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For over two decades, Cypriot-born artist Socratis Socratous creates sculptures and installation art that engage with the history, society and politics of his immediate surroundings. A well-established artist who has shown his work across four continents (from the Armory in New York to Adelaide International Festival, Australia), Socratous originally studied to become a director before switching to set design, and later on, to photography and installation art. A resident of Athens, Greece since the early 1990’s, he met me at a shady cafe in Psyrri, Athens last June, and was quick to point out that he’s not very fond of CVs, dates and labels: he’s not really based anywhere, and likes to call himself a sculptor while also being a prolific photographer, a conceptual artist and installation maker. Usually working on the works himself with the collaboration of specialised craftsmen, Socratous uses a wide variety of materials like metal, wood, found objects and more, as long as they make a meaningful part of his art. His practice is also heavily based on research, with his personal archive now containing thousands of photographs and a large amount of his writings, all of which create the factual and conceptual backbone for each of his works.
Locality, social bonds and history play a huge role in the way Socratous understands human life and identity, and that inevitably becomes an important part of his work. For example, when he was invited by the director of the 2012 Riwaq Biennale in Palestine to create a large-scale work there, Socratous chose a cave near the ancient town of al Dhahiriya to create a museum dedicated to the role of women in the area. This museum still exists, and was created with the help of the local community and donations from the women there; children and teenagers assisted him with the whole project day and night for a whole month, and Socratous had the chance to experience how these people, most of them refugees in their own land, live their everyday lives and how they understand happiness. “There’s a big difference in how concepts like death are understood between there and the West”, he reflects. “There’s a very poetic way of life there —and I mean that in the best way possible. Also I was impressed by the role and position of women in local society. They are much more important and powerful than we would expect.”
For a 2012 exhibition in Cyprus, Socratous mingled bones from mass graves with bones from the archives of the archaeological Museum in Nicosia.
Other projects, like his exhibition for the Cyprus Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennial (2009), his ‘Missing People” project (2012), and his “Stolen” series of installations (2011-2015) also explore identity in relation to geography, displacement and fragmentation. “Missing People” in particular is the work that has had the most impact on Socratous as an artist and a person, as he admits. During the Cypriot segregation skirmishes in the 1960s and the Turkish invasion in 1974, mass shootings were very common and many people would go missing from their homes overnight. This very dark chapter of Cypriot history has recently been reopened, with informers pointing out the locations of mass graves all across Cyprus, which were then dug up to recover the remains of these missing persons, both Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot. This whole process Socratous observed and documented very closely, from following the informer around the countryside to locate the graves, to the digging process, and then back to the laboratory for the identification process for each bone found. He admits that the impact of this whole experience was so profound, that it still affects his work and forces him to return to this kind of imagery often. For a 2012 exhibition in Cyprus, he mingled bones from these mass graves with bones from the archives of the archaeological Museum in Nicosia, creating a historical short-circuit that goes beyond mortality and memento mori: he wanted to point out that the land, every land, is full of human presence, and that the soil is full of fragments of history, our own and of others.
Socratous was present in each and every important event in recent Cypriot history, like the reopening of the “borders” that kept the island divided until 2003, the island joining the EU in 2004, the deadly explosion of a stock of confiscated firearms from Libya in 2011 and the financial meltdown and enforcement of capital controls upon cypriot banks in 2013. For at least 10 years he visited Cyprus and documented events, people, landscapes and history, often covering his expenses himself. For his exhibition at Point Centre for Contemporary Art last summer in Nicosia, he tapped into this decade-long archive of memory and fact, to create a work that explores Cypriot identity and its relationship to the land. Titled “Casts of an Island”, the work is in fact a catalogue of forms, spread out across the two storeys of the gallery like a museum archive or a police storage room filled with confiscated goods: each form was hand-cast by Socratous during a residency at Point in May 2016, and was made of sand using the same method he deploys for moulding metals in a foundry for his other works.
85-90 different casts were used for the creation of the entire installation, which in a way inverted the traditional moulding process: while in a foundry a sand cast is used to mould metal, Socratous created metal casts to mould sand. Although all the objects that make part of the work share the same prime matter, they differ in terms of form and colour, which prompts me to ask whether the artist was referencing the plurality of a nation and how national identity is in fact made up of many individual entities. “I wouldn’t go there”, he responds.
“For me this is all about shifting landscapes and that haunting image of the bones of missing people laid out on forensic tables. The bones were broken and looked as if they were trying to get back together again, but just couldn’t. It’s about humans destined to be bones, and the earth becoming the landscape for all that.”
The year 2016 marked another important milestone in Socratous’ career, when the Centre Pompidou in Paris acquired two of his photographs from a series he produced for an exhibition in 2011, which were shown in Cyprus, Australia and Brussels. These images show pieces of metal and wood haphazardly assembled against a blue background. They are in fact large pieces of debris, which Socratous threw up in the air at a height of 20 meters using a catapult machine, and photographed them against the clear sky. “I was photographing for a week to make that series,” he explains. “And it was the only series I did that was staged, prepared. This all had to do with the uprisings in many cities around the world, people revolting against their governments and throwing things at the parliament or at policemen. This is why I used architectural elements from the city, like bars, fences, building materials…” Socratous is currently participating in another exhibition, this time a group show in Cyprus at the Evagoras Lanitis Foundation from 21 January to 24 February 2017.
Architectural Strategy, 2011, c-prins, dim: 110 x 165 cm, © the artist, Courtesy The Breeder, Athens