Tag Archives: Hermione Spriggs

Daughters of Persephone

This essay appeared on tamawuj.org in the context of Sharjah Biennial 13:

Jupiter replied . . .  ‘Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition: that no food has touched her lips since that is the law decreed by the Fates.’ He spoke and Ceres felt sure of regaining her daughter. But the Fates would not allow it, for the girl had broken her fast, and wandering innocently, in a well-tended garden, she had picked a reddish-purple pomegranate fruit hanging from a tree and, taking seven seeds from its yellow rind, squeezed them in her mouth.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book V[1]

First Seed

Persephone and the myth of the pomegranate seeds cropped up in conversation a few months ago, during “The Golden Feast,” a meal consisting of food and drink that were that color, which my friend Hermione hosted at her place in the East End of London. She and her boyfriend, Curtis, came up with the idea after I stumbled on them sipping a turmeric-flavored golden latte in a Shoreditch café around the corner from a local gallery, where they had come to see me in conversation with the artist Peter McDonald about his show “Mushrooms of Language.” This may be why, when making provisions for our “trip” two weeks later, a pomegranate caught her eye in the fruit aisle of the local supermarket. “I got the pomegranate for us,” she explained afterwards, “because of its bejeweled, numinous qualities—like something you’d find in an underground cave.”

Dense clusters of luscious bead-like seeds, still attached to their rind, were already laid out in a bowl with some blueberries on top, offsetting the seeds’ ruby color, by the time I arrived with the cubensis. Hermione carefully placed the gold caps on a matching glass plate bearing fanciful gilded motifs. “We should probably leave the pomegranates for later,” I said, mindful of the instructions I was given not to eat or drink anything until the mushrooms took their full effect. “Surely, they’re an ally?” Hermione ventured.

Somehow she had gotten things back to front. In Greek mythology, the seeds that Persephone unwittingly consumed in the underworld—whether tricked into doing so by Hades, her ravisher, or acting of her own accord—nearly caused her to remain there forever. Yet in Hermione’s version of the story, as related to those at “The Golden Feast,” eating pomegranate seeds became a gesture of defiance: Persephone partook of the food of the dead while looking Hades straight in the eye, knowing full well it was not allowed.

Instead of eating the glossy, firm seeds that Hermione had encouraged me to squeeze between my teeth, I took to dropping them onto the wooden floor of her room. (At this point, the mushrooms had clearly started to work their magic.) Amazed by the muffled thud, I kept repeating: “There’s no echo,” grasping for the right analogy. The floorboards had become porous, as if made of cork, cushioning and absorbing the sound of the pomegranate seeds, not unlike the walls of an anechoic chamber, also known as a chambre sourde in French, which literally means “deaf chamber.” I had visited one in Paris a few months before. It struck me at the time that the discombobulating absence of an echo was akin to a body bereft of its shadow.

Anechoic chamber at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), Paris.

Second Seed

Memory is to a smell what an echo is to a sound: something that carries it, prolongs it, and gives it a body. For what became the artwork Essence/Seeds from Brazil, 2017, the artist João Modé had wanted to work with a fruit scent. He was looking specifically for the essence of caju, a fruit from his country, and found instead a fragrance evocatively called “Seeds of Brazil.” So inconspicuous as to be easily missed at the top of a landing, a tiny white bowl containing an essential oil of that name was the source of a delicate, warm aroma lingering in the air at the back of the house, which faces the Hagia Sophia and its rounded dome.

Land, 2014/2017, Modé’s second offering for “BAHAR,” a series of exhibitions and performances that brought me to Istanbul in May, took over a room located on the ground floor of the Abud Efendi Mansion. The second of four off-site projects staged as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, “BAHAR” (meaning “spring” in Turkish, Farsi, and other languages), organized by the curator Zeynep Öz, took as its starting point the word crops and explored, among other things, the themes of seed dormancy and the awakening of the seeds coinciding with the arrival of spring.

