A conversation with Haris Kakarouhas
by Ian Jeffrey, Art Critic
Q. What sort of pictures do you think these are….in terms of the usual categories?
A. As we are ushered into the 21st century, we witness the absolute reign of the image. Living and working in this era, flooded by artistic by-products, massively produced and consumed, we are looking for that artistic work, which can escape the illusory surrounding reflections and stand out as an integral entity, qualified to truly move and challenge its public. What is also obvious is that no one can stand in front of an image silently. The number of people who connect to the image through their feelings tends to be diminishing; the majority approaches it through the intellect. They attempt to explain, to find some meaning or the dominant concept, or make a comment according to the reality they are living. Furthermore, some attempt to categorize it according to its form. The fact is that no one looks at the image; they all use their eyes in order to give food to their restless mind. Therefore, today the greatest part of so called artistic images does not exist solely for themselves. There are images that occupy themselves with ideas, politics or aesthetics, in a continuous struggle for novelty. The artistic community in the big majority seems to do justice to Jean Baudrillard talking for the new reality of assimilation in our age. The principle of representation, -representation of concepts, “since objects no longer exist” - like a distant echo from the Italian Renaissance, informs anew the 21st century approach to art-making. The problem seems to be that, usually, models of assimilation are nothing but creations of the mind -the logical mind of cause and effect- and finally always stands separate from reality. In addition the products of such models are designed for the use of the model itself. And that’s what more or less is shown by the products of contemporary art production.Against this reality, my active role as an artist and reflective practitioner is oriented toward relocating the image in its integral presence, in other words, redefining image-as-entity, and of course, to find the way and the space to create such a photographic image. The whole work is based on a more ambitious view of humanity than the contemporary allows for. I have a strong conviction and a sense of obligation to express this alternative view.
So, I am far more interested in the images themselves, rather than in any categories under which they might be grouped. Nevertheless, I could say that for me, they put together the diary of my daily encounters with objects, places and faces, during my constant roaming within given time and space; of course, I remain aware of the fact that these images, differ greatly from the kind of images we are used to calling “personal diary”.
Q. Why did you choose Cuba?
A. I could call upon reasons like the living memory of one of my teenage heroes, - I refer to Che of course-, as much as the particularity of the political system; or maybe the fact that I had already acquired a stimulating though slight flavour of the place a few years ago, when on the occasion of a photographic exhibition in Phototeca de Cuba -in which I participated-, I was given a first chance to visit Havana for a few days. Yet, I’m still unclear as to the determinative reason for my final choice of destination, since I could have ended up going just as well to Baia, to Haiti, or to Santo Dominico. What I was mainly looking for, was a place that lives in myth. Cuba lives within two myths; the popular myth of socialistic utopia, as well as the myth which finds expression as spiritual truth, lying in the fusion of African magic and Catholicism. The unique product of this fusion is a type of man quite different from the Western European who experiences life assisted mainly by his analytical and rational faculties. Contrary to this model, the Cubans do not live through the head but through the heart; Among the qualities which they embody, is their access to immediate experience, their effortless expression of feeling, life in the present in other words; still, the quality that characterizes best the Cuban Psyche is the fundamental connection with earth, which grants all vital energy and free-flowing sexual expression.
And after all, travelling is itself a sort of paramount initiation into these very qualities of ourselves -sometimes subdued-, which happen to resonate with the very same qualities that characterize the land we visit.
Q. You have taken both colour and black and white pictures. What is that which colour adds to or deducts finally?
A. This is an issue that commonly concerns photographers and film makers even though the technical problems of the colour film reproduction have been solved long ago. In black & white the image has greater weight; furthermore, the use of this type of film facilitates the photographer, since, by omitting colour, he automatically achieves a first stage of abstraction, an initial metamorphosis of reality. Colour adds problems. Firstly, it interprets, - a portrait in a red shirt is completely different from the same portrait in a white shirt-.Moreover, as an element of the frame it is very powerful, the photographer has to find a way to make it “invisible”, - not by turning the picture monochromatic of course, or by using dim light which almost impedes the perception of colour; once the photographer achieves to turn colour “invisible”, then colour becomes the aroma that envelops all things, links the images more with life and ultimately renders it more poetically.
Q. A lot of the pictures are shown in side lighting.. Things in them stand out in low relief. The pictures don’t give a full account of depth.
A. Usually, when we speak of depth, namely perspective, we refer to the space that opens up having as its centre the object that is being represented, the infinite of space in which this object is incorporated.
