Each year on the eve of Orthodox Easter Sunday, the air above the town of Vrontados on the Greek island of Chios fills with smoke and tumbling embers due to a uniquely hypnotic and incendiary spectacle called Rouketopolemos, which literally means Rocket-War.
In the hours of darkness leading up to and during midnight mass, the congregations of two rival Churches built on opposing hilltops, St Mark’s and Panaghia Ereithiani, engage in a “Rocket War” by firing hundreds of thousand of hand-made rockets with the objective of hitting the bell tower of the other church.
Locals spend much of the year making rockets composed of wooden sticks packed with an explosive mixture of gunpowder, in preparation for their ultimate launch in salvos of up to a thousand at a time.
The precise origin of this centuries-old tradition is unclear but many believe its roots lie in the island’s occupation by the Ottoman Empire and the massacre that took place there in 1822 to crush a Greek rebellion. According to local lore the Rocket War was initially reenacted with with real cannons, until Ottoman authorities prohibited their use in 1889.
Through photographs and the linear frames of the moving image, the resulting imagery expands on the underlying philosophical and aesthetic themes explored in Berger’s Black Powder series. The rhythmic intensity of wave after wave of fractally-layered lacerations depicted in ashy black is evocative of Old Testament references to the fire and brimstone that rained down upon Sodom & Gomorrah. The stark and disorientating trajectories of unrelenting rocket fire stir apocalyptic visions of contemporary warfare and biblical destruction. In the context of Greece’s debt crisis, such an event seems paradoxically at odds and yet ominously prescient to the prevailing reality of austerity measures and the violent protests that have ensued.
Characterizing a ritual celebration of Easter that’s as outwardly sinister as it is dazzlingly compelling, Rouketopolemos is an attempt to fuse art’s capacity to document and explore aesthetics whilst simultaneously forging its own unique narrative.