Petros Efstathiadis is many kinds of a photographer, and not all of them are conventional. Living between the Greek town of Argos and his home village of Liparo in Macedonia, Petros creates temporary installations and sculptures outdoors which he dismantles after he’s photographed them. His most recent series in that manner is Gold Rush, which won him the 2018 Prix HSBC for photography (awarded jointly to him and Antoine Bruy). Meanwhile, you might have come across Petros’s work in the pages of Monocle, Wallpaper* and Le Monde, where he’s contributed over the years. We met him a few hours before the opening of the group exhibition “The Presence of Absence, or the Catastrophe Theory” at the Nicosia Municipal Art Centre in Cyprus—where he participates with his photographs and videos—to discuss his working methods, the recent award and what’s like living and working in the Greek countryside.
Congratulations about your award! How did that come about?
Thanks. This is an annual award for photographers who haven’t published a monograph yet. I applied with my Gold Rush series, but the book will eventually include more from my work.
Tell us more about the Gold Rush series. It’s one of your most-published work I think.
Gold Rush is about a pipeline that goes from the Kaspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey, then runs through Greece to Italy and beyond. The most important detail though is that it passes just outside my village in Macedonia, which is a place known for its peaches. Growing peaches is all people used to do there. So the pipeline came and the company started asking people in the village if they wanted to give their land to build the pipeline. My father had a little piece of land along this creek and they asked him if he wanted to give it too. So one summer afternoon I saw him sitting on a plastic white chair signing with the company people to give them the land. And he did that very easily, because he’s not making a lot of money from peaches anymore; he’s retired and growing peaches is like his hobby. He would get some money as compensation and we were all very happy to be honest. But the scene where my father gave away the land and everything it stood for (the peaches, the village) so easily, as if they weren’t important at all, made me want to make a series of photographs that have to do with the “after”, what happens after all this. A series about people from the village who instead of selling peaches they get their money from compensations from the pipeline company. And what do they do with that money. I also made a connection with the Gold Rush in California and boomtowns, so I decided to make my own boomtown. I imagined the village developing and everything changing, that there would be bridges, gambling, prostitutes, all sorts of scenarios.
But from what I understand you make your works with things you find on the streets.
I begin from my father’s storage, then my uncle’s, then I go next door to the neighbour’s, and when I’ve gone through all of these I go to this illegal dump near the village. I take my father’s truck and I go there, where you can find anything from an animal carcass to piles of dung, furniture, anything you can imagine. And all of this is in a swamp of sorts, so imagine what’s like in the summer with flies getting inside the car, dust everywhere and me wondering why am I here and what am I doing. But at the same time I know that I want to be there. There’s also an abandoned public service building in my village where Roma people go often to loot metal and other useful stuff. So they get in, they take all the metal parts and leave everything else behind. I began collecting these leftovers and was using them; I’m sort of stealing what the thieves left behind. Using these kind of objects I began working in my back yard to do what I do. First I make the object in the back yard, then I see how it looks and then I move it to a different location. Sometimes I just move it around the yard, or I move it to the neighbour’s.
And you leave it there after you move it? Or is it a temporary structure?
Well, I take the photos and then I start thinking how to demolish it. Because I want to return every little piece to where it came from. That’s the worst part of the process, that I have to dismantle the whole thing and load it back on the truck and clean up.
So all these are temporary, the objects in the photos don’t exist anymore.
No they don’t. The only document is the photo.
What other scenarios have you created apart from Gold Rush? I think I’ve even seen a cannon somewhere...
The cannon I did a long time ago , but it was exactly the turning point in my practice I think. I first began with portraits that included some elements with objects, but the cannon was what made the whole shift in how I understand photography and how I intervene in the space more.
And do you do this when you travel as well or is it something you only do in Liparo?
When I have a commission for a museum or a company, or when I’m making something specially for an exhibition, I might do something smaller anywhere. But my personal work is there. It’s like the entire village is my studio and I have access everywhere.
How long have you been committed to this practice? Do you see an evolution in how you work over the years?
