Interview for Urbanautica
by Georges Salameh
What was your first memory with photography? How did your interest start out? Tell us about your educational path. Did your studies impact on your narrative?
Stelios Kallinikou (SK): My studies in History and Archaeology are essentially the reason why I ended up being preoccupied with photography. During my studies I attended a class on Art History which had a tremendous impact on me. I immediately understood that there was something there that concerned me deeply. Photography is the most direct medium that I could pick up immediately. It was easily accessible and one doesn’t need special training in order to produce a photograph.
History and archaeology define my practice to a large extend. Even during the first years of my studies, I had trouble considering the two strictly as sciences. My outlook on historical narrative was always wider than that of the historical – scientific method. I understood history more abstractly, as a malleable material that takes form through images. My imagination had the tendency to impose itself on all the historical manuals I was reading. Even today I am having trouble reading because my mind gets stuck on words and paragraphs and very easily gets transported to other places. The relationship between history, archaeology and photography is naturally very strong. It is enough to keep in mind that when archaeologists discover something, the first thing they do probably is to photograph it. It is something like a baptism of fire!
Tell us more about your first exhibitions Within Narratives, Anthem… How did your research evolve with respect to those early days? How was it to start your photographing endeavours, in troubled economic times and crisis for Cyprus and Europe?
SK: The first group show I took part in was entitled Anthem and my first solo show had the title Within Narratives. Both exhibitions were curated by my dear friend and artist Polis Peslikas and took place in Penintaplinena Gallery in Limassol. Looking back at these exhibitions and juxtaposing the photographs with my current work, it is evident that the elements that make up my visual vocabulary remain almost the same. My interest in the natural world and phenomena (landscapes, flora and fauna) is already strong in these two shows. As my work has progressed, romanticism and impulsiveness gave some more way to thought and content. In the beginning, I was content with a good photograph; it offered me pleasure. From Flamingo Theatre onwards my practice has dwelled into more essential concerns. New elements entered my work at that point that are now at its core. Place and space, time and history as well as the meanings that arise at the crossings of these notions become conscious guiding lines upon which I unfold narratives, always in an ongoing dialogue with the act of seeing.
It is true that the artists of my generation operate in particularly harsh conditions. On a personal note, it suffices to say that my first solo exhibition took place more or less a month after the collapse of Cyprus’ banking system in 2013. As you can understand, the years that followed were especially difficult for a small country like Cyprus, where the infrastructure is poor. The budgets for the arts had been slashed and private initiatives were almost non-existent. Despite this fact, we managed to find the strength to stand on our own two feet and fight for things that we believe are of value. Within this context, not only did we not give up but we created project spaces that remain especially active and have fed the progress of the art scene of the country. Me alongside my very good friend and artist Peter Eramian have created the project space ‘Thkio Ppalies’, which hosts visual art exhibitions and sound installations.
How is your general research process for your projects? When you start a project you already have an idea of where you’re going, or do you let yourself be guided by experimentation, by the process itself?
SK: In every project I work on, there is usually the seed for the next one. In general, I like this continuation -when one thing leads to another. It feels like a natural progression. I think by doing and vice versa. There are periods when I am working on location and other periods when I am in the studio thinking, printing and editing the works. I like working on different projects at the same time. Having to find a balance between them and to seek solutions for problems that arise is a way of creating new challenges! Every project brings with it its own demands. Some demand speed and tension whilst others must be handled with a subtler approach; some surrender themselves easily to me and some insist on concerning me for years. As I already mentioned, every project I work on creates the conditions for the next one. In this way, action leads to an idea and the idea demands more action. I trust this rhythm, I feel that it leads me to a good place.
You where always based in Cyprus and your work has been exclusively produced within these National boundaries even if the titles of your work are mainly poetic. Why is that choice? When on your path, you first felt the need to start using Cyprus as the main character of your photographic narratives, tell us more about what you call "politics of the landscape”?
SK: Cyprus is my extended studio in a way. Just as in my studio I can find this or that book even when chaos reigns, it is the same with Cyprus. I know which street to follow in order to get to a particular spot but even when I am lost, I almost intuitively know how to find my bearings. There is a certain ease and understanding that stems from the experience of living in one place for a long time. From Flamingo Theatre onwards, the natural progression of my work is such that Cyprus offers the material that matches my artistic interests -both formal and conceptual. Essentially Cyprus acts as a stage upon which my narratives unfold – ones that start with a local element but aspire to converse with the universal. The titles are poetic because my intention is such. As far as the "politics of the landscape" are concerned, a lot of times when you come from a place like Cyprus, things tend to take an overtly political tone even when this is not exactly in one’s intentions. I will give you an example. After a long searching process, I spotted recently a rare endemic wildflower –the Cyprus tulip- in the village of Mammari and decided to go photograph it. At some point, soldiers of the United Nations appeared and asked me to leave, as I was at a part of the village that falls within the ‘dead zone’, a demilitarised zone which is controlled by the U.N.. I ended up showing them the photographs of the flowers in order to prove that I wasn’t doing anything illegal and in the hopes that they would let me continue, but it proved impossible. They responded that they are aware that I am photographing the flowers, but nonetheless I am not allowed to be there. I view such situations as being imbued with a poetic element that is touching in a way. Because of this I thought of producing a series of works where I basically photograph the tulips until I am spotted and removed by the U.N.. In this manner the boundaries between photography and performance are blurred. History is engraved on the land and the landscape is the arena of our collective actions.
Flamingo Theatre and Local studies, portray landscapes in their magnificence, seen through meticulous and intuitive eyes and a spirit of non-identification with your homeland. Tell us more about those series.
