On Sunlight and Vandalisms
Feature for “Images and Views of Alternative Cinema Festival”, February 2020, Nicosia  

In her art practice, Marina Xenofontos raises questions about the relation of the contemporary human with issues of memory and ideology, using the moving image and documentary style to record situations and spaces of everydayness, exploring proximity and distance. In “Topos or Closer to deja vu than nostalgia (Cyprus, the Island of Love)” (2012) the feeling of an imminent change leads to an observation of the refraction of light. “Sunlight Vandalism” (2020) can be described as a portrait of Ayşe, which focuses on the grammar of the spaces and bodies, whilst “We Were Supposed to have fun”, which first took form in 2011 but is in a constant state of ‘reconstruction’, various moments from Xenofontos life are montaged to create a poetics of coincidences.

Evagoras Vanezis: You have made a number of moving image works and I feel that they are somehow integral to your practice. Before focusing on them, though, I would like to hear more about the work presented at the “Hypersurfacing” [1] exhibition at NiMac.

Marina Xenofontos: It is a piece titled ‘Syllogism’ [2] and it deals with how to stay still. Like a moment of reflection, a reflection on the meaning of ideologies, or a camouflage for where you are, an effort of blending in a space as a way of defending against a political system, riddled with ideological extremities, which displaces and fails people. It is a deconstruction of the process of Orthodox devotional painting. Traditionally, muslin is glued to a wood panel before gesso and tempera are applied. Here this sequence is rearranged, as liquid pigment is poured onto resin-reinforced muslin. The flat surface is sculpted prior to curing, allowing the materiality of the pigments – their grain, shine and opacity –to take on a primary role, while the image is entirely displaced.

EV: The most striking feature is perhaps the way in which it captures light. Within the resin ‘puddles’, a great event of shine. A reflection perhaps, but also a sense of concentrated sunlight that cannot escape the confines of the material. And it is important to talk about light within the context of this conversation, as the (moving) image is created by light touching upon a technical apparatus that documents the world around us. This attention to the touch of light is partly the reason why I choose to show first the film “Topos or closer to déjà vu than nostalgia (Cyprus, the island of love)” [3], from 2012. This film, in which we focus on a window shutter going up or down, and the play of sunlight against it, also comes with this title, which hints that the viewer has to reckon with a play that is affected by an attitude towards the past’s relation to the present.

MX:  I wanted to capture the memory of this light, because of an imminent replacement of the metallic shutters to aluminum ones. When creating this video, I was asking: what happens when you preserve a memory of an event? Can documentation act as a technique of meta-memory, can this help us enquire into the mechanisms of memory? How is memory connected to the present? This is different to simply being nostalgic about a past, especially when a topos is concerned, with its different histories and cultures.

EV: There is the issue of memory itself, and of how perception is interlinked with it. As Paolo Virno describes in his book “Déjà vu and the end of History”, following the theories of Bergson, every instant is doubled, it is simultaneously imprinted on both perception and memory: “When psychiatrists refer to déjà vu, they do not mean a known event of the past playing out again, accompanied by either euphoric amazement or bored condescension. Rather, here we have an only apparent repetition, one that is entirely illusory. We believe that we have already experienced (or seen, heard, done, etc.) something that is, in fact, happening for the first time at this very moment. We mistake the current experience for the very faithful copy of an original that never really existed. We believe that we are recognizing something of which we are only now cognizant. As such, we could also describe déjà vu in terms of ‘false recognition’.” [4] – false because we are not recognizing a past which plays out in the present but a present which has already been folded in memory, creating virtualities which we experience as repetition.   

We were supposed to have fun [5] is an ongoing work, in which montage is a non-chronological mnemonic method that allows a different perception of the present. Light is playing upon surfaces and it is not used to illuminate a set of actions, a face, a certain drama. It is given free reign. And I feel that this attitude also translates to Sunlight Vandalism [6], which could be described as a portrait, albeit one that focuses on the spaces that surround the ‘protagonist’. Can you talk a bit about this film? How and when did the process begin?

MX: It is now taking the form of a short documentary, but the process started in 2011. Ayşe, the woman we see in the video, was working in a school with my mother and so we started talking and getting to know each other. I was back in Cyprus at that time after my studies in London and run a project space called Konteinernear the house that she was renting with her family. Both she and her husband are of Kurdish descent. Her husband moved to Cyprus first, to request asylum. Ayşe and the rest of the family came here in 2007.

EV: What settings do we see her in? I am trying to understand how these different situations arose, why these settings. I think that these environments are not utilized as spaces in which we watch action unfold, but as spaces where the uniqueness of Ayşe’s life is expressed.    

MX: There are three different settings. Her house in Cyprus, where she comes every year to visit her husband, her house in Ankara, which we see through a phone's screen and a house she is cleaning. Ayşe lives in Ankara to support her eldest kids that attend universities there. In the first versions of the video, you could see the school she worked in, which coincidentally had burned down, as did her village in Kurdistan. I often record these spaces which take on a symbolic character because of an event that might belong to someone's personal history.

EV: Are all excerpts shot during one visit?

