The Disappearance of Things
This essay emerged from conversations with the artist Stelios Kallnikou as he was preparing for his exhibition of photographs at Eins Gallery in Limassol. It is based on thoughts about his work, our mutual interest in photography and the sharing of ideas about its future.
The printed still-image, long thought-off as the outcome of an encounter between the person behind the camera and something that materially exists in the world, is now overtaken by the production of images that are configured through a range of new reproductive digital and technological practices currently operating in the visual field. Consequently, the transition in photographic experience from a relational exchange between the photographer and something actual - to virtual and digitally produced imagery, has destabilized the perception that photography is a way of seeing the world through the lived quality of being in the world. This technological shift does not simply indicate the obsolescence of an older technology by another more expedient way of making photographs, but also signals the disappearance of a way of thinking about photography. Photography has long been thought of as a form of prosthesis of vision connected to the mind that had sought to maintain a continuity between natural perception and technology.
Historically, the relationship between art, photography and technology has been an uneasy one, as expressed by Baudelaire, who derided his fellow countrymen and women for their cheap narcissistic desire to prostrate themselves before a false and idolatrous God. Widely considered to be the father of modern art criticism, Baudelaire pulls back at the tide of the mechanization of the image that comes with photography. He warns against the cold mechanical eye of the camera which guarantees a likeness of nature and generates false truths. Like the Romantics before him, Baudelaire considers that the artist should not only paint what is seen, but also what is felt. The camera on the other hand, he had warned, captures whatever is reflected into the lens and reduces the object to its mere hyperbolic likeness, rendering therefore the photograph into a thing of make-believe that obscures any direct correspondence between objects in the material world and the mind. By this logic, the photograph becomes a floating sign that mimetically replaces the object’s true nature with its reproduced image. According to Baudelaire, what is sacrificed during the object’s transformation into a photographic reproduction is the impalpable in art, the imaginary and the sublime.
And yet, contrary to much of what has been written about the idea of the photograph as a signifier which reduces its referent into its symbolic likeness, photography is a spatial, performative, and relational practice whereby to photograph is to position oneself within an ecology of connecting elements that co-exist in actual space and time. Looked at from such a perspective, photography does not simply amount to reducing reality (as such) into “bad” theatricality –something which is prevalent in our contemporary massification and consumption of photographic images, but rather, photography can performatively function as a tool that connects the human body to a practice that utilizes imagery and visualization at the point of contact with the physical, spatial, natural, and socio-political environment. To photograph is to reconnect with the object in front of the camera in a way that rethinks that relationship. The task of the photographer is to find ways to translate the encounter with the object in some way that reveals meaning without erring towards rhetorical definitions.
Looking at the range of prints with exotic animals, which at first glance indicate the theme of Kallinikou’s work, it occurs to me that hidden beneath their striking presence lurks a larger concern that expresses the fragility of the photographic image, but also the negation of the photographic experience. In the age of digitalization, what is fast disappearing is the space generated between photographer and object and subsequently the space for thinking that is created between image and viewer. No longer having the need to be physically situated in relationship to the object, the photographer becomes dislocated in space and time as the photographer’s own sense of somatic awareness, in relation to the object, disappears from experience. Kallinikou’s deliberate venture to make each image less legible through a process of printing and reprinting, sometimes from digitally corrupted files till they create the effect he seeks, seems to reference a wider metaphor that takes us back to the photographic outcome as an encounter with the object. The emphatic materiality that is textured into each print through his process of working takes on a metaphorical and physical state of permanent counterbalance between theme and form which has the effect of drawing the viewer back to the image as a referent. In other words, it is the fragility of the image that is referenced here –it is the image that is been represented for the viewer to think about. The prefix re- as it is used before a verb indicates a dialogical engagement with one’s actions in a process that involves rethinking presentational values. In the same way, that to rethink means to think again and reflect on past positions, to represent means to present again in such a way as to generate fresh thinking.
What I believe underscores the intentionality of Kallinikou’s work is that even though he is largely in control of the effect he is after in his prints, he nevertheless continues to seek the element of surprise, of wonder and revelation, not in the depiction of extraordinary new encounters with his outside environment, but in the digital production of images. In this sense, he is thinking his relation to photography as it makes the transition from one technology to another and in that process, he is inviting the viewer to step back, to find the space to hold dialogue with the work and to rethink with him the possible disappearance of things.