Sourced from a nursery on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus, plants from all over the world—one hundred-odd species of them—mixed their roots and foliage to form an indoor jungle in Modé’s Land. That this “multicultural micro-forest” should contain a pomegranate shrub seemed fitting, given its widespread cultivation in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Farmers grow pomegranates even in Brazil, though the trees are not as big and beautiful, the artist told me, as the ones he had seen on his travels in Turkey and Greece. In fact, it is a Brazilian custom to ring in the new year by eating seven pomegranate seeds (“just the smooth part covering the seed,” Modé specified) at the stroke of midnight. The seeds themselves—or the seeds within seeds—are kept in one’s wallet for the whole year to bring luck and prosperity.

Installation view, João Modé, Land, 2014/2017. BAHAR off-site project, organized in Istanbul as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

The New Year’s Eve ritual doubtless says more about the Brazilian obsession with the lucky number seven than anything else. And yet Persephone and her consort Pluto, another name for Hades, seem to lurk behind it like a half-forgotten song. Pluto, whose very name held the promise of wealth and riches, is Hades in his more auspicious guise. The child that the harvest goddess Demeter conceived out of wedlock in a thrice-plowed field was venerated alongside his mother and spouse in the secret agrarian cults reenacting the story of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s search for her daughter at Eleusis in Attica. Pluto shares with them such agrarian attributes as the stalk of grain, and is often portrayed with a horn of plenty, a cornucopia.

Third Seed

While in Istanbul, I arranged to visit the artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu. She suggested we meet at her studio, a stone’s throw from the Golden Horn. If you craned your neck, you could get a fine view of the start of Galata Bridge from a narrow side window. Somehow we got onto the subject of the exhibition “COLORI,” curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red, 2015, which I had missed in the 2015 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, was on view. Over coffee, the artist told me how she found out about the crimson pigment traditionally made from the now-nearly-extinct Armenian cochineal, an insect found in the Aras (or Araks) river valley, and eventually tracked down a man who still extracts the red color in a laboratory, using a secret process. She traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to meet him and managed to obtain twelve grams of the extract, which she used to paint a series of monochromatic panels and book illustrations inspired by illuminated Armenian miniatures. To prove her story, which made artistic research sound like detective work, Çavuşoğlu produced a small vial containing what was left of the precious substance.

Installation view, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Red/Red, 2015. SALTWATER, 14th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren

The deep red ink was the color of a pomegranate. It brought to mind Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film—the Russian title Цвет граната is translated as The Color of Pomegranates—which is loosely based on the life of the eighteenth-century Armenian bard Sayat Nova. (Sayat-Nova was the title Parajanov had intended for the film, but he was forced to remove all references to the poet’s name to get past Soviet censors.) Filled with often-abstruse symbolism, the successive tableaux informed by the aesthetics of Persian miniatures obey a dreamlike—and occasionally nightmarish—logic. Color, above all red, is deployed to dramatic effect, as in the famous opening shot featuring three pomegranates whose juice seeps through a white cloth, gradually revealing the contours of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The pomegranate motif is threaded through the film. The fruits usually come in threes but, in one disturbing scene, a group of young monks vociferously bite into hard, uncut pomegranate fruits as the pensive, Christ-like poet looks on. Incidentally, гранат (granat), the Russian word for pomegranate, also means garnet, the dark-red gemstone whose crystals bear a striking resemblance to the seed-lined chambers of a pomegranate.

Fourth Seed

A baroque-rococo masterpiece, lodged within an even older hospital complex in the heart of Naples, the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili is a thing of beauty. Accessed through an arcaded loggia, itself reached by means of twin, pleasingly curved staircases, the entrance room is fitted with wooden cabinets displaying neat rows of blue and white maiolica vases and jars; each had a unique design that, in the absence of labels, allowed the apothecaries to know which ointments and drug compounds they contained. This antechamber, where medicines were dispensed, leads into a more lavish grand salon and library, whose frescoed ceilings and sculptural ornamentation obey an elaborate decorative scheme, replete with Masonic symbolism.

Inside the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili (Historical Pharmacy of the Incurable) in Naples.

The back rooms—including a small laboratory full of alembics and other implements used in pharmaceutical preparations—were closed for restoration when I visited, having been urged to do so by a friend, who knew I would be traveling to Naples for an opening at MADRE, the nearby museum of contemporary art. Our guide offered to give us a quick tour. Amid sundry objects tucked away in a narrow passageway stood a sizable marble urn mounted on a pedestal. Framed by a floral motif, a bulging fruit sculpted in high relief on the urn rose above a green marble backdrop.

