Locations of Gaze
Misal Adnan Yıldız
on the occasion of the exhibition hypersurfacing curated by Marina Christodoulidou at NiMAC, Nicosia, Cyprus
First, I came across some recent news about Turkey’s unauthorized gas drilling in Cypriot waters on my feed. Then, a few friends around me started to talk about the new urban development project proposed for Varosha in Famagusta, Cyprus—a ghost town under the control of Turkish military. This abandoned suburb was a popular tourism destination before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and attracted Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others, in its good old days. After seeing some photos of this “no man’s land” I actually thought of my uncle, who has recently passed away. He was the first person I knew with a tattoo, and it was a hand drawn map of Cyprus which he got after he served in the Turkish Army during the invasion.
Much later, I read that water wells were discovered by archaeologists in western Cyprus, and they are believed to be the oldest in the world, from 9,000 to 10,500 years old(1). This fascinated me just as much as imagining this land as the birthplace of Aphrodite and Adonis. Water means are so urgent and vital for human survival; we know that literary evidence suggests an early Phoenician presence at Kition which was under Tyrian rule at the beginning of the tenth century BC(2). Since the very beginning of human history on the planet, Cyprus has been suffering from invasions, interventions, and military occupations; the island—with an amazing landscape, generous resources, and a mystical aura, has been one of the earliest victims of colonialism. It is definitely not a coincidence that Limassol-born Cypriot artist Stelios Kallinikou’s lens-based practice has been influenced not only by the history of the island, but also by the politics of this specific location.
I remember myself standing in front of a powerful image at the solo exhibition that Kallinikou presented this year at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, concluding his residency there. Among other strong works based on experimenting with surveillance, landscape, and the politics of image, this photographic image entitled Radar Station (2018) portrays a starry sky mesmerizing us with the feeling of breathing into the infinity of the universe. The moment captured here poetically reflects the perfection of the composition of the cosmos. While this romantic atmosphere creates such an illusion, the twin white spheres bring up a critical question about how our sky has been globally controlled, monitored, and scanned. Kallinikou took this photo at the highest point of the island which also hosts the oldest British military base on the island—there since 1878. It is called Troodos.
This is not the only work the artist has produced on this site. Star Gaze (2019) series is based on experimenting with the physicality of the location, the conditions of the surrounding area, as well as the impact of the environment on our perception of land, space, and gaze. Working with a camera on a snowy day, the artist found himself once again on top of the island. Kallinikou’s lenses were attempting to encapsulate the limits of the sky while he was breathing. During the process, he noticed subtle remarks of his breathing on the screen of his digital camera, and kept on doing what he was doing.
This element of performative research does not only make the presence of the photographer visible, but also adds another layer to the work. The highest point of the island seems like an artist’s studio. And the artist is no different from the scientist in that he too develops a learning process through an accident of work in progress. I saw these prints carefully installed on another island (Anafi) this summer. Kallinikou presented them as part of this year’s edition of the Phenomenon exhibition in a classroom at the local elementary school. The venue served as a natural setting where one could see these works uncovering their close relationships with science, art, and education while further posing questions about how we reproduce knowledge across generations. Looking at them reminds me of how images from astronomy books for kids, visits to science museums, or losing oneself in encyclopedias can introduce us to outer spaces with categorized forms of distance, perception of space and gaze.
In both cases, thinking together with Radar Station and also the Star Gaze series inevitably alludes to a frequent reference: “The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight . . . It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, ‘hanging in the void,’ shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The experience often transforms astronauts’ perspective on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe. Some common aspects of it are feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.” (3)
Apart from the planetary awareness gained through watching the Earth as a blue dot while floating in the void of space, there is another critical form of consciousness that appears in the Star Gaze series. Kallinikou’s commentary—a remainder of his breathing act on the photographic surface—expressly integrates with the colors, dots, and texture of the image in ways which portray the presence of the soul and the mind of the photographer. It can be seen as an introspective aspect of contemporary photography.
The overview effect, which is the cognitive experience of seeing the Earth from and in space, challenges human perspectives about political, cultural, social, and environmental issues based on shifting the position of the human beings as the center of the planet. The position for this perceptual experience is based on the necessity of a critical distance between the human being and the planet, whereas Kallinikou proposes to hide the presence of a/the photographer in the depiction of space, just like bodily movements, faces, and gestures are painted in Francis Bacon’s portraits.
An earlier project by Kallinikou, The Flamingo Theatre (2015) becomes relevant within this point of reference. At a beach located within the British Western Sovereign Base Area, the artist once again looked at the connection between the landscape, the environment, and nature through questioning surveillance. The location is known not only as a holiday destination but also as a military base neighboring the Akrotiri salt lake. The lake seasonally hosts different types of birds, including flamingos, that stop over every year during their migration between Africa and Europe.
As Kallinikou was aware of the rules and regulations in the area, including the prohibitions for photographing the landscape around the military base, he always worked with a spare memory card where he saved his photos of these flying waders. His experience of observing the location with a critical gaze also inspired him for another body of work, the Over the horizon series (2018), where pilots, parachuters, and antennas are depicted by Kallinikou’s lenses like flamingos. Camouflaging himself as a nature photographer, he documented the coexistence of two different forms of mobility and movement in the location: the ongoing traffic of birds juxtaposed alongside military aircraft, gadgets and vehicles. This link could be extended to how he repositions the castles of Byzantine heritage as ancient forms of ‘drones’ in his works [View 1-6 (2018)], which is part of the Over the horizon series (2018).
Today, the objective seems to be a shift from a way of thinking that wants us, humans, seeing ourselves as separate from nature, to one where we acknowledge our existence as an integral part of nature. “The ecological thought” involves thinking about interconnectedness. Thinking the ecological thought is part of an ecological project (4). Beyond observations and interventions referring to the environmental crisis, climate change, and geomorphism, the ecological project also has a more positive dimension in the sense of reconfiguring our relationship to our complex habitat, which we used to call nature. Yet, a change of perspectives is fundamental: What would a geo-centered subject look like?(5)How would interconnectedness become a paradigm? How would these shifts in our perspectives influence our imagination and or understanding of our existence, and also forms of creativity, innovative thinking, and expression? These set of questions might be reformulated through another image by Kallinikou; a baby mouflon staring at the viewer in a forest. The silver grey, foggy and magical -almost otherworldly- atmosphere of the photographic image stages the baby animal as an actor, an agent and a protagonist of the Anthropocene. Considering that the mouflon, also called agrino, is the national symbol of Cyprus, what does this decision of the artist to show an offspring tell us in relation to another big question:
- Who owns the land?
(1)“Stone Age wells found in Cyprus” BBC News, (website) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8118318.stm (accessed December 28, 2019).
(2)Hadjisavvas, Sophocles, The Phoenician Period Necropolis of Kition, Volume I. (Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, 2013), p.1.
(3)“The Overview Effect”, The Overview Institute of Australia (website) https://www.overviewinstituteaustralia.org/the-overview-effect (accessed December 5, 2019).
(4) Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), p.7.
(5)Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (polity, 2013), p. 4.