MX: These were all shot in different interactions with her and it’s been an ongoing discussion in the past ten years. I was just trying to capture Ayşe ’s solidarity, generosity and companion. She conveyed a sense of power for me. Recording these moments was a way to connect with her. I have a tendency to record the people around me, staging them, observing them. Then looking back at the videos, I found the poetics in her sayings and movements. Through her smile and gestures, I started to understand the complexity of Mediterranean politics. For me it was a moment of realizing that the idea of origins is not rigid, that family life can mean a lot of different things, as well as a lot about the position of women in society.

EV:  The film doesn't necessarily follow a recognizable narrative structure. Does the viewer need to construct a story by picking up on other cues?

MX: Nothing was pre-planned and neither was there the intention to make a film. I think it is about a way of life that is somehow suspended. I wanted to open up a conversation about a context that is important to me and other people, different facets of history that we tend to avoid. There are many dramas around us, most of them complicated and multileveled. Both of Ayşe's homes are heterotopias, “non-spaces”. There is always a sense of "here", that is, however, connected to a continuous re-creation of the self. The stateless always have to re-create themselves. For a lot of people there is no sense of home or country of origin. I was also interested in the space we allow between ourselves and someone else in our everydayness.

EV: Your film starts with an intimate shot of hands scrolling though images of a home on a phone, over a breakfast table. These images are documents of a life wrapped in the very terrain that lends Öcalan his symbolic status. By this I mean that she was forced to leave from where she was, and then have a home in another country, and she is visiting her still displaced husband… all these things happen on the terrain of the Kurdish struggle. When we see her in the living room, where she is shown in the center of the frame, she is surrounded by images of Öcalan, looking like a charismatic and relatable leader. Such images are banned in countries such as Germany as being part of ‘PKK propaganda’ and cannot be used in the public sphere.

MX: How do societies perceive the existence of these people, who have become symbols for change, once the media stops mentioning them every day? In other words, I am interested in the saturation of symbols that signified a hope for change. Ayşe is describing how ‘He’s [Öcalan] is finished. Only his name remains’. He doesn’t really exist anymore, for he has been locked up in prison for a very long time. I have a more abstract way of dealing with the media and their effects. For example, we often see them blur faces under the pretext of protecting people. This type of presentations by the media, that deal primarily in a multifaceted, ruthless exposure of personal information and people, are transmitting an ironic and theatricalized version of a covered and false protection. That is the reason why in an initial version of the scene you described, I had deliberately blurred everything on screen but the hands, with a mosaic effect, like a symbolic gesture that refers to this technique used on the news.   

EV: When you ask Ayşe about Öcalan, she tries to explain his isolation on a prison island and a comparison to Cyprus is made!

MX: Yes, this comparison is for me linked to the problematic and beauty of translation and communication.  Cyprus is mentioned to ‘perform’ the idea of isolation. It’s her youngest daughter, Berfi that is translating. She speaks Turkish and Greek and she doesn't remember the word for 'island'. When she tries to go about it in different words, a mention to Cyprus is made since an island can exist as a form of isolation; the water acts as a border, an obstacle. Her husband is also isolated in Cyprus, until he gets his passport.

EV: Returning to the scene in her living room, she is shown with a TV set, characteristic of a previous decade, on her left-hand side, and fake flowers on a wooden table that I have trouble identifying style wise, on her right-hand side. She also seems to like ceramics, she even keeps a ceramic head of Santa Claus, a Christmas decoration, although her clothing suggests that this was shot in the summer. There is this relationship between domestic spaces and memories being kept alive through objects, oftentimes because we do not remove them from our environment.

MX: These monuments are created, which are like shrines, there is always a sense of faith, an ideology adhering to the objects, in images like the one with the lake and the mountains in the semantics of women of that generation, class, and area... The somehow standardized bibelot gifts from friends, the arrangement of a vase, children's photographs and in this case multiple photographs of a leader which is in reality faith in the fight that went on for the autonomy of Kurds. In my adolescent room, which I shared with my sister and is now basically a multi-use space, there is a fridge, African masks that a relative gifted and a Che Guevara poster that was left behind. This contradiction between the personal and the political, the symbolic, fascinates me.    

EV: It is also a symbolic field which establishes collectivities.

MX: Yes, it is that of a middle, working class that is being erased, being recreated, fighting. This portrait is basically a representation of a certain social class. I grew up with a lot of women around me and I am more focused on showing the poetic strengths of these domestic environments and situations. For example, I noticed Ayşe placing her phone on the floor in order to clean. In her new house, she united a number of rooms to make a big one, she voided some windows to extend it… These practices are mostly connected to a middle class. I identify with this, it also happened in my house. […] The idea of the village that does not exist anymore. There is a type of failure of political collectiveness that I notice. The Mediterranean area is characterized by a huge political failure that is difficult to comprehend or place oneself within it. At the same time, it is important to venture into facets that help us understand how this failure might be produced by the interests that claim everyday life, which become instruments that repeat themselves in various registers.

[1] Hypersurfacing, Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, 29.11.2019 – 29.02.2020, curated by Marina Christodoulidou

[2] Syllogism, parabola foam, resin mix with muslin fabric, copper, sunlight, chameleon effect pigments, 300 x 280 x 35 cm, 2019

[3] Topos or Closer to deja vu than nostalgia (Cyprus, the Island of Love), 8:09min, 2012

[4] Paulo Virno, Déjà vu and the end of History, Verso, 2015, p.17

[5] We were supposed to have fun, video extract: 3:55min, 2011 - ongoing

[6] Sunlight Vandalism, digital video, 13:00 min, 2020