The guide informed us it was a melograno—Italian for pomegranate—the emblem of fertility. Made of choice Mondragone marble, the urn was designed to hold the equally precious acqua teriacale, for which the pharmacy was famous. Owing to its elaborate preparation and an ever-expanding list of rarefied ingredients—ranging from opium, myrrh, and saffron to viper’s meat—theriac was the most expensive of drugs. Its reputation as an effective antidote known to the ancients, as well as a universal panacea capable of curing all illnesses, was only starting to be challenged by the mid-eighteenth century, when the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili was built.

Among the virtues attributed to the concoction were its aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties, according to our guide. In her eyes, the former accounted for the prominence of the pomegranate symbol—not without some irony, given that the hospital specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases such as syphilis. As to the latter, it would appear that Bufotenin—a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in the skin of certain venomous toad species—was to blame.

Fifth Seed

The day after my visit to the Farmacia, I saw a tour guide pointing out the flowers of a pomegranate tree—or several—growing among the ruins in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. A couple nodded knowingly, but I had never seen a pomegranate in blossom before. I resisted the urge to pluck off one of the poppy-colored blooms set amid dark green foliage; fortunately, they were out of my reach. That very afternoon, I spotted some more pomegranate trees and shrubs near the vast outdoor swimming pool behind the Villa Oplontis, a few stops away on the Circumvesuviana railway line. The Roman villa that Poppaea Sabina, emperor Nero’s mistress and later his wife, had elected as her secondary residence lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, like Herculaneum, and it met with the same fate when the volcano erupted in AD 79.

Red and yellow ochre are the dominant tones of the wall paintings unearthed at the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis, long buried beneath protective layers of volcanic debris and ash, and remarkably well-preserved as a result. One of them depicts Hercules (after whom the Greek colony of Herculaneum was named) in the Garden of the Hesperides. Conceived with the central niche of the caldarium in mind, this fine, naturalistic fresco shows the barely-clad hero standing beside a large tree, his right arm extended in the direction of two round, reddish fruits placed on a nearby boulder, as if to taunt him.

Fresco c. 90-25 BCE depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, the Villa Oplontis, Naples.

These appeared to be Hera’s immortality-granting “golden apples,” the ones that Hercules was tasked with stealing in his penultimate labor, except that they looked neither golden nor like apples. They resembled pomegranates more than any of the other fruits associated with the goddess. Fruits tend to be indeterminate, and easily confused, in biblical as in mythological accounts. Apples, especially, are fated to stand in for all (forbidden) fruits. The trees in the Garden of the Hesperides, grafted from the branches the Earth goddess Gaia gave Hera on her wedding day, may have borne oranges, pomegranates, or pommes tout courtA pomegranate—from the Latin pomum for “apple” and granatum, meaning “seeded”—is, after all, an apple with many seeds.

Sixth Seed

Casa Melograno, on the island of Stromboli, near Sicily, is one in a cluster of holiday homes built around an older, more imposing private residence that locals still refer to as “Il Castello.” The two-story mansion, with its fine stone-framed windows, stands out among the modest whitewashed houses in the Piscità settlement, near the end of the habitable stretch of Stromboli. The name leapt out at me on the morning of my arrival on the Aeolian Island, straight off the night ferry from Naples, as I walked past the house and spotted a lone pomegranate tree in its front garden. I was looking for La Lunatica, the villa where I would be staying for about a week for a residency with the artist Gaia Fugazza, the curator Daria Khan, and the photographer and publisher Giovanna Silva. It lay hidden behind Casa Melograno, at the bottom of a narrow path that skirts Il Castello. On a moonlit night, when the palm trees cast long shadows across the road, it looked like a haunted castle.

We were there to conduct some unorthodox “research activities” in preparation for a group show in central London, and to gather materials for a publication linking the two volcanic portals to the underworld through which Jules Verne’s heroes go down and come back up again in The Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). With that in mind, on the evening slated for our ascent of the active volcano, we agreed to meet back at the house where Geko—a longtime resident of the island who set up the local plant nursery—was to stage a shamanic drumming ceremony, following our descent from the mountain. The pulsing rhythm of the drum is meant to induce a trance-like state, ideally resulting in an encounter with one’s inner animal guide. To set the whole process in motion, Geko had instructed us to visualize an opening of some sort—be it a cave or a well—leading into the earth. But owing to sheer exhaustion from the six-hour climb, or a failure of imagination, the drumming did not do much for me. My companions fared somewhat better.

