Island Hoping

City of Athens Arts Centre, Athens, 2018 (book)

A conversaIon between ChrisIna Dimitriadis and Kimberly Bradley

Kimberly Bradley: When I first viewed Island Hoping as an exhibition in Athens, I could immediately see the multiple layers in this series of photographs. There are many approaches to and possible readings of the work. But how do you see these layers?

Christina Dimitriadis: A way to interpret the layers of my work is to picture what happens when you throw a pebble into a body of water. The surface of the water makes symmetrical concentric waves. My practice works the same way. A vibration of parallel cycles, starting with the individual and going to the personal, the social, the political, the historical. The photographs of the skerries and islets operate in the same way. They can be autobiographical; they can be political. They can also be seen as floating sculptures, carved by the sun, the sea, and the wind. While photographing them one by one, with a direct, straight-on gaze, they become portraits of small islets that are both places and non-places; they can even become portraits of abstracted mythical figures.

Were you approaching the islands as portrait subjects from the outset?

Portraiture, one of the oldest forms of representational art, is something I think about often. What is a portrait? Most portraiture applies only to humans; an image of a building, an island, an object, or a city can be a portrait as well. In this work I followed a straightforward approach, facing the small islets as portraits, or even as self-portraits. Art-historical portraits contain details that reveal what was important to the era in which they were created. We can discover so much through these details, like the stances or clothing depicted. And by nature, every artwork is political. The photographs in Island Hoping are formally rigorous, but in their simplicity they carry the crises of our time, the political history of our time, the immigration issues of our time.

Much of your previous work is portraiture or self-portraiture as well—ephemeral images of yourself, or family and friends in domestic settings, or urban elements in your immediate surroundings. These might be the first ripples coming from your metaphorical pebble. The Island Hoping series, however, looks outward to nature, to seascapes. These might be the outer ripples. Could you describe this evolution in your practice?

My earlier work started from an interior space that could connect to one of the ways women use photography; self-portraits were one way women could claim agency, and control the outside, often male, gaze. When I did the self-portraits in private, domestic spaces—Oblivion’s Exercises (2004), for example, which show me entirely or partially hidden from view under a bedsheet or in an empty hallway, was inspired by Immanuel Kant’s “Lampe must be forgotten,” a note to himself pinned above his desk so he’d “remember to forget.” For Private Spaces (1995), I was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Miramare (2011), a series depicting sheer, backlit curtains, blowing in the wind, shows a kind of ephemeral self. There are many selves that represent us but the “true self” we meet only a few moments in our lives, and mostly in the most unexpected moments.

So much of Island Hoping is about the desire to return. I never dared to return to Greece, yet I think so much about it, which is probably why I chose these landscapes. These islets are the mythical figures of my childhood. Yet no one can belong to these rocks, nor can one ever truly return to them. In the Greek tradition, too, so much centers on the Odyssey, however even Homer was nostalgic for the journey after the return. I’m on a constant journey. My work focuses on transitions, both spatial and temporal. It’s difficult to live in the present: the past is always haunting us, there’s a desire for the future. In Island Hoping, the complex, raw landscape came from my childhood in Greece, but it’s also mixed with my German-ness.

You once told me about a particular image of an island where your mother’s family comes from: Helgoland. Like you say, you grew up in Greece, with a Greek father, but have a strong connection to German culture through your mother’s family, which originates from this German island in the North Sea.

You’re right, a small black-and-white photograph of the island Helgoland was the starting point of this project, although I grew up next to the sea in northern Greece, and throughout my childhood I was surrounded by a familiar landscape of islets. “Conquering” them was one of my favorite games to play with my brother. I was close to my German-Austrian family, especially my German grandmother. She was born in Helgoland, a small island that became a major naval base during World War II. Germany in fact traded Helgoland for Zanzibar, so my great-grandmother was born a British citizen, but became German.1 Helgoland is a red rock in the middle of nowhere, a Viking island with its own language. It plays an important role in European history, in World War II. It was the submarine base and strategically most important position for the German military. My grandfather was a submarine captain in World War II, so my background is a loaded one.2 The European crisis started with a tense relationship between Greece and Germany; the tension continues to this day. As a Greek-German, I have experienced anger and hostility in both countries.

How did you come up with the concept: an islet in a static, central position, the sea on a consistent horizontal axis, pale colors, a strict serial presentation that still incorporates the wildness and unpredictability of a seascape. Did these elements evolve during the shooting process?

