Step firmly onto the earth, young man…
A reflection on Stelios Kallinikou’s photographs at Point Centre for Contemporary Art
There is something highly amusing in the spectacle of tourists descending from their air-conditioned busses into the scorching summer heat, to stand befuddled in front of Famagusta Gate, which at mid-day is shunned even by “mad dogs…” This is a scene I have witnessed a number of times, and here I am reminded of it again as I watch visitors file in front of Stelios Kallinikou’s exhibition entitled, Where are You Going Young Man, Handsome Like a Legend, 2016-2017, at Point Centre for Contemporary Art, Nicosia. I would be hard pressed to articulate a rational connection between these two scenes, but as I observe gallery attendees scrutinize Kallinikou’s landscape photographs, I catch something of the tourists’ confused expressions as they gawk at the sun-drenched façade of the Venetian gate, in the hope that it may divulge something of its exotic past. Kallinikou’s photographs of wooded scenes are themselves defiant, resisting any obvious signification, yet they are key to this exhibition and in my mind possibly the most challenging work that he has produced to date.
According to the artist, the initial inspiration for this project was the idea of photographing the E.O.K.A (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) hideouts (krisfigeta), which many Greek Cypriots today regard as national monuments. And yet the exhibition does not begin with these photographs; Kallinikou first shows us his landscapes, which were taken in and around the forested areas where these hideouts are located. The viewing order of the exhibition reveals an intention at play set by the artist himself, and this is worth considering because I believe it underpins the substance of this exhibition.
Needless to say Kallinikou’s landscapes offer no sweeping views of Cyprus; but they also signal a departure from earlier work such as Flamingo Theatre 2016, where he explored narratives of a place by photographing surface details, coastal scenes, people, architectural structures and nature in ways that stylistically parodied snapshot photography, new topography and even amateur wildlife photography. This earlier project offered a discursive insider’s view of Lady’s Mile, a 5km coastal stretch of largely undeveloped flat land that runs along the east coast of the Akrotiri peninsula in Limassol, Cyprus. Purportedly the beach took its name from the mare of the governor, who during British rule, used to ride along the beach. This and other narratives that have shaped the identity of this place are brought together in a volume entitled, Flamingo Theatre, and they coexist thematically and stylistically, sometimes in contrast to each. Included in the opening pages of the book is a symbolic reference to the artist’s own narrative presence, courtesy of a double-page spread featuring his worn out boots.
In his present exhibition at Point Centre for Contemporary Art, that sense of self-preferentiality gains maturity and an intelligence of vision that informs his approach to photography and extends beyond the symbolic. What we no longer see in these photographs is photos that seem to report back those offbeat cultural narratives that reside within the contemporary Cypriot landscape, as if from a viewpoint of an independent witness. Instead, Kallinikou here presents us with the physicality of being located as a complex proposition. His landscape photographs direct the viewer to a temporal and spatial dialogue that reflexively ties him as an artist to a locality. Place, identity and belonging assume ontological gravitas in his current work, as he gestures to a process of negotiation between an embodied and imbedded body, in the present, who is reflectively finding ways for his photographic narratives to unfold back into the question of place.
Knowing of Kallinikou’s educational background in archeology, it is not surprising to find him involved in unearthing new narratives that can be orientated towards the becoming of place. This is a departure from the documentary school of photography and that idea of the photograph as cultural record that preserves the past. Rather, his approach signifies a consciousness of the performativity of his own-practice, which I think begins to take form through his landscape photographs. Perusing the exhibition it becomes apparent that these scenes of forested greenery emerge out of a perceptual way of working that is not confined to any strict dichotomy between subject and object, nature and culture, individual and community and an exterior or an interior condition. These elements exist dynamically as narratives that are constantly in flux and slip into each other in the way of lived relations. Kallinikou’s artistry in this exhibition is to sensitively maneuver through such narrative- tensions whilst maintaining the integrity of subjective experience even when faced with “we” cultural narratives of belonging that are rooted in the folklore of heroism and patriotism.
Even more, it seems as though he wants to transfer that tension of negotiation to the viewer and it is that intent that has determined the exhibition layout. The photographs in this space are arranged into a kind of cyclorama of forested scenes. The effect is that the viewer is at once literally surrounded by the object of their attention, whilst at the same time, standing before any particular photograph they are obliged to negotiate a way into the opacity of the image. Indeed, those of Kallinikou’s photographs that are most successful, and therefore most challenging, are those where the shrub and foliage grow into his frame to form shallow, impenetrable flat planes that keep the viewer at bay and out of the picture. This tactic reflects something of the agency of the artist, insofar as the work demands the viewer to look differently at photographs, in a way that involves the whole body in the process of seeing.
His krisfigeta photographs, which we proceed to the upstairs gallery to view, do not perform in the same way. Here a more documentary approach is at play, although the curatorial arrangement of the exhibition helps to distance these images from their obvious nationalist connotations and from being seen as mere elegant recordings of national historical monuments. The result is that in these crafted images of foxholes dug deep into the precipices of mountains, in woodlands or in arid fields, large enough for as many as seven men to be concealed by the earth, direct us to something more visceral and to an inextricable connection between the body as flesh and the fleshiness of the earth.
The artist’s intentionality in directing us towards this primal image becomes apparent, and is at its most poignant, in a small photograph, which does not share the monumentality and craftsmanship of composition of the surrounding prints. The photograph is of a flat top-down view of a piece of toiled arid earth bleached of colour by the intensity of the sun. Set almost in the center of the frame is a dark hole, cut perpendicularly deep into the ground. Lacking the basic stone architectural construction that characterizes the entrance of the other hideouts, this particular photograph could easily be taken to depict the burrowing of a wild animal. The inclusion of this image in the exhibition, understatedly but effectively draws attention away from the obvious political signification of these structures towards something more mythological and archeologically proto-human that seems to connect something primordial to the present by way of the body’s connection with the earth.
The depth of the exhibition owes much to these undercurrents of introspection that run throughout Kallinikou’s work. He presents us not simply with hovering narratives but with self-absorbing dialogues, which grow out of the process of photographing, and offer an approach to photography as a spatially performative act that intimately connects the becoming of place to the artist’s own becoming through a photographic way of looking.
In conversation with the artist, he noted that during his university years one of his lecturers would at times critically comment on his failure to capture a particular scene because he had not stepped firmly onto the ground. Stepping firmly on the ground is a good metaphor for an approach to photography as a living practice - even muted walls shed their silence if one stands firmly before them, patiently and with purpose. Kallinkou’s achievement in this exhibition results from that persistence of being mindful of the entire body finding solidity underfoot*.
*Frédéric Gros. A Philosophy of Walking, Verso, London: 2014