Marina Kotzamani, ‘Athens As Utopia'
Athens in the Twenty-First Century, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art - Volume 31, Number 2, May 2009, MIT Press, pp 20-22
At first sight, Panos Kokkinias’s photographs have nothing to do with Athens. This artist has a flair for utopias. In Visitors, a series of recent large-size color photographs, exhibited at the Xippas gallery in Athens and in Paris in 2007, the shot of space is dominant in his characteristic manner, containing the human figure in small scale. The photographs look like arrested, frozen moments of an unfolding drama that has a Robert Wilson-like feel. Space has an artificial, unreal quality, looking like a theatre or film set. Compositions are meticulously planned. Surfaces are well-lit, stark, polished, and geometrical. The minimalist, deliberate gestures or contemplative posing of the solitary figures on the sets invite us to see them as characters. As the title of the series Visitors suggests, these are figures in transit, caught in the midst of action. They occupy places of transport such as a platform, the corridor of a hotel, or an underpass. Where are these figures coming from? Where are they going? The pictures emanate mystery and existential angst, imbued by theatricality.
At a closer look, the spaces in the Visitors series are recognizable to Athenians. Most have been shot in the sites of the ultra modern post-2000 constructions in Athens, the trendy lifestyle restaurants and hotels, or the public works such as the airport and the metro. These sites in Athens constitute material Kokkinias likes to work with. In Visitors, he has left the chaos of daily living out of his compositions. Though familiar, his spaces have an alien quality, which is precisely how Athenians feel about the actual new spaces in the city where they are currently inscribing history.
Alienation can be liberating. Living in a city of ancient monuments, where the value of antiquity is overemphasized, has tended to leave Athenians with a creative block and a feeling of powerlessness. In the words of Nobel Prize laureate poet George Seferis, “I woke up with this marble head in my hands / Which exhausts my elbows and I do not know where to put it; / It was falling into the dream as I was rising from the dream / Thus our lives joined and it will be hard for them to disentangle.” In Kokkinias’s pictures, Athenian spaces figure as clean slates inspiring freedom to create, unburdened by the weight of history.
The stories in the Visitors series are intriguing and subtle. In the photograph entitled Urania the new metro of Athens looks like a place out of a science-fiction movie, a futurist construction of shiny metal and glass. A lonesome woman in a blue uniform is in the frame, pointlessly cleaning a spotless glass surface. This absurd gesture has metaphysical qualities; on the opposite metallic surface are reflected the blurry shadows of people. The only living soul in the metallic world of the metro is in dialogue with shadows, through the act of cleaning.
In Kokkinias’s pictures, the metro becomes a space that generates poetry. The artist not only approaches spaces as clean slates but his characters as well. There is nothing specifically Greek or Athenian about the characters in the Visitors series. Their defining characteristic, frequently highlighted by the presence of a suitcase, is that they are in transit. This offsets them as global rather than as Athenian citizens. Indeed, the photographs have an aesthetic that appears inspired by the Internet, rather than by Greek culture and tradition. The clear lines of the spatial design and the loud colors evoke online sites for games in some pictures. The solitary smallscale figures of the visitors in these spaces look like avatars about to execute actions programmed in the games.
In the photograph entitled Aliki a woman is leaning on the wall of an underpass, half of which is in darkness, while the other half leads to light. A large arrow is pointing at her. What direction will she take? Or will she remain motionless? In another picture entitled Leonidas, a man is awkwardly balancing on the periphery of a circle on a geometrically patterned floor. This is the foyer of Megaron Mousikis, a concert hall built in marble. The shot of the foyer is claustrophobic. The visitor appears trapped in a shiny box, where the geometry on the floor determines his options; will the avatar of this man start zooming around the periphery of the circle? Or will he move to another pattern on the floor? Far from being simplistic, as in many video games, these options in the Visitors series are invested with significance. There is anxiety in the stasis of the characters, distilling the existential essence of the communications culture. Moreover, characters have a flexible sense of identity that interprets well the novelty and the impermanence of our world. Employing contemporary idioms, Kokkinias approaches Athens as a fictional or virtual space, projecting its present into an indeterminate, malleable future.