Cut by Cut
Haris Epaminonda began working with found photographs, films and objects – and ended up with a novel form of collage
Haris Epaminonda’s oeuvre – collages, sculptural groups, films and photographs, many of them based on found items, whether images or objects -– appears to be boundless. One work is conceptually born from the last and flows into the next; each exhibition connects to both the preceding and the following ones.
Yet the Greek Cypriot artist can easily pinpoint a beginning. After graduating from London’s Royal College of Art in 2003, she returned to Cyprus. In a second-hand shop in Nicosia in 2004, she happened upon a stack of French magazines from the 1950s and found that the images inside resonated with her. Such an accidental encounter suits the artist’s practice. Her small, subtle collages may be excruciatingly precise; her installations, carefully considered; and her films, measured. Yet she courts chance, both in the creation of individual pieces and in their final installation.
Images seem to double as guides for Epaminonda, who now lives and works in Berlin. Early in her career, they consisted mostly of photographs and plates found in books and magazines from the 1940s–60s, which have a certain composition and colour, due to their age and the printing techniques of that era. Epaminonda brings them back to life through simple yet immediate gestures: cuts or erasures leave empty spaces, often to be filled with a landscape from elsewhere, an abstraction or perhaps a solid colour. Reflecting the rise in leisure and tourism, many images show people looking – at art or nature, monuments or sculptures, animals – consuming the world as an encyclopaedic picture book. Epaminonda’s gestures can effect a strange inversion of lifelessness and animation: the people start to look like objects while the objects come alive.
In 2005, the artist started making black and white collages featuring children in vaguely unsettling situations. The scenes look idyllic – a family porch, a rose garden – but the children may be surrounded by intimidating adults, or their eyes have been cut out like spooky paper dolls: part human, part photographic paper. In 2007, she turned to architectural images, cutting up well-known monuments in such a way that they appear empty or in ruins. Captions may escape her scissors, leading to mistaken identities. Untitled *36 (2007) declares itself ‘La Tour Eiffel’ when it’s clearly Notre Dame de Paris, although the cathedral’s intricately carved rosette windows, heavy wooden doors and tympanums have been excised so that one glimpses the Champs de Mars behind while the curving underside of Eiffel’s tower modestly peeps through the door.
Around 2007, Epaminonda introduces colour, either by using found colour pictures or by placing coloured paper behind the intersticies sliced in them. She photographs found photographs, creating new compositions of her own through cropping, as in her ‘Polaroid’ series (2008–9). She will shoot her own material from life or re-film old television shows and movies with Super 8. Her contribution to the 2007 Cyprus Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale – the three-channel installation Tarahi IIII, V, VI (Turmoil, 2007) from the ‘Tarahi’ series (2006–ongoing) – featured Greek movies from the ’60s re-filmed and re-edited digitally. Along with these works, the artist screened the first five films of the series ‘Chronicles’ (2010–ongoing) at the eponymous exhibition at Site Gallery in Sheffield in 2010. Filmed on Super 8 and transferred digitally, the films present mere fragments which the artist places in a way that creates new associations between them.
Both photography and film appear to arrest the world at a particular moment in time. Yet Epaminonda’s cuts, edits and collages underscore how these mediums make a particular moment capable of appearing in different times and places. Her preference for older visual material may seem nostalgic, but her gestures prove that they have passed through not only her hands but also other contexts. The viewer is not transported directly to a pure past but rather sees a hybrid accumulation of various visual histories on one image along with forms and relationships inside it. The found image is found by others; looking becomes a kind of glue. Gazes or people may be connected in her collages, sometimes forming geometric shapes in a circuit. A person gazing at a green mountain creates an inlaid pyramid of connecting yellow lines in Untitled 009c/g (2007); a Greek bronze of a javelin thrower on a plinth becomes encased in a red cube in Untitled 0011c/g (2007).
For the 5th Berlin Biennale in 2008, Epaminonda added another dimension to the flat found photograph: taking over a space inside the Neue Nationalgalerie and carefully orchestrating it with self-designed plinths and display cases alongside collages in a faux museum arrangement. This installation_ Untitled_ (2007–8) marks the first time she paired her collages with found sculptures and other objects, including a goldfish tank and a plant. The ancient Greek Kouros figure in Untitled 008c/g (2007) seems to glow with a faint yellow aura alongside a group of African girls, scantily dressed in beaded finery, in Untitled 03c/a (2007). In the shift from two to three dimensions, the collages become less an image than another kind of object to be placed, each with its own specific frame. The placements become another manifestation of collage, although images are paired with others according to the recurrence of a particular colour, motif, gesture or line. What the pictures depict is as important as their purely formal elements; the Greek Kouros figure becomes as significant as the yellow-coloured aura.