My photographs always show an absence of color; I also think geometrically. I have so many influences it is difficult to name them all. They go beyond photography. Literature is one of the main sources affecting and inspiring my work. I am also inspired by films: I might look at a film frame by frame, like with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L´Avventura.3 The landscape of the Aeolian Islands in the beginning of the film is familiar and similar to the Greek landscape; a group of friends go island hopping. This influenced and inspired the project. And monologues and dialogues always surround me. This is the way I read the world. In October 2015, I was invited to an artist residency program at Eagle Palace in the northern parts of the Greek mainland. It is a place I used to go with my mother when I was young. The area is surrounded by islets. The view of what I’d seen as a child brought back memories of this landscape.

There is where I took the first eight photos. When I went to photograph additional islets, two years later, I decided to go to a much more political zone in an archipelago of the North Aegean Sea; an island complex called Fournoi Korseon, which lies roughly between Ikaria, Samos, and Patmos. The main shoots took place there.

Why a specifically political space?

I was searching for an area with many skerries, but that also had a certain tension along the sea borders between Turkey and Greece. We create borders because we fear chaos. But then we like to break these borders! It so happens that this was the time that the tensions between Turkey and Greece reached their peak. One island in the Fournoi Korseon complex is called Anthropofagos—the name means “man-eater” in Greek—and I became intrigued. I found that historically this area is the largest graveyard of shipwrecks in history; around fifty of them from all historical periods are here, underwater. It’s a UNESCO heritage site. They found shipwrecks from ancient Greece, the Roman era, the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Geographically it is a node for immigration and emigration, as well as a place of exile for different marginal groups over many periods of history, but now it’s often also a tourist destination. There are so many layers and narratives.

At the same time, these skerries and islets look peaceful, immovable, sovereign. Like I said, they are both places and non-places. There are thousands of skerries in Greece. Nobody lives on them, they simply exist. They are dead land. If you go to them for any reason, as a refugee, for example, there’s no way to survive. There is no water, no food, maybe some sea urchins. There’s no shade, nothing to protect you. You think you’re escaping the sea that could drown you, but you can die on the islets, too.

Knowing this, I’m curious: How did you choose to title your exhibition? Considering that the islets you photograph are inhospitable, but also taking into account the current state of the world, “hoping” is a loaded word. Do you have hope?

On the simplest level, I just played with the phrase “island hopping,” taking away one “p.” We grew up in a generation that “hopped” the Greek islands. This was my youth. As to the hoping, right now, of course, we are going through a fraught, scary time. Still, it’s not only negative, because there’s so much awakening. Western cultures probably overslept, but now we have the freedom to be more aware, and to act. We are more in dialogue, there is more communication. This is how we can save ourselves. Dum spiro spero: since I breathe, I hope!

In a way, then, in these photographs, you are plumbing humanity’s flaws but also its potentialities, its dramas but also its dreams, by looking outward and exposing what’s hidden in plain sight.

With the skerries, I wanted to turn my gaze to a landscape that mostly goes unnoticed and compose a different map of Greece—to remap it, so to speak. The moment we pay attention to the invisible, we think differently. Like the short story by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, one of the most influential stories of my life, “The Smallest Woman in the World.” It’s about a French explorer and hunter in Equatorial Africa. He discovers a tiny, dark-skinned woman on the top of the tree. He is fascinated with her and photographs her, because she’s the smallest full-grown human he’s ever seen in his life. And this picture runs in all the Sunday newspapers. The reaction of the people opening the newspaper in the morning and seeing the supposedly smallest woman in the world are stunning; they’re explicitly racist. The comments about this woman are a human tragedy. There’s an intimate moment in which Lispector metaphorically cuts people open and ingeniously describes how they react, disparagingly or in surprise, to the smallest woman in the world as they read the paper and go about their days. Dostoevsky wrote long, epic books, but Lispector lays out humanity in eight pages. There’s no better story for me. Lispector taught me to look at the smallest things that we ignore. And these rocks? They’re invisible, but they become monumental.

1 The Helgoland–Zanzibar Treaty is also known as the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890; in it, the United Kingdom and the German Empire traded control of each island, shifting geopolitical power in these regions.

2 Kapitän zur See (Captain at sea) was the highest senior officer rank in the German Navy during wartime.

3 Övul Ö Durmusoglu’s essay “This world, this small, this great world” in this volume.

Kimberly Bradley - ChrisIna Dimitriadis