Silva told us the next day that the opening she pictured was a cave she had visited years before in a sanctuary at Eleusis. We had just finished reading aloud passages from classics of katabatic literature (stories narrating journeys of descent into the underworld), inspired in part by the drumming session, out on the terrace of La Lunatica. The cave in question, known as Hades’s grotto, lies on the grounds of the sanctuary dedicated to the god who abducted Kore, Persephone in her maidenly guise, and brought her back up through a well located on its precincts—or so claimed the priests who presided over the Lesser and the Great Mysteries, celebrated respectively in spring and at harvest time in Eleusis.

In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests a number of possible locations where the Rape of Persephone or Proserpine (“the fearful one”) may have occurred, ranging from Sicily to Crete to Attica. Ovid sets the scene in a glade of everlasting spring surrounding a deep pool by the name of Pergus (the modern-day lake of Pergusa), near the walls of Enna, a city at the foot of Mount Etna in the center of Sicily—tantalizingly close to the Aeolian Islands. This is where Dis (Pluto) beheld the maiden, as she was gathering flowers with her companions, and snatched her. Nothing remains of the temple dedicated to Demeter who, with her daughter Persephone, was the object of a cult at Enna, but a grotto from which Pluto was believed to have emerged is thought to be the navel of Sicily.

Hades’s cave and sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece.

Seventh Seed

The Fates had decreed that whoever ate or drank in the underworld would be condemned to remain there forever. As a result, Persephone, who consumed between three and seven seeds—according to different versions of the myth—while she was held captive by Hades, would dwell each year in the underworld for as many months. This is one account of the origin of seasons, since during the months Persephone spends beneath the ground—not unlike a seed (“a sweet young seedling” is precisely how the grief-stricken goddess describes her lost daughter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter)—Demeter goes into mourning and the earth no longer bears crops; conversely, the moment when Persephone comes back and is reunited with Demeter marks the onset of spring. Part chthonic deity, part vegetation goddess, Persephone personifies the dormancy of the seeds and the rebirth of nature.

Each of the seven “seeds” above explores an image—or cluster of images—connected to the pomegranate and its potent symbolism as both a fertility emblem and food of the dead. Together they make up an anatomy of the fruit and a travelogue of sorts: I brought the seeds back from travels—for work and pleasure—that spanned a period of three months, from April to June 2017. The physical journeys were doubled by other “trips,” induced by the use of magic mushrooms, shamanic drumming, and meditation techniques. I’m not sure what all these connections reveal other than that, when we become interested in a given subject, we start seeing it everywhere.


[1] From a translation by A. S. Kline,


Rehearsals for an Island

A version of this article appeared in issue 114 of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art:

Aural Lighthouses festival, Santozeum, Thira, Santorini, May 18–23, 2015; and The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close, staged as part of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Public Program, various venues on the island Kastellorizo, Greece, September 7–13, 2015.

Two Greek islands – Santorini and Kastellorizo – located respectively in the Cycladic and the Dodecanese archipelagos of the southern Aegean Sea, each became the stage for shared activities, workshops, performances, installations, and lectures spanning a week in May and September 2015. The burning sun at the start and the end of a long, turbulent summer did little to dispel the atmosphere of impending doom and anxiety, which colored both events, for all their idyllic setting. From the sovereign debt crisis to the refugee crisis, Greece had become a byword for economic, social and political upheaval. Aptly reflected in the title of the Kastellorizo program, drawn from a poem by Frank O’Hara, violence was in the air.