The vitrine displayed open books, which are excerpts from Infinite Library, an ongoing project started in 2007 with the artist Daniel Gustav Cramer. Epaminonda and Cramer dismantle found books, swap their pages and rebind them, allowing for new possibilities, contrasts and connotations. Her decision to display only excerpts is typical since the intersticies in her work – cuts, caesuras – are often as crucial as the actual objects or images. What’s shown points to what’s missing. The installation was so precise that viewers could have been lulled into the sense of being in a historical museum exhibition. Yet there were no display labels, no context given, and ultimately viewers were forced to guess what the collection of items meant, why they even belonged in a group.
Many shows – such as ‘VOL. I, II & III’ at Malmö Konsthall in 2009, ‘VOL. IV’ at Rodeo gallery in Istanbul in 2009 or ‘VOL. VI’ at Tate Modern in 2010 – offer partial presentations of possibly infinite series. Primitive or ancient sculptures, ethnic vases, paper collages, black and white and colour bookplates arranged in groupings- seem to exist as three-dimensional collages, which refer to museum practices yet fail to deliver their didactic messages. These collections seem to constitute a specific archive but exist as an open-ended question. With these exhibitions, Epaminonda perfected her treatment of space and came up with a walk-in collage, based on movement, colour, composition and a consideration of how people navigate their way through a show. Once you are in the space, you are in the work.
This concept came to fruition this past summer at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle. Epaminonda’s solo show added seven new films to the ‘Chronicles’ series debuted at Site Gallery, which were screened in a specific setting designed by the artist. She created a parcours – a maze across four darkened spaces – which forced visitors to follow a path and to discover the films sequentially while using them as beacons. In her take on Plato’s cave, images flickered on the walls, offering a glimpse of an ideal yet missing whole. In one space, three projections were positioned so that visitors could see them separately or together as a triptych. Only the sound offered a sense of completion. The path through the show was accompanied by haunting music commissioned from the Manchester group Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides.
Four films featured prolonged shots, captured by the artist on Super 8 and digitally transferred. All of the films were screened as loops. One film gradually circles a neo-classical sculpture in a park; a glistening sun repetitively sets through the tops of some trees in what becomes an endless dusk; a mountain looms over a stunning lake, its craggy point reflected in the still mirrored surface; on another lake, a small boat cuts a frothy wake, reaching its destination, only to recommence its voyage. Another film captures a flowing waterfall – an infinite image that reappears in many of Epaminonda’s works – while others move through a series of still images: antique sculptures in black and white or colour; natural vistas; ceramics, pots and vases, which look like Giorgio Morandi paintings saturated in Technicolor.
Some objects are filmed from life; others are filmed from photographs or postcards; many are set against paper backgrounds in primary colours. In one sequence, a postcard shows a man standing in front of a neo-classical sculpture against a red background; the postcard itself is filmed against a bright orange paper background. Screened at the end, this sculpture recalls a statue captured in the show’s first film. Indeed, the films are connected through deliberate and accidental pairings of scenes, images and footage. Although Epaminonda set up a path for viewers, each film loop has a different duration so that every visitor could experience a unique combination of images and associations. Calculating how many times one could visit, how many contrasts and connections one could see, inevitably leads to a consideration of infinity and chance. The feeling is akin to stepping into a mirrored maze, where the reflections show endless new vistas, leaving us in awe and puzzlement, with only a shallow conception of time and space, with neither beginning nor end.
For her show at MoMA’s Project Gallery, which runs from November 2011 to February 2012, Epaminonda is presenting Tarahi IIII, V, VI in a new installation with images, objects and structures, all informed by the films. Her solo show at Kunsthaus Zürich has been postponed until the beginning of 2013. She plans to work on a new film with a producer in Cyprus and to shoot most of it on the island. Filming in Cyprus could bring the artist back not only to her origins but also to that moment in 2004 when she accidently discovered the old French magazines in a second-hand shop. This beginning may soon become part of the future.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 3