I have gotten to know Christina Dimitriadis’s photography in an unusual way: For three summers now, my family has sublet her Berlin apartment and lived with her art daily. Every morning I wake up to I remember all of you, in which a young woman peers inquisitively into a mirror; we cannot see her face at all, just the dark twist of her hair, her tilted neck, and her shoulders. Not only is Mother & Son—a still life of an upholstered chair with a wooden sword plunged into its seat—displayed in my son’s temporary bedroom, but the chair itself is at her kitchen table. I recognize her apartment’s interiors as backdrops for many photos, which often picture the artist too. Staying at her house is a creative ouroboros.
Obviously, all viewers can’t get to know Dimitriadis’s work in this way. But it’s an uncannily perfect introduction to her work’s themes: memory and erasure, and the self in the context of family, country, and the structures they all inhabit, a concept captured in the ancient Greek word oikos. You could say Dimitriadis embodies and negotiates the EU crisis as it stands. Raised in Greece, Dimitriadis spent summers and vacations with her extended family in Hamburg, Salzburg, and Heligoland. The latter, the birthplace of Dimitriadis’s grandmother, is a tiny island in the North Sea, currently owned by Germany but historically a possession of Denmark and the United Kingdom and the site of a Nazi military base during World War II. She has contributed to documenta 14’s journal, which explores the North-South divide across Europe. Reflecting on her southern European heritage in light of the recent EU crisis, the artist has remarked: “Every Greek had to separate from part of his/her own history and create a new identity.”
Dimitriadis’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in Berlin, Rome, Warsaw, Athens, and Tokyo. We discussed her latest project, Island Hoping, a series of thirty photographs of small, rocky, uninhabitable Greek islands called skerries in the north Aegean Sea. The photographs are entirely unpeopled, stark, detailed, both painfully clear and inscrutable. The exhibition travels next to Warsaw, and Meta/Books published a catalog of the series in summer 2019.
We had hoped to conduct this interview in person in Christina’s flat, but logistics foiled that plan. Instead, we talked via Skype just days before my arrival in Berlin.
THE BELIEVER: Where did the idea for this series first occur to you? I realize that’s sometimes hard to pinpoint.
CHRISTINA DIMITRIADIS: In a way, I do know, because we have skerries across from our summer house. I used to swim or boat there and play with my brother on them. I grew up in this landscape, but I was not so much aware of it because we don’t use these islands. They’re just rock formations. Birds make nests there, but mostly you cannot survive on them.
In October 2015, I had a residency at Halkidiki, in northern Greece. Right across from the residency, there were these skerries. When I saw them, I knew I wanted to make a project with them. The residency offered me a boat to take me closer. The first time, I went to study what I wanted to photograph, so the next time I’d know the time and season when I wanted to go out again. The first eight photographs were taken there.
BLVR: When and how did you decide to extend the series?
CD: When I came back to Berlin and started working with the material, the whole crisis between the European Union and Turkey was playing out on the skerries in a funny way. I followed, mainly in the Greek newspapers, the rising tensions between Turkey and Greece over territorial disputes in the north Aegean Sea, especially on the islets called Anthropofagos, which means “man-eater” or “cannibal.” Young Greeks will put a flag on a skerry on the Greek territorial sea and the Turks will take it down.1 This line of islands is really the border between Asia and Europe, and a lot of conflict played out on this field. Some of these skerries are very close to the islands where all the refugees pass into Europe. It’s a turbulent zone.
BLVR: How did you decide where to take the second group of photos?
CD: In the beginning, my plan was to go to Mitilíni, the main port and capital city of the island Lesbos, where all the immigrants are coming in. But because they’re very overloaded there, I realized: OK, it’s not going to be a peaceful place. I don’t want to put a lot of tragedy in my work. My narration is more metaphorical, documenting things.
I called the mayor of Fournoi Korseon, an island complex in the north Aegean Sea that lies between Ikaria, Samos, and Patmos. I explained what I wanted to do, and the mayor said: “This is a fantastic project; you’re more than welcome.” He invited me and supported me with a boat and an apartment. That’s why, almost two years later, in spring 2018, I went to Fournoi Korseon, where the second segment of the series took place.
BLVR: Other than its relative calm, what drew you to this location?
CD: The archipelago of Fournoi Korseon is one of the biggest graveyards of shipwrecks in history. Archeologists have found shipwrecks from ancient Greece, the Roman era, the Byzantine and Ottoman eras.
If you try to pass through this area and you don’t know where the skerries are, then you have accidents. When the ships go under water, they sink into the very soft sand there. It preserves them perfectly, like mummies. It’s amazing to see what kind of passage this place was.
BLVR: The skerries do look like icebergs, and of course all islands go all the way down. How deep is the water around them?
CD: It’s deep. In the Greek islands, after three, four meters out from the mainland, it gets really deep.
BLVR: I have this impression as you’re talking that there’s this whole world of skerries out there. Maybe I’d see a skerry from the shore and swim to it, then another and another, and if I were the best swimmer in the world I could just keep going. Is that true?
CD: I’m a long swimmer, so I’m always attracted to doing this. But if you were shipwrecked and you saw a skerry, you might think: Oh, thank god. I found something.
BLVR: You’re dry.
