Text by curator Kim Knoppers
Foam Museum, Amsterdam
Last March The Guardian described Turkey’s President Erdogan once again flexing his muscles over Cyprus. Turkish warships were on their way to the island to prevent any drilling for gas. Erdogan explained that he would not allow the island’s natural reserves to be exploited by Greek Cypriots. The northern part of the island has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. Its location, in the Mediterranean Sea seventy kilometres south of Turkey and just over a hundred kilometres off the coasts of Syria and Lebanon, makes its situation complex. Geographically the island is part of Asia, but for historical, political and cultural reasons it is also regarded as European. Over the centuries Cyprus has been ruled by the Ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the crusaders, the Venetians, the Ottomans and the British. Since 2004 it has been a member of the European Union.
Cyprus has always been troubled by foreign powers eager to dominate the island and the seas around it. Its geology has been crucial, shaping not just the island but its history. The presence of large quantities of valuable minerals and useful raw materials has made mining, digging and drilling in the area attractive throughout the ages. Most valuable now are gas and oil, but in earlier times people were drawn to its huge reserves of copper.
The birth and emergence of the island of Cyprus and its largest mountain range, Troodos, were the result of unique and complex geographical processes lasting millions of years. The area is regarded by earth scientists as a geological model, as it was created by volcanic activity in the sea bed ninety million years ago. Lava cast up from the depths of the earth set off chemical reactions with the surroundings, producing not just undulating rock formations but spectacular shapes and colours in the landscape. It was in this distant past that the rich deposits of copper were laid down. Archaeological excavations have shown that mining activity in Cyprus dates back to the third century BC.
The various theories about the meaning of the Classical Greek name for the island, Kypros, are speculative, but its current name seems to be derived from the Latin word for copper, Cyprium, later shortened to Cuprum. Roman writer and proto-scientist Pliny the Elder writes about copper on Cyprus in his extensive work Naturalis Historia, in which he also criticizes the disrespectful way humans treat the earth. The copper mines closed with the Turkish invasion of 1974.
The ongoing series Studies in Geology by Stelios Kallinikou (b. 1985, Limassol, Cyprus) presents a group of photographs taken in an ancient copper mine hidden in the pine forests of the Troodos Mountains. With his camera he enters the crater of the mine and the resulting lake to observe the earth as an open body. His photographs seek to reveal the secrets of the rocks now submerged in the endless game of collusion between matter and time. This is one reason why Kallinikou takes several photographs of the same material at the same place but at different moments. Enthralled by the geological narrative of Cyprus, he meticulously examines the ground and the surface of the lake, looking for traces of the origins of the earth. The importance of water at the moment of the earth’s creation and for the origin of all life is unmistakable, and stressed by Kallinikou. Studies in Geology plays upon the theme of geology by exploring a unique sense that standing in the natural world means embracing the simultaneity of extremes and primal forces. By taking an ancient mine as his starting point, Kallinikou is also searching for human gestures and interventions that have left their mark down through time.
The result is a fascinating series at the edges of photography and painting. Kallinikou is in constant dialogue with the act of seeing. In a visual sense you could compare his Studies in Geology with some of Jackson Pollock’s Action Paintings. The American painter of the first half of the twentieth century laid blank white canvases flat on the floor and dripped pigments onto them from swinging brushes. In doing so he used his body almost like a dancer. The result was a full, abstract painting without perspective. The flat canvas was transformed into a continuum of matter, in which rhythm is of crucial importance. In looking at Pollock’s paintings, the eye has no purchase on depth but has to make its way across the particles on the surface. Most of Kallinikou’s photographs have an abstract quality because of the way he zooms in on details isolated from the surrounding landscape. This turns his photographs into flat planes, stripped of any sense of perspective, which makes it difficult for the eye to determine exactly what it is looking at. This could be described as the opacity of the photographic image.
The aspect of the moving body is of great importance in Kallinikou’s work, just as it is in Pollack’s. He wanders across the area he intends to photograph and approaches his future image from various sides. He then circles around it until he is almost inside the photograph he is about to make and cannot possibly penetrate the landscape any further. Finally, the mechanical act of pressing the button on the camera captures the patterns of the universe. Sometimes it almost seems as if he has scattered natural mineral pigments around, such as ochre, amber, cyan and terra verde. The boundary between natural and artificial, found and made, sometimes seems thin. Yet Kallinikou does not manipulate his landscapes, or at least not in the way the physical landscape has been manipulated by humans for the extraction of copper.
Kallinikou’s background in archaeology has undoubtedly been a major influence on the unearthing of new narratives that can be orientated towards the becoming of a place. He is in search of traces of the origins of the earth, and more specifically the origins of Cyprus. A sense of continual exploration of the Cypriot national identity as revealed by the landscape typifies his work. The starting point for his recent series Over the Horizon (2018), commissioned by NiMAC, is the island’s colonial past. With his camera, Kallinikou climbs to the top of the Castles of Pentadaktylos, built by the Byzantines in the eleventh century. They were later used by the Franks and destroyed by the Venetians. Through the lens he looks out across the plains, the mountain peaks and the sea just as a mediaeval watchman would have done. He combines these images with photographs of surveillance equipment on the British sovereign bases in Troodos. These colonial traces in the Cypriot landscape, taken together, form an advanced web of data-collection that reaches well beyond the country’s borders. Where are you going young man, handsome like a legend (2017) portrays the hideouts in the natural landscape used by the EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), a Greek-Cypriot nationalist organisation founded in 1954 that fought against British troops and for union with Greece. Their hideouts are now regarded by many Greek Cypriots as national monuments. Kallinikou combines them with photographs of the surrounding landscape. In his book Flamingo Theatre (2016) he investigates the Lady’s Mile, a five-kilometre stretch of coast named after the mare ridden along the beach by the British governor during British rule.
‘I have always been interested in landscape and in those subtle shades that transform a space into a specific topos,’ Kallinikou says. One of the most important themes in his work is the exploration of locality, not from an inward-looking, narrow-minded viewpoint but in relation to the world around. His work has been described as ‘local poetry’. He aims to conjure up a space that is beyond words, and his appealing and technically skilled body of work circles around the politics of the landscape. By adopting the strategies of documentary photography at an introspective, meditative pace, he constructs a world that serves as a speculative scenario through which he can better envisage his relationship to territorial and ideological notions of the landscape, such as birthplace, motherland and national identity.
This text is based on face-to-face, skype and email conversations between Stelios Kallinikou and curator Kim Knoppers.