Russian illegal prison on IZOLYATSIA premises has been operational for 10 years.

The Presence of Absence, or the Catastrophe Theory

On May 19, 2016, at 6 pm, IZOLYATSIA presents the exhibition The Presence of Absence, or the Catastrophe Theory, curated by Cathryn Drake. Three artists from Albania, Greece, and Turkey will present sixteen videos and two photo series accompanied with a site-specific installation created by Petros Efstathiadis. On May 21, at 1 pm, a curatorial tour of the exhibition will be organised.

Artists Leonard Qylafi, Petros Efstathiadis, and Ali Kazma come from modern states formerly united by the Ottoman Empire that have since taken vastly different directions guided by the vagaries of realpolitik and ethnic strife. Straddling the diverse regions of Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East, these countries reflect the enduring threads and ruptures that transcend the artificial constructs of political entities—a reality exemplified by the current European crisis and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and Ukraine.

This show elucidates the circumstances of IZOLYATSIA as well as Ukraine, whose historical map is a complex mosaic involving Ottoman rule and an original Greek population still comprising more than 200,000. Established in a former insulation materials factory in Donetsk by industrialist Luba Michailova, whose father managed it under Communism, IZOLYATSIA was seized and occupied in 2014 by armed separatists in the name of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and forced into exile in Kyiv, along with many other Donbas refugees. Artworks were destroyed as perversions, a cultural tactic employed by regimes to reinforce a desired identity by obliterating undesirable associations.

The alchemy of place is a potent mixture of history and conquest, cultural memory and mythology, politics and national identity, landscape and geography, with the narratives of victors inscribed onto any topography in the form of physical and ephemeral remains. Foreign elements enter a territory and stay for a time, leaving a residue that becomes an integral part of its culture, the origins of this or that subject to collective amnesia and finally indistinct. Absence is also present in the people torn from their homes, as evoked by Mahmoud Darwish’s poetic meditation In the Presence of Absence.

The tragic trajectory of the Syrian refugee crisis is merely the latest in a long history of mass migrations spurred by war and conflict. Displacement stirs nostalgia, and the flow of language and culture is a river that cannot be halted. Our tumultuous past is an omnipresent beast whose traces creep up through the cracks of collective unconscious, often emerging in the form of extremism. Thus these artists turn our gaze to the things that become part of our identity, the things we take with us wherever we go, and the things that return to their origins like moths to the light.

Leonard Qylafi: Albania is currently defined more by what has been, by the remains of what is no longer there, than by what is present. In videos and photographs, Qylafi has documented the gradual alteration of Tirana’s urban landscape, triggering an examination of the haphazard evidence that is left behind in the wake of toppling regimes, reflecting in turn the heresy of memory and the unreliability of recorded history. His incisive, poetic images are meditations on memory and time as a phenomenological alchemy through which subject and environment intermingle to become an indistinct emotional entity. “When you live within this process you become in a sense part of it,” Qylafi says.

Time-lapse photographs taken from the artist’s apartment window over one year comprise the video Estate, following the destruction of a giant greenhouse to make way for massive new buildings. Mimicking our numb psychological perception of an incrementally changing environment, the image is discerned as transforming only after prolonged attention. The video Whispers & Shadows follows an excavator digging at night accompanied by a woman reciting Aristotle’s “Politics”. Emphasizing the disparity between contemporary reality and the democratic ideal, the leisurely swing of the shovel and the soothing incantation compose a hypnotic ballet. The videos Nail Song and Private Show evoke the mourning of ruins; Sisyphus portrays an insect’s futile attempt to surmount a brick wall, reflecting the inability of humankind to overcome its own nature. Also shown will be 12 colour photographs from the “Real (Estate)” series.

Petros Efstathiadis: While Albania strides toward the panacea of capitalism, Greece can be characterised as a developing post-capitalist model where economic crisis is driving alternative exchange economies and a return to the land for sustenance and community. The artist collaborates with residents of his Macedonian village, Liparó (population 400), to create dreamlike photographs and videos infused with a deadpan humour that evoke both decay and regeneration, even preparedness for revolution—but most of all how little really changes between political regimes and catastrophic events. Globalisation seems like a mere sneeze in the face of perennial values and quotidian survival.

“You can make anything you need from what you can find around you: I used to create bombs from my mother's hairspray cans,” the artist explains. The villagers still speak the Turkish-Slavic dialect long forbidden by the Greek state and still used to communicate around the Balkans, comprised of states divided by ethnic loyalties that have triggered continual friction. Videos: The Last Normal Man, Liparó, Καταφύγιο (“Shelter”), Diamonds, and Shit. Also shown will be photographs from the “Lohos” (“Squadron”) and “Prison” series as well as a site-specific installation created by the artist.

Ali Kazma: The Turkish artist portrays human existence as series of ritual acts of faith, production, and preservation in the face of the inevitability that everything will disintegrate, and eventually perish. Thus the series “Obstructions” records how people use their bodies to resist conformity, hardship, and even death. Part of Michel Foucault’s “carceral archipelago,” schools and prisons enforce the value systems of governments, and Kazma depicts people adapting to these institutions with small rebellions like inserting personal elements. In Taxidermist, he focuses on a practice employed by museums as part of the establishment of exclusiveness through inclusiveness, wherein specimens of only certain species are preserved to represent the evolution of nature.

A school displays portraits of Ataturk and Ottoman leaders alongside our skeletal and stuffed ancestors; an artist’s home bears family portraits and precious heirlooms—the signs we use to inscribe meaning and identity. All of these exercises are testaments to humanity’s intrinsic endurance in the incessant, ultimately futile drive to shape and control the physical environment. In these mesmerising videos we see the continual transformations and conflict inherent to that precarious dance as the source of life’s awesome beauty. Videos: Home, School, Prison, Taxidermist, Jean Factory, and Clerk.


Curator: Cathryn Drake.

Artists: Leonard Qylafi, Petros Efstathiadis, Ali Kazma.

May 19, 2016, 6 - 8 pm.

8 Naberezhno-Luhova Street, Second Floor.

May 19 - June 19, 2016, Monday to Sunday, 12 pm - 8 pm.


Media partners

Izolyatsia Media Partners