Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a Greek-Lebanese artist. I have lived in Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, France and Sicily; currently, I am working in Athens and Beirut. My work is a distinctive exploration of the concept of sedimentation, both in the physical and metaphysical sense.
By “sedimentation”, I refer to the layers of time; just as living materials sediment at the bottom of the sea, so do archives, documents, reconstructions, gestures, journeys and a sense of listening. Those sedimentary layers take the viewer along a trail through comparisons of reality, languages and narrations. All my works are produced during long periods of time; however, what is visible to the viewer at the end is only the surface – the last layer.
The work I make is predominantly lens-based. I studied cinema and history of art at the University of Paris, and have worked on international cinematographic and audiovisual productions. Since 1998, I have directed shorts, documentaries, experimental and essay films, and produced photography and video installations. In 2011, I became a co-founding member of the Depression Era project, and in 2015 I became a contributing editor of the Urbanautica Institute, a platform for contemporary photography.
What’s your story?
When I have to define myself, I become a storyteller without a story. My tales explore the process in which we as human beings construct meaning from our experiences and practice. My projects are intuitive responses to emotionally resonant ideas, and they are more like a letter to a friend, words said or left unsaid, all floating down the stream of oblivion.
Because of my numerous migrations, I have always avoided putting a national label on myself or on my work.
I’d give legs and brain, curiosity and reasoning to Athens – that’s my apprenticeship.
Heart and kidney, love and refuge go to Sicily – that’s where my son is growing up.
Hands and ears, artisanship and sense of listening go to Lebanon – that’s where my origins are.
Tongue and eyes, language and gaze go to France – that’s where I got my education.
If there’s a common denominator, it’s probably the Mediterranean; the dark blue sea.
And if as an artist there is some kind of a general citizenship for me, it’s always being a foreigner. Mine is a convoluted notion of nationality – but there’s an undocumented migrant in each one of us.
How did you become interested in photography?
I come from a family involved with photography, cinema and theatre, so I grew up in a creative environment.
The image above was the inceptive photograph; it came during my apprentice years in the film industry. After several experiences assisting, I was offered a job as a set photographer which I consequently did several times – until I realised that photography could express something more than simple documentation.
This happened while I was working on a Greek feature film, and it happened in a very unusual way. On an August night in 1997, I made this photograph from my apartment. Days later, my bag with the slides inside was stolen. So I re-photographed the scene a few weeks later, and I was left with only a reproduction of that lost image and a missed farewell. That became a turning point for me in how I understood photography as a tool of expression and as a poetic gesture.
What kind of art interests you?
I came to photography through what I’d like to call peripatetics.
“Peripatetic” is a word relating to the broader sense of walking about – wandering, roaming. The adjective derives from the Greek verb “peripatein” and refers to Aristotle’s school – Peripatos – founded after 335 BC at a public gymnasium outside the city walls. It was a place of systematic co-operative research in all branches of knowledge, named after the covered colonnades where much of the peripatetic learning took place.
For me ‘peripatetics’ revolve around experiential, direct, non-conceptual photography.
It’s somehow the quiet side of urban or landscape photography during which attention is given primarily to the state of mind, and not to the hunting of exceptional phenomena.
This internalisation of attention brings a more sober and poetic reading of reality. It’s a detached way of making more intimate images open to interpretations. You create or inhabit a non-familiar space that, through your gesture, metamorphoses to a ‘home’.
I started off at the beginning of my approach two decades ago, to embrace Athens – my city – not for what I wanted it to be, but for what it was and how it eluded me. This practice in time turned into a prelude to learning about justice, and it established itself as a first step in an act of resistance.
Let’s talk about your project ISOLITUDINE.
In a way, this work is a tale of my Sicilian self-exile and refuge, told through a specific state of being: ISOLITUDINE.
In the twelve years I was living there, Sicily taught me a new language of silence. Every time I encountered the gaze of a traveler or a migrant, I saw myself in a mirror; I recognised the foreigner in me. All those years, my endeavour of collecting this mosaic of visual literature was like Colapesce’s effort to hold in the abyss of the sea.
The myth of Colapesce tells about a fisherman’s son, Nicholas from Messina. He was known as ‘Colapesce’ because of his love for the sea and his skills under the water; every time he dove into the sea, he resurfaced from the waves ready to tell his stories about incredible discoveries from the underwater world.
The fame of Colapesce reached the King of Sicily and Emperor Frederick II who decided to test his abilities, throwing a cup overboard. While the king and his court were waiting on the boat, Colapesce succeeded in recovering the cup. The king wanted to try him again and, this time, threw his own crown deeper into the sea. As always, Colapesce brought the treasure back. The last time Frederick II threw his ring in a deeper place but this time, Colapesce did not surface.
The legend says that Colapesce discovered the island of Sicily was being kept from falling into the sea by three columns – and one of them was broken. He decided to stay there to hold the column up, saving the island from the sinking.
While making the work, were there any moments that stand out for you now?
I have spent most of my life wandering between Mediterranean shores but Sicily, in its heart, became to me as one uniting language for all those previous migrations, and one new process of creativity in my research for knowledge.
In 2011, one late autumn afternoon on a walk near Cefalu – a town on the northern shore of Sicily – I traced a path that led to a secret beach. There was this view (photo below) that I felt reflected on a small scale all those migrations.
It was a revelation, almost an epiphany – tender, sacred, mute, otherworldly. It was the moment that this phrase from Gesualdo Bufalino’s book came to my mind and stayed with me until I started editing the work of ISOLITUDINE –
“Islands within an island: this is precisely the emblem of our loneliness. I would like to define it with a non-existent word ‘isolitudine’.”
What are you recommending?
My main sources of inspiration include myths, songs, poems, history, philosophy, literature… that which encourages us to put on our shoes and walk.
Some specific works I would recommend are Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Robert Walser’s The Walk, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. And a photobook that inspired Isolitudine was Passing through Eden by Tod Papageorge.
Tell us about a piece of work that influences you.
Poetry is a constant aspiration and source of inspiration but every work has its own starting point. For example, this single photograph by Robert Frank of a man sleeping under a tree became a founding moment for my series Refuge Dreamgrove, a body of work based on the concept of hospitality.
“Your home will be where you put your head to sleep, for a pillow you’ll have a dream-grove.”
I recall, from my childhood, these words said by a prostitute who took in a scared twelve year old child. He was one of thousands of Greek survivors of the Asia Minor Catastrophe. To reach Lebanon, he walked barefoot for days from Smyrna in Turkey, losing the rest of his family on the road and finding refuge for four nights in a brothel in the port area of Beirut. For the rest of his life, this sentence and that city were his haven. Though I never met him in person, that child was my grandfather.
Around 2009, I noticed the recurrence of men sleeping in public places in my images – on subways, trains, boats… I structured these photographs, partially inspired by my grandfather’s migration and refuge, around travels through the cities and mainly countries that border the Mediterranean. Travel has constituted much of my life for many reasons, including escape from Lebanon’s civil war. I always travel to meet people, never to visit a place.
Men asleep, internal spaces and external views from where I was welcomed, are elements of Refuge Dreamgrove. The juxtaposition of these elements make up the journey. The pictures bring out a heavy tiredness, a sense of exhaustion that goes with the wandering and dreaming.
While they are out in the open, in public, each of the wanderers is locked into a very personal and silent world, a kind of grove. As they seek refuge, look for safety, and lie down and rest they are passed over and ignored. And then they move on, and on, in an endless migration, or in an odyssey towards something that they could call home.