SK: Flamingo Theatre (2014 –15) and Local Studies (2015-16) can be seen as the first works of a more mature period. They mark the moment when I place the historical and geopolitical implications of what ‘Cyprus’ means at the center of my interests. I will repeat though that despite this, the issues that concern me can only utilise the local element as a starting point, with the aim of confronting the universality of the human condition. This is the reason why the photographs from these projects are somewhat ‘neutral’ and escape the limits of ‘geography’ strictly understood. Descriptively, Flamingo Theatre deals with the relationship between the British sovereign military base and the natural habitat of the Akrotiri salt lake in Limassol, whilst Local Studies explores the topography and by extension the complexity that permeates the nature of the Cypriot identity, ignoring the division of the island, as this has been imposed by the ‘Green Line’.
Slowly your interest shifted from landscapes to inner-landscapes with Where are you going young man, handsome like a legend sinking into nature and earth itself even more with in Studies in Geology. Tell us more about those series and how or why eventually that happened.
SK: Gradually my work started to seek its center and to focus on the inside. I think this comes with experience and age. At 26, I was interested in wide frames, I was trying to fit the whole world in my photographs. Now, at 33, I have become more esoteric, I prefer looking inwards rather than outwards. In this way, I started to deal more with abstraction.
Where are you going young man, handsome like a legend was presented last year at Point Centre for Contemporary Art in Nicosia. It presents enigmatic natural landscapes, in which one can, sometimes with ease and sometimes with great effort, locate caves. I think of these caves as examples of primal architecture or as doors to other dimensions. In reality we are witnessing my efforts to locate and photograph the hideouts that were build and used by the guerrilla organisation EOKA between 1955-1959, during the fight against the British rule. Most of these caves are located in the Troodos mountains, and this fact was decisive for my next project.
Studies in Geology, presented at the FOAM museum in Amsterdam until the beginning of September, deals with the exciting geological heritage of Cyprus. Cyprus and the Troodos mountain range in particular, were created 90 million years ago through complicated geological processes at the bottom of an ancient ocean known as Tithys. In this first chapter of the project, I photograph the oldest copper mine in the country. Dated at around 600 B.C., it plays an important role in the history of the wider northern Mediterranean region with geological, environmental and archaeological importance, since it is part of Troodos ophiolite. Based on archaeological excavations, mining activity in Cyprus can be dated back to the 3rd century B.C. (the beginning of the Chalcolithic Period) and continued until the 20th Century.
Any mentor, teacher or anybody else that has had an impact on how you understand your work? Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in any way recently?
SK: Throughout the years, there were a lot of people with whom I shared the progress of my practice and in one way or another have played a part in shaping me as an artist. The photographic medium itself has taught and is teaching me a lot. It has taught me to observe and to move patiently around things and situations, to think and to seek solutions through experience and with my body. I give space and time to my work to educate me. Photography is growing on me.
Three books of photography that you recommend?
SK: 'Towards a philosophy of photography' by Vilém Flusser. 'The Nature of Photographs' by Stephen Shore. 'Camera Lucida' by Roland Barthes.
Do you have any motivation for how you wish your work to be perceived? How do you deal with the exhibition of your works? Tell us more about the exhibition Over the horizon and how your gesture translates into an exhibition space. Also is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?
SK: Every work is open to interpretation and I thus have no specific way in which I want my work to be understood. In any way, us artists have certain things in mind when we do things but when a work is displayed, it is freed from the confines of the mind of its creator. My work is complete when it is exhibited in a space. Exhibitions for me mark the natural completion of a project. I pay great attention to a photograph as an object that exists in space and that comes into contact with a viewer. I make sure that all prints remain true to the quality of my images and render them seductive. I am very interested in the installation of my work, as I want it to be made in such a way so as to entice the viewers to be active and inspire them to search for a solution to a riddle.
In the context of the program Drone Vision: Warfare, Surveillance and Protest (a collaboration between Hasselblad Centre (Sweden) NiMac (Cyprus) and Zahoor UI Akhlaq Gallery (National College of Arts, Lehore, Pakistan), I developed my project around the thematic of surveillance. The project expands upon my interest around issues that touch upon the history of my motherland and the nature and ontology of the photographic medium. The starting point of the project is the colonial past of the island. I climb to castles found in the Pentadaktylos mountains that were built by the Byzantines in 11th century, used by the Francs and destroyed by the Venetians. The position of authority is obtained by the body and the camera remains attached to the photographer, acting as an extension of the hand. From the top of the castles I cast my gaze in a manner similar to a guard during the middle ages, upon plains, mountain tops and seas. The difference is that I am not armed with a spear and an arrow but with a camera. In contrast, one of the fundamental characteristics of drone technology is the fact that they gain their position without having the limitations of the human body, and of course this has wide-ranging implications. At the same time I focus my attention on the HAARP surveillance equipment, located at the British sovereign bases in the areas of Akrotiri and Troodos. This equipment is prevalent in the Cypriot landscape as its colonial heritage, and create aerial webs for trapping information. These complicated mechanisms, whilst being geographically located in Cyprus, extend their operations to unknown lengths and breadths, defining new immaterial and abstract borders.
I recently saw two shows that I really liked. The first is Adhocracy Vol. I: Books and Tools, at PARTY Contemporary, an artist-run gallery in Nicosia, and the second is At Bikini Bottom, at The Island Club gallery in Limassol.
You told me that you are moving to Berlin? Any projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?
SK: Beginning in August 2018, I will take part in the artists residency program of Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. It is something for which I am very excited about. I can’t wait to see how my work will be impacted and how it will develop in this new context. In September, I will take part in a symposium at Hasselblad Foundation, as part of the program Drone Vision: Warfare, Surveillance and Protest.