becomes the owner of that day's portrait. What's behind this mechanism? Is it to offer support to someone who’s being persecuted? An experiment in the use of social media? A validation of giving as a critique of the art market?

The portrait does not go to the first person who "likes" it, but to the first person who states explicitly: "I want this painting". If there is a gift involved, I am also the one receiving it because, if no one wanted the painting, the project wouldn’t exist, and I would probably have stopped painting Assange. Looking back at the reasons that led me to begin this project, I think that I was initially trying to establish some form of "relationship" with Assange. In a way, this relationship became apparent when I saw that so many people were excited to receive his portraits: somehow, I felt that he was becoming part of my "struggle" as an artist, and I was becoming part of his struggle, even though they are very different.
On the subject of social media, I would say that, ever since they have become part of our lives, they are my studio – everything I do passes through them. There was no desire to criticise the art market; rather, I felt the need, practical but also psychological, for someone to acquire these portraits immediately, just as soon as they were finished. Receiving money wasn’t important, nor was I interested in the buyer's profile. I had to feel like I was giving them to someone. And that was how I came to the idea of the free offer.

"The Assange Condition" at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni is an exhibition that is deliberately made to not be visited. It seems to me that some of the usual paradigms of the very concept of the exhibition, of the status of the public, and also of the function of the museum as institution, are overturned. This exhibition is made up of paintings that, though conceived to be immediately donated to others, still remain your works. As an artist, how do you feel about offering them up for an operation that appears to be based on renunciation, sacrifice, impossibility? Or should we consider your portraits of Assange not as veritable works in themselves, but as pretexts to talk about something else?

For me, the reason why these works cannot be seen in real life is not because the museum is closed, but because Assange has been living, for years now, in the condition of someone who has been kidnapped: you cannot see him in person – even though you can see countless photos and videos of him. In fact, we’ve decided that if by any chance his case is resolved while the exhibition is in progress, we will open "The Assange Condition" to the public as soon as possible – whether it be for a month, a day, an hour, it doesn't matter! This “resolution” could happen: they want him dead and have left him in a prison rife with COVID-19. On the other hand, it is also possible that international law will eventually be upheld and Assange will be released – let's hope so! No, the works are real paintings for me and not pretexts to talk about something else. Ultimately, for me the exhibition is NOT closed to the public: the show is taking place in an important institution, which like all institutions today – like all of us too, perhaps – is split between its physical existence and its media existence. This is why the publicity outside the museum is so important – to "prove" that the exhibition is indeed taking place, even if it can be seen exclusively in photographs and films, on the internet and in reports. As an artist, then, I do not feel I am making a sacrifice; on the contrary, I am grateful for the regulations against the epidemic that have led the museum to close, so the concept of the exhibition becomes even more intriguing.

Many people find that considering Assange a victim, or passing him off as one, is a simplification of a very complex reality. His controversial figure provokes ambivalent considerations and feelings. Is this perhaps also "The Assange Condition"? The difficulty to distinguish, clearly and once and for all, good from evil, right from wrong?

Of course, Assange is not Jesus Christ: no one ever accused Jesus of crimes against other people. Like Christ, though, and more than any other famous person, Assange "toiled" for his cross, and then made it as heavy as possible, and impossible to put down. What drives a creative spirit to do this? Why get into so much trouble? That's the question I ask myself every time I begin a portrait. So far, the answer I've come up with is that Assange – somehow like Christ – received information and decided to pass it onto others, instead of keeping silent. It's funny, they both got into the business of Revelation... Painting is also a kind of revelation. When you paint, things or "data" appear and you feel you’ve been entrusted to bring them to light. You could stop but you don't, and then you have to face the consequences.

It seems to me that this condition also highlights the paradox of (until recently, at least) such large-scale media exposure, together with the impossibility – carefully enforced, especially by the British and Americans – of self-expression and communication, of sharing motives with others. Everyone is talking about you, but no one allows you to speak. You are bombarded by the media, while having no platform in public discourse. Perhaps, something of the "Assange Condition" is shared by many people, even beyond the Covid-19 quarantine. What do you think?

The #AssangePower project is entirely my own work, whereas this exhibition, "The Assange Condition", is a collective project.
The show is a collaboration between me and all the people involved – from Assange himself, to judge Vanessa Baraitser who is holding him, kidnapped, to the photographer who took the photo I use to paint Assange’s portrait, to the collector who acquires the painting, to you, the team at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, to the courier who will take the works from Colombia to Rome, and to all the people who will share images of the exhibition on social media.
It's a group self-portrait, about those of us who are locked up and trying to look into the future, as well as all those very many people who don't have the luxury of a home to lock themselves up in and who can’t see beyond the immediate, cruel present.

Rome and Bogota, 30 April 2020.

Translated by Sean Mark