I’ve been working like this for almost eight years now. I can see that the work is different now, it’s evolving. I dare to do bigger things now, so big that I can’t even lift them. They’re becoming more complex, I add more and more layers and instead of making my life easier I’m just making it more difficult. And I think I like it this way, because when I feel comfortable with it I want to make it more difficult and at the same time to keep a balance somehow, so that it doesn’t become too much or too designed. It’s easy to make design today that is cool and nice and acceptable, but that’s not what I want. I want [the work] to be rooted in something, for example in this specific place.
How do you achieve this connection with the place and this depth?
Before I begin there’s a specific reason I do whatever I do, there’s a specific idea, a story that surrounds it. There’s a plan, a scenario, everything is written down. For example now I’m working on an idea I had last year. I mean I let an idea mature inside me and then I execute. I do all necessary research and if the idea grows then I can be certain [I’m on something]. Even the objects I use they’re very carefully chosen and very specific. I don’t want them to be like from the supermarket or to be like from the flea market, I don’t want them to be picturesque. Then I also like repetition and a small dose of schizophrenia. It’s a very complex process where all these things come together. Then also this whole thing needs to have a root in a certain place, in some story and in something real. To be a documentation in a way, and to be political. I need to be able to do all these things.
And how do you choose the stories or the subjects you work on?
It has to do with what’s on my mind at a specific time. I mean I can’t be up on my little cloud while the world around me is falling apart and do nothing about it. I mean the Prison series I did when it was the right time to do it, when the boats with the refugees were crashing on our shores and next to them were yachts and Mykonos and all... You can’t just sit back and do nothing. I want to do work that relates to what’s happening in my time. Obviously it has some historical references and it looks this way and to the future. I want it to be looking to different directions but to be based in what’s happening now.
Do you have an archive of objects that you use, like a storage full of props?
There are some objects I use again and again. I camouflage them a bit and I reuse them. I guess some of them are my favourites, but I only realise that now. When I see my photos I think how this or that piece of debris is not important on its own but it’s part of a photo that is important. It’s like that scene in Antonioni’s Blow Up [in the Yardbirds scene], when a rockstar breaks his guitar and everyone’s trying to grab a piece of it and someone takes it and runs away but drops it on a sidewalk, then a passer-by picks it up and throws it away too. It all has to do with the context in which something has value, it’s a very strange situation. The people at the village see me work and they laugh, they keep asking me “what are you up to now” or tell me to go get a job...
Speaking of which, how is your practice incorporated in the village’s everyday life?
I’m a bit embarrassed to show my work to the locals. At night I cover my work, I don’t let anyone see it and I tell my parents not to let anyone near it. I can’t deal with them. Their first reaction is to laugh, then they admonish me, they tell me things you don’t want to hear. But at the same time I know they’re into it, it attracts them, they want me to tease them.
Why so? Do they find it provocative?
No, they think it’s funny, a bit silly, they’re more like: “what is this fool doing again”. That sort of thing. But they know me well, they know I’m not crazy. Once I moved an entire piece, Preacher’s House , which is meant to look like a church from California from the Great Depression. So I moved it out in the fields and was trying to set it up straight, and the drivers passing by from a road some 100 meters away were honking and laughing. And although it never blows in the summer, that day a wind blew and brought the whole piece down. So this very muscular guy from the village appeared out of nowhere to help me, and he lifted the whole piece on his own and that’s how I could make the photo. I guess I need them in a way. And I don’t mind that they laugh, because if they found it harmless and pretty I wouldn’t be doing it right.
So what are you showing at NiMAC?
We’re showing prints from two series, and some films I’ve done. I’ve also made a new installation titled The First and Last Attempt to Find the Gold in the Belfry (2018). It’s about a group of villagers who heard there was gold hidden in the local church since the Ottoman era, and dug a hole in the ground inside the belfry. They found nothing and they left, leaving the hole there. So the work is about this failure: it’s a golden belfry, a failed attempt to find gold and I think it connects a lot with the rest of the exhibition.
Are the films older work?
Some I did two years ago. Every couple of years I do a video, it’s part of my overall practice but it’s something different. It’s like I turn a switch and think differently. Of course you can see the relation with the photos in how they’re shot, their subjects... For example I have a video [in the exhibition] about a guy who’s trying to make diamonds, and he thinks he can. He throws rocks in a bucket and picks out crystals. They’re all a bit funny, I’m being sarcastic with myself.
