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The ruins, the ruined, the right time
Cypriot artist Kyriaki Costa and her search for the commons
All the most beautiful places in the world, once discovered by the world, tend to lose their magic. Take, for example, the island of Mykonos. Its windmills and narrow alleys amidst sea-sprayed white-and-blue houses are indeed beautiful, but for the past half-century the setting has been privatized and globalized as the home for upscale beach bars, key chain shops, and luxury boutiques. What is left is not a community for its people but a Disneyland shopping center colonizing a former Mediterranean island once known for its unique Greek dialect and way of life.
Just 25 kilometers across the sea from Mykonos is an island on the cusp of similar change: Tinos. With the aforementioned island’s potential tapped out, neighboring Tinos is becoming the target for real estate development and tourist exploitation. Into this milieu, this moment of flux, entered Cypriot artist Kyriaki Costa, a multi-faceted creator who utilizes several different modes of artistic expression in the service of activism regarding cultural landscapes and legacy resources. Even when Costa is addressing the heritage of long-dead ruins, she searches for their connections to the commons at what she believes to be the opportune time.
In 2021 she brought her Head and Hand series to Tinos, dubbing this iteration of the project, Kairos.1 In the world of ancient Greek rhetoric, the word Kairos (καιρός) refers to speaking to the right time, a moment that will slip away if one does not have the will to act. In Costa’s estimation, Tinos, at the bleeding edge of such development, has reached the critical moment suggested by Kairos.
Head and Hand has taken on many forms over the years, but in Tinos the concept was to trace a walking route through a cultural landscape that stretched from the Culture Foundation of Tinos, through the village of Tripotamos (where a pop-up exhibition was held), all the way along the medieval trail to the ancient castle of Exombourgos. The trail was marked by flags fabricated from materials representing the tourism industry—sheets, linens, and towels—to reference the economic driver, and perhaps the cultural doom, of the Cycladic island region.2
The Kairos project’s title emphasizes the opportune time for Tinos. But it would be reductive to say that Kyriaki Costa’s other projects aren’t timely. For her works on her native island of Cyprus, the extended period of time in which the island has been in geopolitical limbo shades all aspects of life on the island, and also her artistic efforts.
“I like ruins,” Costa has written, “I have learned to live among them.”3 In her introduction to her 2017 exhibition at the Nicosia Municipal Arts Center (NiMAC) and associated publication regarding the abandoned Turkish Cypriot village of Foinikas, Costa explained that ruins formed a touchstone in her daily walking routine through Nicosia, the last divided capital of Europe, where the so-called “Green Line” has split the old capital into two since the 1960s. To this day, barbed-wire barricades generate a situation reminiscent of postwar Berlin.
“On my way home, I walk through remains of older buildings,” Costa wrote. “It is the material abandonment, the footprint of a material presence, its preservation or oblivion that has always constituted central points of my personal thought and artistic creation.”4
Cyprus and its capital of Nicosia are no stranger to ruins. The island features the traces of human inhabitation from practically every era of human history (and prehistory)—the Neolithic, the classical, the medieval, the Renaissance, and finally the most vexing ruins of all—the villages and urban areas abandoned on both sides of the island after the 1974 Turkish invasion.
In her Foinikas project, Costa analyzed the forms and outlines of the ruins of the eponymous Turkish Cypriot village near Paphos. Today, the ruins sit on the edge of the Asprokremmos Reservoir.5
One of the possible etymologies of Foinikas is that of phoenix. Ironically, Foinikas the village has yet to rise from its ashes and fulfill the promise of its evocative name. Costa wrote, “The village of Foinikas lives its long and irreversible death for many years now.” She then asked the question, “Really, where do all the villages go when they die?”6
Many villages have died on Cyprus, over many periods of history. Thus Cyprus’s de facto division, with all its complexities, demands multiple lines of artistic inquiry. As art critic Ledaki Evangelia wrote in another retrospective of Costa’s work: “[Costa] chooses varying tactics; sometimes dedicating herself to the monitoring of architectural typologies, fieldwork and the creation of archives, and at others matching natural materials, vocal or musical performances and embroidery, guided in her creation by her personal hybrid aesthetics.”7
Such artistic adaptability can be seen in Costa’s 2008 embroidery “Ο τόπος μου” (“My Land”), which depicts a dragon devouring two divergent threads of stitching. In one thread, helicopters and paratroopers form the prelude to a series of floating guns firing at each other, in between the images of Cypress trees and the scales of justice. The second thread features two wheel-like forms evoking the iconic bastions of the Venetian walls of Nicosia. In another section of the second thread, trees face each other in a mirror image along what appears to be a road. This duality, this depiction of the Cyprus conflict as a dragon that has swallowed both sides of the divided island into its gaping maw, supports a nuanced, albeit unforgiving, expression of Cyprus’s predicament.8
To return to the subject of ruins—it’s not just the wrecks of buildings, probably the most obvious symbols of the island’s unresolved pain, that demand consideration in Costa’s unique combination of genres. Costa’s work also investigates matters of what can be termed “infrastructural heritage,” the components of the commons, as in the case of old Mykonos, that have been cast aside in the search for modernity, the hunt for development and profit. Within an historic built environment, there are continuities that can be renewed to generate a stronger connection between past and present as well as with the land. In Nicosia, it still might be the right time for such a re-evaluation.
