Understanding 'The Presence of Absence' Exhibition in Cyprus

Monitor Room, “Prison” series, 2014
Monitor Room, “Prison” series, 2014 | © Petros Efstathiadis

Organized by Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre (NiMAC) in association with the Pierides Foundation and curated by Cathryn Drake, the art exhibition opened on February 16 and runs until April 14, 2018.

The exhibition, titled, ‘The Presence of Absence or the Catastrophe Theory’, features artists from Cyprus, Albania, Turkey, and Greece, and a British artist of Turkish Cypriot origins. Their work includes videos, photographs, and installations that ‘convey the poetic power of the particular in our understanding of the universal.’ According to Ms Drake, the ‘works of these ten artists coalesce in a collective examination of landscape and memory, amnesia and nationalism, identity and resistance, fragmentation and displacement, alienation, and longing for places that may not really exist.’

In Ali Kazma’s videos, for example, we see humankind’s persistent drive to shape and control the physical environment, yet Leonard Qylafi shows how man and environment intermingle to become an indistinct emotional entity.

Interestingly, all of these artists bear relations with modern states that at one time were united under Ottoman rule. Today, each country has its distinct boundaries and governments, yet the languages, cultures, and beliefs of the people, especially those along the border, seep through these barriers.

‘We are all so mixed and interrelated that it is not possible to draw clean lines between groups of people,’ says Drake. ‘The attempt to do so only causes conflict, strife, pain, and the constriction of freedom.’

Art lovers admire videos by Petros Efstathiadis during the opening night at Nicosia Municipal Art Centre.

What is “the presence of absence”?

Paradoxically, defining the ‘presence of absence’ is in essence defining the ‘absence of presence’. Still not clear? In the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, understanding the ‘presence of absence’ is coming into the realization of what is still around (the present) and what is not there or missing (the absent).

In an interview with Culture Trip, Drake observed that one aspect of the ‘presence of absence’ is the ‘longing for what has been taken away from people in terms of a sense of community and the freedom to make home where you find it, as well as the history that ties us all together as citizens of the planet.’

Humanity’s futile efforts to control the environment

Turkish artist Kazma portrays human existence as a series of ritual acts of faith, efforts that are futile in the face of our inevitable demise. He is specifically interested in how humankind transforms things and how these (transformed) things in turn transform us. He also examines the institutions that enforce control and discipline in the interest of progress and what may be seen as the linear development of civilization.

A still image from Ali Kazma’s ‘Prison’ video, 2013

The interaction between man and the environment

What if people recorded activities happening in a particular environment over a period of time? This is what Leonard Qylafi has done in his photography project ‘Estate’. In an effort to unearth his ‘complex emotional reaction to what he perceives as a process of both progress and regress’, the Albanian artist recorded daily changes in his city, Tirana, over the course of two years. The results show how man clears an existing environment in order to create space for modern development. The artist asserts that when human beings live within a process, they become part of it, and capturing such changes comprised an effort to allow himself to reflect on it.

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Petros Efstathiadis uses his Macedonian village, Liparó, as a theatre to satirise the predictability and humour of life in the Balkan town. In the wake of globalisation, values that hold societies together are seen to remain unscathed. Despite the government suppression of the local dialect, a mix of Turkish and Slavic spoken since Ottoman times, people in his village still speak it, particularly as a way to communicate across regional borders. ‘The people in my region relate more to being Balkan, or Macedonian, than Greek,’ he reiterates.

Photograph from the ‘Squadron’ series, 2013, Petros Efstathiadis

The outsider within

Efforts to settle into a new environment are challenging for refugees and immigrants. To find their bearings in a place they might ask themselves, as do the protagonists of Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s film ‘Land’: What is the name of this place? Which rule or control is exercised over this area? Where can we go from here? The artist says he feels like a newcomer whenever he revisits his own country, Greece. He identifies as Greek in spite of the fact that he was raised outside of the country with an Iranian mother and an exiled father. On the other hand, artist Mustafa Hulusi refers to himself as Turkish Cypriot even though he was born and raised in Britain.

Media manipulation

Hulusi’s filmic montage illustrates the mass hypnosis induced by the manipulative mechanics of the media. Often the images and characters portrayed in movies educe powerful emotions in a person that make them more vulnerable to external ideologies. Hulusi’s fictional film ‘The Empty Near East’ captures the state of Cyprus after a catastrophic event, when nature has taken over the ruins left behind. Referring to the state of things after the Turkish invasion of 1974, he says: ‘I think everyone was fully aware that the island was a pawn in this wider geographic military game, as it had always been, and this was aimed at subjugating the native people of the Middle East, for example, in order to extract their natural resources.’

A still image from Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s ‘Geometry of Fear’, 2012

Where do we belong?

Efi Savvides captures the global refugee crisis through the story of young Emmanuel Ramadan, born to parents who were rescued from a boat off Cyprus twenty years ago. He has lived his entire life without being recognised as a citizen of any country. Savvides has worked with several migrant families living in Richmond Village, in the Dhekelia military base, legally a British Overseas Territory in Cyprus. The artist’s work depicts the pain, challenges, hopes, and desires for a new life of these displaced people. The biggest challenge for refugees is finding a place to call home, and their fates lie in the hands of other people, and thus a constant sense of absence hangs over them in terms of both the past and the future.

A reflection of how we perceive the world

In his installation ‘The Phenomenal Present’, Adonis Archontides highlights the role of our subconscious in making sense out of the events we remember, or at least choose to recall. In counterpoint to the message of Hulusi’s filmic collage, Archontides hints that it’s not what the media chooses to show us but what we choose to see that affects our view of the world.

Photographs from the series ‘The Empire Is Perishing; the Bands Are Playing,’ 2017, Efi Savvides

Adapting to new environments and roles

Savvas Christodoulides synthesises various unrelated things to form new and entirely different objects. These sculptures also show that the names assigned to things influence how we see them, perhaps even more than their physical appearance. Just as people relocate to new places and fit into a society, these objects adapt to their new roles as if they had always been part of it.

The art of detachment

Vicky Pericleous’s miniature ruins ‘A Minimum of Visible World’ may remind people about the uselessness of holding a claim to permanence. Her installation is a reconstruction of what remains of Petrofani, a village left behind by Turkish Cypriots forced to migrate to the north after the division of 1974. Like the birds that now inhabit the fragments, we should be ready to ‘envision any place afresh and make home where we find a minimum of visible shelter.’

Humans, like radio waves, rely on freedom of movement to survive

Eleni Phyla observes that ‘radio signals cannot be stopped by barricades and so each culture can still infiltrate the other side of the border’, a realization that came to her while driving on the south side of Cyprus after the car radio spontaneously tuned to a broadcast from the other side of the divide. Irrespective of the receiver or the location, radio waves don’t stop; what changes are the broadcaster, the message, and the language used to pass information. And the ‘means of transmission is in the hands of those with the political power to manipulate the perception of the other, and most of all the state.’ Thus we understand that what causes conflict and rage among communities is the act of controlling and stopping freedom of movement and the need to keep others out.

‘Red Mosque‘, 2017, Savvas Christodoulides

The inspiration behind the exhibition is, according to Drake, the realization that ‘all of these culturally diverse nation states had been so closely intertwined for so many centuries – not so very long ago – and yet have taken great measures to distinguish their cultures from the others in terms of East and West, Muslim and Christian. And I realized that it was a condition that had a lot to do with the most pressing issues of today, not just in this region but everywhere.’

All of these installations evoke emotions, dialogues, and hopefully actions to create communities fit for all irrespective of their past or current situations. After all, we are all humans and deserve equal rights and treatment.

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