Production of Reality in Memory = Art?  Cornelia Mittendorfer's photographic narrative of the Cyprus Green Line

by Rolf Sachsse


There must be millions of pictures of the North Cyprus landscape, for every weekend workshops and courses for Turkish amateur artists take place there which are highly subsidised and provide an income to graduates of Turkish art academies; the results of these efforts are brilliantly colored landscapes, harmonious sunsets and wise smiling peasant faces, irrespective of the medium. Whoever searches for pictures from the southern half of the island will hit pay dirt in the online stock agency catalogs. After all, the Republic of Cyprus is as well-developed as possible in both touristic and economic terms; this world of images is globally completely homogenous anyway and ranges from photos to video. Between these two propagandistic panoramas lies the buffer zone of the green line, and here according to an oft quoted witticism, it is "forever 1974". The year of the military partition is now more than four decades in the past and any reunification will involve great effort beyond politics in the area of property relationships. The results are decay and ruinous conditions throughout; this is the image world of the journalistic agencies with their communicative symbols of one of the world's many unsolvable conflicts.


The difficulty of portraying the Cypriot situation has attracted more than one artist and turned them away again. The work of Armin Linke could be considered symptomatic: he arrives and determines that he cannot produce an archive of his own as he is accustomed to doing, so he enlists the help of local artist Serap Kanay in accessing a NATO picture archive, has some images selected, which he sorts according to patterns (tried and tested in his oeuvre), and presents them as books in addition to three-minute-long video loops.[1] It is military material, so it represents the perpetrator's point of view and can, moreover, be regarded as interchangeable apart from the topology – an engaged artist such as Cornelia Mittendorfer can never work in this way. And when she meets with people to invite them to collaborate in her working process, she at least does not need to stage the decision about the final work as a solitary act, as many of her extremely successful male colleagues do.[2]


The classical portrait of the three-quarter figure from the side: a woman sits upright without leaning on the wall behind her, her legs crossed, her hands over the upper leg, right knee clasped, her head tilted very slightly to the left. Her facial expression is at the same time tense and distant, her gaze hidden by sunglasses: one can assume she is looking past the photographer. The background is a walled and white-painted room corner, whose spots, edges, and cracks form a stark contrast to the sleek clothing. The light comes from the upper left corresponding with the northern light of early photography or bourgeois portrait painting in Classicism; the situation of the photography corresponds to that of an interview or conversation. The subject of the portrait is Serap Kanay, who wrote a Masters thesis in Amsterdam on gender and migration issues in Cypriot culture.[3] The accompanying text by Cornelia Mittendorfer ends with the sentence: "Her knowledge and her critical perspective have revealed much to me." That is exactly what this image does not show.


According to a much-recounted myth, the demarcation line between the two parts of Cyprus was drawn with a green marker which would make it, in its designation as the green line, as much an aesthetic as a political act. This story fits perfectly into the oeuvre of Cornelia Mittendorfer, because it points to the artist's working method: she finds signs and signals, traces them back to their origins, and re-orders them, mostly into a superordinated context drawn from archaic action as the origin and from unexpected statement as an outcome that can be experienced in pictures. Cross-fades, double exposure, and series formation are characteristic of her oeuvre; installations and joint stagings of works are often realized with other artists. In the present case the book itself now becomes the medium.


A small bookstore, the back walls full to the ceiling with books, at the bottom right behind the counter two or three metres of shelf are occupied by magazines and papers, otherwise everything is perfectly organized according to size and surely also content. The other central counter is of fine wood, the vertical lines with carved pillars and with capitals crowning the top. The photographer is obviously standing to the left of the door, through the transom window of which the sun comes in, throwing a bright half circle on the tile floor. Everything is perfectly organized, spotlessly clean – and yet seems completely out of sync with the times. The text mentions the use of bookstore and publishing rooms as a restaurant, but they are not to be seen.


