Roaming the underbelly of Athens

An independent who describes himself as unfashionable, Stelios Skopelitis is a rarity on the contemporary Greek scene. A photographer with a gaze that encompasses the space where passion meets politics, he has turned his back on Athens and lives in Mytilene, enjoying the blue of the sea and the sky. His first book, «Neoclassical Houses of Athens and Piraeus,» first published in 1975 by Dodonis and reissued by Olkos in 1999, arose from his passion for the city. Thirty years later, he describes his new book with the enigmatic title «Ta pelmata ton agalmaton: Athina» («The Soles of the Statues: Athens»), published by Exanta and the Museum of the City of Athens, as «political and erotic too.» His elegant book lays Athens bare to the sun and clouds, sweetening its beauty and sharpening its ugliness. We can sense some of ourselves in the cracks, plaster, light wells and clearings which he documents. Kathimerini asked Skopelitis about the book and his work. In this book you say you are bidding farewell to Athens. Have you ended one chapter to start another? A love story never ends. It changes shape, it continues alongside other loves old and new, it never ends completely. It settles down then flares up again. I can’t talk about chapters opening and closing like shutters. I love Mytilene and the time has come for me to express that love as the cycle of my life comes to an end, paying my debts to nature. For me, many things have come to an end in the city. Anyone who looks at my books of photography will see that I have included all its important places, architecture, industry, geography, love and, in the end, the grave. It was natural that I would turn to nature, and I think that with my photographs of nature I am trying to enter into a more profound dialogue with the true mother of us all, whom we have wounded deeply for decades; I don’t want to wound her. Mature eye Is this book a more mature look at Athens than your 1975 book about neoclassical houses? It is, but in what respect? Some people see the disorganization of the city as beautiful, charming, others find it full of life, and others an example of postmodern aesthetics. They may be right, but I know that I am right too. With the neoclassical houses I was dealing with a type of architecture that was robust, in keeping with the landscape, a Greek architecture at heart, and that architecture defined me. The question was how to approach it: as a simple writer, a tourist, or someone aware that that style was disappearing? Naturally, the third won out and in one important sense I see the new book as a sequel to the first, with one difference. Unintentionally, but out of a deeply felt need, I allowed myself to roam the underbelly of the city. This roaming was nostalgic and rather melancholy as I often felt as if I had come back to this town and was trying, through the images, to remember how I had lived. At times I felt like a stranger; the memories that a city leaves are harsh while those of nature are tranquil. Do you feel part of Athens? Not anymore. I don’t feel part of Athens or of any other city. I have gotten closer to genuine solitude. Athens is suffocating, barbarous and anti-erotic. How can you really fall in love in a city that reminds you of nothing but profit and the blindness that goes with it? The most you can do is have sex to compensate for your insecurities and your social climbing. Any city that does not resemble the naked body you once loved and still do love cannot be called a city. How do you spend you time on Mytilene? How do you see creativity now? Like an ironic smile at death whom I see waiting for me round the next corner, creation is to smile at your love and have a bunch of ideas and fresh images surge up within you and make them known to others. I also think creation is to create on earth your own personal universe, like Vermeer or Giacometti did. Man is like a tree, he needs roots that ground him. When the polestar is lost in the mist I turn to something that cannot be adored in Athens, the blue of Mytilene. I photograph it continually, in all its hues, the strident and the pale. I photograph its sculpted rocks, its bare mountains. As for disappointments and difficulties, I see them as life’s games.

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