Over The Horizon, 2018
Text : Dr. Yiannis Toumazis
Surveillance is the main axis around which the project of Stelios Kallinikou revolves, which, using photographic practices, deals with colonial surveillance policies through the history of Cyprus.
At first, the artist examines the fortresses-castles in the northern Pentadaktylos mountain range, namely those of Kantara, Bouffavento and St. Hilarion. The castles were built between the late 11th and the early 12th centuries, at a time when Cyprus was of great military and political importance for the Byzantine Empire because of the conquest of nearly the entire Asia Minor by the Seljuks. The beginning of the crusades at the end of the 11th century strengthened further the island’s strategic importance. The three castles, and especially Bouffavento, overlooking the Sea of Cilicia and the southern Asia Minor coast were considered perfect places for monitoring passing ships in the region and for sending news to Nicosia by means of fire signals. During Frankish rule, the existing Byzantine buildings were strengthened with the addition of new fortifications and living quarters, and for three centuries were used as forts, military observation posts, royal summer residences, but also as prisons. Gradually, the castles were abandoned as developments in warfare rendered them ineffective. Towards the beginning of the 16th century the Venetians, fearing that the three strongholds could fall into the hands of the enemy, proceeded to dismantle them and concentrated on strengthening the defenses of Nicosia and Famagusta.
Kallinikou captures with his photographic lens epic views of the island as these can be seen from the three castles. For the artist, the climb to the forts with the camera attached to the human body, as an artificial extension of the hand, is of particular importance. As he says, “it activates his gaze towards the mountain peaks, the plains and seas, as the guard in the Middle Ages would also do, except that the bow and the arrow are replaced by the camera.”
One could say that in those days the fortresses-castles functioned as primitive, “human” drones since the unobstructed visibility they offered because they were built at such high altitudes provided the guards with a bird’s eye observation, the ability to collect vital information for facing the enemy, and a great capability of action through an aboveground communications network (between the fortresses), just like modern satellites and spying antennas transmit information and activate unmanned drone attacks.
The impressive night photograph entitled Radar station (2018) depicts, on the one part, the starry celestial dome over Cyprus and, on the other, the white spheres located on the top of Troodos. In this case –and despite the universal serenity emanating from the Kallinikou’s composition as he balances the heavenly macrocosm with the terrestrial microcosm–, the implications to which it alludes are terribly threatening and, in fact, on a global scale.
The RAF (Royal Air Force) station located at Troodos is the oldest British military base in Cyprus (dating back to 1878) but also one of the most important British overseas military installations. Initially, it was used as a cool summer hospital for the British troops of the Egyptian Campaign (1882), while later the British army and government officials used it as a summer resort.
Declassified government documents indicate that the Troodos station was intercepting satellite communications on behalf of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), while documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that the programme continues, funded by the US National Security Service. Information from Snowden also indicates that the station is intercepting radio signals from the Middle East. Since 2006, the station also houses the Starbrook wide-field telescope of the British National Space Centre. It can detect any object orbiting in space that is larger than 1.5 metres.
The British Sovereign Base Area of Akrotiri has been another area of Kallinikou’s research in recent years. Akrotiri is a very particular area of the island: apart from the British military facilities, the Salt Lake of Akrotiri is also located there, a very important wetland for the wider region of the eastern Mediterranean with incredible biodiversity.
The Birdwatching series (2018), exhibited here, came up when the artist was working on the Flamingo Theatre project in 2015. It actually constitutes a photographic “alibi” for Kallinikou, which he created in order to mislead the British Military Police since photography is prohibited in the Sovereign Base area. Imitating, as he says, the conventions of amateur nature photography, he managed to avoid “further troubles and interrogations” in his photographic wanderings in the military area.
The deliberately idyllic atmosphere of these photographs, which also show the rare natural beauty of the area, is in stark contrast to the brutal reality that exists in Akrotiri. His work Sheep (2018) depicts a small flock of sheep and goats grazing against the background of the vast HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) facilities located in the area. HAARP is part of a global US surveillance network using the ionosphere. As the artist says: “These complex mechanisms, while geographically located in Cyprus, extend their activities to unknown longitudes and latitudes, defining new spectral boundaries.”
The British military exercises with parachuters, next to HAARP’s PLUTO II Over The Horizon (OTH) antennas, in contrast to the sudden flying of migratory flamingos that temporarily live at the salt lake, as well as the amateur operators of private drones looking at the sky, who also use Akrotiri, complete this peculiar conversation between the photographic medium and the topical and up-to-date threatening socio-political realities.
This ubiquitous colonial heritage of Cyprus is activated in the installation by the monotonous and eerie sound of the PLUTO II OTH radar, constantly reminding the viewer of the potential human inertia in the prospect of a total disaster.
