Penelope Petsini: Memory and Oblivion: Photography interpreting Greek cultural and collective memory

Penelope Petsini
Recent years have seen the rise of widespread interest in cultural and collective memory and their relation to questions of power, representation and identity. Within Greek scholars, the acute historiographic debate on Greece's 'troubled past' –namely the 1940s, and particularly the German Occupation and the Civil War– found its peak about a decade ago, forcing, as Polymeris Voglis noted, those interested in the period to critically review their certainties and assumptions. Obviously, this interest was nothing new (as a number of articles and essays of the past decades demonstrate, such as those of H. Fleicher, M. Mazower, G. Margaritis, T. Vervenioti and more).

This recent boom, however, was marked by a "shift to society", one that sought to highlight the interaction between the social and the political, the diplomatic, and the military factor while at the same reintroduced in the discussion the relationship of history and memory and layed emphasis on the social context as well as on the notion of spatial memory. The reconciliation of the cognitive field of traditional historiography with concepts such as those of collective memory as introduced by Maurice Halbwachs or Pierre Norra's lieux de memoire, led, if nothing else, in more dynamic approaches of the past.

Greek photography’s interest in history and memory has been, instead, rather limited until quite recently. With the exception of projects such as Johanna Weber’s "Faces of Resistance" (1997), which focused on portrait photography connecting it to witness testimony and narration, references to history were sporadic and subtle (such as Paul Fysakis’ «Land Ends», a work documenting the geographical "boundaries" of Europe, in which Gavdos, the southernmost part of Europe, is described as "a place of exile for communists since the 1930s").

Notably, another exeption is «Sylvia», by Viktor Koen (2004), a photographic project focusing on the nazi concentration camps Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek in Poland. “Sylvia” is a story of return in which survivors and subsequent postmemorial generations meet, a return to a place both lived and not visited before in an attempt to reclaim some sort of memory. Koen’s images were shoot during the March of the Living, the annual pilgrimage of Holocaust survivors. Sylvia, his grandmother –a member of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and  herself an Auschwitz survivor, was present.

The fact remains that, unlike Greece, the monumentalisation of the European concentration and extermination camps allowed the preservation of a "raw material" of actual places and objects that offer a treasure of memories and traces (as well as blanks and erasures), bearing consciously the marks of history. Hercules Papaioannou rightfully comments on that, recalling the term mnimoktonia (killing of memory) introduced by Rena Molho to describe the collective vacuum of memory related to the ostracism and the extermination of the city's Jews.
Recent economic and, subsequent, political and social crisis propelled a number of photographers to change their practice while turn to their domestic environment. Along with the introduction of postmodern critical practices (such as appropriation, parody, seriality), we witnessed a growing interest in history and memory –a process quite similar to the notion of historicization  as described by Brecht–, which played a significant part within this critically upgraded sensibility.
Crisis, history, memory
A series of recent works negotiating the Greek crisis, invite us to comprehend historical events as related to or even forming the present. Εmploying the notion of memory, especially collective memory, these photographers aim at placing their works within a larger historical framework, observing historical continuities rather than emphasizing ruptures that would make the crisis seem an isolated moment in time.

Pasqua Vorgia’s,  from “Autopsies”: The place where Alexandros Grigoropoulos was murdered is put together with the deposition of the then eye-witness Nikos Romanos as presented in indymedia.  Some of the works directly link events of the present to the past, for example, Pasqua Vorgia’s Autopsies (in progress), for example, reveals barely discernible marks, traces of the recent political history inscribed in the city’s surface and juxtaposes them with texts documenting the events themselves: The uprising of December 1944; the Marfin Bank fire [the fire, in which three people died, started during a demonstration]  in May 2010; the extensive street clashes of February 2013; the brutal attack on the unionist Konstantina Kouneva; the murder of the anti-fascist activist rapper Killah P (Pavlos Fyssas) by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in September 2013. Official and unofficial histories are highlighted and linked together in an attempt to construct a narrative based on the scars of Greek collective memory, a case study in popular memory: The concrete ball in the corner of Tzavellas and Mesolongiou, where Alexandros Grigoropoulos was murdered in December 2008, is put together with the deposition of the then eye-witness Nikos Romanos as presented in indymedia. Some bullet marks juxtaposed to an excerpt from the diary of the photographer D.Kessel represent the clashes of December 1944. A burnt wall and a Wikipedia entry describe the Marfin Bank fire; the public suicide of a 77-year–old pensioner in Syntagma Square in 2012 is represented by the image of a rose left on the spot alongside a part of his suicide note; and so forth. A sole black square signifies the shutdown of public television. Emblematic events of the crisis attempt to show the role of myths, narratives, and audience reception in the construction of memory.

