Gerrit Rietveld Academie & Sandberg Instituut Research Fellowships Reader 2023
Fellows Published —

What was the starting point of your research project?

During the pandemic in 2020, I began researching and visiting Nafplio, the old capital of the First Hellenic Republic. The abandoned, graffiti-covered Xenia Hotel and the massive number of prickly pears surrounding it drew my attention—prickly pear being the common name for the opuntia cactus. According to local rumors, during Greece’s dictatorship, a large conference was organized in Nafplio in which men in power, junta supporters, were invited to make important decisions for the state. It was held at the Xenia Hotel, a truly opulent structure. They planted an abundance of prickly pears around it to keep the inhabitants and strangers away, resulting in an inaccessible fence. These plants are often used as natural barriers to divide territories. Nowadays, the city is full of them, and the hotel has been abandoned for more than 14 years. Over the years, nature appears to have taken over by spreading more “natural fences” around the hotel. Xenia and other abandoned buildings, pools, and shops from this period also formed an unspoken gallery of street art by locals—an architectural cemetery filled with structures and graffiti tags. This entire story piqued my interest and made me want to learn more about it. I’ve been to Nafplio several times, and every time I went there, Maria Filini, my dear friend and actor, took me to various locations where she spent her childhood. A whole new world unraveled when I started experiencing the “forgotten” city through her eyes.

What approach did you take for the fellowship research project, and how does it relate to the role of research in your practice?

I wanted to explore different ways to experience a city by uncovering its surrounding landscape and forgotten history. In addition, I was always fascinated by history, urbanism, architecture, and city culture. Through continuous research, this fellowship enabled me to investigate those terms. My project questions how we create, protect, transmit, deconstruct, and even exclude people and areas of a city. Incorporating historical, personal, and fictional elements came naturally and was critical to the final films. Much of the research was also conducted in the field.

It felt natural to begin reading, collecting material, documenting abandoned buildings and graffiti, speaking with locals, and visiting public and mainly private archives for found footage such as photographs, video, and texts. It was important to me to interact with those buildings and the stories behind them in some way. This project became very personal, almost ritualistic, for me; Maria, the actor; and Yorgos Kyvernitis, the director of photography. We didn't follow a strict script; we had ideas we developed through improvisations. The building’s and the surrounding area’s strong pasts, combined with Maria’s biographical story, were always present and became our main inspiration.

You have been dedicated to inviting more theory into your work throughout the fellowship. Did this new engagement cause any changes in your practice as a filmmaker, and if so, what were they?

This process taught me various tools, such as how to search databases and archives for found footage and audio-visual collections, and taught me to enrich my fictional stories by employing research questions and embedding historical context. This new engagement made me consider the visual language produced by a combination of these new tools. The presentations and open discussions with the other fellows were highly beneficial in seeing how everyone approached their topic. I had never been able to conduct such a focused research project, which has enriched my practice and work. Throughout this research, I examined the connections between moving image, art, and film in terms of fiction, narration, abstraction, and symbolism. This is a next step in my practice.

Opuntia Ficus-indica: The Birthplace

I began researching and visiting Nafplio in Greece—the old capital of the First Hellenic Republic,—during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Thanks to LAPS, Research Institute for Art and Public Space, Amsterdam I received the opportunity to revisit and document the city, collect archival footage, and dive into historical facts surrounding the place. This procedure led to the making of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning (2023), a visual story and eventually a video installation which deals with the mortality of memories, buildings, and landscapes in the Nafplio region. Through a ritualized approach to loss, topographical discoveries, and childhood photos of the actor Maria Filini—who was born and raised in this region—and using an improvisational and fictional character, the work gives value to what usually remains unsung. The viewer discovers different ways to experience a city through the surrounding landscape and its forgotten history.

What caught my attention was the abandoned Xenia Hotel, covered in graffiti and surrouded by an enormous number of prickly pears—the colloquial name for the opuntia ficus-indica cactus. Local rumors say that during the military dictatorship in Greece, a big conference was organized in Nafplio in which men in power, supporters of junta, were invited to make important decisions for the state. It took place in Xenia Hotel, which was then a highly luxurious building. In order to keep the city’s inhabitants and strangers away, they planted a many prickly pears around it, resulting in a fence that prevented anyone accessing the grounds. This same species of cactus is often used as a natural fence to divide territories.

Nowadays, the city is full of these plants and the hotel has been abandoned for more than 14 years. It seems that throughout the years nature has taken over, spreading more and more “natural fences” around the building. The Xenia Hotel and other surrounding buildings, pools, and shopfronts from this period have formed an unspoken gallery for street art by locals; it has become an architectural cemetery of forgotten structures and fading graffiti tags.

The first major development of tourism in Greece began in the period between 1950 and 1975 with programs initiated by the Greek National Tourism Organisation. In principle, the plan was to build public hotels also known as “Xenia” in the most beautiful and touristic areas of the country. Those hotels participated in a general change toward tourism by the Greek government in the postwar years, becoming a part of city life as symbols of prosperity. There are 44 Xenia Hotels in total. In the late 1980s, the state proved incompetent in its role of hotel management. The demands of the tourist market changed and Xenia walked the path of abandonment. The last Xenia Hotel closed in 1997.

And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning, shot in Nafplio, functions as a part of a parallel world which I developed throughout the whole research process. It puts together different sides of testimonials, research, and historical material which I collected during my research at LAPS and my trips to the city, always in close collaboration with the local actor Maria. It is a grieving for a beloved one, a feeling of nostalgia for her generation, for Greece “of the past.” In an attempt to study the history of the forgotten glory of Nafplio city, in combination with individual stories from locals and a lot of (mostly private) archival found footage of Xenia Hotel, this hybrid form of visual storytelling became a testimony of loss, a poetic way to say goodbye to a working class man, maybe a father, who lived and worked in the area of this hotel.

I have no interest in the fetishization of ruins; I mostly care about the mortality of landscapes and buildings, and about asking why, when, and how Xenia Hotel changed its character and appearance through the years through causes such as street art, nature, and time. The aesthetics of the film borrow a documentary approach: the camera follows Maria through her poetic existential rituals for humans and non-humans. Approaching the city feels dystopian but the film gives value to small events and spaces around the hotel, creating a path for Maria. She sings ‘’Let it Be’’ by The Beatles, a song from her childhood, this melody comes back in different phases, in an attempt to recall the memories of her past. Many parts of her monologues are based on the Bible renaissance and the The Sorrows of Young Werther (1744) by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, creating a subtle parallel with the protagonist of the book. She also rephrases parts of touristic advertisements for the Xenia Hotel from back in the days of its opening.

The research is incorporated in the film by the use of footage and text. The film is accompanied by an installation of objects in space. Parts of the research—photographs, letters, video extracts, reflective materials, and footage—are installed so that the viewer has to reveal them in the darkness with a flashlight, carrying one just as the protagonist of the film does. Interviews, rumors, and stories of local habitats formed the idea of the film. After examining a lot of archival footage, we revisited the same locations in specific areas and shot Maria acting like the people from the footage, enjoying their holidays at the hotel and its surroundings. Through this I seek to reflect on the social and political situation of Greece.

Jason Hendrik Hansma