The green line has no real name to the extent that it is a buffer zone several kilometres wide in places, a no-man's land. Austrians such as Cornelia Mittendorfer are familiar with such areas, for in the 1960s and 1970s just such an area began in the wine region just before Deutsch-Wagram: it was not worth making any investment there in agriculture or tourism, nor in establishing any kind of new industry. And so the building stock deteriorated, many locals moved away and a few hippies moved in, streets were only repaired when absolutely necessary and isolation was celebrated. The depiction of such places makes use of one of the oldest motifs of the contextualization of art, which was already evident in 1499 in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii of Francesco Colonna: After a long story, the lovers finally meet – in a ruined landscape. [4] In the 1980s a whole branch of art, auteur photography, was able to appropriate landscapes of this type and put a renewed romanticism of forgotten places in the limelight. The artist Cornelia Mittendorfer experienced these developments during her own formative period, and in many of her pictures the dichotomy of romanticism and document, of photographic and literary authorship is mirrored.


The unpaved street of an abandoned village runs diagonally from the bottom left rightwards to the middle of the picture. On the left side of the street there is a long-uninhabited house with several open windows and one walled shut; the neighboring buildings end in precise alignment with the street. In the right middle of the picture the street is covered by a concrete platform on which an old television is positioned upright. In its monitor tubes the scenery is mirrored once again, but in a rather foggy way and slightly distorted by tube curvature. The medial blindness of the dysfunctional apparatus along with its reflection of the surroundings make the scenery dead twice over; here there is neither a real nor a media life. "Only a shepherd and his wife live there" says the text, but they are not to be seen.


Cornelia Mittendorfer's photographic stylistic devices are easy to list: classic black and white in blunt-edged, mostly widely spaced rectangles; the contrasts are rather gentle, in spite of the often bright sunlight. Perspectives are with few exceptions captured with the wide angle, giving the space great breadth and depth. This is true of interior as well as outdoor spaces; with the latter, however, barricades are more often visible, blocking the view in addition to the way. Portraits, in contrast, are often squeezed into a narrow space and seem more narrow than the photographed space already was. With this repertoire, which counts as the stylistic standard of the journalistic picture, Cornelia Mittendorfer determines the basis of her narrative: here stories are told in individual pictures; the stories are elucidated in the accompanying text, but also counteracted. To read the picture and text together means, in the case of the green line, to be able to distinguish between aesthetics and history, between politics and emotion, in any case hard work for the recipient.


A typical village church, stylistically hard to date, probably rebuilt in Byzantine forms after the earthquakes of 1952; between the pillars of the nave there are iron stabilization anchors. The view is toward the east to the reredos, which however is hidden by a white wall in the centre of the church. Throughout the room chairs and low tables are to be seen, nothing points to the place's former sacred use. The spotless white wall seems like a strong, artistically added contrast to the dereliction of the rest of the room. "The circle on the floor is made of pigeon droppings." In the dome over this section of floor there probably hangs a circular candelabrum or wheel-anchor on which the pigeons like to sit; it is not visible.


Combinations of image and text came into conceptual art along with photography and have led to the branchings off of narrative that influence our collective perception and memory. [5] With green line Cornelia Mittendorfer places herself exactly in this tradition, which was expanded by Allan Sekula into the inquiry into documentary work as a political tool [6] and in this way until now determined the debates around the – also political – credibility of the photographic image.[7] The artist offers several interpretations of the book which occupy equal positions and yet appear dysfunctional at first due to their inconsistencies. Whoever reads the pictures and texts as a journalistic work learns much about a conflict (forgotten for decades) in the Mediterranean – and quickly notices they are being offered more than information. Those who come to Cornelia Mittendorfer's work from an art background notice her mastery of scenic and photographic picture composition as well as the precision of her language, which is reminiscent of Herbert Rosendorfer and other lawyers in German literature – and in turn rapidly ascertain that it does not depend on these surface qualities. This volume is neither a political essay nor a coffee table book, but as an artwork in the book medium it draws some of its effect from both genres.


Cornelia Mittendorfer's oeuvre is always characterized by an ambiguity. She herself has reflected in interviews on the fact that she was hindered in her studies by her father. But on the other hand it is surely attributable to her legal studies that she continually involves herself in political debates, especially over exclusion of and discrimination against people. In her creative tools, a similar ambiguity is recognizable: the preference for signets and signs is acted out in emblematic forms that strive – as in Mannerism and the early Baroque – towards the "grief of completion" described by Beat Wyss but for good reasons never achieve it, for the realia are in between.[8] Individual works by Cornelia Mittendorfer work with photographic tools such as multiple exposures or montage; to that extent, the return to supposedly simple image forms such as reportage and to texts in the form of travel accounts is also to be seen as an ambiguous base for understanding. This is also why the picture descriptions cited here point out inconsistencies between image and text. Like the no-man's land of the green line, they once again indicate the difference between journalism and art: there is a sometimes narrow, sometimes broad zone of understandings and misunderstandings, of shifts and distortions, of positioning and de-positioning, which today represent the only source from which artistic activity can be drawn.