Would you say that your work in general has to do with this failure and perhaps the fantasy of capitalism and the destruction capitalism is causing?
Yes. For example in The First and Last Attempt to Find the Gold in the Belfry, this dream of finding treasure, the belief that if I find the gold my life will be easier—even when it means I have to destroy the church. Even if I’m a christian I will destroy the church to find the gold.
Or when a pipeline passes and I sell my orchards to an oil company...
Which is the future I guess, you want to see things happening, to construct things. You want to see things move forward, not to let a place become deserted. At the same time there’s a sorrow in this, that you can give away something that has defined you for so many years and for which you’ve been fighting. My work is about turning something into something more than what it is. It might be a small object but it’s also a symbol for something else, a different era if you like.
Is this also about Greece in general?
It’s about people in general. I’m looking at Greece in particular but I think it’s everywhere the same, everyone’s mind is on money. And there’s this illusion that if I win the lottery or if God allows or if the Prime Minister gives an order, everything will be fine. That if I buy something expensive I’ll be happy. This is all about depending on something else, to some superpower coming out of nowhere to fix everything. That’s not how it goes. There are some stereotypes that we still believe in: we still bet at the lottery, we still vote because we think it will solve your problems, some athletes cross themselves before a match so that they can win and the others will lose. They want divine power delivered by a courier, they wish that they are better and the others are destroyed. This is not how it goes.
Do you think it’s a social thing or political, about power?
A big part of this is in the culture of a people, in its education, because each person reacts to these situations in a different way and not everyone wants the same things. But we’re talking about the majority now, we’ve all been at some point or another in a position where we were expecting from someone to come and solve all our problems.
So is the way you work connected to this? The fact that you use useless things to make something wonderful and then you dismantle it again. Is there a comment behind that?
Yes there is. And for me it’s also about finding objects in my house that could be eighty years old but are still being used as usual. It doesn’t matter if they’re almost completely broken, and it’s not about going to IKEA to buy new ones. I’s about the story this object has, and you can’t buy that in IKEA. It’s about continuing that story, and I’m interested in having that object [in my work]. For example I might go to the dump to look for things and I’ll be looking for this sort of objects, I need to be able to see this story in an object, it needs to have a root. At the same time I want to use a detail from the cheap superstore, objects that are in everyone’s home, something pop and mainstream.
What kind of objects do you find in the first category of things that have a story?
Machines, fabrics, carpets, some books, some everyday objects...
And what is the power of these objects? Why do you think they are so attractive?
A person that keeps brewing coffee in the same pot for forty years is doing it not because they don’t have the money to buy a new pot, but it’s about something else. And it might be crazy, but it’s all about one’s need to have their own plate and their own mug and so on. Some people are passionate about objects. I had a grandfather who always bought socks from a specific shop, bought gardening scissors only from another shop, his watering hose had to be from that brand, he put gas in his car only from this specific station. These obsessions might sound strange or crazy, but I think they’re good.
I guess it’s about the care that is put into things when they’re made, and the way some objects become part of your life.
That’s how I understand it. You want your mug that is eighty years old; it’s a bit chipped but you still want it. At the same time you see some artists who are established and don’t even press the click button if they’re photographers. They have fifteen assistants, or they order their works from workshops, it’s like a supermarket now. Of course anyone who sees art can make art these days, but if I must work on a million-euro budget I wouldn’t make art in the first place, I’d rather do something else, I’d rather not be an artist. I mean if there’s nothing personal, if there’s not even a bit of art in it, if something from you doesn’t “rub off” on it, then it’s not worth it. You can’t have everything ordered and delivered.
But why is a work of art more substantial if it has something from you in it?
You can see it’s raw, it hits you in the mind, in the stomach, it hits you everywhere. That’s where you can tell the difference, whether the other is fooling you or not, you can see if it’s superficial, you can see whether the layers it has are justified. You like it not because it’s cool, but because you feel something, there’s a love there, there’s something else going on. You can see the doubt—it’s impossible to be an artist and have no doubt or to be one-dimensional. When I make new work I show it to the people that will tell me the worst in order to put me in my place. It’s not useful to hear good things about my work. I want to talk to the person that will give me the hardest criticism, that’s where I go first. And then I finish the work.
Visit Petros Efstathiadis’s official website here.