These concerns formed the philosophical spine of Kyriaki Costa’s 2015 project Το Νερο Της: Κρήνες και πηγές της Λευκωσίας [“Its Water: Taps and Sources of Nicosia”], which mapped and catalogued the historical water sources in the capital.9 As one turns through the pages of the book, it is astonishing how many fountains in Nicosia have been photographed, revealing a wondrous infrastructural heritage hiding in plain sight. As Costa explained in her volume on that subject:
Identifying the inactive water sources of modern cities such as drinking water fountains, taps, springs, which once constituted places of meeting and interaction and the effort to reactivate them, brings forward issues such as peoples’ relationship with water, the right to the use of water, the idea of water as a common good, its presence in public space, the multisensory pleasure it can offer, and the activation of values that arise from all the above.10
Today, Cyprus is a place without much water. Though water is potable in the Republic of Cyprus (but not always in the “north”), most people drink from bottled water on either side; in 2008, during the worst drought in the region in 900 years, the reservoirs ran dry, and water was imported from Greece to the Republic of Cyprus. Climate change promises more drought, higher temperatures, and the need for a more intimate relationship between Cypriots and their water supplies in their cities.11
Water, indeed, is a potent metaphor and point of reference for Nicosia. As Ledaki Evangelia wrote in contextualizing Costa’s work: “The political can be found precisely at the unexpected encounter with the conditions of the real; the condition causing the desertification of Nicosia’s transition zone and the realization that the divided city draws its water from common groundwater sources.”12
Historically speaking, a famous political cartoon of the longtime Greek Cypriot mayor of Nicosia Lellos Demetriades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci flushing their toilets in tandem proved a potent metaphor when the two leaders realized that, even in division, the city retained a common sewerage system. That led to the Nicosia Master Plan, an initiative in the 1970s and 1980s to bring some aspects of the planning framework for the old city of Nicosia into unison.13
Though this framework limps on in one shape or another in the 21st century, the Master Plan has not found the impact it had sought. Nicosia remains divided, its water resources strained. Thus, Costa’s work tends to become a jumping-off point for conversation and activism. In her project regarding the fountains, she did just that, calling for the revitalization of the city’s fountains and wells, with the timely suggestion that some of them be renovated for the purposes of the stray cats.14 If not for a human user, perhaps the infrastructure could be adapted for the animal that most needs that kind of support in Nicosia?
In a publication accompanying her 2019 iteration of Head and Hand: Interactive Flow Solutions, Costa printed her correspondence with various groups and authorities concerning repairing the destroyed interior wall of Phytorio—the Visual Arts and Theorists Association building—designed by noted Nicosia architect Neoptolemos Michaelides. Within that correspondence was a credo regarding Costa’s intentions. “My project concerns the repair and therefore the redefinitions of destroyed parts of the city which lie unrepaired and forgotten in the wider framework of urban culture,” Costa wrote then. “A culture of ‘couldn’t-give-a-damn’ attitudes and quick fixes, that encourages the constant change of the urban setting.”15
Since the Cyprus problem accreted into its current fossilized form, the island has become a cash grab. Much of its heritage and landscape have long been looted; in the case of the fenced-off Famagusta neighborhood of Varosha, which has recently become a “dark tourism” destination under the Turkish authorities—even Cyprus’s ruins have, in a sense, become ruined.
If events continue as they have, it’s feasible that parts of Cyprus will continue to be developed and exploited and attain the growth expected of Tinos—transforming into the shallow Disney shell that Mykonos has long been cursed to become.
Even if Costa’s pushback is coming at the right time, the question is whether the wider Cypriot community will listen. Perhaps Costa put the unsettled state of affairs most beautifully in her introduction to the 2016 publication associated with her exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam: Diaspora: I must have swallowed the dust. “The ground upon which the prospects of our lives are based is certainly unstable,” Costa wrote. “Our ‘lust for eternity’ and the word of the ‘past’ are the means by which we understand our present. So we continue to sweep our yards, waiting for the seeds that fall from the Sky to take root and grow.”16
The search for the commons is never finished. The time is always now.
This is the twenty-seventh post in The Cyprus Files, a newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t subscribed to The Usonian to read about storytelling and design from the edge, please consider joining the list.
Paul Lambis, “A ghost town that was once home to the Knights Templar,” Cyprus Mail, 15 November 2021.
Ledaki Evangelia, “The anthropology of the line and a global fieldwork,” 2016, in Its water: Taps and sources of Nicosia, Waterways series, Point art center, Nicosia 2015.
Kυριακή Κώστα, Roots to Routes, Kailas Printers & Lithographers, 2010.
Kυριακή Κώστα, Το νερό της: Κρήνες και πήγες της Λευκωσίας, Point Centre for Contemporary Art, 2015.
Evangelia, “The anthropology of the line and a global fieldwork,” 2016.
Κώστας Κωνσταντίνου, “Ο Δήμος Λευκώσιας επί Δημαρχίας Λέλλου Δημιτριάδη 1971-2001,” Εκδόσεις Λέδριος Λτδ, Λευκωσία, 2017, p. 82. Lellos Demetriades, “The Nicosia Master Plan,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies 8 No. 2 (1998), pp. 169-176.
Κώστα, Το νερό της.
Kyriaki Costa, Innovative Flow Solutions, Head and Hand Series, Nicosia, 2019. Neoptolemos Michaelides, Architectuul, 2022 [Link].
Kyriaki Costa, Diaspora: I must have swallowed the dust, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 2016.