"Aikaterini Gegisian: A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas"

Photoworks Annual - Issue 25 (2019): A New Europe


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Aikaterini Gegisian: A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas
Allison K Young

A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (2015), Aikaterini Gegisian’s seven-part visual narrative, comprises a series of 65 photo collages in which found images of Soviet-era Armenia, Greece, and Turkey are overlaid, juxtaposed, and poetically reassembled. Sourced from mid-20th-century tourist catalogues and photographic albums, each photograph once served as a conduit for the expression of nationalist mythologies. Scenes of leisure and labour, for instance – variously mapped onto picturesque seaside villages or looming concrete towers and industrial infrastructure – promote the triumphs of the modernist project, while representations of nature and the ancient past – crumbling ancient ruins flowering meadows, and folkloric depictions of rural life – offer a sense of comfort in rootedness and collective histories. In Gegisian’s collages, however, these images are decontextualised and disrupted, which erases their ideological assertions. The images are infused with an aesthetics of ecstasy and embodiment, or destabilised through allusions to migration.

Throughout her practice, Gegisian, whose familial lineage spans the geographies of Greece, Armenia, and Turkey has interrogated notions of cultural filiation and collective identity. In Self Portrait as an Ottoman Woman (2012–16), she searched for belonging amid contradictory ethnic, social, and religious formations across a diversity of territories that were once united under Ottoman rule. Taking the form of a gridded matrix of vintage postcards depicting female subjects from Cairo to Thessaloniki, this work calls attention to the ways in which imperialist and Orientalist fantasies are projected onto the female body.

A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas likewise envisions the body, the city, and the sea as complex sites of ideological formation. The series was produced for the exhibition Armenity at the 56th Venice Biennale, which commemorated the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by re-examining Armenian identity through the lens of diaspora and deterritorialisation. Gegisian’s project, likewise, transcends the strictures of the nation state. In the first image of the first chapter, ‘The Sea of Echoes’, she overlays two photographs of Mount Ararat, seen from either side of the Turkish–Armenian border, highlighting the incongruity between topography and geopolitics and acknowledging how natural phenomena are translated into nationalist monuments.

Each chapter in A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas centres on the image of the sea as a borderless, generative zone of contact and relation, fluidity and circulation. In chapter six, ‘The Sea of Waves’ (reproduced here), which addresses metamorphosis and change, the first few collages make water visible within urban and social space. Like roadways and cities, bodies of water engender the circulation of images, ideas, and people across space and time. In the final collages, Gegisian celebrates water’s resistance to fixity and containment, its relationship to the body. There is an explicit embrace of sexual energy in repeated images of waterfalls, as white rapids cascade over rocky terrain, beyond the boundaries of the photographic frame. Such images emphasise the gendered symbolism in myths of national origin – the birth of the nation, the founding fathers.

In one collage, two young divers swim in Cleopatra’s Pool, gliding above the submerged ruins of classical columns. From our contemporary vantage, it is difficult not to interpret the scene as a harbinger of the rise and fall of civilizations, the threat of rising sea levels, and environmental cataclysm. The sea has become an assurgent symbol of the stateless, the fugitive. The so-called migrant crisis is communicated through affective images of boats carrying refugees to European shores. Amid the ensuing global rise in nationalist isolationism, the UK braces for Brexit, and the symbolic import of the nation’s identity as an island grows increasingly potent, prompting questions about the sustainability of transnational unity. Gegisian’s ‘The Sea of Waves’ reminds us, however, that history moves in cycles. Social and political movements come in waves that swell, dissipate, and re-emerge anew. Engagement with the past can help us to better shape the future, to set transformation in motion.