Alexandra Moschovi, “The Burden of self-consciousness”,

Athensartreview no13, June’07


What is it that makes a dead cockroach so appealing? I wonder, a hopeless entomophobic myself, gazing at Panos Kokkinias’ monumental, handsomely framed still-life of an unfortunate but ever so photogenic dictyopterous. Could it be the misplaced adrenaline thrill that is tied in with all phobias and traumatic memories and which the recent preoccupation of contemporary artists with the repulsive and the abject often draws upon?[1] Could it be the uncanniness of the trivial, or rather the defamiliarisation of the familiar for some, which photographed and presented larger than life reveals another kind of Benjaminian “optical unconscious”?[2] Or is it the sense that this cannot simply be taken at face value, that there is some kind of metonymy, which one has to unravel?

If one were to resort to semiotics, then on the level of denotation the signifier is both the index and the icon of a dead cockroach; that is, as straightforward and tautological a message as in any photograph. Yet, the signified is, I find, intriguingly multilayered. Given that cafard (masculine), the French word for cockroach, stands for melancholy and nostalgia (spleen or les idées noires more fittingly) and cafarde (feminine) means “telltale”, the image can become a symbol of psychological conundrums, and, on another level of signification, a firm statement about photography’s own ontology. Some (and I refer here to both good old-fashioned photo-phobic Philistines and hard-core photography devotees) may claim that the above reading is far-fetched and perhaps unnecessarily cryptic, especially as the photographic message is more often than not thought to be immediate and conceptually accessible (a “language without a code” for many, and not just Barthes’ enthusiasts). Others may be tempted to suggest, eavesdropping on current debates around the spectacularisation of mainstream art, that it is just scale that blesses such a banal topic with the aura of the artwork. It is true that size does matter, in all sorts of ways and practices one could playfully argue, but most of us have realised at some point in life that size cannot be a panacea. Kokkinias’ work has consistently proved that the large format and the emphasis on the kind of saturating lifelike detail that has been eloquently described as “data sublime”[3] is a means and not an end in itself, and thus it is the end, that is, the poetics of the subject matter, that justifies the means in this case.

Kokkinias has long been after the modernist-in-orientation obsession with the medium’s “unique phenomena”,[4] the fascination with the act of taking rather than making photographs and its respective metaphysics. In his mise-en-scènes, the triviality of the event photographed and the (seeming) instantaneity of the picture-making skilfully turn the image into an ordinary snap, the kind of photograph one would take (nowadays probably using their mobile phone) to show their friends how exceptionally big insects were in that wretched cottage they rented out for their Mediterranean Easter break. There is no evidence that this is not just a snap of an objet trouvé but a “hard-won” image as one cannot possibly be aware of the fact that the artist kept the arthropod’s cadaver in a carton cigarette case for an entire year before planting it in that dusty corner and meticulously turning it into an artfully artless still-life. It is this very delicate balance between reality and artifice, event and non-event, chance and performance, index and digital forgery that make up the idiosyncratic verisimilitude that is the gist of Kokkinias’ work. But does the epiphasis of fabrication or the knowledge of the craftsmanship involved in the only too recent return to the real (or perhaps more accurately to “the realistic”) attribute a different kind of exhibition value to such pictures?  As Régis Durand wonders, “why bother to make unreal worlds rather than delve into the infinite strangeness of the real? For the pleasure of invention and performance?”[5] I would tend to think that there is more to it than phantasmagoria.

Working towards a definition of what he first termed “the directorial mode”, A.D. Coleman would maintain in the mid 1970s that the sectarian clash between the advocates of purist photography and those keen on experimentation and fiction had been all along a philosophical rather than a stylistic issue; one that was deeply rooted in the “presumption of [the] moral righteousness accrued to purism” and which treated “the external world as a given, to be altered only through photographic means en route to the final image” and not as some kind of “raw material, to be itself manipulated as much as desired prior to the exposure of the negative”. [6] This old idealist notion of analogy and truth as photography’s inherent essence was to be conclusively challenged within the context of Conceptual art. By re-enacting and fabricating pseudo-documents, photoconceptualists specifically targeted documentary, not so much in order to comment upon its social function or use value but primarily to attack the ideological premises of realism.[7] In this spirit, the constructed imagery that developed out of the 1970s conceptualist tradition and the poststructuralist theory saw photography as “para- rather than meta-language” and attempted to deconstruct by reconstruction and allegory the empiricist attachment to the “translucent” signifier.[8]

This assumption has been at the heart of Kokkinias’ photographic practice. Having briefly indulged in his early career into the fleetingness of street photography and the enticing force of serendipity, he has been, for the past decade or so, painstakingly engineering the instantaneity of the seemingly unmediated document. As stated elsewhere, he immobilises  “the ‘micro gestures’ that are either unobserved or largely concealed (performed in privacy) and which are subtly illustrative of the intricacies of social life, and this revelation of the unseen and the momentary as a prolonged instant provides the drama in the picture”. [9] Yet, he uses these “slices of life” (what Jeff Wall has termed “near documentary” as the re-enacting of everyday happenings that moves against a “sliding scale of plausibility and veracity”),[10] not just to tell a tale but also, and perhaps most importantly as far as I am concerned, to comment upon photography’s ontological integrity and self-consciousness. Juxtaposing the politics of form with the politics of subject matter, Kokkinias aims at moving the discussion beyond the retinal effect. As such, his images are not digital trompes l’oeil of the so called “photography of invention” genre, in which the emphasis on staging, seriality, collage and manipulation that was originally employed to disengage photography from its inherent instantaneity[11] has culminated in a return to the valorisation of craftsmanship and spectacle; neither are they devised to tick the boxes of contemporary art debates and other agendas per se.