These two unrelated events had several things in common, apart from their island location. Each came under the umbrella of a bigger art event: in the case of Aural Lighthouses, the year-long PSI (Performance Studies International) Fluid States – Performances of Unknowing festival and, in that of The violent No!…, the Public Program of the 14th Istanbul Biennial with its overarching theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.” The satellite programs on Santorini and Kastellorizo were organized by private non-profit art institutions, both coincidentally founded in 2010: the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust, which runs workshops, residencies and artist-led festivals often staged on remote islands (such as Stromboli, for the annual Volcano Extravaganza), and Santozeum, a private museum and exhibition space in Thira, Santorini, which has its own residency program for visiting artists and scholars, who are housed in a modernist 1950s villa overlooking the volcanic caldera.

In both instances, the week-long program of activities brought together local and international artists, curators, writers, arts patrons and academics. They had been invited to respond to the chosen themes – disaster sounds for the Aural Lighthouses festival and “saltwater” in Kastellorizo – but also to the island settings, their layered history, myths, archaeological vestiges, geological features and natural wonders like the Blue Grotto on Kastellorizo and Nea Kameni, the central volcanic islet in the midst of the Santorini caldera. Participants went on boat trips to explore the barren, lava-covered shores of Nea Kameni or to harvest salt at the island of Rho, close to Kastellorizo, and on field trips to archaeological sites such as Akrotiri, famed for its wall paintings, reproductions of which are temporarily exhibited at Santozeum, or Paleokastro, Kastellorizo’s ancient acropolis. Spread over a week, the programs unfolded in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere, leaving plenty of free time for individual forays, location scouting, field recordings, filming or photographing, and testing out ideas. The resulting artworks, performative lectures and interventions were open to the local community and other visitors, free of charge.

The two events differed mainly in their focus. True to its name, Aural Lighthouses as imagined by Santozeum’s founder and director Ileana Drinovan privileged listening, audio projects and sound installations, which progressively filled different rooms at the Santozeum museum, one of which had been turned into a radio broadcast station – an aural beacon of sorts. In contrast, the multi-media works that made up The violent No!… curated by Fiorucci Art Trust’s artistic director Milovan Farronato appealed to all the senses, not just hearing, and were presented at various, more or less spectacular indoor and outdoor locations on Kastellorizo.


The Aural Lighthouses festival on Santorini had a distinctly more academic flavor than its Kastellorizo counterpart, reflecting Drinovan’s background as a researcher. The festival was at once a symposium, an expanding exhibition of sound sculptures and installations, and a platform for live art and experimental music. These different strands were connected through the theme of catastrophe and disaster sounds, loosely inspired by Bernie Krause’s pioneering work in the field of acoustic ecology and the concept of “biophony” that he coined. Soundscape ecology, as he conceives of it, consists of three interrelated components: geophony (non-biological natural sound, such as that of the wind, the waves, earth’s movement); biophony (the collective sound that non-human animals produce in a given environment); and anthrophony (human-generated noise). The sound installations, compositions and performances presented alongside the symposium talks, which often had a performative or aural dimension to them, tended to lean towards one of these – admittedly interconnected – phonic modes.

Animal sounds embedded within a wider, and often threatening, sonic environment cropped up in a number of the works, notably in Alyssa Moxley and Ramona Stout’s Still Here (II) (2015). Both artists were living in Santorini at the time, where they co-founded the Kinisi festival of sound. This collaborative project, in its second iteration, attempted to convey by means of radio transmitters placed in locally found salvaged cages how alarming the island’s soundscape might appear to a captive bird, sensing magnetic fields that its owners would not be able to detect. The birdcages themselves were installed all around an enclosed, cell-like space, physically impressing the bird’s entrapment upon the visitors.

The numbing hum of a swarm of bees emanating from three plain brown paper bags displayed on a plinth, in German sound sculptor Timo Kahlen’s Bags of Bees (2009), was equally unnerving. Kahlen’s piece alluded to an incident, related to him by Indian author Suzanna Arundhati Roy, where Indian workers fought armed police forces by hurling bags of swarming bees at them. Four additional sound works by the Berlin-based Kahlen were broadcast at Radio Free Santorini as part of Aural Lighthouses. Catastrophe and the song of the goat, whose ritual sacrifice is linked to the birth of tragedy, were the subject of a talk and a deep listening session led by queer theorist Marco Pustianaz, based on selected excerpts from the Cryonic Chants project and other collaborative audio works by Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Chiara Guidi and ambient sound artist Scott Gibbons, all featuring live animals. Part of the Tragedia Endogonidia serieos s, produced between 2002 and 2004, the Cryonic Chants famously vocalized discrete letters and phonemes chosen by a she-goat, which were woven into an electro-acoustic composition.