Two tables, one behind the other, both covered with white cloths. On the front table are three anatomy atlases, rather tattered and carelessly placed. On the table behind, starkly contoured by the backlighted window, numerous human bones, including two femur bones and in the very back left a skull. A person at the back right is picking up a bone; only his white lab coat and his hands can be seen. The picture title names the anthropologist, but does not say what he is doing.


Cornelia Mittendorfer has departed from her artistic principle of the individual picture with accompanying text three times; twice clearly and once in a hidden way. One series of pictures in the book is dedicated to the anthropological laboratory of the UN's Committee on Missing Persons in Nicosia; the pictures are either strictly axial or just as strictly diagonal views of the workspaces of the people who search through grave finds to provide the thousands of dead from the Cyprus conflict with name and place of origin and then to give them a proper burial. Another series of pictures shows the Achniotis family, who since their flight from the Cyprus buffer zone have been living in a refugee settlement and in spite of this managed to send 7 of their 8 children through complete university studies. Here, too, there is a common representative element for almost all the pictures – a table filling the picture or projecting into most of its lower half. The third series is hardly identifiable as such because it is broken up throughout the book: it is the images from the village of Tochni, whose Turkish name Taşkent explains what it is – a land of stones. At the beginning of the book there is a spread with the cemetery and a caravan, and later further views of the spacious village and its surrounding area, but also pictures of another Taşkent (Vouno) in the north of the island, here now described as "the village of the widows of Tochni".


A dusty dirt road, on the right side lined with slanted utility poles, next to a stony pasture with a few low trees and bushes. The street bends left at mid-height of the picture, leaving a free view of a flat hilly expanse above. It is covered to a large extent by a Turkish flag with half-moon and star on a white background, formed from large painted stones, as is common in Turkey and the whole of Central Asia. As a flag, it looks in the picture like a woven carpet; the reversal of the colors of the Turkish national flag contributes to this appearance. "It is now also illuminated at night," according to the text. Since the photo was taken in bright sunlight, we do not see the illumination.


The inconsistencies between picture and text, the diverse connections and contrasts between the individual pictures and small series, allow the whole structure of the green line book project to appear like the craquelure of a Cypriot ceramic. Despite the quality and beauty of the individual pictures, they are only conceivable as a narrative in the context of the others. The texts refer to one another and, together with the artist's introductory manifesto, wish to be understood in one whole as an essay or novella. The book demands quite a bit of work from those who read and look at it. But it is worth the effort, because they are rewarded with the artistic treatment of many personal fates, in a way that transcends the boundaries of artistic and literary genres and shows deep empathy for those being depicted and their life situation. The text and pictures give rise to new pictures in the readers' head, which establish themselves as memory in the Self and from there begin to have their effect. Nothing more can be asked of fine art and literature than this.


[2] Wolfgang Ullrich, Siegerkunst. Neuer Adel, teure Lust, Berlin 2016, pp.112-115.

[3] Serap Kanay, Alternative Narratives depicting Alternative Histories and forming Alternative Archives: Case studies related to Cyprus. Facebook Group, Art Work(s) and Oral History project, MA Thesis, Amsterdam 2014 [06.03.2017].

[4] Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, Venice 1499, pp.241,  [07.03.2017].

[5] Fundamentally: Victor Burgin, Photographic Practice and Art Theory, in: Studio International, Journal of Modern Art, Art and Photography Vol. 190 1975, No.976 (7/8), pp.39-51.

[6] Allan Sekula, Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation), in: idem, Photography Against the Grain, Essays and Photo-Works 1973-1983, Halifax Nova Scotia 1984, pp.53-76.

[7] Jorge Ribalta, Not Yet: On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism. Essays and Documents (1972-1991), Madrid 2015.

[8] Beat Wyss, Trauer der Vollendung. Von der Ästhetik des Deutschen Idealismus zur Kulturkritik an der Moderne, Munich 1985.