'Nebokeru': how the Japanese concept of being half-asleep inspired this new Dubai art exhibition

Stelios Kallinikou's latest solo show is now on view at Grey Noise

In Japanese, there is a word for the state of being half-asleep: "nebokeru". It is derived from "boke" or blur, which carries nuances in meaning, from out of focus to confused. The idea of nebokeru is also the starting point for a photographic series by artist Stelios Kallinikou and the title of his latest exhibition on view at Grey Noise in Dubai.

In many ways Kallinikou, who was born in Limassol, Cyprus, defies the expectations of photography, disregarding the usual standards for composition, sharpness and exposure to create abstract images that visualise nebokeru – through isolated patches of sky, a glint on water, falling raindrops.

Kallinikou links the concept of nebokeru to the photography term "bokeh". Both share the same root word, which refers to an intentional out-of-focus quality in a picture. He came up with the idea during a walk by a lake in Cyprus, after a butterfly caught his eye.

"The movement of a butterfly is difficult to photograph," he explains. "It goes in and out of focus. I was making the effort to photograph it and I had this idea to keep it out of focus," he recalls. Using bokeh, he began capturing the reflections on the lake's surface, resulting in spheres of light typical of this technique.

“I focused on this phenomenon and put the light totally out of focus to create this abstract picture,” he says. Through these photographs, Kallinikou examines the way we look at and think about images. “Usually, the focus of the camera and the picture is where you direct the consciousness of the viewer… but when the whole picture is out of focus, the whole picture becomes a plane of awareness,” he explains.

Kallinikou aims to turn the act of looking into a meditative one. “I see photography as a practice that is similar to meditation… I see it as a daily practice, and at the same time, I am trying to find something that will activate the viewer’s vision to be more active, more present.”

His works call for closer inspection, quietly and slowly. There is a softness to them, as though they are still trying to take shape. You can almost expect them to come into clarity as you draw nearer. In one part of the exhibition, a group of images features raindrops falling outside the artist's apartment window in Nicosia, all taken from the same location during Cyprus's Covid-19 lockdown. They don't always appear as rain, but more as silvery streaks against a mottled background. "The prints give attention to every single drop of rain. It's something that's hard to photograph, so you see the effort of the lens to find the point of focus with this fluid material."

Faced with a blurry or hazy image, the eye and mind may try to find the concrete, though the artist hopes to leave viewers in this “interstitial space” between representation and abstraction.

He explores this further in his photographs of the sky, which appear more as block paintings. Here, he claims to challenge the technical term of “clarity” in photography. “It refers to the sharpness of an image, but for me, the clarity of the sky represents a clearness in vision.”

Over the years, the artist's practice has leaned more towards abstract imagery as he tries to discover what he calls "not-possible images", those that have not been seen before. "I don't want to continue doing what is already out there," he says.

Kallinikou also pays diligent consideration to which of his photographs are shown to the public, often reviewing them over the course of a year before deciding to let them be seen.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 18 JANUARY 2021. Stelios Kallinikou at Grey Noise, where his solo Nebokeru is exhibited. (Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Kallinikou repeatedly obscures the figurative or the real throughout the rest of the show, including in his black-and-white photographs of religious paintings, for which he removed the human figures digitally from the underexposed image. He also extracts elements from their context, such as the ghostly vision of a hand in the darkness.

Not all his works have done away with representation altogether. In a diptych photograph titled Leaf, Kallinikou captures what appears to be a levitating leaf, though in reality it is caught in a spiderweb. Still, it achieves what the artist sets out to do, which is to compel us to look and question what we are seeing.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 18 JANUARY 2021. Nebokeru is the first solo presentation of Stelios Kallinikou at Grey Noise, Dubai.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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“We live in this post-truth era. We don’t even know what’s real… We spend so many hours [looking] through screens that we find ourselves separate from our bodies.

"So I wanted to build the exhibition like an enigma that the viewer has to slowly unfold.”

Perhaps it is in this state of nebokeru that Kallinikou can guide us to newer, clearer ways of seeing.

Nebokeru is on view at Grey Noise, Dubai, until Saturday, March 6

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