What Krause thinks of as “geophony” was embodied by several other sound pieces, including Rock II (2015) by Petros Babasikas and Chrissoula Voulgari of the Drifting City Athens design collective, working with instrument maker Sébastien Seixas. This “sentient sculptural assembly” was made up of three concrete blocks, whose porous surface and dark ashen color recalled the volcanic lava and pumice stone found on Nea Kameni. Wresting on makeshift wooden crates, each sculpture was fitted with resonators meant to respond to human presence. (The piece did not work properly when I saw it installed at a nearby brewery.) Another instance of geophony, Alyssa Moxley’s half-hour performance on the Santozeum rooftop was titled The Voice of the Sea (2015) with reference to infrasonic waves generated in marine storms. In it, she played the guitar through an effects pedal and used exciters attached to shallow metal pans filled with water to create fluctuations on the water’s surface. The green-tinged image of the round metal pans projected onto a screen in front of the performer likewise suggested the sea.

Riffing on Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environments (1965), splotches of black and ultramarine watercolors, meant to conjure volcanic lava and the sea respectively, were applied to slides in experimental filmmaker Julian Hand’s live light projections. These formed an added visual layer in the interactive laboratory opening up to visitors a confined space in which, the previous day, Gabriella Daris danced for three hours in a long-durational performance titled Dancing Tubes Interventions (2014/2015). First performed for camera at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge as part of a Metzger retrospective, the piece saw the slender dancer clad in a white leotard respond to the movements of twin plastic tubes suspended from the ceiling and animated by an air compressor in Metzger’s kinetic sculpture Dancing Tubes (1968/2014). Air also featured in Jordan Lacey’s four-channel immersive sound installation (Sonic discourse on the concept of) Rupture (2015) set up in a dedicated room of the Santozeum amid reproductions of the Akrotiri wall paintings. Their looming presence endowed with a hieratic aura the humble, man-made sounds emanating from ventilation shafts and exhaust fans Lacey had recorded to evoke the “raw energy of anthropogenic noise.”

Conceived as a “library of siren candidates” for future emergencies, Curtis Tamm’s spatialized sound performance Tympanic Tether (2015) mixed animal (birds, bats, herding goats), inanimate (crumbling rocks, shorelines, wind in the telephone lines) and man-made alarm sounds (ambulance, fire truck and police sirens) to beguiling effect. The hour-long piece was composed entirely of field recordings taken around Santorini in the course of a month-long residency at the Santozeum, during which Tamm explored the island together with fellow artist and anthropologist Hermione Spriggs. Their impressions of the place and Tamm’s proposal for an aural warning system were summed up in an evocative text written by Spriggs, read out in turn by participants in the Aural Lighthouses event as part of the performance. Appropriately for a festival devoted to the sense of hearing, the text was accompanied by a map of the island, tilted round so as to draw out the ear-shaped form of the volcanic caldera.


Staged on the remote Dodecanese island of Kastellorizo, huddling the Turkish coast but far removed from the epicenter of the Istanbul Biennial and Greek to boot, “The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close” owed its somewhat unwieldy title to a stanza from poet and art critic Frank O’Hara’s Ann Arbor Variations. The poem was read out one evening by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to a small gathering of artists and guests of the Fiorucci Art Trust, whom the curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial had “drafted in” to contribute to the public program with a series of interventions, readings and activities responding to the genius loci and the biennial theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.”

Fittingly, the weeklong course of action conceived by Fiorucci Art Trust’s Milovan Farronato began with a boat trip to harvest salt, which can be found in abundance on the neighboring island of Rho. The hand-picked salt brought back from Rho was used the following evening to season fried whitebait, a traditional Greek dish that Athens-based artist Dora Economou prepared and served at the open-air fish market. The symbolic fish fare, of which everyone could partake, attracted local people and visitors alike, including the Syrian refugees awaiting boats bound for Rhodes and Athens on the island. During the meal, Economou read from a personal travelogue mixing memories of places visited over the course of twenty years with enigmatic prophesies and recurrent images of erupting volcanoes. A visit to the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii prompts the narrator to liken a circle of beautiful and still women depicted in a wall painting to “Lot’s Wives turning into tears of salt;” she herself later weeps “rivers of salt.”

