In The Presence of Absence, or the Catastrophe Theory artists from Albania, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, along with a British artist of Turkish Cypriot origins, present videos, photographs, and installations that convey the poetic power of the particular in our understanding of the universal. 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.
All of these artists are associated with modern states formerly united by the Ottoman Empire that have since taken vastly different directions guided by the vagaries of realpolitik and ethnic strife. The complex history of this region—straddling diverse areas defined as Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East—reflects enduring cultural threads and ruptures that transcend national borders. The current context of Cyprus embodies a state fractured not by cultural differences among its population, but by the myth of nationalism engendered by external forces in the interest of exploitation and control of a territory. Thus it begs the question: Does conflict cause the formation of borders, or the other way around?
The alchemy of place is a potent mixture of history and conquest, cultural memory and mythology, landscape and geopolitics, with the narratives of victors inscribed onto any topography in the form of physical and ephemeral remains. Colonialists, empires, democracies, and despots, as well as sudden catastrophes—including those designed precisely to induce panic and disorder—impose new orders and trigger transformations that mark a terrain, leaving a cultural residue whose origins are often forgotten in the mist of collective amnesia. Absence is also present in the people torn from their homes, as evoked by Mahmoud Darwish’s poetic meditation In the Presence of Absence.
The memory of a generation is as short as the roots of history are deep. Thus erasure and sentimentality go hand in hand, as do ideology and ruins, in the formation of tendentious historical narratives in the interest of the powers that be. Yet the traces of our tumultuous past creep up through the cracks of collective unconscious just as displacement stirs nostalgia, and the flow of language and culture is a river that cannot be halted. We know that history holds the key to what is to come. So these artists turn our gaze to the ephemeral things that have become part of our identity, the things we take with us wherever we go, and the things that return to their origins like moths to the light.
The images flooding the screens of Adonis Archontides’s installation The Phenomenal Present comprise largely banal moments selectively captured and composed by the artist into what could be seen as a reflection of how he perceives the world, as well as the way our subconscious makes sense out of the events we remember, or at least choose to recall. Certain images may trigger personal recollections in the spectator, adding another layer of meaning to the projections. Thus these ephemeral episodes, along with the spaces and bodies they record, are both portrayals of objective events and components of subjective narratives.
Immersed in the multiple screens of the video installation, the viewer absorbs the culled images once removed as sensory events, in an environment reproducing the artist’s psychic peephole, in turn exposing the mechanics of the media and its power to influence our conception of reality. Evoked too is the element of chance in the encounters that coalesce to constitute a life, the accretion of circumstances that congregate like magnets to form a totality. All of this alludes to identity as ultimately performative—the happenstance of where we are, what we do, what we see, and what we select—and to the precedence of the image in the definition of individual and collective histories. Yet there is freedom as well as fate in this phenomenon: finally it is not what the media chooses to show us but what we choose to see.