Memory has been shown to be an active constituent of the ways in which meaning is invested in space and place. Working through the past (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit), Adorno’s renowned phrase, describes the revisiting of historical events through the renegotiation of -often controversial- material. The critical renegotiation of history, a painstaking process which raises issues of national identity, eventually turns the attention to memory sites and memorials.

Thomas Gerasopoulos’ Site of Memories (2008–13) explores the physical settings of dramatic events related to Greek history, implying that memories of such events and can be a potent force for national identity. The pictures look like ordinary landscapes, yet they are intended to recall far more than meets the eye: a picturesque view of a forest of Mount Vitsi is a notorious theatre of the Greek Civil War; an unembellished view of a plain land in Florina is the mass grave of 800 partisans of the Democratic Army of Greece; and so forth. The landscapes of Gerasopoulos document the remnants of the clash of ideologies and narratives while incorporating both the collective memory and the effort of controling it. The captions provide the explanatory information and historical resonance (the Kokkalis’ Cave; German Commandatur; Zachariadis’ Cave; etc), rendering the photograph a historical document not only of what happened but also of how we preserved and managed the very memory of those events. And albeit current crisis is not directly displayed anywhere here, it is exactly what triggered and sustained the lingering and enduring question of “Who are we?” inextricably linked to “Who were we?”

Paris Petridis, HERE: Sites of violence in Thessaloniki (2012). In a similar vein, HERE: Sites of violence in Thessaloniki (2012) by Paris Petridis, negotiates the ambiguous coexistence of memory and oblivion in the urban fabric of the city of Thessaloniki: the Pavlos Melas Barracks in which thousands of people were held prisoner during the Nazi Occupation; the Eleftheria Square in which the Germans assembled every male Jew in the city and submitted them to a demeaning physical ordeal in July 1942; the old National Security building in which thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated, tortured and murdered between the onset of the Civil War and the end of the Colonels’ dictatorship in 1974; the spot where left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis was assassinated by far-right extremists. The list is long, 52 incidents altogether. In contrast to Gerasopoulos, however, Petridis consciously decides to focus on the trivial and the banal, the non–photogenic, the landscape where almost nothing possesses the glamour one would expect from a historic site. Instead of letting himself be guided by aesthetic reasons, he attempts to pursue historical accuracy: «Syggrou 22. Here, the tobacco worker Tasos Tousis was shot by the police, one of the many protesters who were killed during the general strike in May 9, 1936.» An indifferent shop facade, a parked car, the company logo and slogan illegible «Free H. Nikolaou» written on the lowered metal shutters. There’s nothing beautiful, nothing grandiose or monumental. Nothing to reflect the idealized place of our memory -that black and white photograph of a mother grieving over the body of her son who inspired Yannis Ritsos' infamous Epitaphios. Yet, «here» is where everything happened nearly eighty years ago.

Petridis builds a narrative based on fragments of personal and official memories, the raw materials which construct our collective history. Case file notes, newspaper reports, testimonials, literature and historical descriptions stand alongside his mundane urban scenes. Yet, the most intriguing part of the work, which is also the common ground of these photographs, is the idea that the present itself reintroduces the repressed past: the anarchist watchword «We are at War» writen at the corner of Arrianou and Olympou streets where the left poet Manolis Anagnostakis kept watch as his partisan comrades executed fascist collaborators during the Greek Civil War; a tiny «Greece» appearing on the wall of the notorious Yedi Kule prison where thousants of people have been imprisoned during the century and hundrends executed in the civil and post-civil war years; the slogan «Love and Uprising» emerging on a structure at the old Thessaloniki seafront near the spot where, in 1876, the Turks set up gallows and –in the presence of contingents of English, French German, Russian and Greek ships anchored in the harbor– they hanged seven gypsies who were convicted as guilty of lynching the consuls of France and Germany by the Turkish mob. The impression of an earlier event, having lain dormant for a long time, breaks through into the present through a retroactive action that then completely reshapes the present impression. In this account, memory is not thought of as binding us in some deep sense to past times but as mode of re–presentation and as belonging ever more to the present. HERE poses a decidedly significant question beyond the obvious “Why history matters”; namely, “Why does history matters to us today?”

In all these projects, not only can the past tell us something about the present but also the present social arrangements and institutions are viewed as historical, transitory and subject to change.  The world is open to being shaped, they seem to suggest, and the task of artists and intellectuals is to provide thinking space: viable alternatives to the problematic effects of political practices that have come to be accepted as inevitable and natural.

“HERE: Sites of violence in Thessaloniki” (photographs by Paris Petridis, texts by Sakis Serefas) is published by Agra. Pasqua Vorgia’s “Autopsies” have been exhibited in Oplostasio/Technis.
Victor Koen’s «Sylvia: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek» is published in Greek and in English by the Hellenic Center of Photography.
Thomas Gerasopoulos’ «Site of Memories» remains unpublished.

For a detailed visual account on Greek photography and the crisis see also here

  • Published in CULTURE
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