I prefer the images where the depth of field is determined by the depth of the viewer’s gaze and not by the depth of the space that hosts the represented object. Therefore, we speak of a kind of reversed perspective. In this kind of picture, the main artistic measure is not space, but time. And when we say time, we obviously do not mean the time of frozen motion. This frame of time makes the represented object emerge from depth and approach the viewer, it adds to it a Catholic duration. We could say that the existence of this concrete time allows the absolute of a presence. Anyhow, it is the measure of time after all which allows the entrance of photography into the domain of fine arts. In order to exemplify this concept we could call upon pictures like the Fayoum paintings, works of artists like the Greek master Theophanes, his pupil Rubliov, and Malevich, or equally bring to mind the cinema of Drayer, Bresson and Tarkofski. Possibly the references sound dissimilar, but I believe that beyond all aesthetic affinity, they are governed by a common principle. Namely, that the ego of the creator, expressed as an idea, a comment, or feeling, does not oppress his subject. Of course, until Rubliov's era, the artist was a forcibly deprived of any sense of self, as he adhered a priori to the myth of the community he served, but in modern times for an artist abandoning his ego can be a conscious choice.
Q. Do you recognize any sort of formula in your work?
A. We could possibly trace similarities in content or in frame but this does not constitute a kind of formula; moreover, a formula was not the goal, rather the outcome of my way of viewing reality, of my existential attitude toward the world. In other words, it is not a stylistic choice but rather, an ethical one.
Q. What sort of pictures did you take when you first went to Cuba?
A. They were pictures of objects and faces, yet rendered in a different way. They were usually related to each other as they possessed some narrative element; often there was an element of subversion, which we could call surrealistic. For me, it was more than anything a comment, by virtue poetic, bringing to mind what is being called magic realism in literature, yet it still remained in nature a comment. I was an observer from a certain distance; I was reflecting on that which I witnessed and the images were more approachable through the intellect. In certain instances, the prevailing element was form; but even though they received acclaim and exhibited features of a "personal style" I was not pleased with them, it was as if I had seen them somewhere else before… The same thing happened with portraits. They were pictures of people in the environment in which they lived, so it was easy to make comparisons, comments, references between the face and the objects that surrounded it.
Q. When did your attitude change? When you were working, or retrospectively? Did you notice that you were making a different kind of picture?
A. In black and white these images emerged almost from the very beginning of shooting, because I was clear as to what I wanted. In colour, - in lack of serious prior experience - it took me some time, in order to actually see one or two of them, even though I was essentially lead by the black and white. The most important reason though was that from a point on, I didn’t do any photographic work in Cuba. I was just flowing with life, without Cuba being any more a foreign land; in other words, both distance and observation had been annulled, the click of the camera would come as naturally as my breathing.
Q. How do you recognize the subject you want to shoot, and how do you approach it?
A. For me, the main issue is not to find what to photograph, rather it is, to open my eyes and discover my gaze. For me, photographing is synonymous to recognizing in external reality my inner self. And I’m not talking about my ego, but my centre, myself in other words. If you can put in order your inner self then you can just surrender to your gaze and it will lead you; where it stops, you click; things come to meet you, you do not chase after them. On the contrary, if you surrender to your ego, the outcome will be a comment or an intellectual construction, an artifice often times pompous and easy, or simply dull. I could therefore describe the process as a kind of meditation or prayer if you wish, -with its Eucharistic meaning -. The eye touches ecstatically upon an object which suddenly becomes the centre of the world. A similar thing happens with faces -, already intimate or seen for the first time-. That which matters the most is communication; Communication with people might occur instantly, might take time, or never happen at all. Sometimes, this communication might not be verbal at all. There were times when a portrait was done without even a single word. Photographing becomes a ritual with a secret choreography, where the element that prevails is rhythm; and as Stelios Ramfos puts it, the word rhythm does not explain the type of expression, but a space completely absorbed in time. So, in the magical moment of the click what is recorded on the emulsion is mainly time. This time of course is not the “real” time of photographic exposure which is measured in fractions of a second, but a different time, vertical I would say, which, assisted by the device of the frame, escorts the face into infinity. The only thing I had to do was to roam around the houses of friends and acquaintances, or walk the streets of the suburbs mainly, where everything could happen at any moment; there, I could seek someone's acquaintance on his front door, or find myself invited into a stranger's house which I could leave a quarter later, or the morning after.
Q. How do you identify your best pictures?
A. I’m trying to spot out the pictures in which the final goal has been achieved, namely the presence of the other in conditions that reveal him whole while at the same time portray him. I’m not looking for a particular kind of man, neither am I looking for a psychological portrait; I do not want people to narrate something to me, I do not want to penetrate them and of course, I do not wish to criticize them, I accept them as they are; I would like to embrace them, I would like them to stand in front of me completely open but without revealing any of their secrets. The image thus acquires a mystical character and it is more presence rather than representation. This applies equally to the faces as well as to the objects.
