Piecing together vintage found imagery, Aikaterini Gegisian created the imagined history of her mixed ancestry
The work is the culmination of a four-year journey into these photographic books. The selected pictures are a distillation of her collection of over 3,000 pictures. To find them she burrowed through dusty flea markets in the respective countries. Her pictures were lifted from the everyday flux of life, having previously been tucked away for decades on locals’ shelves.
She began the collection on noticing that the pictures offered a unique insight into how countries wanted to be represented. When researching for previous projects on Soviet issues she noticed recurrent themes in the often state-produced imagery – it was a construction of the country.
“I had started recognising a similar type of pattern in the images of Soviet Armenia – the industry, the city, the proud worker, the sea, the mountains, the spring, and heritage monuments.
“In Turkey and Greece [though not Soviet-ruled] there were similar types.” She then organised them into these categories, and sub-categories like “city panorama”. The systematic process naturally brought out the first collages in her studio in Bristol in November last year.
The period of ’60-’82 was selected because of the significance for photography during this time, and because the Soviet Union began to collapse from 1982. “At this time photography and printing technology became popular. Photographic albums were produced by state authorities or ministries in order to project this idea of a modern country – this is one of the important conceptual motors of the work.”
After this period of grace for photography Gegisian noticed the catalogue paper cheapened, and with increasing digitisation the photographs’ quality also deteriorated. She accepts the pictures’ 20th-century commercial roots without desire for something more ‘real’, or nostalgia for vintage.
“They are quite amazing documents of the time. Although there were different political situations in the countries, photography was a commonality. It was instrumental in all cases to produce this image of a modern nation that has lovely countryside, and heritage, and is modern and progressive where people are happy.”
“In what had been the Soviet Union in Armenia the books I collected had all been produced by the state – there was a centralised machine that produced albums every 10 years. In Turkey half were produced by the state, half weren’t. In Greece the ministry of tourism produced most of them.”
Her collages use this shared element of conscious construction as the thread to sew together the categories. Some collages sit easily, like an introductory work of similar pictures of Mount Ararat in Turkey. Others are compellingly juxtaposed, with the effect of boys swimming over an Islamic monument, or a coach driving across a moonlit sea.
Gegisian had no desire to create the countries as they were historically, but wanted to address and build from the idealised narrative implied in the publications. “I’m not an archaeologist or a historian. I wasn’t looking to find the real image of the time. This is kind of a fruitless search. These images are things we’ve been constructed through.”
This freedom enabled her to create her own narrative: of the “invisible seas”, with the waters of the images running into one another. It was this metaphysical liquidity that led her to create the format of the book. The book is divided into seven ‘seas’, or chapters, chosen because of the significance of seven.
Seven is the number of days it took the God to make the world in Christianity; the number of chakras (Indian centres of spiritual power in the body); as well as the number of seas. “Guide” in the title pays homage to the photographs’ original homes in tourist-guides. It is “Small” because it is not a total representation.
“It starts with The Sea of Echoes,” Gegisian describes. “Things echo between countries, between geographies and chronology. Images produced in different years and of different places are on top of one another – giving the idea of movement in time and space.
“Then you have The Sea of Reflections. Things that are not supposed to be considered as similar reflect one another. Third is The Sea of Passions, when the mother of the nation and the father of the nation (of different nations) dance and have fun. I start introducing male and female figures very clearly.”
The first two chapters introduce Gegisian’s method of reflecting and echoing between images visually. “The echoing and reflection now becomes a way to bring out phallic and circular forms. The last one in this chapter with the poppies’ red colour introduces the idea of the breaking of virginity.