            Far from being a kind of postmodern pastiche, Kokkinias’ references stem from a pool of disparate, often contrasting iconographic and literal sources, lived experiences, covert phantasies and unspoken fears that centre upon diachronic universal values. From Surrealist imagery, post-war figurative painting and photo-conceptualism to film noir, popular narrative cinema, and the tediousness of the everyday, the plurality and cross-fertilisation of pictorial quotations that inform his images become pointedly prevalent in his latest work entitled Visitors (2006-2007), which is currently on show at Xippas Gallery in Athens.

Revolving time and again around the recurrent motifs of the presence/absence, weightlessness, anguish, and absurdity of existence, the series seem to take up the story that his self-portraits introduced some ten years ago. In that series, a clin d’oeil to Bruce Nauman’s performative self-portraits, Kokkinias staged himself in the claustrophobic scenery of urban living, which he treated as the space for the eruption of the intimate, the irrational, and the imaginary. There was an unnerving sense of scopophilia in those series, as one was lured to peep through a dense frame of references at the protagonist lost in himself and his own little, ritualistic deeds. Similarly in the present series, we are invited to gaze at individuals looking lost in alienated(ing) public spaces and witness what it is to be in a state of unknowingness. The spaces are in their majority specifically selected “non-places” in the dual sense that Marc Augé attributes to the term, that is, both non-relational, a-historical “spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce and leisure)” and anthropological spaces formulated by the relations that the individuals develop with these places.[12] The physical epitome of “supermodernity”, non-places disorientate the visitor/passenger/customer not just by the wealth of the typecast visual stimuli on offer but mainly by the very experience of an a-temporal space in which the sense of self and individual identity are invalidated. In Kokkinias’ silent pauses, the “passive joys of identity loss”[13] take on a sinister existential significance.

Like Beckett’s dramaturgy, Kokkinias allegorical narrative combines the physical and the spiritual, the burlesque and the serious, the logical and the irrational, the everyday and the strange, all framed within some kind of relentless stasis, as if it were a mode of being. The middle-aged goal-keeper waiting in vain as it seems in an empty field and the scantily dressed, young woman loitering in a dark corner of an underpass are emblematic of this stance. Despite appearing at first glance as generalised types that illustrate the human condition, the protagonists retain their individuality; their facial features are specifically discernible in the large size prints and which are named after them. Thus the man with the bewildered look on his face and the “visitor” label clumsily stuck on his jacket will always be Leonidas, as the Vermeerian elderly figure holding baby will be Theoni.

Time, real and photographed, expanded or compressed, is again the crucial determinant here. It may be that Kokkinias shares Beckett’s cyclical narrative but he invests the latter’s a-historical sense of “universal present time”[14] with a touch of historical specificity as all the locations selected do mark, even if subtly, specific moments and themes in modern Greek history and contemporary society. Equally, the fluid, multilayered time of narration, both within individual images and in the series as a whole, moves beyond the confines of the different chronological times at play and the narrative linearity of the event, occurring or reconstructed. Kokkinias uses the mutability of the digital image to facilitate the passage from one reality to the other and show that the real has become elastic in physical and conceptual terms.




[1] Hal Foster, “Traumatic Realism” in The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge/Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 130-6.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Small History of Photography” (1931) in One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter (London/New York: Verso, 1979), pp. 240-57.

[3] The term belongs to Julian Stallabrass, “What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography”, lecture, University of Newcastle, 02/05/2006.

[4] John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), unpaginated.

[5] Régis Durand text for the exhibition Vraisemblances, Xippas Gallery, Paris, 2007,, 12/06/2007.

[6] A. D. Coleman, “The Directorial Mode”, Artforum, September 1976, pp. 57, 55. Since its inception, photography’s mechanical contrivance and scientificism was thought to divest photographs of any “humanity” whilst its indexicality and realism allegedly hindered any claims to ideality and divine inspiration. Mid nineteenth century tableaux photography was the first conscious attempt of photographers to claim a place in the realm of the high arts. This type of genre photography re-invented not only photography’s narrativity by emulating the story-telling devises of history painting and the much-appraised Pre-Raphaelite luminous realism, but also its craftsmanship, using the autographic mark of the creator’s hand as, once again, the prime conveyor of sentiment, to shroud the imprint of the apparatus.

[7] Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, ed. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer (Los Angeles: The Museum of Modern Art/MIT Press, 1995), p. 252.

[8] John X. Berger and Olivier Richon, introduction to Other Than Itself: Writing Photography (Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications and Camerawork, 1989), unpaginated.

[9] Alexandra Moschovi, “Photography, Photographies and the Photographic: Between Images, Media, Contexts” in The Athens Effect: Photographic Images in Contemporary Art, ed. Theophilos Tramboulis, exhibition catalogue (Milan: Mudima, 2006), p. 18.

[10] Cliff Lauson, “Photography as Model”, Oxford Art Journal, 30/01/2007, p. 173.

[11] Joshua P. Smith, “The Photography of Invention” in The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the 1980s, exhibition catalogue (Washington D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1989), pp. 9-27.

[12] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Hone (London: verso, 1995), pp. 77, 94, 101.

[13] Ibid., p. 103.

[14] Lawrence Graver, Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 21.

Panos Kokkinias


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