CD: Yeah, ahoy! Dry land, you know? But a skerry is only dry land. There’s nothing there. No water, no food. Nothing can survive there.
BLVR: How big are the skerries? Because the issue is interestingly hard to see in the photograph. I can’t tell if this island was enormous, the size of my body, or somewhere in between.
CD: They vary in size. They go from very small, like ten people can stand on one, to extremely big. This one is quite large—the size of two buildings across.
BLVR: And you had to photograph this from a boat? How did that work?
CD: Yes, by boat. We went very early in the morning. I started the project out of season, in fall and spring. We’d drive to the site during the night so we were ready to capture the early morning light.
BLVR: Why did you choose those seasons?
CD: For many reasons. I like the light better; it’s not so strong. In summer, it’s very busy and touristic there. It’s impossible to find people to take you out on a boat in summertime. It’s much more expensive. And this scene could be full of boats. You’re not going to get this isolated feeling that I wanted to have.
BLVR: Do you recall if it was fall or spring when you took this photograph?
CD: This one was in the last week of October.
BLVR: How early in the morning was it?
CD: About 5 a.m.
BLVR: In most of the photographs, the water is very smooth and the sky is overcast. Were you trying for a similar color palette in all the photos?
CD: At the beginning I was. But for the second segment it was quite difficult to find this smooth water because it’s a very windy area. I didn’t have the budget or the time to stay there and wait for the perfect five, six, ten minutes in a day when this is possible. We had ten days of such strong wind, I had to finish the shooting at night. Which is not ideal, but it works, too, like after 7 p.m. You have more limited time, though.
BLVR: How did you position yourself for those five minutes of action?
CD: It’s not five minutes, but it’s a really short time. You really have to have a good boat driver who can drive straight [and hold the boat steady].
I tried standing in a boat to photograph straight on and try to be the same distance away. Which, of course, I then perfect with cropping and straightening in Photoshop later, because it’s impossible to do this in a boat. The boat moves all the time, so it’s not easy. Sometimes I’d lie on the boat, and we’d all get wet. One of my boat drivers, Vasilis—he sometimes tied me to the boat.
BLVR: What other problems did you encounter?
CD: Organizing the trip, of course. The research was nice, but then the trip was more difficult. When I was coming back from the shooting, the camera lenses were really dirty. They needed professional cleaning every day.
BLVR: Why, because of saltwater spray?
CD: Yeah, seawater.
BLVR: Is that a tidal line on this skerry? It’s darker at the bottom, like it’s wet. If you came every day at 5 a.m., it wouldn’t necessarily always be the same point in the tide, right?
CD: In Greece we don’t have high and low tides. But you can see on the tops that the skerries are very white because it doesn’t rain so often there. You have twenty rains per year: that’s it. The skerries are surrounded by water, but they’re never touched by water, or seldom.
BLVR: The skerry in this photo has a cleft in the middle, so there’s this part jutting up with this extremely dark shadow right next to it. It has an inside as well as an outside. It reminds me of those Japanese prints where the illustrator gives the viewer a path or bridge to go inside the landscape. Except the skerries aren’t nearly so welcoming.
CD: Yes, yes. Some of them have holes where you can see the water on the other side. But that was kind of impossible to photograph, because the holes are very, very small. The skerries are beautiful and ugly at the same time.
BLVR: When you were describing the way the Greeks and the Turks would each plant their flag on a skerry, there’s something very childlike about that. Like: I declare this my island, except they’re not kidding. They’re adults.
CD: That was the game I used to play with my brother as kids. We’d swim, and whoever was climbing first onto the skerry was like, “I’m Pirate Dimitriadis and this is my island.”
BLVR: The photographs are all sixty by ninety centimeters, the size of a window or a bit wider than my shoulders. It’s interesting not seeing any people in your pictures, because it makes me look at the skerry like it’s a person.
CD: That is what I say: they are portraits of skerries. I call them portraits.
BLVR: Can you tell me more about the title?
CD: I played with the title, Island Hoping. In the ’70s and ’80s, when I was growing up, it was a great tradition to go from one island to another—island hopping. There were still very quiet destinations for tourists with nice, clean, small rooms. Before that, under the Greek dictatorship [of Georgios Papadopoulos, from 1967 to 1973], they sent political prisoners to these islands, where some of them died. The islands transformed into trendy tourist destinations, when decades before, they were prisons. It’s very important to know about the islands’ transformation, the part these islands have played in Greek history.
BLVR: Has the meaning of the series changed for you over time?
CD: One of my favorite movies is Antonioni’s L’Avventura. It’s all dramatized around the islands. It starts with a luxury cruise, then the main character disappears. Recently I watched the movie again and played the psychoanalyst to myself, trying to see how my unconscious goes back. Why do I choose to do this project and I don’t choose to do something else?
And then I said: OK, look at your childhood game. You were always fascinated by these rocks, and then one of the most influential movies in your life is shot in this landscape. That’s very peculiar, actually. When people make Mediterranean movies, they don’t use these skerries as a background. They use the beauty of the inhabited islands, not the skerries.
I can say now: I chose the skerries because they exist. They are visible, but we tend not to pay attention to them. They’re very strong, and in photographing them, they become very monumental.