Island Hoping

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

Works included in the exhibition: Island Hoping

This World This Small, This Great World!1

“But Eros is sick. Man is uneasy. Something is bothering him,” wrote Michelangelo Antonioni in a statement about L´Avventura after the film’s disastrous Cannes premiere in 1960. He constructed L´Avventura breaking the rules of linear narrative to defy convention and open up space for feelings and their meanings to vibrate.

The uninhabited rocky islands of the Aeolian archipelago off Italy, where he shot the first part of the film, persevere in our filmic memory as a landscape of scattered feelings in a complex web of relations. Christina Dimitriadis, fond of literary and filmic narratives on the dilemma of the modern individual, places L´Avventura as a point of departure for Island Hoping, her photographic conversation with the uninhabited rocky islets in three parts of the Aegean: in Halkidiki, in the archipelago of Fournoi Korseon, and in the skerries from Dimitriadis’s childhood in northern Greece. Each frame, inhabited by a solitary rocky islet or skerry, resonates with a different reality, moving toward or away from a moment of crystallization.

L´Avventura has two complementary female protagonists: Anna, who disappears on the almost deserted island of Basiluzzo during a yacht trip, and her friend Claudia, who keeps searching for Anna throughout the film. One could say that Dimitriadis, who has worked on phantomly bodies, memories, and questions of belonging in her photographs for the past twenty years, identifies with both characters: she who inexplicably decides to get lost, and she who never stops looking for her. Antonioni’s camera gazes at the island, searching from out at sea. His images create a space-time continuum for a world that only exists with the search for the missing. Sometimes it feels eerily like he is shooting from Anna’s perspectives.

Mediated by her camera, Dimitriadis’s gaze at the rocky islets in the sea searches for what is missing and creates a similar continuum for the universe within Island Hoping. The sea becomes an open reference, evoking many phantoms of personal and collective consciousness, which hold their places in different histories. Each solitary islet or skerry materializes a different character in its particular formation for a chorus of loud murmurs: “Will she ever find what she searches for?” asks one, and, “Does it really matter if she finds what she searches for?” responds another, the murmurs continuing to echo. Yet the series’ dramaturgy is shaped by a controlled and psychologically charged distance, not far but not close either, between Dimitriadis’s camera and the islets. The dramaturgy counters the uncontrollable nature of the sea, one of the elemental challenges to human agency. The dilemmas of belonging and non-belonging, returning and not returning, also charge the audience’s viewing distance. The Aegean Sea Dimitriadis sailed through is described factually as an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea located between the Greek and Anatolian peninsulas, between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey from the early twentieth century, and between the European Union and what lies outside it from the twenty-first century. Formed over the course of more than 20 million years, its distinctive archipelago includes more than 6,000 islands and islets, which embroider a space spanning dreams and traumas, life and death. A sea that is the carrier of mythological journeys. A liminal zone of power, authority, and governance.

When does one start to fear the sea and stop imagining through its horizon? Dimitriadis acknowledges water as a material and spiritual extension of her body, her preferred space of frequency. She regularly swims long distances. To realize Island Hoping, she went around the islands by boat, generally before sunrise, sometimes at sunset. In which ways does imagination shift with water, with the sea as horizon? Can two societies facing each other on opposite coasts of the same sea react differently to it? Dimitriadis’s portraiture, this chorus of loud murmurs, not only faces her own issue of belonging, but also mirrors the clash of two different imaginations of the same sea, that calls to itself. As I was learning to swim, the Aegean’s water became one of the core fluids of my body. Growing up in the northern Aegean summer house of my elders—who experienced losses in their families with the Turkish War of Independence— Lesbos (Midilli in Turkish) remained a silhouette on the sea’s horizon throughout my childhood, the first representation of what is foreign. Its charged proximity symbolically put it further away. During the summer of 2015, when the number of refugees hoping to cross to Europe using the islands’ closeness to the Turkish coast increased drastically, children watched the departure of migrants in rubber boats then chased over the sea by Greek Border Security with binoculars, as if viewing a computer game. Things took on a different layer of meaning during that long summer of migration. Recently, daily ferries take Turkish passengers to the island with temporary permits. To this day almost no member of my family has visited Lesbos, each of them providing a different excuse. The distance continues to be charged with a fear of the inexplicable that cannot be transgressed.