Q. Are there any interconnections between the pictures, or are they all independent and free-standing?
A. The image constitutes an event in itself, it owes thus to stand on its own and be independent from the rest. What links the pictures is neither subject nor form, but the gaze of the one who created them. At this point, I believe we could draw a parallelism between photography and Haiku, due to the simplicity of the latter's form, but also due to the fact that a Haiku makes use of the images as if they do not mean something else beyond themselves, it rejects thus the separation between content and form. But also because, as Basso suggests," go to pine-tree if you want to find out about the pine-tree, and to the bamboo mast if you want to find out about the bamboo. And in so doing, make sure you forget all about yourself. Or otherwise you will impose your presence upon your object and you won't learn a thing». A photographic album of course is something different, with its own flux, peeks and silences, where the images must be viewed in relation to each other.
Q. The pictures are beautiful, but what exactly does this mean?
A. For me, visible beauty is not being determined by aesthetic standards, it is rather more of a metaphysic concept. It has to do with universality or truth of things, and when we say truth we mean the point where the consciousness of the artist meets the material of the art he serves,-light in the case of photography -, allowing him thus to create. As this meeting point is absolutely unique, this truth is completely personal.
Q. Does it worry you that your pictures are beautiful?
A. These pictures do not embellish a reality because they concern an absolutely subjective reality, my own world in other words. They are the part or better even the quality of Cuba that best resonates with me. Consequently these pictures in my eyes cannot but be beautiful. For, as we cannot turn mimesis into representation dividing it into form and content, equally we cannot separate beauty from truth because we will divorce the spirit from the body and thus transform art from a metamorphic power to rational comprehension.
Q. The images might be called luminist. The light from behind seems to come from the interiors of objects. The objects look like things in a church, and the light is sacred looking.
A. “Holy” does not concern something external that surpasses us, but declares the mystical aspect of things; the part which is not approachable by the analytical models of scientific thought. This is the aspect I wish to stand upon and point out that is why I present them as emerging from the darkness of oblivion or the dim mystery of existence. So I stop in front of the small objects and the faces of everyday life. For if I walk by them, I disregard my own life. And I do not wish to explain them, analyze them or comment upon them; I want to see them and accept them as whole; because in that way I might even get a chance to see myself. Images are not settings of the intellect but rather, an experience of my whole being. At any rate, isn’t the artist the man searching within himself, the story teller who communes the truth with his personal experience, a successor of the ancient Shaman? It is just that in our times, we owe to find a way to amalgamate myth with science, the analytic mind with intuition, rationality with the irrational. Thus, I believe, by holding on to the teachings which scepticism and the irony of the post modern have bestowed upon us, we can advance in a new approach of the myth by composing something new and different. By letting go in other words, of ideology and faith, or letting go of the act of rejecting them as well, -since they are anyhow the two sides of the same coin-,we can surrender in trust and in mental and physical readiness to the mystery of life. This should be a commonly shared affair, not one exclusively reserved to “artists”.
Q. Have you shown these pictures to people in Cuba?
A. Instead of a self-referential answer, I will give you a short parable of a Hindu initiate. Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom of the Orient, a wondering painter randomly met an officer of the state and was invited to stay in the palace. When the king heard of the painter’s profession, he asked him to paint murals in one of the palace halls depicting every day life scenes from the Court. The painter accepted and begun his work. A few days passed, and the king demanded to see the room; but the painter replied that neither the work was completed nor the king was actually ready to see it. The king returned after a long time, but the painter’s answer remained steadily the same. More than a year had passed when the painter finally approached the king and told him that the hall was ready and that his Majesty as well was ready to see it. The king went to see the room overwhelmed with curiosity. It was covered with images of every day life. Small details, of petty objects and a few portraits of the court servants. The king remained speechless and was about to become furious at the painter’s insolence but soon his anger passed and he was overtaken by the images. The king was moved, because he saw his own house as he had never seen it before. The noisy and stressful palace was not in that hall. On the contrary, there was harmony and peace and an inexplicable joy took him over. As he was taking his stroll among the murals he noticed a painting depicting a narrow path in the garden vanishing behind a line of trees. He asked the painter where the path leads to. The painter looked at the picture and answered that he didn’t know himself where the path lead. “Just a second, I’m going to find out” he added, when he entered the picture and vanished. There is another version that tells of the painter taking the king by the hand and disappearing into the painting together. You may choose any version you prefer yourselves, but allow me not to reveal the one I like the best.