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
The Question Behind the Dream:
Interview by Kiriakos Spyrou for Yatzer
A sense of constant exploration in the realm of national and personal identity permeates the work of Cypriot photographer Stelios Kallinikou, who creates magical and oft surreal images that are nevertheless deeply rooted in the everyday. Born in 1985 in Limassol, Kallinikou originally studied archaeology in Thessaloniki, Greece, before turning to photography and dedicating himself to creating images —although archaeology still fascinates him, as he admits, “on a theoretical level”. Kallinikou now lives in Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital, where he works as a photographer and co-runs the artist-led project space Thkio Pallies, which he founded with editor, curator and writer Peter Eramian in 2015. With four solo exhibitions as well as participating in group shows across Europe already under his belt, lately Kallinikou has also been pursuing publishing his work: his first book, Flamingo Theatre, was published a few months ago, with a second book already underway. On the occasion of his participation in The Equilibrists, the DESTE Foundation’s 33rd-anniversary exhibition in Athens at the Benaki Museum, Kallinikou talks to Yatzer about his passion for photography and how Cyprus has been influencing his work.
When did you start taking photographs and what was your first “subject”?
I began taking photographs whilst I was studying History and Archaeology at The Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was around that time that I first saw a photograph of Edward Weston’s celebrated peppers. I vividly recall how that picture totally captured me. The delicate use of light, the simplicity of the composition, his keen eye; all these literally put a spell on me and I decided to start working with photography. After my first experience I became obsessed: I manically started to photograph everything. There were days, for example, when I was out in the streets taking photographs from the morning till late in the afternoon and I would continue through the night from the balcony of my student room. I photographed my neighbours' windows during complete darkness from the uncovered corners of the block of flats where I was staying, and would write fictional, poetic stories about who I thought lived there and how that person lived. That in a way constitutes my first complete project.
Do you speak through your photographs? Is it your intention to tell stories through your work? Or do you prefer working in a more abstract way?
My aim is to conjure up a space that is beyond words. I’m not interested in talking about this or that thing or narrating a linear story. There is of course the arousal of thoughts when we meet an artwork; as thoughts depend on words, speech is always there but I want my audience to start thinking from a place that is beyond words.
You’ve just published your first book, Flamingo Theatre. What drew you to Akrotiri, Limassol, and what sort of discoveries have you made there?
Akrotiri is a multidimensional and peculiar area with many elements. To start with, it is a British sovereign military base so there is a military action aspect (the British Parliament recently allowed the base to be used in operations against ISIS in Syria). At the same time, there is Limassol's salt lake which is a very important wetland habitat in the southeast Mediterranean where thousands of migrating birds, including Greater Flamingos, shelter during their migration journey. Then there’s Lady's Mile beach with its holiday makers, as well as Cyprus's largest port. All these different identities coexist within a very small space, creating a weird crossover of synergies and antinomies. I saw the area as a huge theatre stage, on which small and big tragedies unfold. I created an abstract narrative where one encounters a poiesis and beauty that coexist with tension and geopolitical interests —where children's games exist alongside war games, in an allegory that develops through the interplay of reality and imagination.
Culturally speaking, do you think that Cyprus is closer to the Middle East or to Europe?
I think Cyprus exists somewhere in the middle. Acceptance and working with this dual reality will allow us to explore and understand the grid of our own identity.
A part of your most recent work (Local Studies) is now on show at the Benaki Museum in Athens as part of The Equilibrists exhibition. Where have these photos been taken and what is the theme or idea behind this new series?
Local Studies is a series of photographs that includes pictures from both the northern and southern parts of Cyprus. As such it bypasses the separation as it has been established by the Green Line, and attempts to read the space as a unified whole. The landscape as a result of our collective action becomes the vehicle for thought on the fundamental issues related to human nature.
When did you open Thkio Pallies with Peter Eramian and what kind of events and activities do you host there?
Thkio Pallies was created around a year ago. It is a project space, located in the centre of Nicosia and its activities include a wide range of practices and creative actions that fall under the rubric of contemporary art. So far, we’ve presented six solo exhibitions, a group show and two sound installations. The public has responded positively to our endeavours, creating a vibe that makes us very happy and giving us the strength to continue. Despite the short amount of time in which the space has been open, we’ve cultivated a robust audience which is constantly growing, and is slowly becoming part of the creative process itself!
Are you currently working on a solo exhibition or some other project?
From a personal perspective, I am currently preparing my portfolio as I have been nominated for a very important photography award. My objective in regard to Local Studies is to present a solo exhibition and a publication. Right now the most important thing is to put the finishing touches on the work and the rest will follow! I have also started working on two new projects, but it's still early days. Meanwhile, Thkio Pallies is preparing to showcase an exhibition by Faysal Mroueh in September. He is already working hard in the space. We’re also going to be hosting the launch of 'Honest Electronics' record label, on July 28th.