Salt was also present in Brazilian artist Lucia Koch’s synaesthetic intervention at the dilapidated Old Hammam, currently undergoing restoration work led by conservator and PhD candidate Fotini Chalvantzi, who specializes in the history of Kastellorizo. Revisiting Turkish Delight (2003) – a site-specific installation she first made on the occasion of the 8th Istanbul Biennial at the Cağaloğlu Hamamı – Koch glued glass bowls lined with colored filters ordinarily used for filming onto the perforated dome, imbuing the inside of the diminutive square structure with a soft golden light. Visitors were encouraged to rub their skin with salt and rosemary in a cleansing ritual designed to reactivate the disused space ahead of its eventual reopening. As luck would have it, on the day set for Koch’s interactive piece open to all comers, the island’s water supplies were temporarily cut off, making it well nigh impossible to steam up the tiny space in such a way as to not only reveal but show the colored light shafts to best advantage.

The nine participating artists availed themselves of public spaces and scenic spots across the island. They were spoiled for choice. Irena Haiduk’s new film Seductive Exacting Realism (SER), snippets of which were screened as a teaser on the final evening, was shot at one of the secluded Plaka beaches reached by boat from the main harbour. SER’s trailer shows alluring images of four bronzed young women sporting black bathing suits – Haiduk’s idea of “sirens” – lounging on the sun-baked striated rock surface polished by the waves, in contrast to the rugged red cliffs behind. Few locations could possibly rival the Blue Grotto, one of the island’s natural wonders, which Koch set out to capture on film. This sea cave is accessed through a shallow opening letting enough light in to give a measure of its vastness without dissolving its mystery. The grotto and its swimmers reflecting the water’s electric blue color, made more intense by the engulfing darkness, put the Brazilian artist in mind of the Gruta Azul strip club in her hometown of Porto Allegre.

In a morning’s worth of location scouting, artist and filmmaker Gabriel Lester lighted on a vacant site overgrown with thistles and strewn with rubble, metal scraps, and a discarded TV monitor, from which he drew the substance of his whimsical performance Seeker (2015). Looking the part of a prospector in his panama hat and matching white top and shorts bearing a question mark pattern, Lester regaled the audience seated in this open air theatre with stories of how, as a child, he would bury objects in the ground in a bid to communicate with the future. He went on to present individual audience members with “artworks” in the shape of rusty nails, bottle caps, forks, bits and bobs retrieved from the earth with the aid of an assistant wielding a metal detector to the post-apocalyptic sounds of Bebe and Louis Barron’s pioneering electronic music played on a laptop.

Used as a natural backdrop in several pieces, including Lester’s performance, the island of Kastellorizo appeared as a character in its own right in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s beguiling shadow play Rehearsal for an island (2015) inspired by Turkish puppet theatre. In lieu of the traditional lead character Karagöz or his Greek counterpart Karagiozis, Çavuşoğlu’s shadow play featured modular cardboard renderings of Kastellorizo and of a boat trying to reach the island – a scenario that took on an added poignancy in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis gripping this tiny outpost of Greece, situated a mere mile off the Turkish coast. The artist called on the participants in the program to take turns animating the cardboard pieces casting shadows on both sides of a white screen set up in the middle of a public square and to generate the rousing sounds accompanying the shadow play.

Cairo-born Anna Boghiguian, who spoke in Arabic to some of the refugees sleeping rough in and around the harbor as they awaited the next ferry headed for mainland Greece, addressed their plight directly in her spoken reflections on the subject of swimming. This segued into a workshop in which the artist invited those present to draw a representation of Kastellorizo reflecting their feelings about the place on the last day of “The violent No!…” which coincided with the annual celebrations to mark the island’s independence from Italy in 1947, on 13 September. The festivities on the day began with the usual military band parade converging on the harbor in mid-morning and ended with a procession livened up by Lubaina Himid’s colorful, vaguely Cubistic masks and headpieces donned by some of the participants in the program, followed by a public feast bringing the week’s shared activities to a close.