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.
The body of work Local Studies, a series of photographs by Stelios Kallinikou, investigates the topography and by extension the complexities that permeate Cypriot identity. Disregarding the Green Line*, a viewing of the space as a whole is attempted.The work concerns an unobstructed walkthrough; an unhurried survey whereby Kallinikou's familiarity of the south meets and overlaps with the less familiar north. In doing so, notions of familiarity and 'sides' are altogether suspended.
Emphasis is directed at the urban, partly urban and natural environment, exposing landscapes of the everyday. Mountains, buildings, trees, statues, and other instances of the vernacular constitute what could be understood as a 'local poetics' and raise questions around issues of identity, memory and history. The landscape as the result of our collective actions is revealing of who we are and how we shape and transform the space in which we live in. The rhythm of the images develops in freeform, in which beauty and intensity, distance and memory, everydayness and history, truth and fantasy, coexist mutually.
Yet, every instance is also very personal to Kallinikou. By adopting the strategies of documentary photography via an introspective meditative pace, the world he constructs serves as a speculative scenario through which he can better envisage his relationship to territorial and ideological notions such as birthplace, motherland and national identity.
*Since 1974 Cyprus has been divided between the Turkish-Cypriot North and the Greek-Cypriot South. The 'Green Line' buffer zone was established by the UNFICYP between the two territories. After a nearly 30 year ban on crossings, the Turkish-Cypriot administration significantly eased travel restrictions across the dividing line in April 2003.
Text: Peter Eramian
Stelios Kallinikou's Flamingo Theatre is situated across and beyond a 7km stretch of undeveloped flat land on the East coast of the Akrotiri peninsula in Limassol, Cyprus, titled Lady's Mile. The beach is located within the British Western Sovereign Base Area, one of two territories (the other being Dhekelia) controversially retained by the British under the 1960 treaty of independence. A playful nod to the past, it received its name after the first British governor's horse 'Lady', which he would exercise along the coastal stretch.
For many local Cypriot families Lady's Mile remains a beloved beach. Neither a place nor a non-place, neither Cypriot nor non-Cypriot, it is more akin to a mutated dream set. South of the beach are the guarded RAF bases where fighter aircrafts can often be seen and heard training or taking off on missions to the Middle East (recently Britain's parliament voted for military operations in Syria from Akrotiri); gigantic British radio-listening communication antennas loom over the landscape, their presence an ongoing concern for locals worried about electromagnetic radiation emissions; sand dunes are exploited by motocross enthusiasts and the open space by model airplane aficionados; vessels up to 250m long can be seen plodding in the north of the beach, where lies Cyprus' largest and busiest seaport, also an evacuation point for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East; and lastly, the large marshy Akrotiri salt lake is only a few hundred meters away, considered one of the Eastern Mediterranean's most important wetlands, attracting thousands of wading birds and the much celebrated Greater Flamingos, stopping over during migration between Africa and Europe.
Over the course of two years Kallinikou has been crafting an allegory out of these coexisting dimensions, a temporal zone that bridges politics and poetry, where scales, values and narratives are shed of attached meanings, flirting with abstraction. Flamingos are animated in RAF symbols and model airplanes mimic military operations; the local and global overlap, identities break down and ecology meets history. A stage is set framing current events as performance, offering a counter proposal to today's hyper-dazed rhythms. The audience attending Flamingo Theatre is asked to sit back, meditate and bear witness to the unfolding of history from the unlikeliest of positions, a small family beach in Cyprus.