Turkish auteur filmmaker Metin Erksan’s 1965 cult classic Time to Love may be considered a response to L´Avventura, looking for an answer to Eros’s sickness that Antonioni described in his post-Cannes statement. Sema, whom we first meet as a photographic portrait the male protagonist Halil falls in love with, is another version of Anna. One may even say Anna reappears in the character of Sema in the Princes’ Islands of Istanbul after getting lost in the Aeolian Islands.

Searching, tired of her bourgeois life, Sema finds herself in the love Halil has developed for her portrait. Erksan shoots his film on Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the inner sea of Marmara, on Istanbul’s Black Sea coast, and on a nearby lake. In Erksan’s hermetic film universe, the sea does not speak back to us, nor does the island. It feels as if he keeps the distance to the sea charged with the fear of the unknown. The sea borders the outside of the universe that brings Sema and Halil together, and therefore gains more meaning in contrast with the lake that symbolizes their unlikely story.

Antonioni prefers not to reveal what happens to Anna in L´Avventura. She disappears into the sea and becomes part of its openness. On the other hand, Erksan’s characters stand at the edge of a pier or where the waves wash away, and sail in a protected lake. His closed approach to the sea, his fear reflected in his characters, may be connected with a collective consciousness in Turkey, on the other side of the Aegean, which imagines the sea as a space of conquest, death, and trauma, more than anything else. Transferred from generation to generation is the trauma of the early 1920s, in which Greeks and Turks found themselves in a bloody confrontation with each other after centuries of living together,2 and the trauma of forced migration or the so-called population exchange from Turkey to Greece and vice versa, in the process of nation-state building and defining borders. Yet the Aegean remains an ambivalent border, projecting memories of loss, longing, and pain for both sides. “The Aegean is not a Greek lake, the Aegean is not a Turkish lake. Actually the Aegean is not a lake at all!” This is a famous quote by Turkish prime minister Süleyman Demirel in 1966 after a heated island conflict with the Greek government. The islets that Dimitriadis photographs, eflecting on their particular characters, have often become pawns for nationalistic tensions from both sides. In another near historical example, the conflict over islets between Kalymnos and Bodrum, known as Kardak in Turkish and Imia in Greek, became a military crisis, in which Demirel, then president, intervened. During these years, Erksan, having stopped making films, published a nationalistic book, Mare Nostrum, blaming Turkish governments for not following the correct tactics for Greece while blaming Greek authorities for abusing the myth of the Hellenic miracle projected onto them by Europe in their belligerent politics for Turkey. On the other hand, it is difficult to find the literary imaginary in Turkish related to the Aegean horizon and the islands, standing on the coastline, afraid to sail away or lose oneself in the horizon of the sea. Cevat Sakir Kabaagaçli, born in Crete in the late nineteenth century and known by his pen name the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, remains an exception. The longing shaded by power politics and projected onto the sea becomes very clear in the lyrics of the Izmir (Smyrna)-born popular singer Sezen Aksu in 1993: “I rolled up my cigarette to the opposite coast / I burned pains on its tip / The fish nets I spread caught memories / The fishnets, coasts of my longing / I burned my wound with moonlight instead of salt / My only witness was the moon / Holding a daphne on one hand and your love on the other / My heart remained in the Aegean.”

What Dimitriadis realizes in Island Hoping is that facing her questions of belonging and non-belonging on the Aegean Sea proposes another future imagination that would replace the fragmented family history projected on its waters. The charged distance of portraiture she calls upon in this series asks us to place more faith in the sea’s unpredictable nature to resolve our fears of the enemy, invasion, and loss; to listen to the voices vibrating through the opposite coasts.

Transitioning from hopping to hoping requires working the forgotten muscle of affect. It means much personal work, confrontation, acknowledgment, and tenderness. It is this intuitive muscle that guides the camera of Antonioni in L´Avventura, making it impossible for his audience to guess with rational logic where his camera might move next. It is a similar intuitive desire for transformation that made Dimitriadis depart from the coastline of her childhood of her own personal memories to create a breathing space for each islet, revealing through photography their intrinsic materiality and spirituality, neither forgetting their histories nor overshadowing them with those histories. Eros is sick, both in terms of personal love affairs and collective memory. The sickness becomes visible when the sea becomes an open reference, and its acknowledgment makes it possible to heal. The islets carry so much projection and so many memories, bordering nationalistic dreams, sinking ships into the Aegean, hosting political prisoners of the military regime in Greece, even sometimes saving a migrant who managed to survive a sinking ship. At the end of the day, it is not sarcasm and irony that transforms, but hope. The sea and its horizon doesn’t belong to anyone. The moon is the only witness.

Övül Ö. Durmusoglu