March 21: What do we show our cameras? Is it real?
An exhibition launch takes place in Italy tonight at 7 pm; Petros Efstathiadis opens his show Gold Rush at Foto-Forum, Weggensteinstraße 3F, Bozen.
Efstathiadis is a scenographer as much as he is a photographer. He had wanted to be the latter from the age of fifteen when he bought a second-hand camera, but it wasn’t until in 2008 he escaped what he regarded as the shallow capitalism of Greece to study the medium in England at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey, that he found “pure joy” in photography.
He has developed a faith in the capacity of the camera to expose falsehood, but to enable it to do so, he makes things up himself. Take a look at one of his bombs…
Only at first glimpse does this look real, and yet it might prompt you to move away and call the police, just in case. A harmless enough construction (unless you were to throw it on the fire), it is an imitation of a bomb fantasising about growing up to be an explosive device. Cobbled from taped-together aerosols, with a sponge for shrapnel, and a 3½” floppy disc and a defunct digital watch to trigger it, it is set against a blackened surface that looks as if it has already endured some severe blasts.
The project was his response to the 2012 protests in Greece against the government austerity measures, when people were angry enough to arm themselves with molotov cocktails, and his idea developed amidst a growing public panic about terrorism and fear of the Middle East.
Like all of his works it is photographed with dead-pan simplicity in monotone light.
Old movies, like Chaplin’s 1925 silent Gold Rush, inspired his early yearnings to be a photographer (who now also makes films), and perhaps that particular movie title has been borrowed ironically for this show. Both use low-tech makeshift constructions in which the role of photography is to hold them together long enough to be seen, like Chaplin’s Klondike cabin perched on a cliff in a snowstorm.
That may be as far as the connection with the Little Tramp goes. The Gold Rush here is one occurring in Efstathiadis’ own village, which he says;
…is a small village in northern Greece, not the kind of place you’d put on a postcard to attract tourists. The mentality of a village – a very small society – can be exciting when you are very young but after that nothing changes, so the excitement deflates rather quickly, as nothing new happens. People’s lives are repetitive year after year, doing the same small things day after day like a clock. An almost absurd discipline: small things are important and fulfilling. My relationship to the village has not changed apart from the fact that not living there any more makes me more objective and more grateful for the surreal uniqueness of this place.
He tells the tale of a man who came to everyone’s door waving a contract that would solve everyone’s economic woes. The village, its peach trees, the bucolic existence he remembers from childhood, were to become a construction site for a gas pipeline all the way to Azerbaijan. He watched as his own father signed away his house and land in his own backyard.
His fears can be read in this image; on one side, sky-blue cutouts of the kind one finds on junk mail – “SALE”, “REDUCED”, 50% OFF, “BUY NOW” – on the other, cages empty but for feathers that become the quills used to sign the contract below, and in between are symbols in the universal language of warning…the bird has already ‘flown the coop! Everything is off-kilter and the slightest breath will blow all away to reveal the ring-barked peach trees.
I’m trying to recreate the feeling of a colony and the process of a small village becoming a boom town, the desire of making money fast and the big issues that upset the village’s normality. In the short-term there’ll be economic growth, but in the long run there will be a disaster zone…or maybe I’m just imagining some fantasies.
Tellingly, on an international and political level, his scrappy constructions refer to images of the 1930s American Depression and particularly to Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White…
He points out that:
Walker Evans’ work from the time of the Great Depression now looks strikingly contemporary. I’ve been to places suffering serious economic depression and I was not there as a tourist. I can feel what’s there in Walker Evans’ pictures, there are many corners and walls in Greece and elsewhere in Europe that remind me of those miserable shelters he once photographed.
He extends his ingenuity further to create other references to dodgy dealings…the things hidden at the bottom of the pool for example…
The illusion that this is a scene photographed underwater is constructed with the simplest of devices and surprisingly, its obvious confection puts us in the position of knowing we are fooling ourselves, just as, thinks Efstathiadis, are the villagers and their council, those in the ‘hot seats’…
Standing behind this is Efstathiadis’ very early work in which he posed relatives and neighbours as heroic figures or fantasy characters in front of a plastic sheets serving as the studio backdrop. He explained in interview in 2014 with Jeu de Paume magazine;
My very first mises-en-scène, the portraits..arose from my obsession with the stereotype of the photographer at the beginning of the age of photography. I found one image of my grandmother taken 80 years ago which was made in front of a dirty backdrop by a travelling photographer. Almost a century later it felt familiar and related to my ideas. I know that my backyard portraits are very much influenced by the simplicity, honesty and originality of that portrait. It was as if it had the power to create a continuous line through history.
Like his sets and sculptural assemblages, Efstathiadis’ photographs let you see their seams, and by inference and in microcosm, they let us see that our social and economic ‘realities’ are mere constructs too.
Petros Efstathiadis is a Greek bearing gifts.